Many of the behaviors that are most challenging with our dogs are instinctual. Digging and barking, for example, can make owners crazy. You can also add stealing food to the list. Whether your dog pilfers food from the trash or counter surfs to grab the sandwich you have carefully prepared, dogs are hardwired to scavenge for food. It doesn’t matter if you have a 9-inch Chihuahua or a huge Mastiff, dogs of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds will happily snatch food if they have the chance.
Why do dogs steal food?
Your dog’s ancestors were not just hunters. They were also scavengers. It’s likely that the earliest wolf ancestors of dogs met up with humans because they were scavenging our trash and leftovers, including meat and bones. After all, why hunt when they could get a meal from eating what humans discarded? Thousands of years later, dogs are still happy to go through the trash and sneak food from the table whenever they can. It doesn’t matter if you buy the best dog food available. They can’t resist that food when it’s right there in front of them. Besides, stealing food provides its own reward.
Ways to stop food theft
Since stealing food is an instinctual behavior for dogs this can be a hard habit to break, especially if your dog has already found some delicious things to eat in your kitchen trash or successfully stolen a sandwich off the kitchen counter. If he’s graduated to jumping on the dining room table and eating a ham or turkey when the room is empty, he could be a hardened offender. But don’t give up hope. There are ways to discourage your dog from stealing food – or at least managing the problem.
- Never leave food unattended. If you leave food unattended, most dogs will steal it. Sure, there are some saintly dogs who won’t touch your food, but they are in the minority. You should assume that if you leave food where a dog can reach it, it will be gone when you come back. If you’re cooking and your dog is in the kitchen with you, don’t leave food on the counter. If you have to leave the kitchen for a moment, put your food away. Place it in the fridge, in a cabinet, or in the oven. Pushing the food far back on the counter will not work (speaking from experience). Your dog is more than capable of reaching food or even getting ON the counter to get it. Even leaving hot food out to cool is problematic with some dogs. (I had one dog who successfully stole a pizza out of the oven when I left the door open for the pizza to cool. She didn’t make a sound and there wasn’t a crumb left.)
- Keep your dog away from the food. There are several fairly easy ways to keep your dog away from food. You can use baby gates or dog gates to keep your dog out of the kitchen, for example. Don’t encourage your dog to look for food by giving him tidbits at the table while you are eating. Keep your kitchen trash in a place where your dog can’t reach it or at least don’t put food items in it. If necessary, put food trash items directly into an outside bin that your dog can’t reach. If your dog steals food or counter surfs in front of you – some dogs have no shame – you can teach them the “Leave it” command. This command teaches the dog to turn away from something and/or drop an item (or food).
Some people also like to train their dog to go to their own special place in the home when they are cooking or eating. The dog can be calm in this place and you can reward him for his good behavior. The drawback with this method is that stealing food is often an opportunistic behavior so you may not always be around to send your dog to this calm place but it’s worth trying.
Whatever method you use, make sure to involve your entire family so your dog knows that he should always stay away from food unless it’s in his food bowl.
- Punishment doesn’t work. Punishment doesn’t work for stealing food. The reward – finding food – is too great for most dogs. Plus, most punishment occurs too long after the crime for dogs to know why they are being punished. Using mousetraps or other things to scare your dog away from counter tops doesn’t usually work either but it can make your dog anxious. Using management techniques, such as dog gates, removing the temptation of the kitchen trash, and not leaving food sitting out, generally work better.
If your dog steals food you’re not alone. Most of us have dogs that steal food, at least occasionally. Try the suggestions offered here and you should see some improvement. Learning to not leave your food unattended is especially important. As far as your dog is concerned, if you leave it out, it’s his, so don’t leave food where your dog can get it.