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behavior and training

The essentials

  • Dogs bite for many reasons, not always out of aggression or fear — Nipping a finger or hand while accepting a treat is one such instance.
  • Biting is a behavior some dogs develop as puppies — There are several reasons why a puppy might begin to bite or nip.
  • There are ways you can train your dog to take treats gently — Clicker training and teaching a verbal cue like “gentle” can be effective techniques.

Why do dogs bite when taking treats?

The idea that dogs only bite due to aggression is untrue. A dog will use their mouth or teeth in different ways as they explore the world around them. Some even nip or bite in positive situations, like when accepting a treat. Learning why your dog does this can help you curb or cut out this behavior.

Lack of bite inhibition

Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to control the force of their mouth. Puppies usually receive their first lessons in bite inhibition from their mother and littermates. Through playtime and roughhousing, puppies learn when a bite or nip is too hard. When one puppy gets too aggressive with another, the victim of the bite or nip typically stops playing. This interruption teaches the aggressive dog that they’ve gone too far and should be more gentle in the future.

After this initial introduction, the task of teaching proper bite inhibition is up to pet parents. Puppies must be properly taught bite inhibition when it comes to humans. If this step is skipped, a dog’s nipping and biting problem is likely to persist into adulthood.

Interrupted development as a puppy

Puppies learn a lot during their first few weeks in the world, which is known as their primary socialization period. During this time, puppies learn things like communication, impulse control, manners, and bite inhibition from their mothers and siblings. This is an important developmental step, and a reason why it’s suggested that puppies not be separated from their mother and littermates until they’re at least 8 weeks old.

Separating puppies too soon can interrupt the development of these rudimentary social skills. The earlier a puppy is removed from their littermates, the more likely they are to experience behavioral issues as an adult, including fear, aggression, anxiety, and reactivity.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can have a powerful effect on dogs. For this reason, you should never give your dog a treat if they nip, bite, or try to snatch it from your hand. Dogs that receive the reward anyway learn to associate unwanted behaviors like biting with good things, like receiving a treat. This can be difficult for dogs to unlearn.

Lack of impulse control

Like bite inhibition, dogs learn to control their inhibitions in puppyhood. Young dogs in particular can have a hard time controlling themselves when they want something. It’s important for dog owners to instill impulse control in pups during these developmental periods.

Understanding your dog’s threshold levels, or the point at which their fight or flight response begins to kick in, can help you better address your dog’s impulses. To set you and your canine up for success, work on ways to keep your dog below the point at which they get overwhelmed.

Training tools that can help

Teaching dogs to take treats gently can easily be accomplished in your home, yard, or on the go. When preparing to start training, it helps to have these simple supplies at the ready.

  • Leash. This most basic of dog training tools is useful for keeping your dog close to you. Even in a home or fenced-in yard, dogs have a lot of distractions to deal with. Keeping them on a leash can help them focus.
  • High-value training treats. Sure, basic biscuits may do the job for some pups. When training important skills, though, consider using a special treat like chicken, beef liver, or peanut butter. Food-driven dogs in particular respond better to training when high-value treats are involved.
  • Treat pouch. Keeping your dog’s treats in a pouch is always a good idea. Doing so contains the smell of the treats and keeps your dog from sniffing around.
  • Training clicker. Clicker training is an easy and effective way to teach your dog behaviors and tricks. Each time your dog accepts a snack without biting, use the clicker to alert them to their success. Your dog will eventually associate the sound of the clicker with a positive reward.

Treat training: tips and techniques

Treat training should be a fun bonding experience, but constant bites can be a bummer. Try these tips and tricks to better set you and your dog up for success.

Protect your fingers — Treat training with a nippy dog can be tricky, so you may expect to get bitten at first. If your dog seems intent on nipping, consider wearing a glove while training. You can also teach your dog to catch treats that you toss, rather than taking them straight from your hand.

Teach a “gentle” cue — Dogs respond well to simple verbal cues like “sit” and “stay,” and the idea here is the same. Each time you hand feed a treat, say the word “gentle” or another cue of your choice. When your dog is gentle, praise them and offer them a treat. When they nip, withhold the treat and try again. In time, they’ll learn that they only receive a reward when they obey the “gentle” command.

Keep training sessions short and simple — Keeping an easily distracted dog focused on training can be a challenge. This is especially true with puppies and young dogs. To increase your chances of success, keep training sessions short and sweet.

Common training mistakes

Unlike basic commands like “sit” and “stay,” there are several factors in play when training your dog to take a treat gently. Even the way you offer your dog a treat can affect their reaction to it. For example, it’s easiest for a dog to take a treat gently out of an open hand. Especially when you’re first starting out, make sure to keep your fingers out of the way when offering your pup a reward.

It’s also important for owners to remain calm and steady. Snatching your hand away in anticipation of a bite will often only make the problem worse and frustrate your dog. Lastly, remember that consistency is key. Choose one method of offering your pup a treat and stick to it.

Alternatives to hand feeding treats

If you’ve tried these tips and still fear for your fingertips when offering your dog treats, don’t fret. There are plenty of alternatives to try. One simple method is to toss your dog treats from afar. A fun way to do this is to add in a verbal cue — like “catch!” — and offer a second reward whenever they’re successful. Over time, you can practice throwing treats from farther and farther away.

One other way to minimize nipping is to offer your dog a lickable snack like the Kong Easy Treat. These enticing treats can be stuffed into interactive toys and minimize a dog’s need to use their teeth.

Frequently asked questions

Why do dogs bite when taking treats?

Dogs often bite when they haven’t learned proper bite inhibition or impulse control as puppies. They also may have been rewarded for food aggression in the past, like if they’ve ever snatched a treat from their owner’s hand.

How can I teach my dog to take treats gently?

Training can easily be done at home with just a few simple supplies. Consider using a verbal cue and a clicker to help mark and reward positive behavior.

What are some proper ways of treat training dogs?

Consistency is key when treat training. Always use the same cues with your dog and offer them the treats in the same way each time. Lastly, keep sessions short so as not to overwhelm or bore your pup.

How do I train a dog that’s not food-driven?

Plenty of dogs don’t respond to food, but that doesn’t make them untrainable. Train as you normally would but use a reward they prefer, like their favorite toy or some belly rubs.