Stop Your German Shepherd From Stealing Food

(Or, ‘Hey, Who Stole My #*%(@ Sandwich?!’)

If you’ve been a victim of the disappearing roast trick, you will identify with a recent episode at my house.
I left a sandwich unattended on the table to answer the phone. The conversation was short — less than a minute — but alas, it was too long. I returned to the room to find parts of my beloved sandwich dangling from the jaws of a greedy, four-legged predator.

“Hey!” I yelled, and the culprit, rather than dropping my food, repositioned her grip and took off down the hall.
I gave chase, but before I could reach her, she darted under the bed. Knowing how long it had been since I swept under there, I decided against following her. Muttering oaths, I returned to the kitchen to make a second lunch — and I vowed it was the last time I let a cat steal my sandwich.

Dogs, being typically bigger and better opportunists than cats, practically have turned food theft into a science. While dogs begging for food during mealtimes can be annoying (or cute, depending on your perspective), stealing food from the trash, off plates or counters can be downright dangerous.

I learned the dangers of trash-stealing firsthand after my 6month-old German shepherd puppy spent the day at the vet clinic recovering from food poisoning. With the help of a foster dog, she escaped from a makeshift kennel and tore open a bag of garbage — and ate things that weren’t even food. Tin foil, paper, plastic bags and plastic wrap all made it down the hatch, along with a robust serving of spoiled fare. I came home to a puppy shaking so hard she couldn’t walk, followed by an afternoon of sheer fright and a $100 vet bill. (The foster dog escaped any ill effects.)

Lesson learned: Only three years later do I trust her to be left unconfined in the house. Prevention and patience are the keys to reforming your furry larcenist. So what steps can you take to protect your dog and your foodstuffs?

Use of time-honored booby traps such as yelling, penny shake
cans, mouse traps or pepper-laced food might be effective to halt the most sensitive pooch, but a hardened counter-surfer will only be amused by your exertion. (And the clever pup will perform her scandalous acts on the sly.)

Save yourself time and trouble by following the tips below:

  • Use trash cans with lids and keep them sealed. Child-proof lid locks work well for all but the most determined dogs.
  • Crate your dog. If your dog is young, new to the home or a proven trash thief, a cozy and well-appointed crate will put your mind at ease while you’re out of the house.
  • Clear the counters and tables of all food unless preparing a meal. Make sure each member of the household understands that even one slip-up on a person’s part means many more weeks of training for the dog. Dogs who steal food see the kitchen as a doggy Las Vegas; they may get nothing, or it could pay off big-time.
  • Supervise your dog. A dog who steals food should be on a leash or tethered out of reach of the counter while in the kitchen. With your dog on a leash, teach an alternate behavior, such as a sit-or down-stay, or a stay outside the kitchen’s entrance. Only remove the leash once you trust the dog to maintain the stay. While you’re in another part of the house, make sure the dog does not have access to the kitchen.
  • Create a diversion. If you catch your dog running his nostrils along the table rim, gently interrupt him and ask for a sit- or down-stay out of the theater. A peanut-butter filled Kong toy or another attractive article can be used to reward the obedient dog.
  • If your dog gets hold of something he isn’t supposed to have, do what you must to get it back — but be careful. Many dogs who otherwise don’t guard resources will act aggressively if they have something of high value, such as a loaf of bread. This is the time to throw training out the window and offer a bribe — anything of higher value than what the dog has — to get the dog to trade.
  • Teach your dog to “leave it.” Start by offering your dog a low-value treat in a closed fist. Say nothing. As soon as the dog stops sniffing and licking your fist, even for a millisecond, say “Leave it,” and open your hand to give the treat. Work up to higher-value treats, extending the amount of time you ask your dog to wait. Begin using the “leave it” command as you present your fist.
  • Make a “food bowl” zone. Show your dog there is an appropriate place to eat treats, but not off the counter. Put a place mat or food dish in a corner opposite the food-preparation area and place treats inside on a random basis. Combined with a strict policy of keeping food off the counter, the dog will learn to check the food bowl instead.
  • Use counter-conditioning — literally. With your dog on-leash, place a very boring treat (or even a non-food item, if a treat is too exciting) on the counter. Stand beside the boring treat and tell your dog to “leave it.” Before your dog has a chance to snatch the treat on the counter, drop a more enticing treat on the floor (or in his “food bowl” zone). Repeat, placing increasingly high-value items on the counter.
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