Does Your Dog Get Room Service?

Can your pup take a treat and leave your fingers behind?

 Many a puppy owner shakes their head "no" at this question.  We want to show our  pets that we love them and *reward good behavior, but, as we offer a treat and pull back bitten fingers, the joy of pet owning lessens.


Meet one of the most resistant to change dogs, a Labrador named "Natalie." You may recognize her…. 

Natalie wagged her tail so hard I learned to keep a safe distance. In class, this husky girl, a month or so adopted from Labrador Rescue, was cheerful to the point of hysteria and loved to eat. (Remember...she's a Lab) When her owner, Lisa, handed her a reward for a sit will done, the sound of Natalie's jaws snapping shut sounded more like a crocodile's than a family pet.


Natalie demonstrated her well practiced grab-the-treat-and-gobble the first class. Lisa, with tears in her eyes from the sting of Natalie's teeth, asked if we could solve this problem, first. The challenge of sit, down and stay were far less important than Lisa's ability to use her fingers.


As I had instructed her, Lisa brought a pair of pliers to the next class. To teach this Crocodile Retriever to take treats gently, we placed the treat in the pliers' jaws; now, we had an even fight. Lisa wrapped her hand around the plier's handle, leaving only the jaws sticking out above her hand.


Tentatively, Lisa handed Natalie the plier wrapped treat. Slam! Natalie's years of practice overcame her good sense, and she snapped at the metal pliers. Just as quickly she released the suddenly iron-clad treat and looked at it suspiciously. Then, she reached her neck forward and with only her front teeth, gently removed the treat from the pliers.


Class after class Natalie used her plier treat giver. Bit by bit, Lisa slid her hand down the plier's handle, revealing more of the plier and less of her hand. Natalie learned that taking the treat as though she were nibbling on icing got her the treat; grabbing the treat got her teeth clicked against metal.


By the end of the class session, Natalie the deadly had become Natalie the delicate. She'd take a treat with no clacking of jaws or lunging forward. We'd added a command, too.  After, and only after, we got Natalie to stop grabbing, we said "Easy" as she nibbled the treat away from the plier's jaws. We only added the command when she was actually doing the behavior we wanted, that of taking the treat easily.

If we had chattered "Easy!" "Easy!" as she was grabbing, we would only have taught her that "Easy" meant to grab and lunge, since that is what she was doing when hearing the auditory stimulus.


Don't let your pup be a Natalie. We need the plier trick only because she had spent years taking treats badly. Here's a way to easily teach your pup to relax and be a good treat taker. You'll be able to keep the plies in the drawer.


Ask someone else to help. You'll need to see your pup from the side. If no one is willing to help, use a large mirror. You can watch your pup's reflection as you perform this magic act.


Have the pup sit in front of you. Stretch our your hand, with a treat in it, to give the pup but stop about two inches away from his mouth. Watch his neck. See his neck stretch out to get the treat held just out of reach?


Do this a few times until you can easily see how much he stretches his neck forward. By holding the treat tantalizingly close but not close enough, you cause him to snatch the treat with his teeth.




Now, try this. Give him the treat at though you were putting it down his throat and to his tonsils. (Yes, dogs have tonsils and yes, they can get tonsillitis.) Go ahead. Gather your courage and move your hand all the way into his mouth and a bit further. Did you see what his neck did?




When you use the give-his-tonsils-the-treat move his head and neck move back. His neck is relaxed. He magically quits reaching, lunging and snapping at the treat. No longer does he worry the treat is just out of reach; its in his mouth!


I call this exercise "Room Service." It’s an easy reminder. The food comes to the dog, not the dog to the food. In minutes, after I teach my Room Service exercise, puppy classes are full of relaxed necks and no longer fearful owners.


Often, I demonstrate this with my right hand as the dog's mouth and my left moving the treat toward the dogs' mouth. (If it’s a class full of Lab pups, I only demonstrate with my hands, not an eager to gobble the treat pup….) It’s easier to see the action of the right hand lunging toward and devouring the left hand than using a demo pup. And, I like to make snarling, gulping sounds to highlight the lesson, amusing the humans and embarrassing the puppies; they want a more respectable teacher, perhaps.


If you've got an older pup, on the road to Natalie land, you may need to use a glove the first few times. Your pup wants to learn, but, the early habits of lunge for the just out of reach treat may need a day or two to learn. Once you see his neck relax and don't feel his teeth scrape your hand, ditch the glove.


