Sometimes when I work with a dog things crop up that I have to attend to in the moment. Bella is a well rehearsed sock and underwear thief. I can tell this is a learnt behaviour that has been accidentally reinforced by the owners.
It’s not uncommon.
Why does a dog steal a sock or anything for that matter?
- It’s all about ‘perceived value’. Dogs value many things by scent intensity. A sock holds vast amounts of your scent which makes them believe you think it is very valuable.
- They see you pay particular interest in them too when you handle them.
- Your response - when they pick one up, your response is often to shout, rush at them and prize it out of their mouth. I get that you think it may be dangerous for your dog but he sees your behaviour as ‘confrontational’ and ‘competitive’ which only serves to heighten the perceived value of the sock.
Making the issue worse
Now he thinks you really want it, just not for the same reasons you do. Now you have a dog who really wants your socks but gets smarter and starts to dodge and avoid you, bury them or worse still try to swallow them. They may even guard or growl at you, some may even snap at you.
What to do
Your response is everything. So instead of trying to get the sock off the dog, do a 180 and pay no attention to it all but better still encourage them to retrieve it. Use a second sock (which is of equivalent perceived value) to keep yours more valuable at all times and release it when your dog drops the other one. Focus intently on the sock you have rather than the one they have. By doing this you are creating more value on the one you have. They generally can’t resist and will want the one you have.
By alternating between the socks your dog will start to release them sooner. Eventually you will take control of both socks and at that point you can also involve an additional high value reward to end the game.
Teach a Leave command
Additionally it is good to teach a ‘leave’ command too and incorporate it in to the game. Teach this separately as a different exercise. But be conscious of the tone you use as if the “leave” sounds too assertive your dog will feel you are being competitive and it will negate the aim of the process.
Applying the psychology
You can apply this thinking to many items dogs steal. But at the core you must understand the perceived value of the item to be able to change how your dog thinks which only comes from a change in your own behavioural response.