My dog nips when I give him treats

Stop a dog from nipping for treats

My foster dog Cosmo is nuts about food. He will take a flying leap into his kennel for one piece of kibble, for example.

When I get out the treats, Cosmo’s eyes bug out and he pants frantically. It’s extremely annoying.

Although it’s nice to have a treat-motivated dog for training purposes, Cosmo and I have a problem:

If I’m not careful, this dog will bite my fingers while trying to get the treat.

Cosmo’s previous owner obviously encouraged him to act excited around treats, whether it was intentional or not.

Cosmo barks for treats, although he stares at me blankly when I give the command “speak.”

He will also stand on his hind legs in order to get a treat – not so easy for an old man.

He can also catch any kind of treat in mid air – even a piece of cat food.

I need to be understanding with Cosmo, because clearly he was never given dog treats for acting calm. He was only given treats for acting out of control. He is conditioned to freak out at the sight/smell of food. It’s not his fault.

And here I am trying to teach him to sit and wait calmly to get a treat – talk about confusing!

But the main problem here is not Cosmo’s enthusiasm around food. That’s not a big deal. The problem is he will bite as he’s frantically snapping to get the treat.

This is very sad because he will not be able to be adopted to a home with children. Although I can do my best to help The Coz, I would never trust him 100 percent around kids.

Let me explain what I’m trying with Cosmo in order to hopefully get him to be nicer when taking treats. Please feel free to share any of your ideas in the comments at the end of the post.

Cosmo and I could use your help!

How to stop a dog from nipping when I give him treats

The main problem here is that Cosmo could bite someone else’s fingers when he or she tries to feed him treats.

I’m not so concerned with my own safety. I am concerned for the safety of others at adoption events, training classes and at the boarding kennel where he sometimes stays.

Cosmo’s own safety is also a factor, because it’s a very serious thing when a dog bites someone. I don’t care what the circumstances are.

Obviously the best way to avoid getting bitten is not to give the dog treats.

This is actually my “solution” most of the time. When Cosmo does get treats, I try to give him healthy, homemade dog treats.

I’m not a huge fan of using treats, anyway.

Cosmo is overweight and doesn’t need the extra calories. Plus, he’s so obsessed with treats that he has difficulty concentrating on the task at hand. He obeys commands much better when he’s not sure whether or not I have treats. If he knows I have them, he gets a bit nutty 🙂

Avoiding the use of treats is not going to solve our problem, though. He still nips when the treats do come out.

Pulling the treat away if the dog tries to snap

Quickly pulling the treat away if Cosmo gets too excited will not work.

The reason is because it makes Cosmo even more crazy about getting the treat. He wants to snap even faster in order to get the treat before I pull my hand away. This results in more carelessness on Cosmo’s part, and a higher chance of him biting my hand. It’s frustrating for us both.

Teach the dog to take the treats gently, without using his teeth.

The best solution I’ve come up with is an idea I got from Tamar Geller in her book “30 Days to a Well-Mannered Dog.” It is a positive-reinforcement technique.

This is what Geller advised:

1. Dip your fingers in something spreadable like cream cheese or peanut butter.

2. Allow the dog to lick your fingers.

3. If you feel even the slightest touch of the dog’s teeth, say “Ouch!” and move your hand away. Do not use an angry or scolding voice. Use a surprised tone as though the dog really hurt you.

4. Allow the dog to lick your fingers again. As long as the dog is gentle and using his tongue or lips, say something like “gentle” in a pleasant voice and allow him to keep licking. The second you feel the dog’s teeth, say “ouch!” again and move your hand away.

5. Repeat this several times every day. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In extreme cases, Geller suggests to simply take the food, turn and walk right out of the room. Wait a few seconds and then come back and try again. Do this several times and the dog should eventually understand that if he uses his teeth, the treats are going away. That’s no fun.

Why I think Geller’s approach will work for Cosmo:

I do not always use positive reinforcement training. I have no problem stepping in and correcting a dog. But Cosmo is a sensitive dog. He only responds well to gentle techniques. He has such a low tolerance for stress that I see no other way to help him.

