My 5-year-old Lab is very gentle except when it comes to food. I'm afraid to hand her treats because she snaps so hard at them — it's like "Jaws." How can I train her to have a softer mouth?
The behavior is so much like "Jaws" (as you put it) that trainers commonly refer to it as being "sharky." Fortunately, the problem can be solved easily, as long as you are consistent.
First, remember that every time you give her a treat, you're rewarding what she's doing at that moment. That means each time she gets sharky and gets the treat, you're teaching her that's the right thing to do. That's certainly not what you intend. So how do we fix that?
Get two treats and hold one tightly in the palm of your hand. Offer that hand to your pup. She may gnaw, slobber, even paw at your hand, but don't give in. Those aren't behaviors that deserve a treat. (I hope it goes without saying that this should only be practiced by adults, not children.) As soon as she backs away — the very instant she is no longer doing any of those things — say "Yes!" cheerfully and then offer her the treat from your other hand. You can drop it on the floor if you need to, or you can sort of palm the treat, tucked between your palm and thumb so no nippable parts are sticking out. Resist the urge to yank your fingers away to safety: There is little that dogs like more than something to chase.
Repeat this until she's no longer sharky, then switch hands, and eventually try it with new people. She'll soon learn that manners, not sharkiness, earn treats.
This week's expert is Amie Glasgow, head trainer and behavior consultant, Maryland SPCA. Send your questions to email@example.com.