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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

Harley Harrington

Tuesday 13th of September 2011

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.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 13th of September 2011

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.


Tuesday 16th of August 2011

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. :)

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 16th of August 2011

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


Sunday 14th of August 2011

Try giving the treat with a spoon. Dogs don't seem to like their teeth on metal.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 15th of August 2011

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.

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 14th of August 2011

Yeah. I have to admit I've been tossing Cosmo quite a few treats lately.

Kyla Duffy

Sunday 14th of August 2011

Yeah - I see your point. I guess that reinforces bad habits, but at least I don't lose any fingers!