The Guild of Dog Trainers

Magazine articles

'Stealing food / scavenging'

by Colin Tennant


By Colin Tennant
Principal of the Cambridgeshire of Dog Behaviour & Training

STEALING FOOD / Scavenging

This year during my visits to private clients in London I have been receiving many complaints from dog owners who are fed up with their dogs' disgusting habits of pilfering from kitchen bins. Their words not mine. There is one lady with a Westie that snaps up any thing it finds rotting in the midday sun in Hyde Park. She is at her wit’s end as to how to prevent her dog from happily licking up every duck pooh near the Serpentine lake.

I listen endlessly to owners' frustrations concerning their pets. One man said to me, “He", a Labrador, "eats pigeon droppings and other putrid leftovers and then has the cheek to try and lick my face; how horrible." The dog is, of course, being normal and so is the man, but until owners understand the reasons why their pets act the way they do, this sort of upset and misunderstanding will continue.

In this article I will shed some light on why dogs steal food and offer methods to prevent this happening inside and outside the home. However I must first state that dogs in fact cannot steal (connotation on steal) food.

Dogs are true scavengers by nature; they wander over vast areas in the wild and any carrion is an excellent alternative to hunting for food and is easier to deal with. Wild Dogs have been so widely spread throughout the world because of their success as predators and their virtual omnivorous eating habits. To a wild dog and in the mind of many pet dogs, discarded food or animal droppings can mean the difference between life and death. Of course in one of my previous articles on dogs' senses I explained that dogs have fewer taste buds in their mouth compared to us and rotten food does not taste as bad as we perceive; moreover they don’t have to deal with the problem that it might be toxic or dangerous. Dogs are not bothered by human perceptions or imagination and we just have to accept all that.

However, allowing dogs to vacuum up waste food in the park is as unpleasant as it is dangerous since they can get severe food poisoning. So, teaching your dog to obey your obedience commands is very important as a preventative measure. Many dogs have a natural desire to gobble up cow, horse and sheep dung or, in fact, the dung of any herbivorous animal. Some go one step further and roll in the stuff just for good measure and to help mask their own smell. Herbivorous dung has many nutrients partly digested which dogs can utilise, so waste not want not is the dog's motto.

Again many dogs in the wild occasionally ingest parasitic organisms through dung and may well eventually die or become ill but that is a part of the survival process and the risk is acceptable to wild dogs. Domestic dogs do not need to take the risk as we provide their food which is nutritionally balanced. That is bad news for dogs with strong instincts to scavenge because they have to deal with their fussy owners.
Dogs of course don't actually steal food, well, not in the human sense anyway. Stealing, as many of you know, is not in the dogs vocabulary. They merely eat what they find as their wild cousins do. The fact that we disapprove is totally irrelevant to a dog, and probably quite incomprehensible. If I were a dog and learning by association I would probably learn that every time I got a tasty, rotten bit of burger my owner would freak out and try to get it for himself? otherwise why would he chase me, grab me, and then have the cheek to try and prise it out of my mouth if he didn’t want it for himself. Of course I would make a run for it and as I have two extra legs, the resulting victory is a forgone conclusion.

Food is the strongest driving force for animals in the natural world. Of course most dogs are happy to munch on what their owner provides on a regular basis and to occasionally supplement it with what they hunt (find). This is frequently provided by negligent humans who unwittingly leave Mr Kipling cakes, sandwiches, biscuits and other delights on suitable low tables which abound in the dogs territory. Wow! The dog turns another corner and dinner is served, maybe accompanied by a scream of protest as its owner sees his food being stolen. Each success reinforces the dog's need to seek further and hunting is compellingly natural.

I’m Bored

Another reason why some dogs learn to steal food is more out of boredom than from hunger. Dogs which have been left for long periods of time with little stimulation begin to entertain themselves as we would if stuck in a room for too long on our own. Their acute sense of smell encourages them to explore and the lovely aromas escaping from the kitchen pedal bin are irresistible. So the dog not only gets a food reward having tipped the bin over but also enjoys the rummaging and investigative behaviour and thereby derives pleasure. Dogs can learn good or bad habits so it is up to owners to teach what they want and in this case secure all bins indoors and outdoors as a preventative measure.

