Last week, we talked about what not to do if your dog steals something you don’t want her to have. This week, we’ll concentrate on how you can teach your dog to “trade” an object in her mouth for something she would rather have. The “something” you trade will most likely be food, although certainly some dogs (not mine!) can prefer to trade for a much-valued toy or ball. If your dog would most likely choose food over a toy or ball, here’s a suggestion on how to determine what foods your dog considers most valuable.

Food rewards range in value from the dog’s regular kibble (probably low in value) to the most amazing treat your dog has ever eaten—probably something she gets rarely, very likely falling under the category of “people food.” That will be a very valuable trade. In between high-value and low-value lie a variety of food rewards; some you’ve tried before, some may be new to you.

Here’s an experiment.

  1. Assemble a variety of food treats. For the dog with no allergies, I’d recommend trying:
  • String cheese
  • Tube meat (freezable compressed soft dog food in tube form, shaped like a salami and sliceable)
  • Peanut butter (try dipping oyster crackers or even dog biscuits in it)
  • Cooked and diced chicken or beef

As you can see, I’m leaving out regular dog biscuits because you already know which ones your dog likes. However, you can up the value of regular biscuits by dipping them in bacon grease, cottage cheese, yogurt—really, any food that will stick to a biscuit and is safe for your dog to eat.

Try to come up with a dozen different treats that you think will appeal to your dog.

  1. Put together a “team of experts”—your friends and family—to help you judge your dog’s interest in each of the treats you’ve assembled.

If you want to be really scientific, give everybody a pad and pencil and ask them to rate each treat on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being wild enthusiasm on the part of the dog, and 1 being no interest on the part of the dog. Run the test several times over a period of weeks to obtain the best information.

Remember that the more people you have standing around watching, the more likely it is that your dog will be somewhat distracted—possibly more interested in the company than in the food. That’s why it’s advisable to “test” a number of times for best results.

  1. Always “test” for food-treat preference when your dog is empty—in other words, at least six hours after her last meal and after she’s had a chance to eliminate.
  1. Keep the treats you are going to “test” well away from the dog—up on a high shelf or even in the fridge—so that the smell or sight of all of them together doesn’t overwhelm the dog.
  1. Bring out only one treat at a time. Wash your hands between treats. (See, I told you we’d be scientific!)
  1. During your multiple test sessions, vary the order of the treats you offer.
  1. Offer the “samples” one by one, in your open palm, as you would feed sugar to a horse.
  1. Observe your dog’s reaction.

Does she sniff the food in your hand first, before taking it to eat? Does she completely refuse the food? Is she slower to take that food than another food? Overall, try to come up with a rating for each food—the higher the number, the higher the interest. Rate the food or foods that are “most interesting” as 10, the foods that are refused as 1. If the food is taken into the dog’s mouth and spit out, that’s definitely a 1—or maybe a 0!

Remember, reactions will differ from dog to dog and from food to food. If you have more than one dog, test each dog separately, of course, and don’t be surprised if their preferences vary widely, especially if they are two different breed backgrounds. Keep in mind that some dogs (I think of Chows) are simply not that interested in food rewards at all. You may not find a 10 with those dogs ever.

  1. Make enough tests over a period of time to be fairly sure of your dog’s preferences.

Here’s how your final list might look:

1 Kibble
2 Oyster crackers
3 Tube meat
4 String cheese
5 Apple pieces
6 Oyster crackers dipped in peanut butter
7 Apple pieces dipped in peanut butter
8 Cooked chicken pieces
9 Anything dipped in bacon grease
10 Cooked steak pieces

Note that every food treat on this list can be delivered in very small quantities. That’s important because you don’t want to fill your dog up with treats and then have her not want her regular kibble. Cut back on her kibble to make up for the treats you feed her. If one day you feed a lot of treats, feed her less kibble in that day’s regular meals. Treat-based training should not be allowed to affect your dog’s weight!


That was the easy part! Now it’s time to teach your dog to Trade.