If I verbally scold Cosmo, he begins to shut down. He will even lose interest in the treat and show signs of avoidance or retreat to his kennel.

I’m not 100 percent sure this technique is going to work. But I’m going to take some time to give it a try.

Positive reinforcement training takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. This is why positive reinforcement doesn’t work for a lot of dog owners.

Even if Cosmo begins to show improvement when taking treats from my hand at my house, he is still going to have issues taking treats form other people. He will also still have issues when taking treats from me in other environments like on walks, at adoption events and at training classes.

Cosmo will need to learn how to take treats nicely in all settings. Just because he will take treats nicely from my hand in our kitchen does not mean he will take treats nicely from my hand in the living room.

How to give a dog a treat without getting bitten

Another issue is that most people do not know how to safely give a treat to a strange dog.

I’m amazed at how many experienced dog owners do not know how to safely give a dog a treat. Never assume that any dog will take a treat nicely. Not all dogs have been taught how to take treats.

To safely give a dog a treat, I recommend making him sit first. The calmer the dog, the better. Talk calmly to the dog and move slowly to encourage the dog to stay calm and to also move slowly.

Make sure to hold the treat in a closed fist and to slowly lower your hand in front of the dog, below his mouth. Don’t hold your hand above the dog’s head where he will have trouble seeing the treat.

Slowly open your hand as you feel the dog’s tongue. By keeping your fingers closed, they should be safe from getting bitten. It’s also better if you use a smaller treat. If you use one of those long strips of jerky, the dog will try to snap at the end of the treat in an attempt to grab it from you. If you hold a smaller piece in your fist, the dog will not be so eager to snap at it.

Another way that usually works is to hold a small treat in the open palm of your hand in front of the dog, below his mouth. That way the dog can see and smell exactly where the treat is. Keep your fingers closed!

Let me know if you have any other suggestions for giving treats to a dog.

How to get a dog to stop barking for treats

Another problem we had was that Cosmo would bark every time he heard me get out the treats. I trained him to stop this on the first day he lived with us.

It was simple. If Cosmo barked, he did not get a treat. He could tell that I was very unhappy.

If he was quiet, I gave him treats. I might even give him three or four treats. He could tell that I was happy.

Quiet dogs receive treats. Noisy dogs do not.

Let me know if you have any tips for teaching a dog to take treats nicely.

Remember, the dog is not intentionally trying to hurt you. He’s just trying to get the treat. Dogs are dogs, and they can’t rationalize what they’re doing.

Here is Cosmo’s nutty “give me treats” face:

For more info about Cosmo, check out my post
on American Eskimo dog for adoption in Fargo.

Cosmo the American Eskimo dog up for adoption in Fargo

30 thoughts on “My dog nips when I give him treats”

  1. As always, a great post! The “ow!” if their teeth touch skin works really well, as does praise when they use a soft mouth.

    Cosmo looks like my old dog Boo.

    With any dog other than Biggie, I always give treats in an open palm, below the dog’s eye level. And they need to be sitting, butt on the ground, or lying down to get it. Holding a treat in your fingertips is almost a sure way to get nipped – I can do it with Biggie because he knows to use a soft mouth, but any other dog, even a dog I know well, gets the treat from and open palm.

    Another thing that may help with Cosmo is to praise and treat for calmness. A lot of people only pay attention to the dog when he’s being demanding; we started early on with Biggie to randomly praise with petting, verbal praise, or treats, when he was lying down and calm somewhere else and not bothering us. It’s totally counterintuitive, but eventually it got to be the sort of thing where, if he’s lying in the hall, he just gets a “good boy” and petting as we walk by. Or we’d walk by and drop a small treat on the floor next to him. Eventually he learned that being calm and not bothering us was a better way to get positive reinforcement than being a pest. Or, as our dog trainer said, “Turn your puppy into a little gambler,” by rewarding good behavior randomly when you see it, and not just paying attention to your dog when he’s being demanding.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thank you, Ona (Biggie’s Mom)!

