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Puppy Problems: Addressing The "Keepaway Game"

Bringing home a new puppy can be so rewarding in so many ways. It’s always heartwarming and fulfilling to watch your baby dog grow into an adult, but there can also be bumps in the road through the puppy raising process. Puppies can be a bit mischievous, and playing “keepaway” with stolen items or when trying to be caught frequently become a top complaint with our new puppy clients. Your puppy seems to be having fun being chased around the house and won’t let you catch them! While these behaviors can be very frustrating for the humans involved, it’s easy to unintentionally reinforce them with your puppy and accidentally continue to make them stronger if you don’t have the right game plan in place. While the game of grabbing your favorite pair of shoes and taking off with them, or wanting to be chased when you’re trying to call them in from the backyard has fairly harmless intentions from your puppy’s point of view, this kind of behavior has the potential to become dangerous in the wrong scenarios if unaddressed. Today, let’s talk about some different ways to manage this behavior and train your puppy proper alternatives!

Utilizing Management

It is developmentally appropriate for young puppies to explore the world around them using their mouths. They often learn about new items by seeing what they smell like, what they taste like, and how the texture of the item feels when in their mouth. Add some teething discomfort into the mix, and you have a puppy who is happily chomping away at your favorite book they pulled off the lowest shelf. To ensure our puppies aren’t rehearsing the behavior of chewing on inappropriate items, we need to use management to ensure we set their environments up for successful behavior.

Puppy-proofing your home is going to be key to reducing your frustration and preventing your puppy from having as many opportunities to make a mistake and gain possession of an item you don’t want them to have. Take a look around the house: if it’s an item you don’t want the puppy to have and it lives on the floor, on low shelving, on low coffee tables, or anywhere within your puppy’s reach, it should temporarily find a new place to be stored in your home until your puppy is older and can make more appropriate decisions. This includes shoes, electronics, books, children’s toys, etc. You will find yourself chasing your puppy around the house far less when there aren’t as many temptations present for him or her to choose from!

It’s also beneficial to use management setups when you aren’t able to actively supervise your puppy’s behavior. Creating safe areas in your home to contain your puppy when you need to get some work done is a great way to ensure that they aren’t able to get into any mischief when no one is looking. Until puppies are mature adults, they need some form of active management when out and about in the house (meaning eyes on them, in the same room, keeping tabs of what they are doing or interacting with). So outside of the times that this is possible, try setting up baby gates around your home to keep them confined to one area, or utilizing ex-pen setups to give them a puppy-safe place to rest and play in when not able to be fully monitored. A couple of examples of a practical ex-pen setup for your puppy:

Some puppies take to being confined to a management setup right away, and have no trouble being confined and left to entertain themselves. However, others may be a bit confused or even stressed by being separated in a pen and need some proactive training to learn how to be calm, appropriate, and relaxed in their ex-ens through “capturing” desirable behavior and reinforcing it. Want to learn more? Check out this video.

When dealing with puppies who are playing keepaway even when they don’t have a stolen item, and are instead not wanting to be “caught,” we may take a different approach to management. Most puppies like to play keepaway in specific contexts, whether they have learned the game is really fun and reinforcing in certain scenarios, or whether they are darting away from you to avoid being caught because it predicts something they don’t like (such as coming inside from the backyard, for an example). Think about times of day in which your puppy may try to play keepaway from you when you need to catch them. During these times, I like to proactively clip a leash or a long line (preferred) to my puppy’s harness and have them drag this line around as they go about their day. Then, when I need to catch them for whatever reason, I can walk over, pick up the end of that leash or line, and now I have an attachment to my puppy to either walk them away with me, or walk up the line and pick my puppy up. Bonus points for feeding your puppy a treat after picking them up to build a positive association with this form of restraint!

Proactively Train Alternative Skills

We’ve now gotten a chance to reduce the frequency of how often our puppies are rehearsing this “keepaway game” through strategic management strategies throughout the house. But, management isn’t always forever, and it also has a tendency to fail sometimes, so we will need to work on training alternative skills that pay off really well for our puppies to teach them a new pattern of behavior.