  1. Pick an object that “belongs” to your dog—in other words, a dog toy that’s usually left out so that the dog can play with it whenever she wants.

Something that’s always accessible is usually of lower value to the dog than a toy that’s kept away from her most of the time. (That’s not always true, of course. I know a golden retriever whose most highly valued toy is the slightly deflated soccer ball that stays in her yard. The dog seems to like that toy almost more than food!)

Teach this skill first with that low-value toy.

  1. Interact with the dog and the toy, so that the toy ends up in the dog’s mouth.
  1. Offer the dog a small amount of kibble from your open palm.

The dog will likely open her mouth, drop the toy, and eat the kibble.

That is a successful Trade: the dog has given up the object in her mouth in exchange for what you’re offering—in this case, a small handful of kibble. Low-value object, low-value reward.

  1. Continue to engage the dog with the same toy.
  1. Offer a handful of kibble again, hoping for another Trade.

If for any reason your dog decides not to Trade, but instead runs off with the toy, or perhaps just stands there, try offering the next treat up on her value scale. Perhaps the toy you’ve chosen is more of a favorite than you thought, or, for some reason—at least right now—it’s more valuable to the dog. When you see that the dog values the object more than you expected, up the value of the reward.

  1. It’s always best to end on a success.

At first, repeat this exercise only a few times in one session. Always leave your dog wanting more. If the dog consistently refuses to Trade, end the session and spend some time considering what might be going wrong. On your next attempt, try using the same toy but a much higher-value treat. Your objective is to entice the dog into playing the Trade game. Until the dog is willing to play, she’ll have no idea there’s a reward waiting.

When you’re getting consistent willingness from your dog to Trade a relatively low-value object for a relatively low-value treat, up the value of both the object and the treat. In theory, you should save the highest-value treats—in our list above, the steak scraps—for objects that are very highly valued by the dog. These are often the items we don’t want the dog to have in her mouth ever—like our underwear, our mobile phone, our credit cards.

Remember, you’ll practice the Trade game every day (multiple times, if possible) for a long time before you can expect your dog to understand that she’ll get a very yummy treat if she drops your expensive shoe. Most of the time, you’ll practice using items that are not off-limits. When the dog does steal an item that’s off-limits, you’d better have those high-value treats ready in the fridge!

Trade doesn’t work if you’re yelling at the dog, chasing the dog, or at any time punishing the dog for stealing. Your attitude should be calm, cool, and collected. You know what to do and you do it. You have Trade rewards stocked in your fridge in separate containers—heck, you can write the value numbers right on those plastic bags so you can grab the right one quickly. On a walk, carry Trade rewards with you. On a visit, again, carry Trade rewards. On a trip? Take a cooler of rewards!

Fair warning: clever dogs who have been taught to Trade might try to get extra treats by grabbing an off-limits object and bringing it to you just to get the Trade reward. You’ll need to decide if you want to use this spontaneous behavior (which, in fact, could be the beginning of a Retrieve) or if you want to eliminate it. If you don’t reward a dog-instigated Trade, you risk losing the good Trade response you’ve got. The better you know your dog, the easier it’ll be to decide how to respond.


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About Val

Val Hughes has been training dogs and their people in the Spokane area since 1980. In 1990, she started her own business, The Family Dog, which offered dog owner counseling and training classes in three locations around the area. Val's golden retriever Jack, certified as a Delta Pet Partner, was one of the first two dogs in the pilot program for pet-assisted therapy visits at local hospitals. Val trained hearing dogs for five years through Pacific Northwest Hearing Dogs. Her own dogs have appeared in print, TV, and billboard advertising, in two movies, and in many local stage productions for Spokane Children's Theatre, Spokane Civic Theatre, Spokane Falls Community College, and Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre. Her dog Teasel recently appeared as Chowsie in Gypsy at Spokane Civic Theatre. As editor of the professional journal of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, Inc., Val won three Maxwell Awards from the Dog Writers Association Of America.

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