      I definitely try to do as you suggested, to praise Cosmo when he’s just lying down and not bothering me. This works well, unless I praise him with food. That tends to get him excited again. But then I guess I should just ignore him until he’s calm again. He’s a very calm dog unless food is involved 🙂

  2. Lindsay,

    Bert had some food issues when I got him too. The first thing that I did when I got him home was tested him. I gave him a bone and then tried to take it away from him. Though he wouldn’t growl, he would give an irritated stare and try to pull away from me no matter what. We worked on this quite a bit that night and he started to realize if he just gave it to me he would get it back quicker. Now he will just give me the bone or treat if I ask.

    He also had a tendency to nip when given treats. This can be quite painful from a 100 pound pit. So we started working on that too. The technique that you are going to try should work quite well. It is similiar to what I do. I believe my way would be a bit safer though if the dog does get excited and start to bite. I take a treat and hold it in my hand so that the dog can smell it and even lick it but can’t have it. If they do try to use teeth the treat gets taken away. And if they get to excited and actually start to try and bite you can drop the treat so that they go for it instead of you hand. If they sit nicely and sniff it and just wait then they get it as long as they are gentle. My words are be nice. This works well and took Bert only a couple of trys to get it down. Now Bert, Ruby and Bruno all just sit and wait there turn no matter what order I go in. They are all very careful and gentle.

    The training needs to be taught to people too. I have a friend that was over and she asked can your dogs have treats? I said yes, and all of a sudden she is like OH MY GOD they are all snapping, they are nuts. I laughed and was like yeah right. Well she said she was serious so I went out there and gave them treats. Normal no snapping. So I had her do it again. She went to hand one of them a treat and as soon as they started to move there head in she pulled back and let go of the treat. Causing the dog to lunge and snap at the treat. I explained that this is why they are doing that. They are worried that the other dogs are going to get the treat and are trying to get it first. So I explained to her how to give the treat and showed her a couple of more times and now she hasn’t had a problem since.

    Lindsay I am actually kind of dissapointed that I didn’t get to meet you at the last adoption days. I saw you when we first came. Bert has a bit of new dog aggression that we are working on too. He had a little flare up when we first got there and by the time I got him to calm down you had left. I actually don’t know what to do for sure with him. It is only when he is on a leash or behind a fence that he displays this issue. When he is running free in my yard and a neighbor dog comes in the yard he just walks up and has no issue what so ever. But on a leash or at the dog park on the other side of the fence he is a different dog. I am just going to keep trying to familiarize him with it and maybe he will eventually calm down. Right now the only way I can get him to quit is to grab the back of his neck and push him to the ground and hold him there. I call this the alpha technique. It works well but people look at me like I am hurting him. Trust me I am not hurting him. Any ideas? Let me know.

  3. Lindsay Stordahl

    I usually don’t stay for the whole adoption days. Hopefully I will get to meet you at one of the adoption events coming up. We’ll be there this week. I remember when Bert came in last time. A few people were scared of him 🙂

    I like Patricia McConnel’s approach to leash aggression. She is the author of several books, including “Fiesty Fido” where she teaches dogs a command for “watch.” The goal is to get the dog to eventually look to you automatically when he sees another dog. Obviously this is easier said than done and takes a lot of time. First you have to work on “watch” with no distractions and lure the dog to make eye contact with a treat. Then practice outside with mild distractions and so on. Eventually practice with other dogs in sight and then while passing other dogs on walks. Use the most highly valued treats. But I realize this takes a lot of time and therefore won’t be a whole lot of help for upcoming adoption events.

    I’m sure obedience classes would be beneficial to him. That way he can learn to walk calmly around other dogs. I like Red River North Dog Obedience Club. I can’t remember if you’ve taken your dogs there before. Sometimes the classes are slow with too much talking from the instructors, but it’s still good for the dogs to learn to be calm around other dogs while on a leash.

