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Does your dog steal food from the table, from people's hands, or rummages through the rubbish bin when no one is looking? In this post we explain the reasons why they may steal and we give you practical solutions to help solve the problem.

Does your dog steal food from the table or out of people’s hands, or do they try to scavenge through the rubbish when nobody’s looking? This post will explain the reasons behind this behaviour and offer practical solutions to solve the problem. We will also advise you how many times a day a dog should eat.

Why do dogs steal food? Some dogs are especially motivated by food. There can be several reasons for this preference for eating:

  • Past experiences linked to food deprivation: this is the case for some dogs that have previously been mistreated and/or abandoned. The fact that they have not had access to food during a certain period of their life, or have had very limited access to it, can lead to abnormal behaviour towards food. Dogs don’t just steal food because they have experienced hunger at some time in their life. There are many other reasons, which have nothing to do with food deprivation.
  • Genetically predisposed breeds: some breeds such as Beagles, Golden Retrievers and Labradors are renowned for being gluttons. Actually, there is a genetic tendency in some breeds to display a particular weakness for food. The advantage to having a gluttonous dog is that it will also be very easy to train them using edible treats.
  • Lack of an established food routine: another possible reason for a dog stealing food is the lack of a predictable feeding schedule. A dog will sometimes steal food because irresponsible owners are inconsistent with the times of day when food is offered, and they do not keep to a regular schedule for feeding their dog. This can trigger anxiety in dogs, as they have no way of knowing when or if they will be able to eat, and so they steal food when they have the opportunity, in response to that uncertainty.
  • History of positive reinforcement: some dogs steal food simply because they tried it once and got a tasty reward. As we know, behaviour that is rewarded tends to be repeated and perpetuated. So, the more times a dog steals food, the higher the chance that the behaviour increases over time. That’s why it’s so important to nip this problem in the bud early.
  • Boredom: some dogs scavenge through the rubbish when they are left home alone due to a lack of environmental stimulation. So if there’s nothing better to do, rubbish can be a good distraction.
  • Stress or anxiety: just like people, some dogs eat in response to situations of stress or anxiety. In these cases, the problem has little to do with appetite, but rather poor emotional management of certain situations in which the animal feels uncomfortable.

As we have seen, dogs may steal food for a number of reasons. It’s important to analyse which of these applies to your dog to work out the best course of action.

How to stop a dog stealing food

When a dog steals food, that is a problem:

  • For the dog: because the dog may eat something it shouldn’t and get ill. Obesity in dogs is a common consequence of overeating, so it’s important to monitor the amount that they eat
  • For the owner: because it can lead to an awkward situation where your dog scares or bothers someone.

Practical solutions

Here are some practical tips to correct this problematic behaviour:

  1. Train your dog to have self-control: Some dogs are very impulsive and show no self-control when confronted with things that they like (they rush at them) or don’t like (they bite, run away, etc.). A well-balanced dog is capable of showing self-control in any everyday situation. Self-control is a skill that should be taught from puppyhood. That’s why “impulse control exercises” are a big part of what professional trainers do.
  2. Maintain stable and predictable feeding schedules: In order to reduce the motivation to steal food, it’s important that your dog knows that they will always get food every day, and never have to go without. If your dog knows that this most basic of their needs is covered, it will reduce their anxiety about it. That’s why it’s important to stick to relatively regular mealtimes, and not to skip them. Imagine giving a child lunch some days but not others, without telling them when they’ll be able to eat and when they won’t. They might steal another child’s sandwich for fear of being left hungry.
  3. Feed the dog before the humans: Some people believe that dogs should always eat after their owners, to reinforce the hierarchy within the family. However, there is no basis for this, as we do not compete for food with our dogs, and they know that. In fact, we are the ones who provide them with food. If your dog steals food, the best thing you can do is to make sure that they are not hungry when you sit down to eat. That will reduce their motivation to scavenge. If they’re satisfied, they will have no need to steal food.
  4. Do not leave rubbish within reach of your dog: Some dogs will scavenge through rubbish bins as soon as they are left home alone. As we have seen, most of the time the motivation will not be hunger, but rather boredom, or the simple satisfaction of finding a tasty morsel in a bin full of rubbish. In actual fact, in order to solve the problem all you need to do is make sure that your dog does not have access to the rubbish bags.

To that end:

  • Remember to always take the rubbish out when you leave the house, so that the bin does not fill up.
  • Use a child lock (widely available from hardware shops) to stop the dog opening the cupboard where the rubbish is kept.

How many times a day should a dog eat?

This will depend on their age, breed and individual needs, which is why the owner must be the one to make that decision, in conjunction with the vet’s assessment. What is important in some cases is to maintain more or less regular mealtimes. This is especially advisable for dogs who have anxiety around food. You should also divide the daily portion of food into at least two meals. This will help to avoid the much-feared canine gastric dilation. This problem is especially common amongst larger breeds of dog.

We hope that these practical tips can help you if you have a dog that steals food. In any case, remember that the best thing to do is contact a dog trainer, who can analyse your dog’s particular case and advise you further.

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