In the last few weeks, as folks re-emerge from Covid lockdown, our ~2 year old Labrador has discovered that people - small children in particular - outdoors in parks and other green spaces often have food for the taking. And she's started going and taking it. This unacceptable behaviour is likely to become a big problem if not nipped in the bud. Besides the annoyance to others there's also the risk she'll gobble something extremely chocolatey at some point.

Obviously we're now trying to anticipate any encounters and get her on a lead in advance. Or just getting her attention on a ball will keep her sufficiently focused on us until temptation has passed. However, surprises can still happen on winding paths or other situations with short sight-lines or when someone suddenly hands their child some food.

We're not sure how to best address this:

  • Improve her recall? This could be better. We've got whistles and the whistle means "come and get some yummy liver paste", but the chance of success rather depends what's competing for attention. When the alternative is a small child with a piece of pepperoni pizza I'm pretty sure the lure of the pizza slice will win over any reward we're likely to have.

  • More work on "impulse control"? Indoors, we can put her dinner in front of her and she'll sit and wait indefinitely until being given permission to eat it. She's similarly restrained with treats placed on the floor and so on. Nor does she beg or bother us when we're eating, or try to raid shopping bags or food on kitchen counters. However it occurs to me that we've never done that sort of training in an outdoor setting, and she will certainly lunge for edible/lickable litter encountered on walks. Should we try and get her to learn to apply the same restraint she can indoors, outdoors? And how then can we make sure she's as well behaved with the food in someone's hands as she is with the food in her own bowl?

Or some other approach?

1 Answer 1


Taking food from others is a matter of respect. Your dog obviously respects you enough to leave a treat alone that's lying directly in front of her, but she doesn't respect other people and especially children at all. For her, what she does isn't stealing, but rather taking what's rightfully hers to take.

Improving her recall is honestly the best solution for this problem, and the only one if you insist on "positive reinforcement only". You don't have to worry about your liver paste competing with whatever a kid holds in their hand. Given that the dog has a positive relationship with you, the joy of being praised by you outweights whatever she can steal, so make sure to praise her verbally in addition to giving her a treat. If she is very toy oriented her treat can also be playing a little fetch or tug of war.

The alternative is a bit risky, because you have to catch her red handed and be close enough to intervene immediately (within 2 seconds max). The moment she takes something from a stranger, grab her by the collar (or the neck fur if she doesn't wear a collar, but don't hurt her) and sternly reprimand her. Assume a stiff body posture and speak in a very angry tone to make it clear that this kind of behavior is not tolerated. If you can grab the object she stole, do so, but don't tug. Hold onto the object until she releases it to assert your dominance.

The reasons why the second method is not optimal are:

  • You have to be comfortable with and capable of reprimanding your dog effectively. People who insist on positive reinforcement only, can't be stern with their dogs or resort to pain for reprimands shouldn't use this method.
  • You need to be close enough to your dog to intervene immediately. If you first have to run to your dog, it's already too late and she won't understand what exactly you're reprimanding her for. Even worse, if she thinks you start a race to take the spoils from her, she might steal even more often to get your attention.
  • If you don't consistently reprimand her for the same behavior (maybe because you're too far away to do so in time), she won't know for sure that stealing is not allowed. It will take a lot longer until she stops doing it reliably.

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