Mike's Q&A

An interactive question and answer forum with expert dog trainer Michael Wombacher for all of your most pressing dog behavior and dog training-related questions.

Picnic Raider

Okay, here's my first question for the Q&A section, this one from a former client: 

Q: Hey Mike! Long time no see :) Pollock has become quite the picnic raider in recent months. When off leash at the dog park, how do we keep him from running off to steal someone's burrito? He's been "rewarded" with stolen food every time. When I finally catch him, I don't even have to punish him, he instantly goes down himself - like he knows he did something wrong. What can I do?

A: You're absolutely right that your dog is being powerfully rewarded for this behavior and that all your "after the fact" efforts are fruitless. And yes, when you get him he knows you're mad, but the payoff will always seem to have been worth it to him.

With issues like this you have to be more pro-active, which means teaching your dog bullet proof "off" and "come" commands. That way, when you see him about to head off toward what will soon become the scene of the crime, you can quickly recall him.

There's a lot to this, but to start simply, put him on a long training lead or Flexi-Lead (retractable leash), have a pocket full of killer treats, and bring him to a tempting area. When you see him heading off periodically, especially if he's fixated on something, tell him "off", then call him to "come." If he doesn't respond, give him enough of a nudge on the lead to get his attention, show the treat if necessary once he's looking at you, and praise like crazy as he's heading toward you. When he gets to you, deliver the treat, let him go again quickly and repeat. 

As he gets used to this pattern try bringing him into increasingly challenging situations and repeat. Once he's pretty good with all this try letting him drag a 10' or 20' training lead around and keep practicing. He should be okay at this point but the lead is nice in case he blows you off by allowing you to step on it and stop him short. Keep working to increase levels of distraction until you feel like you can take him to the dreaded picnic zone. In the super highly charged distraction zone be sure that at least for the first few times you have your hands on the leash so you can respond quickly. Only give him more freedom as he demonstrates increasing reliability. Eventually, after some weeks of practice, you should be in a pretty good position with him and be able to trust him again. Good luck, and feel free to follow up on this Q&A.