Skill #1: Coming When Called

Teaching your puppy how to come when called is a fantastic way to reduce the keepaway game. When we teach THEM how to come into OUR space instead of the other way around, the temptation of playing a game of keepaway is drastically reduced. The key, however, is to make sure that coming when called has a very strong reinforcement history, meaning, the behavior has paid off really well for the puppy really often in the past, for it to be successful when you really need it. To build that strong reinforcement history with coming when called, you will want to work on practicing this skill often and with high value treats outside of the times that you really need it to ensure it becomes a really strong “good habit” for your puppy. High value treats vary depending on the dog’s preferences, but often include foods like cut up pieces of hot dog, string cheese, or other animal-based foods your dog loves. I often recommend that people practice this skill with their puppies in 3-5 minute daily training sessions to ensure the skill becomes very well developed. One easy way to teach your puppy to come when called is to teach them how to “target” their nose to your hand. This way, you can ask your puppy to walk or run all the way over to you and put their nose on your hand so that they are within arm’s reach and easy to reach down and “catch” if needed. Curious on how to teach your puppy a hand target? Check this video out.

Skill #2: Train A Drop It

We often try to ask our puppies to “drop it” when they have something that they shouldn’t without actually taking time to proactively teach them the skill first. When this happens, we can accidentally either teach our puppies that when they hear us start to say “drop it,” this is actually a cue to start the game of keepaway, or this may even develop further into issues with guarding stolen items and trying to growl, snap, or lunge at anyone trying to take their item away from them. How do we use “drop it” without building all of these accidental undesirable associations with the cue? Through proactive training, of course! One method of training your puppy to drop items on your verbal cue is to teach them first without an item at all! We first want to build a strong positive association with the term “drop it” without any conflict of an item to try and run off with or to guard. So, at first, we spend a few sessions simply pairing the cue with a scatter of high value treats on the floor. After this has been worked on in several 3-5 minute training sessions over several days, we can start “testing” the cue by giving the puppy a low or moderate value item, and cuing the “drop” to see what they do when they hear the word. If this cue has been conditioned properly, your puppy will happily spit out whatever is in their mouth and be anticipating a treat scatter in return! Want to see this training in action? Check this video out.

Skill #3: Teach A Collar Or Harness Touch

You’ve been working on rewarding your puppy for coming when called, but once that skill is built, it’s also important to get puppies comfortable and building positive associations with having their collars or harnesses touched for instances when you need to catch them. You get into a dangerous game when your puppy tries to dodge your reaches, especially in an emergency! When you’re at home with your puppy during a calm, quiet time of day, get your treat pouch out and sit on the floor with your puppy. Spend some time just practicing reaching for their collar, but not actually touching it. Each time you reach in their direction, mark “yes” or click your clicker, and reward. Do this over and over until you feel like your puppy is feeling fairly comfortable with being reached towards. From there, you can progress this training to briefly touching their collar or harness, and then continuing to reward. Only as they’re feeling comfortable and not dodging away from your collar touches, do you progress to lightly clutching the collar or harness for a brief moment before marking and rewarding. Practice this skill in 3-5 minute increments and always listen to your puppy- if they are avoiding you, dodging away from your hand, or crouching/cowering, this is information that you are moving too fast and need to make your criteria easier for a while before building back up.

When All Else Fails, Get Your Puppy To Chase YOU!

Even with a great management and training strategy in place to reduce the “keepaway” game, life happens and we and our puppies are not perfect. Sometimes we think our puppy is ready to progress in their training before they’re actually ready, or a management strategy fails and our puppy has fallen back into old habits again. If your puppy is dodging you with something they shouldn’t have or avoiding being caught by you in the moment, the best thing to do sounds a bit counterintuitive: run away from them! Puppies love a game of chase and sometimes the best way to get them close enough to be caught is to pull a little game of reverse psychology on them. Take off running, calling your puppy, making silly high pitched noises, and indicating through your body language that you want them to come chase you and engage in play. This usually does the trick and has them taking off after you to see where you’re going that’s so exciting! It might even benefit you to practice engaging them in a game of chase outside of the times that you really need it. This can boost your coming when called skills too! Watch this video to see an example.

When the keepaway game starts with puppies, it can be extremely frustrating to deal with in the moment if you don’t feel like you have the tools to reverse the behavior. When they have something that could potentially be dangerous, or are loose and need to be caught, this can become life threatening very quickly! Try implementing these management strategies and practice training these skills with your puppy. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you are struggling, whether your puppy doesn’t come when called or doesn’t want to relinquish a stolen item, we can help you! We operate in-person in the Atlanta, GA area or virtually anywhere in the world.


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