Children are especially likely to unintentionally teach the dog to reach and lunge. Often, big pups frighten kids. I've seen big breed puppies in class almost at eye level with children. Encouraged by parents to "Don’t be scared" I want to ask, "Why not?" It’s a large animal who hurts the child! Of course the kid is scared.


Children quickly learn to draw their hand back as the pup reaches for the treat. Now, the problem worsens. Not only is the treat just out of reach, as the pup almost gets it, the treat is withdrawn. Pups are unintentionally trained to lunge forward faster, to grab the treat before it disappears. Kids learn to withdraw their hands faster to avoid a bite from the pup. Faster and faster, both kids and pups frustrate one another. Without intervention, children become increasingly frightened of and by their own pets.


 To save the child-pup relationship adults should first teach Room Service until the pup is reliable. When the pup gently takes the treat include the child. Ask the child to watch and see that the pup has learned new manners. Seeing a newly tamed pup take food gently goes a  long way toward helping a kid feel safe.


Now, have the child put his hand under the adult's. The puppy takes a treat from the adult's hand but the child has the direct experience that the pup is safe. When the child asks to do more, now put the child's hand on top of the adult's.


In a few tries, the child gains enough confidence to give the pup a treat himself, with the adult standing near. Confidence is built when kids are able to give a treat without the puppy biting them, not by having an adult scold them into trying and failing again, and again.


Some families opt for the "Feed him like he is a horse," with the hand held open, palm up. If this is the best you can do, do that. But, when your pup is out and about, learning about the world and meeting new people that inhabit it, most people don't know the "horse whisperer" technique. They'll want to give him a treat and the human hand is more likely to clench a treat than open the hand. Give Room Service a few more tries before you opt for the equine solution;  it saves you oodles of time and explanations as the years go on.


One client, with an Irish Setter named "Blarney" who snapped at the treats, had a solution that worked for her. It's not my favorite by a long shot, but it may be yours.


Her solution, rather than make the effort to teach Room Service, was to throw the reward on the ground. She liked that solution and Blarney did, too. However, as the class sessions went on, Blarney became increasingly pushy about demanding his corned beef. The owner started tossing the treats faster, to appease the Irish rebellion. Blarney, a young and active carouser, just moved faster. By the time these two graduated he moved like red wind and she was pitching treats like fast balls.


(Yes, I did spend time and lots of it, trying to get Blarney's owner to do it differently. No doubt by the time the Setter was a year old the owner was breaking 90 mph on the treat toss.)


Oh well. This is why many trainers rail against the use of food in training, and, in this case, I have to agree.


Once you see that your pup is reliably taking his treats gently from the tonsil-aimed hand, add a word. My clients almost always choose "Easy" or "Gently." Tradition seems to win out in this training exercise. Use whatever you want. Perhaps if Blarney's owner had used the phrase "Erin Go Braugh" the Setter would have joined forces earlier.


It would have been the luck o the Irish.


  1. Do I have to say the "Easy" word forever? Won't my dog just learn to do it himself?

  2. Yes. Once you're in the habit of giving the treat within easy range so his neck does not extend, he'll get into the habit of not grabbing at the treat. It takes two to untango.

  3. Will my puppy be nice to everyone who gives him a treat?

  4. Most likely. Only the show offs who taunt him by deliberately holding the treat out of range get snapped at. They deserve it.

  5. I live with my grandparents. They have very thin skin. My puppy is learning to take rewards gently but he still tears their skin. Can I put caps on his teeth?

  6. You get an A for imagination. No, but remember that his little glass shard teeth drop out, and, his new teeth will be duller. In the meantime, have Pops and Grams wear gloves when treating your pup and go easy on the blood thinners.

  7. My neighbor used to train guard dogs. He says I should only give treats from my left hand so no one can poison my puppy. I love my puppy and I think this is smart. What do you think?

  8. Uh, does your neighbor think all people are right handed to slip one past your pup? I don’t think your puppy is likely to be poisoned by a right, or left handed person. Pups are more likely to be poisoned by discovering and eating aspirin or acetaminophen tablets, rat poison left out in the garage or by eating the leaves of the castor bean plant left outside. Go ahead and reward with either hand but pick up the household poisons.

*I do use food rewards in my training classes. Clients like it, dogs love it and my buffalo bite rewards raise the puppy's I Q. But, if you do not want to use food to train, don't. Many a smart owner and nice pup have a lovely life together sans buffalo bites. Happy for the buffalo, sad for the pup.

Sue Myles