Have you been working on your dog grabbing stuff on walks? Does it feel like they are just picking up anything and everything now to get a treat? You may feel like using treats hasn’t worked, but hold on! Don’t throw those treats away quite yet. 

Implementing a trade / treat policy to build a positive association for relinquishing found items is a reasonable practice. Giving up stuff goes against the canine code of ethics, so it is our responsibility to teach an alternative behaviour in a fair and kind way. But focusing on that alone as a solution can lead to problems because, in no time, your dog can teach you to feed them whenever they pick something up. Instead of teaching them to ignore objects, we often end up training them to pick things up to get reinforced.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to prevent this frustrating habit:

There’s More Than One Show In Town

It doesn’t take long for our dogs to learn how to get a treat. If it seems that picking stuff up is how to make that happen, then that’s what they will keep doing. What else is your dog getting reinforced for on walks? Get into the habit of reinforcing other desirable behaviours. Need ideas? 

  • auto check-ins
  • a loose leash
  • stopping when you stop
  • ignoring squirrels

These are just a few examples.

How Expensive is the Behaviour?

Behaviour that is self-reinforcing to the dog will be more likely to continue. Grabbing stuff is inherently reinforcing for most dogs – they are, by nature, opportunistic scavengers. In comparison, other choices may require more effort or be less valuable. Expecting our dogs to be equally willing to offer or perform other behaviours isn’t reasonable unless we take the time to make those behaviours more valuable. You can also turn that around by making grabbing stuff ‘more expensive’ and other behaviours ‘less expensive’. How do you do that? Rather than feeding a treat just for relinquishing the item, add some additional steps before paying out your dog.

The Latest Greatest

Often what we have reinforced most recently becomes the most valuable behaviour to the dog. For example, if you have been working on a particular skill in training, your dog will have been reinforced for that a lot recently. As a result, they often will repeatedly choose the most recent behaviour, believing it is the one that is getting paid. 

A typical example of this is teaching DOWN. Many people teach SIT first and then move on to DOWN. As they continue the training, DOWN is reinforced more. Often SIT requests aren’t reinforced at all anymore because they are just a stepping stone to the behaviour now being taught. Now you have a dog that lays down even when asked to SIT. That’s why, both in training and in day-to-day life, it helps to reinforce more than one behaviour, so the dog understands that other things still get reinforced.

Are you guilty of these? By addressing them, you can reduce the value of picking things up and get on a better track. So, the moral of this story? Reinforce your dog for other behaviours. 

There are other reasons why your dog may fixate on picking things up on walks. Check out Why Does My Puppy Pick Up Stuff On Walks? to learn more.

Have any questions? You can reach me at lisa@hippup.ca for help.