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Canine Behavior/Dog Stealing Items For Attention



I have a 14 month old black lab/basset hound mix named Riley. I adopted him from a local private shelter. He was 7 months old when I adopted him and has been in my home for 7 months. From what I was told by the shelter, he had been found wandering the streets as a puppy and it is doubtful that he's ever been in a real home. It was fairly obvious he had never been in a home or had any love or attention in his life upon bringing him home. He has grown into a very loving dog but has very hyper outbursts almost to where he cannot control himself. He also panics and whines whenever I am out of sight, such as in the shower. I am not sure if this  is relevant but I want to include it just as a history of his behavior.

The issue that I am noticing most prevelant is that he will steal any item from wherever he can reach, such as remote controls, disposable cigarette lighters, clothing - just to name a few, but also dangerous items such as scissors and knives, perfume, plastic bags, etc. There is nothing he will not steal in which, what seems, to gain attention from me. He will often run past me with the item and refuse to give it to me when he is told no and scolded. I have to go to drastic lengths of tackling him (figure of speech, I do not mean in any way purposely harming him) and prying the object out of his mouth. He growls at me as well.

He has thankfully, so far, not been harmed by anything he's stolen. However, it continues to escalate and despite putting many things out of reach (as I felt I'd already puppy proofed my apartment with child safety locks and a lock box for medications - I have previously lived with a beagle in my home and still own a cat as well) I cannot put every item I own on shelves, for I am running out of space and there is no limit to what he will steal next.  I am not worried about my possessions, but am constantly worried about his safety and health. My pets lives and health comes first before anything else.

I understand that he  may be doing this for attention and is wanting to be chased after playfully, so I have tried ignoring him when he's stolen a less dangerous item (such as clothing) but he will  just continue to hold the item in his mouth and walk around the apartment. If I try to ignore the behavior and act as if nothing is wrong, he will just sit with the item and destroy it. Most times it is just destroying the item by chewing it up into pieces, but if not caught right away, he begins to swallow some pieces. (He swallowed a piece of notebook paper and I was advised to make sure it passed and it did.) However, I am afraid of all the times I am not able to stop this in the future. I have been lucky in being able to rush in and distract him before swallowing pieces of dangerous items but I am continually worried for his safety.  

He has only been to the vet around 3 times and is very nervous and anxious at the vet. I apologize if this is something I must bring up with my vet and am wasting your time. I was told by the front desk at my vet's office that he has some obvious behavior problems that may need obedience training, however he is not socialized with other dogs and I am unaware of any obedience class in my area that does not teach in a "group" fashion, with at least 10 people and their dogs in one setting. These classes are expensive for someone on a fixed income and I fear that he will cause such a disturbance around other dogs or possibly get hurt or bitten. Is there something I am doing wrong in handling this theft behavior? Is it something that he willl grow out of? I am home with him all day, everyday (I am disabled) so there is at no time I am away from him. Is this related to his possible separation anxiety behavior?

Thank you for all of your help and I desperately hope I am not wasting your time with this question. Please accept my apologies if I have wasted your time. Thank you very much.

You certainly are NOT "wasting" my time, I am here on this site to be at your disposal.

"Theft" for attention is common.  It usually progresses this way: dog "steals" something (inadvertently the first time, usually) because it has the scent of the owner (which is why remote control devices are so coveted by dogs!)  Owner reacts.  At some point (most likely after the second or third incident), owner becomes agitated (dogs read our body language in one instant), even angry.  Dog does not intend for this reaction to occur and does NOT connect it to his own behavior (if you can count to ten, your reaction to his behavior is not registered in his cognition).  Now, he's afraid; he begins to "den" (hide under tables, etc.), run (owner chases), and if cornered will develop to defense behaviors (growling, even snapping) because he DOES NOT understand that the owner is all upset because he "stole" the object.  Therefor, the attention he receives upon first obtaining this object is consistently rewarded but the result of his behavior (to YOU) provokes your anxiety, anger, chase, etc. and the dog's fear develops further.  Destruction of the article is part of high anxiety and cognitive dissonance: have to have it, have to get rid of it, what to do?

Two approaches to this: first, the realization that the dog will not die from ingesting normal toilet paper or cheap paper towels (that cannot block his intestines) or tissues.  The dog can die from ingesting hard plastic that has been chewed into bits or other such objects such as scissors, knives (tongue can be cut), etc.  So we begin with "punishment" with simple objects that cannot harm him (toilet paper rolls with little actual paper on them, a tissue torn in half, a cheap paper towel).  All other objects have to be removed, no matter how difficult; purchase plastic drawers cheaply from Walmart and stash these things around your apartment (temporarily) no matter the disaster to your home decorating (lol).  Leave the cherished object IN PLAIN SIGHT.  This is called a "set up".  When the dog grabs it, and especially if he eyes you and you can SEE he anticipates a response, YOU go into the bathroom and close the door.  Count to ten.  Open the door.  Observe the dog.  The first few times, he will still have the object or will retrieve it when you open the door; close the door.  Count to ten.  Do this until he has dropped the object and is visibly attempting to solicit you to come out of the bathroom (standing at the door, perhaps).  At that point, step out.  In your pocket in a plastic bag you will have some string cheese cut into tidbits; ask for "sit", when he complies food reward him, have a "party" for a few seconds.  IGNORE THE OBJECT he has stolen.  If he returns to it (the first two or three times, he might), repeat the above.  There WILL come a point where he will NOT return to it.  At that time, when he is clearly on another mission, simply remove the object (tuck it into your pocket), end session.

Repeatedly do this with harmless objects until he NO LONGER pays them any attention.  Then introduce something (like an old remote control device that you have well lathered in hot sauce) and "leave it" in a place he can obtain it.  First: the MOMENT he puts his mouth around it, go back into the bathroom.  Two things will occur: he will get a dreadful and unexpected taste and you will disappear.  He has already learned about this disappearance routine, at this point, and DOES connect it with his own behavior (grabbing the old remote); he also immediately gets "punished" by the horrible taste of the object itself.  Open the door after a ten count; if he persists (even with the taste) with that object, close the door: count to ten, open the door.  He will have learned that HIS behavior is the direct cause of YOUR "disappearance" (behind the closed door) and he will have learned that the object is distasteful; together, these should extinguish the stealing behavior for THAT type of object.  If you do this three or four times with various objects, the dog will begin to generalize: all "stolen" objects obtained without YOUR PERMISSION result in something he does not want.  End of problem.

MEANWHILE:  TEACH him to "take it/leave it" with a toy you purchase especially for this purpose and is not available to him for any other reason.  See the following:

It may take up to 50 repetitions to get a real take it/leave it response that works ten out of ten times, but it's worth it because you now have a conditioned response to "leave it": dog knows he will be rewarded, dog responds by participation in a manner you can reward.

You're correct about group obedience: NOT an option for this dog.  Nor is it necessary.  Dr. Ian Dunbar has a free, online course for positive reinforcement obedience:

People at the "front desk" of any veterinary office are NOT the place to get advice regarding dog behavior.  Were they capable of doing this, they would not be in low paying jobs.  Many veterinarians know little to nothing about actual training and are not knowledgeable regarding dog behavior to the extent where their advice is worthy of trust.  I've known dozens of veterinarians who gave my clients absolutely horrific advice.  Of course, there are exceptions, but no, this is not an issue for the average veterinary generalist.

Combine the above strategies to the best of your ability.  Remember: the dog develops defense aggression out of fear so pursuing him when he has an article you do not want him to have is taking the road to really serious behavior problems.

Any further questions, please use followup feature.  Thanks.  

Canine Behavior

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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