Help! My dog snaps treats out of my hand like an alligator!

One of my pit bull’s nicknames is Jaws because he has a huge gray and white head, big teeth and what we call a “hard mouth”, which means when he is excited or anxious, he nearly takes your fingers off when you go to hand him a food reward. The key to training him without becoming Captain Hook has been teaching him to gently take treats and develop a “soft mouth” with the cue “Easy.

Start when your dog is tired and settled, and when he is not expecting food. Have a handful of very low value treats, maybe pieces of his regular food or something like chopped carrots or plain popcorn. We don’t want to use anything crumbly, because fallen bits of food might accidentally reward him for hard mouth instead of soft.  Calmly walk over to your dozing dog and move your hand with the treat toward his mouth. The food should be held firmly in your fingertips, with just enough accessible for your dog’s nose or tongue to touch. If he sniffs or licks gently at the piece of food, release the treat to him. If he snaps at it, paws your hand or gets up and lunges toward you, take the food away. Wait until he has settled back down and forgotten about the treat. This could take a while! Repeat the process as many times as it takes to get a softer mouth.

Once the dog is taking this low value treat calmly and softly, ramp it up with better food like cheese or hot dog bits. He’s going to smell you preparing these items, so get them ready ahead of time. When he is able to take these kinds of treats softly, it’s time to add the verbal cue. As you present the treat, tell him “Easy”.  If he snatches at it, pull it away and use a no-reward marker such as “Too bad!” to let him know he isn’t getting any of the good stuff.

If you use a clicker for training or a marker word such as “Yes!” or “Good!”, you will want to incorporate that into your training at this point so even though that sound means treats are coming, the dog learns that even if he is excited by the sound he has to take his reward softly.

While you are training a soft mouth, and you still need to reward the dog for other behaviors, either feed him with a flat palm under his chin like a pony, or drop the food on the ground. Training “Easy” should be separate from teaching other behaviors.

Any training that helps a dog with impulse control is going to benefit you in the long run. Make sure to proof the behavior by practicing in different environments and when the dog is at different levels of excitement.