What we need to address is that dogs cannot know our rules concerning food and that they need to be taught that “No” means “No” not maybe. I personally teach puppies or adult dogs the word “No” early on and then on a lead and collar steer them around the house Using the lead I tell the dog “No” if it ventures near any food. The food is always placed in a container that allows it to be seen and smelt but if the dog makes a grab for it the container prevents the dog getting a reward. That is critical, as one food reward may be remembered for ever. I have found that few dogs stare at people who never offer food by hand, and these same dogs do not sit there salivating like dripping taps to the annoyance of owners.

My own dogs are generally obedience trained and therefore teaching them not to steal is made easier. It helps also if you don’t hand feed dogs, and the dog never sees food being taken from a plate and directly offered to him. Giving your dog a little of what you are eating as a way of saying “let's share but don’t take” is simply a clear signal to a dog that, like the lottery, there is always a chance of a reward thereby increasing the likelihood of his helping himself. I am not saying that dogs cannot be taught to only take food that is offered by command, but that dogs which already have a stealing problem need fewer grey areas of confusion and more clarity


My approach to this matter is generally one of prevention. Many people try putting mustard or some substance with a similarly unpleasant taste on food to discourage their dogs stealing. This is usually a waste of time for most dogs can smell the horrible potion and steer well clear of it after the first bite or smell. Others, incredibly, swallow the lot whole and look for seconds, but when they find untainted food they very quickly go back to their old ways. Dogs are not stupid, they may lack our developed reasoning powers but they do have a memory and learn quickly.

Prevention Advice

Dogs learn the habit of taking food either from tables or kitchen surfaces because of careless owners. As food is one of the strongest rewards for a dog, there is an instinctive desire to repeat the reward. The habit of taking food which was not meant for him quickly becomes embedded.

The best prevention is never to leave food unattended; lock every tempting morsel away. This will eliminate the reward and stop the behaviour being constantly reinforced by successful theft forays.

It is best, especially with a dog already conditioned to stealing, to set the dog up regularly so that you control the situation and are not caught off guard. Allowing the dog to dictate training times is a recipe for failure. You must be in control at all times.

Active methods - Water pistols

When or if you are caught off guard and your dog steals food in your presence you can use the following idea to discourage him. Keep a water pistol, or fairy liquid bottle filled with water, handy. As your dog is about to steal food or as he is in the act of stealing food, jet water at his face and command 'No' simultaneously. Alternatively make a large bunch of old blunt keys which can be thrown near your dog's rear. The noise of the keys clanging will put off all but hardened thieves.

All of these devices act by distracting or giving the dog an unrewarding experience. It then comes to associate taking or stealing food with an unpleasant experience.
Mikki Disc’s thrown have a similar affect. However because of their limit of distance when thrown, its best to pre-condition the dog to fear the Disc’s in the home when it try’s to take food you have deliberately placed on the floor. Once taught the sound of the disc’s being rattled in your hand, is often enough to distract or stop the dog from scavenging food outside the home. Instructions on how to use them come with the Disc’s.

Passive Training

This method is what I describe as a natural learning method and often has the most chance of teaching a dog what is a bad deal and what is a good deal in life. If you wish to dissuade your dog from stealing food when you are in another room then "set him up". Tie several tin trays together with string and secure the other end of the string to a piece of food like a tough piece of meat. Place them all on a kitchen top and when your dog grabs the meat it should pull off the trays causing the most almighty clatter. Alternatively you can use a number of empty bean cans ( No sharp edges).

Most dogs find this unpleasant and if carried out with enough variation and in different rooms, they soon learn not to take food unless it is in their bowl.

Mikki Discs is a device that works physiologically like the key method mentioned earlier. They are safe, work well, and instructions are on the pack.

Aboi Master Plus a citronella based electronic spray, also works when used with skill and preferably instruction from a dog trainer. It works at a distance of about 40 yards which is handy for most dogs which scavenge.


In extreme case where dogs constantly take food, especially from the street or park and illness is a probable outcome I use a Mikki Muzzle which means that once the dog has got used to wearing the muzzle he can roam freely but never scavenge anything found. Over time, he receives fewer and fewer rewards and one day, in conjunction with a good standard of obedience, he may learn not to eat what he finds.

The muzzle can be used in the home for the more persistent or large strong dog that is difficult to manage. Muzzles should not be left on dogs for more than two hours and preferably less.

Bitter Apple, a repugnant liquid, can be sprayed on or around bins and will dissuade some dogs from investigative behaviour.

In conclusion, if you do own a dog which gobbles up all that it shouldn’t I hope that as its determined owner you will now be fully armed with new ideas and methods which put control back into the hands of you the provider.
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