At one time or another, many of us have been involved in an inadvertent game of “keep away” — when our dog snatches something and then refuses to give it up. It can be a comical situation, but it can also be frustrating or even dangerous if the dog has grabbed an item that could be harmful to him or others. Dogs who have been taught to trade will happily give up the guarded item for something that they consider more valuable.
Canine resource guarding
Guarding resources like food or toys is a common and natural behavior in many dogs. They do it because they are afraid they’ll lose the resource in question. Practicing trades can help a dog feel better about having his stuff taken away.
Benefits of learning to trade for dogs
Any dog can benefit from learning to trade, since it’s a multi-faceted behavior that has many practical applications in a dog’s day-to-day life. Trades are commonly used with dogs who have shown a tendency to guard resources, but you can also use trades to help prevent dogs from guarding resources in the first place.
In addition, trading is a safe way for people to play fetch with dogs who are either enthusiastic about grabbing for a toy or who are reluctant to drop the toy once they have brought it back. You can implement a simple version of trading by having multiples of the same toy, such as tennis balls, and offering a new toy each time the dog returns from fetching one.
Steps for teaching trades to a dog
Here are the steps for teaching a dog to trade:
Step 1: You will need a low-value item — something that the dog has not shown any signs of guarding. It can be a toy that he doesn’t much care for or an item that he has never shown interest in, such as a book. You’ll also need a large supply of high-value treats, such as bits of chicken, hot dog or cheese.
Step 2: With a leash, tether the dog to a door or a sturdy piece of furniture and place the low-value item within his reach. While the goal is to work at a level at which the dog feels safe and comfortable, the tether creates a way for you to move away from the dog if he does show any resource-guarding behaviors. Signs of resource guarding include avoidance, freezing, lip curling, growling, lunging and snapping.
Step 3: Offer your dog some high-value treats. As he is eating the high-value treats, remove the low-value item. If he shows interest in you taking away the low-value item, try making a trail of treats leading away from the item. Repeat this step a few times before moving on to the next step.
Step 4: In this step, the trade is simultaneous. Offer the dog high-value treats in one hand while removing the low-value item with your other hand. Repeat this step until the dog is excited about your approach and disengages from the low-value item on his own.
Step 5: Next, approach the dog, remove the low-value item and then offer the treats. If the dog shows no signs of guarding, repeat this step multiple times, waiting a few seconds before offering the treats. If the dog does not seem excited about your approach, go back to step 4.
Step 6: Practice the above steps with a variety of items that the dog hasn’t shown any signs of guarding. You’ll want to work your way up gradually to more valuable items. The progression could be a toy that he isn’t very interested in, then a toy that he sometimes plays with, then a favorite toy (e.g., an empty Kong or one containing some low-value treats) and finally a much-coveted toy (e.g., a Kong filled with peanut butter or canned food). Remember, if at any point your dog does not have an excited response to your approach, go back to step 4.
Step 7: To help the dog understand that trading can be done anywhere and with anyone, practice in different places and with different people, starting with step 2 for each new location or person. The more you practice, the quicker the dog should be able to progress through each step.
Step 8: The adage “Use it or lose it” applies here, so practice trading often to maintain the dog’s new skill.
For more information about teaching trades, check out this training plan.
Working with a dog trainer
If the dog shows any serious guarding behaviors, stop the training sessions and find a force-free, reward-based dog trainer with whom you can work. And to keep training fun for your dog and help him maintain focus, take frequent breaks and don’t rush. The process of teaching a dog to trade should happen over the course of many training sessions.
If either you or the dog get frustrated, take a break and when you try again, begin working at the previous step. Before you know it, you and your dog will be trading lots of good stuff on a regular basis — possibly even high-fives.