So, you’re trying to use food rewards to train your dog, but your dog continues to bite down on your fingers – HARD! Should you stop using food to train? Not at all. Here are some suggestions for teaching your dog to take food from your hand nicely.
During lessons to teach other behaviors, you can toss food onto the floor or into a dog dish to reward your dog. This will save your fingers until you have taught your dog how to take food gently. Every time your dog gets to swallow a treat that he took too roughly, he is learning that it is ok to bite hard when taking treats. So, in order to continue training with food rewards, you should find an alternative way to deliver the treats until this issue has been resolved.
Set aside some time and some small treats to work on this lesson separately from other lessons. Once your dog is learning to take food nicely, you can begin to incorporate this lesson in with others. But for now, work on teaching your dog to take treats nicely as a separate lesson.
Do not ever let your dog have a treat that he snaps at roughly. If his teeth hurt your fingers, do not release the treat to him. Doing so will be rewarding his behavior. Wait until he tries to take it in a more gentle fashion, then praise and let him have the treat. With time, you can wait for him to be more and more gentle until he learns to just take the treat with his lips and you barely even feel him take it from your hand. But in the beginning, you will need to reward his efforts a little at a time. Any effort on his part to be more gentle in taking the treat should be rewarded.
Begin by holding the treat in the palm of your hand and close your hand into a fist around it. Offer your fist to your dog with your palm facing upwards. Do not open your hand if you feel his teeth. Once he stops using his teeth, open your hand and let him eat the food from your palm. Feeding from your palm can help reduce the chance of your fingers getting nipped. You can teach him a word such as “easy” if you want to remind him to be gentle. Some dogs will also stop and be more careful if you say “ouch!” in a surprised tone when you feel teeth. Then use your voice softly to encourage him to take it “easy.” Reward and praise when he does.
Be sure when giving a treat, to push your hand slightly towards your dog’s mouth. If you are afraid he will bite your fingers, you are more likely to pull your hand away quickly. But this often encourages your dog to snap quickly at the treat and he will often bite your fingers in the process. He doesn’t want that treat to get away! Instead, focus on bringing your hand toward your dog to feed the treat. You might be surprised how much this can help.
When your dog is no longer using his teeth on your fist, begin to leave your fist open slightly, creating an “O” shape with your hand around the treat. The treat will still be in your palm and your palm will be facing upward. Encircle your fingers around the treat, but leave them slightly open so your dog can use his tongue to lick the treat out. When he uses his lips or his tongue to get the treat, open your fingers so he can eat the treat off your palm. If you feel his teeth, simply close your hand up to make a fist so he can’t get the treat. When he tries to be more gentle, open up your fingers slightly again.
The next step is to hold your hand in the same “O” position with your palm facing upward. Hold the treat between your fingers and your thumb and offer the treat to your dog. Make sure you have a good grip on the treat. If your dog tries to take the food nicely, open your fingers slightly, allowing him to take the treat. If you feel teeth, curl your fingers into your palm, protecting the treat so he can’t get it. Review the last training step again until your dog is always taking the treat nicely from inside the “O.” Then you can try this step again.
Once your dog masters this step, you should be able to feed him a treat normally from your fingers. Just remember the rule – if you feel teeth, do not release the treat. Only reward for taking the treat gently. Now begin to use this training with other training sessions. During the session, if your dog gets too excited, you may have to stop and review some of these steps. Sometimes dogs will take treats more roughly when they are stressed or excited, so it may be time to take a little break if you notice your dog using his teeth to snap the treat more and more.
Remember too, that you can go back to dropping the treat or putting it into a dish if you need to continue the lesson. Also, young children should always give treats only with adult supervision! They should always give a treat from their palm, with their fingers laid flat. That way, no fingers will be next to the dog’s teeth.