    Is his aggression fear based? Or is it because he just wants to go greet the other dogs and he feels frustrated that he can’t get to them? As long as his issue is not fear, you can practice walking up to another dog, but do a “U-turn” the second he begins to show whatever you believe is inappropriate behavior. For me, that would mean no pulling and no staring. As long as he is “good,” you keep moving forward. If he’s “bad,” you do a U-turn, walk in that direction for a few seconds, then turn and head back towards the other dog as long as he holds it together. Eventually, if he’s calm, he gets to greet the other dog as a reward.

    And obviously just walking him as much as possible while working on all of the above should help. His social skills must be fairly good if you are comfortable bringing him to the dog park.

  4. I haven’t figured out if it is fear based or what. Kish was telling me that the dogs at the kennel picked on him. And she was so glad that he was out of there. So it could be that he is a bit scared of being ganged up on. He does a lot better in one on one situations but still thinks that he has to show dominance. If we are just walking by he doesn’t even pay attention. Only if we walk up to or another walks up to us.

    Yeah a lot of people are scared of Bert when they see him. He is big and his ears being cropped doesn’t help either. And he has the deepest meanest sounding bark. Even when he is playing he sounds like that and people freak out about it. But in all actuallity he is a big baby. He protects my kitten from Bruno if he thinks that Bruno is getting to rough. He just sits on his rear and lets my 2 year old niece hug him and pull on his ears etc. He just licks her in the face as does Ruby. I need to get a pic of that for 4 Luv. That is another thing that I do to my dogs all the time is pull on thier skin and ears and lips so that they are used to it and won’t do anything when a kid is doing it to them. 90% of the time when a kid gets bit they were doing something to deserve it. But that doesn’t matter to anyone else.
    I got bit by a lab when I was little. Probably about 4 years old. I was singing the campbell soup song and stepping on him. He growled a few times to warn me before he bit but I just kept on doing it and he tore up my leg pretty good. But I deserved it. And I can remember it as if it only happened yesterday.
    So I will continue to try different things with Bert. Till I find the one thing that works good. All dogs are different. Thats what makes them so much fun.

  5. Lindsay Stordahl

    I bet it helps when you have Bert sit in a more submissive position while meeting other dogs. Easier said than done with a 100-pound dog, though!

    I’ve been bitten before too, several times and always my own fault. I’ve never been bitten very badly though, thank goodness.

    Cosmo tenses up when I touch his feet, tail, mouth, etc. So I am also trying to get him used to these things. I will never trust Cosmo around kids, though.

    When I’m brushing him, I make sure to gently touch each of his feet and his tail and his lips and ears. He doesn’t like it one bit, but he will let me. Then he gets treats and lots of verbal praise for being a good boy. He let me pick him up yesterday and today, something I hadn’t felt confident enough to do before. So we are making progress.

    He also has issues when someone pulls on his leash or collar. I don’t use a choke or prong with him because he reacts to corrections and yelps or bites his leash. I don’t know if someone gave him harsh leash corrections or what. So every day I go up to him and gently pull on his collar with my hand to create resistance. Then I stop right away and he gets a treat.

  6. One of the things Charlie’s trainer had me do with Charlie was having a treat in one hand and another in the other (I used a clicker when we did this) I would hold out one of my hands with the treat inside it, starting with my hand completely closed and as soon as Charlie stopped trying to get the treat out of my hand I clicked and gave him the treat from the other hand. I continued this and slowly opened my hand more and more and now I can hold out my hand completely open and Charlie will sit and ignore the treat until I say he can take it from my hand.

    Not sure if this would help for this situation, but it really helped with Charlie controlling himself. If I ever drop anything bad for him, it is good to know Charlie wont rush forward and eat it before I can pick it up.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Other people have suggested a clicker for Cosmo, so this is probably something I should try with him. He definitely needs to work on his self control! He is crazy about food! And if anything drops on the floor, he’s right there taking it no matter what it is. He ate a jalapeno pepper I dropped on the floor a few weeks ago. It surprised him and made him cough for a few seconds. That was a funny sight! He didn’t learn his lesson, though!

