This simple training technique is for friendly but greedy dogs that snatch and grab at food very rudely and even nip your fingers by mistake. Because this exercise depends on shaping, and on accurate timing, you will need a ‘reward marker’. Do check out the use of reward markers in dog training before you begin.
I strongly recommend you use a clicker as your reward marker for this exercise, it is very difficult to mark as precisely with your voice. You will need to charge your clicker first if you have not clicker trained with this dog before.
When you reward the dog for following your ‘mark’ you can do so by dropping a treat from the other hand, or by opening your closed fist and letting the dog take the treat. I recommend that you start with the former and switch to the latter when the dog has learned a little self-control. Let’s see how that works in practice.
Step one: the closed fist
In this first step let your dog see you put a tiny treat in your hand and close your fist around it. Now stretch out your arm and put your closed fist in front of the dog’s nose. Have your clicker ready in your other hand. Don’t open your fist.
Most dogs will now begin to lick and poke at your fist repeatedly, some dogs will paw at your fist too. You must watch the dog like a hawk and be ready with your marker. At some point, in frustration, the dog will fleetingly stop all this activity and pull away fractionally from your hand. Now is your chance. MARK this moment by pressing the clicker, and then drop a treat onto the floor with your clicker hand.
Repeat several times until the dog is beginning to get the idea that he only gets a treat when he leaves his fist alone. Before very long the dog will lean away from your fist and wait for your click.
Step two: increasing the pause
In this step, we take that fleeting pause and build on it. So you will be marking and rewarding only the slightly longer pauses and will start to ignore any pause less than a couple of seconds. Put your fist out, and count one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, then ‘click’ and treat. Only C&T if the dog remains patient, do not C&T if the dog moves back at your hand again. Build up to about five seconds.
Step three: opening your fist
Once your dog is able to wait patiently for several seconds in front of your closed fist, you can begin to open the fist. But not all at once. To begin with, just uncurl your fingers a fraction and then tighten them again. Only C&T if the dog remains patient, if you move towards your fist as you uncurl your fingers, make a smaller finger movement next time. Don’t give the dog the treat in your fist yet. Unwrap your fingers then wrap them back around the food before you C&T and feed the dog by dropping food from your other hand. Build up gradually until you are able to uncurl your fingers and hold your open palm in front of the dog.
Step four: feeding from the palm
On the next repetition of the exercise, instead of curling your fingers back around the food, leave your hand open, click with your clicker and push the palm of your hand up to the dog’s mouth immediately and let him eat the treat from the palm of your hand.
But we don’t want him to think this means next time he can go back to grabbing the food, or that every time food is in front of him he can take it, so for the next few repetitions go back to step three, wrapping the food back up in your fist and feeding the dog from the other hand. Then begin to alternate steps three and four. Each time you feed the dog from the palm of your hand you can now add the cue ‘take it’. Soon you will be able to cue the dog to take the food without moving your hand towards his mouth, but simply by saying ‘take it. Should the dog attempt to take the food before you give the cue word, just wrap your fingers back around the food again.
Step five: feeding from the fingers
Your dog now knows he cannot have the treat unless you say ‘take it’. Now you can try offering him the treat from between your finger and thumb. If the dog tries to take it before you give the cue, pop the food back inside your closed fist again.
Spend a day or two at each step, and ‘take it’ wrap your fist back around the treat. If your dog is struggling at any of these steps, just go back to the previous one for a while and practice a little more.
Did you find this technique helpful? If so, or if you have any questions, drop your comments in the box below.