Taking available food is a natural behavior for dogs, so puppies generally have to be taught to respect some boundaries and not “steal” human food. They don’t necessarily accept our characterization of “helping myself to a snack” as “stealing.” We also tend to disagree on what items belong in the “food” category, but that is a whole separate issue. Some trainers claim that dogs can’t be taught not to steal food, but that is absurd. Of course they can. But if they keep getting rewarded by tasty snacks left out on the counter, well, that’s not their fault, is it? If you have a food thief, management is necessary. Great temptation plus no chance of getting caught is a tough test for even well-trained dogs, especially once they’ve formed the habit.
I recently spent the weekend with family, including my “cousin” Beau, a boxer. He loves to do the dishes, and his humans allow him the pleasure of this “chore.” Despite knowing that he’ll get some, or maybe because he knows, he doesn’t beg. He’s totally chill while we’re eating, even when we eat sitting on the sofa, just inches from him (reclining on his dog bed).
Jana would never steal food from the table or counter. She generally respects boundaries. But, when she was a puppy, she was invited to a 2-year-old’s birthday party. She was unable to resist the temptation of dozen of cupcakes walking around at exactly her nose level. Never mind that each cupcake was being held by a toddler … She wasn’t invited to the 3-year-old party.
She did learn her manners, but, a girl has to give in to temptation once in a while. I came home with her once and my roommate was sitting on a low chair on the patio, eating a turkey sandwich. She leaned forward to get up, sandwich in hand … at nose level. Gone in one gulp. Well, Jana thought she was offering her the sandwich. An honest mistake. And the now-former roommate is still a good friend. Though I haven’t seen her eating a turkey sandwich when Jana’s been over, come to think of it.
Then there’s Cali. Cali begs. To be brutally honest, Jana sometimes begs. She does so by resting her chin on my lap while I am eating. Or staring me down. If I tell her to stop, though, she seems a bit embarrassed and stops. Not Cali. Shameless beggar. She’s never actually stolen anything, though I wouldn’t put it past her. Besides, she has a family history of food theft. Her great-aunt Oriel, an otherwise perfect dog, would steal food given the tiniest opening. Ory even stole sandwiches from picnic blankets in the park near our house.
Cali feels entitled to some (all?) of whatever I am eating. She employs a combination of the stare-down, the nudge, the head on the knee, the LOOK … plus whatever pops into her head at the time. She’s relentless. And I have never fed her from the table, though I occasionally let her lick out a dish, it’s rare, and not at the table either. She will stop when I firmly tell her to settle and stop begging, but she never seems the least bit embarrassed. Hey, a girl’s got to try, she shrugs. She also checks out any snack I put on the little TV table. She’s never taken anything, and she leaves it when I tell her to, but she definitely pushes the boundaries. I wouldn’t trust her alone with a tasty dinner.
And then there’s Scarlett. She has Cali beat, paws down, for shameless begging and food theft. She steals vegetables right out of the garden! Her dad has to scheme and trick her just to get a few peaches off of his own tree!
But these dogs are all “normal” for retrievers. Retrievers are chow hounds. You can’t leave food out when they’re around. I get that. What I don’t understand, what none of us understand is the fussy dogs. What kind of dog turns her nose up at chicken?
I’m not sure I’d know what to do with one. Deni hand-fed cheese and crackers to a fussy house guest last summer, who enjoyed her visit immensely and did not waste away from starvation while she was with us. But getting her to eat required some creative thinking.
It’s really a question of management: Managing expectations (ours and the dogs’) and managing opportunities, as in, not providing opportunities for the dogs to steal food.