As with many aspects of dog training, when teaching a “give” cue it’s important to consider not just the end result (does the dog drop the item from their mouth) but also the dog’s emotional state.
The reason that this is so important when teaching give is that creating a negative association with surrendering valuable items to a human is one of the things that can create a serious resource guarding problem. Resource guarding is when a dog takes action to prevent something that they find valuable being taken from them. It’s a fear-based issue that occurs when a dog is nervous about losing their valuable resource.
It’s very common for dog owners to unintentionally use intimidation to get a dog to drop something from their mouth. “Giiiiivvvee!” we say sternly, frowning firmly at the dog. If the dog doesn’t drop the item, we’ll usually reach into their mouth and pull it out. This teaches the dog that if they don’t drop something when we ask, there will be unpleasant consequences – the intimidating tone of voice and body language of our stare, or the human taking the resource away. Dogs that are taught to give in this fashion will usually do so slowly and reluctantly. If they’re far enough away from the human they’ll usually try to run away with the item, or if it’s small enough, swallow it quickly before the human can intervene.
As well as being only marginally effective in the short term, in the long term a give taught by intimidation will be creating a negative association with surrendering items to humans. The longer this continues, the more likely the dog is to try using aggression to maintain possession of the resource.
Instead, we recommend teaching a give cue using positive reinforcement – teaching the dog that voluntarily dropping a resource leads to good things for them. Because the “give” behaviour is voluntary, it doesn’t matter how far away the human is. The dog drops the item because they want to, not because the human is close enough to force them to.
In the long run, this method helps to create a positive association with surrendering objects to a human, and can help to prevent resource guarding from developing.
A good way to check if you’ve accidentally taught your dog to drop things by intimidating them is to take note of what tone of voice you use when you ask them to give up an item. A great “give” cue is said in a happy, up-beat tone of voice, with a smile on your face. If your dog will only give when you say the command sharply, or drawn out in a threatening tone, it may be worth revisiting the behaviour from the beginning and creating a happier association for your dog.
If you’d like to learn more about resource guarding in dogs, check out the "Resource Guarding" tag on our blog.
A well-taught “give” cue is best taught proactively, so that if your dog ever does pick up anything dangerous to them, you can easily get them to drop it. Your dog’s physical safety should always be your priority, so if they’ve got something poisonous and you haven’t taught give yet, don’t hesitate to get it out of their mouth. You’ll need to put in some extra work making up for the potential negative association, but we can overcome that challenge once the dog is out of danger.