Puppies and dogs explore the worlds with their mouths; it's just what they do. Puppies, especially, seem like they need to give something a good chomp before they decide it's a yay or nay.
While it's totally natural and normal, this behavior can cause some problems. There are a lot of things our opportunistic dogs can't or shouldn't have in their mouths and - by extension - should not be ingesting. So, it comes as no surprise that tug-of-war matches, games of chase leading under the bed, or "catch me if you can" laps around the yard result from a dog finding something they shouldn't have.
As unsurprising as these "games" are, they're only serving to break down the trust we build with our dogs, potentially create a habit of guarding resources or perceived prizes, and cause a lot of frustration (and, perhaps, medical expenses) for both you and your dog.
There are better ways to get something you want (or need to get) from your dog - ways that don't involve the games I listed above (or other variations). Before even diving into your options, though, first consider this: how you respond to your dog when they have something can have a big impact on what your dog does next.
For instance, a puppy sniffing around, doing puppy things, comes across a sock; maybe it fell out of the laundry basket on the way to the laundry room in the basement; maybe one of the kids left it lying around; maybe someone missed the hamper altogether. Whatever the circumstances, it smells and the puppy loves it. If someone enters the room and sees the puppy with the sock, they've got a couple options: dive in at the puppy to try getting the sock back, making a big deal about it and, arguably, initiating one or all of the games I mentioned above; OR not make a big deal (with some of the suggestions later in this post).
Though it feels like the right thing to do in the moment, making a big fuss about your dog having something teaches your dog a couple things:
Running away or hiding or gobbling something up really fast allow me to keep something my human wants.
Certain items can be used to get my human to play with me; OR
My human is unpredictable and will sometimes try prying something I found from my mouth and I should find a better hiding spot or protect my prize a little better than last time.
I'm not a risk-taker, so betting isn't my thing; BUT, I would be willing to bet that these are not lessons we're interested in teaching any of our SideKicks! That said, we're not looking to trample our dogs' natural instincts - I regularly encourage my clients, my social media followers, anyone willing to listen to me shouting it from the rooftops to let our dogs sniff, explore, chew, dissect, destroy, and, in general, do dog things!
We aren't looking to prevent this natural and normal behavior; we're looking to set our SideKicks up for success and for safe engagement in these activities. We do that with the two things I talk about all the time: management and training.
First and foremost, manage your dog's surroundings and environment.
Keep the floors and counters and reach-able surfaces clear of things your dog should not and cannot have. I usually tell people, depending on the size of their dog or puppy, to clear and clean everywhere from the hips down (inside and outside the house).
Supervise your dog. If your dog already has a habit of theft or, if your puppy is young and working diligently to help you find the things you forgot or missed, this is important.
Use management tools to keep your dog contained in an area that is safe or dog-proofed; you can read the blog post I wrote about it, but, in short, use doors, play pens, baby gates, leashes or tethers, and such to limit your dog's stomping grounds and access to "off limit" items.
Provide a rotating assortment of things your dog can have (chews, food toys, stuffed toys, balls, etc.). Include items that give your dog the opportunity to do those dog things I mentioned before: sniffing and exploring, destroying and dissecting, etc. I love keeping an assortment, but only a percentage of my dog's toys available at one time, so that I can rotate them out from the closet and the toys are novel and exciting each time they are brought out.
Your dog cannot chew or ingest things they cannot actually get to or if you're keeping a close eye on them; and, if your dog is only able to chew on or find things that they are allowed to have, they're learning those are the things we chew on when in the mood!
Second, practice makes perfect.
You're human; you're not perfect; you'll forget something, leave something out, or drop something at some point that your dog might want, but cannot have. I know this because I drop things so often - particularly in the kitchen - that, "Whoops," is literally another Recall cue in our house...
Management is fantastic and prevents so many unwanted behaviors; but, it's not infallible. That's where training comes into play. Prepare for the oops moments by practicing and teaching your puppy or dog that letting something go or dropping something is a great thing to do!
Teach your dog that, when they have a "prize" of some kind (a toy, a long-lasting chew, a shoe), great, tasty things appear (a handful of tasty treats) any time a person comes near; consistently offering a little scattering of treats each time you approach your dog when they have something will have your dog looking up at humans approaching in anticipation of treats - instead of launching into the games I mentioned earlier!
If it's not dangerous for your dog to have something they found, trade them for it. Offer a special toy, a handful or trail of treats, a long-lasting chew; offer your dog something that is higher value, so they learn that giving something up - even a prize found underneath the end table - means we trade up for something even better! Keep in mind that a trade is only as valuable as the thing you're looking to barter with; if your dog isn't interested in what you have or you're not offering something they perceive as high value, your trade isn't going to work out so well. When your dog answers that split-second question of, "What's in it for me?" we want it to be a resounding, "LOTS! There's a bunch of good stuff in it for me!"
Teach your dog some way of coming to you (instead of you going to them for their prize)! Make a big ruckus in another room, so your dog is excited to come investigate; crinkle a treat bag or the shredded cheese bag; teach your dog a Hand Target, Recall cue, or even a solid response to their name or another word, etc. In each of these cases, we want your dog to be excited to come running to you for something good - so excited that they drop what they have; you, then, have the time, space, and opportunity to collect the item they dropped.
Sometimes our dogs find something that is "off limits" and we don't have anything to trade; nothing is close by or handy; and the item is potentially dangerous. If that is the case, quickly extract the thing from your dog's mouth. This tactic, however, should be extremely infrequent. Forcibly removing something from your dog's mouth, as we've mentioned, can lead to a lack of trust and can easily turn into the chase games or unsafe resource guarding situations that no one likes. This is not the technique of getting something from your dog you should rely on; instead, rely on solid management of your dog's environment and teaching them how awesome you are and trading can be.
You might notice that I haven't said anything in this post about using a verbal cue - saying "Drop It," "Give," "Out," "Let Go," or something along those lines. It's super tempting, as humans, to add verbal cues to everything (particularly "NO"). But, dogs don't understand English (or whatever spoken language you're using with your dog); they're just hearing noises from us. With that in mind, it's far more important for us to focus on teaching the lessons I mentioned in this post, than it is to teach your dog a verbal cue for giving something up; it's so much more important for us to teach our dogs that interacting with us and responding to us means there is a lot of good stuff in it for them, than it is responding to a noise that doesn't have any inherent value to them.
Have fun teaching your SideKicks!