  7. Elsie, my golden retriever, is usually very gentle, but for some reason she does like to snatch treats quickly and sometimes does unintentionally snap at my fingers. I always say, “gentle” and she has learned what that means. I like the idea of having the dog lie down. I am going to try that next time. I like the “licking the fingers” exercise, too, from Tamar Gellar. Also, your suggestions of keeping the treat in a closed fist and holding it low are good too. I think these simple ideas alone might help! Thanks!

  8. Lindsay Stordahl

    I didn’t know Elsie was naughty when she grabs treats! She may be worried that Sophie will get it before her. That’s often a problem when there are multiple dogs.

  9. The closed fist idea works very well, because the dog can not see the treat so he/she has no reason to bite. When you hold it on your palm, your fingers are dangling, and the dog can actually see/smell the treat.

    With the clicker, you could “target” the dog – teach him/her to nose your closed fist for reward, works very well at eliminating the urge to bite.

  10. This is a really great post. I’ve not had a problem with biting for treats, but I love the methods and tricks provided here by yourself and these comments.

  11. Thought of this last night – when Wyatt jumped to get a treat and got my thumb instead. LOL. He’s gentle, no actual injury, he was just in a hurry. It’s that multiple dog thing, always takes a while when there are ‘newbies’ to get everyone settled back down to sit and take treats nicely.

  12. My new girl is a treat-grabber too – I will have to try the suggestion! Now to figure out how to stop her from waking me up by jumping half up on the bed and grabbing whatever piece of skin is available (like my arm the other morning 🙁 ) I am never awake enough to say anything intelligable, and am wrapped in sheets/blankets, so can’t move out of the way too quickly. She usually just clamps on, lets go, and goes back to her sleeping spot on the other side of the bed (or she tries to pull the blanket off me, the “little” rascal!)

  13. My husband won’t hear of it (yet). Her crate is actually on my side of the bed (she is crated when we have to leave her alone), but she got “sprung” from overnight stays some time ago, as it was not considered fair to her that our other dog had the freedom of the bedroom, and she didn’t.

  14. First, Cosmo is ADORABLE!

    I occasionally dogsit a friend’s dog who is the most gentle, intelligent girl except when it comes to food. She ate my salad right off a picnic table once. Regarding treats, she snaps and gets my fingers every time. I’m afraid I’m going to loose one, so I’ve just resorted to tossing her treats. Thanks for sharing Geller’s advice. It makes a lot of sense.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I think that’s why Cosmo can catch treats so well. Since he snaps so bad, his previous owner must’ve just tossed him treats.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      OK. Worth a shot. Obviously I’m not planning on giving him treats from a spoon from here on out, but maybe it’ll help him learn not to use his teeth in general.

  15. I have a similar problem with Diesel. He is good at catching a treat, and will eat pretty much anything you toss at him (which is awesome for giving him pills!). But every now and again you go to give him a treat and he clamps down on your hand! Ouch! I usually end up smacking him on the nose, but I know its not doing any good. As far as giving him a treat off a spoon, he’s actually pretty accustomed to eating this way as he gets ice cream on special days and to keep him from getting brainfreeze we spoon it too him, lol. I like the idea of putting peanut butter on my hand, and doing the ouch thing. That might work if that old dog is up to learning a new trick. 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I have to admit I’m tempted to smack Cosmo on the nose, too. I hope the peanut butter trick helps you and Diesel.

  16. Great post, I teach my dogs how to use a gentle mouth by putting a high value food such as chicken or cheese in my closed fist. I then let the dog mouth and bite my hand but I do not open it. Only when the dog stops trying and looks away from my hand do I open it and give the food. With repetion the dog learns that the only way to get the food is to not touch my hand. For more info and tips on dog training and behavior, visit my training blog.

    1. Thanks. I need to work with Cosmo more on this. It’s very frustrating. He needs work on so many different issues, and he is treat motivated, but I get frustrated using treats when he will bite my fingers.

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