The “trade game” for dogs

Thanks so much for the blog recommendations, and please keep them coming!

This morning I went looking for a good description of the “trade game,” which is a simple method to lessen food issues and object possession issues in dogs, and couldn’t find one that I was really happy with, so this is what you’re gonna get today.


“Trade” is a simple but extremely powerful way to change your dog’s mind about hands.

Why is this important? While there are a few dogs that are making dominance statements when they guard food or objects or locations, in my experience most (again, not all) snapping/growling/biting behaviors that dogs make when you try to take food or toys away from them, or when you try to move them off a couch or pick them up from their beds, are actually about fear and natural defensiveness.

In other words, a dog can be perfectly aware of its natural (submissive) position in your family and still bite you when you try to take a toy away. In fact, this seems to be even MORE common in those dogs that are excessively submissive or shy.

I see this in my own pack–Clue, who is the dominant bitch, very rarely does any kind of food guarding or resource guarding. She simply owns the food, and rarely gets into any squabbles. Ditto with locations and toys. You may therefore be tempted to think that she’s not dominant, but not so. It’s just that if she has something, nobody approaches her to take it. Clue has an extremely healthy dominance, one that rarely requires any kind of action and is basically very happy and calm.

Bronte, who is naturally much more submissive and worried about stuff and who is a major food hound, gets into many more food-related conflicts and warns off with a growl or an air-snap. She never guards locations or toys, to my knowledge; she likes to play and will sometimes fake-guard an object to encourage the others to come over and take it so they’ll all get going in a big game of chase.

Ginny, who is obsessed with objects and who sees herself as the enforcer of all rules, spends a good portion of her day gathering things and defending them from the others. This is not because she’s in charge of the others; she’s definitely the #2 in the pack and often drops even lower if friend dogs come over. Guarding, for her, is a very important behavior and she will often stop eating to guard something, or stop playing in order to run from one object to the next and guard them from the others. Ginny is very aware of her own size and she is convinced that she’s fragile; she worries quite a lot about being hurt.

Bramble, the baby, is very small (and is aware of his vulnerability) and is completely in love with food (as puppies should be). He’s a terrier/dachshund, which means that he is wired to use his teeth to communicate, and will do so much more quickly (has a lower threshold) than the other dogs.

As you can imagine, the issues I have with defensive biting are with Ginny and with Bramble, NOT with the biggest and most dominant dog. I want you to understand this so you don’t make the mistake of trying to address defensive or guard-oriented biting by dominating or punishing a dog.

Being consistently dominant/pack-leaderish around a resource-guarding dog DOES help the behavior, because it makes the dog feel more secure and safe. Secure and safe dogs are willing to give up food or beds, because they are happy and calm.

But that’s not the same as showing a guarding dog who’s boss, or (the very worst) being a weak pushover owner in most areas of your life, so the dog is rudderless, fearful, and neurotic (and therefore tries to comfort itself by gathering and guarding food or toys or resources), and then trying to alpha-roll or scruff a dog who growls at you over food. That’s an excellent way to get your face bitten–and then, tragically, most people conclude that the dog is “dominant aggressive” and either get rid of it (a phrase I hate, but is appropriate in this context) or put it down.

Instead, assume that any dog who is snapping at you over food, or over a toy, or who tenses up and growls if you try to push him off the couch, is more afraid than he is dominant. He is pretty sure that your hands are coming at him to take away a thing that is making him feel good, and in fact your hands are quite possibly going to make him feel BAD–going to bring discomfort (being pushed off the couch) or bring isolation (putting him in his crate) or bring hunger (taking away food). Those are VERY POWERFUL messages, and we should never be astonished that a dog objects to them.

So what we need to do is change his mind about what hands mean. You DO need to get your way (he should not be allowed to eat whatever he wants, or chew on a prescription bottle, or guard the couch), but you need to make giving things up to you a positive experience (notice that he is GIVING them to you) not a negative “taking” experience. This is the way dogs do it themselves–when Clue walks up to a dog who has a toy she wants, and she’s actually serious about it (as opposed to inviting them to a game of tug or chase), the dog immediately drops it and backs up. She requests a “give”; she does not ever “take.”

So–a long introduction to WHY we play this game, and why this game is a legitimate way to interact with your dog. It’s not a reward for bad behavior, even though I call it a game.

The game itself is very simple.

In one hand, you have a medium-value object like a toy or a rawhide bone. Don’t start with a super-high-value object like a raw bone or the dog’s favorite chew toy.

In the other hand you have a whole bunch of tiny treats–I like Zukes treats for this, though I cut them in fourths so they’re even tinier. Or you can use bits of cheese, tiny scraps of chicken, etc. Whatever it is should be no larger than your littlest fingernail.

For this first session, make sure the treats are a better reward than the first object. So, for example, a rawhide bone and a handful of cut-up steak.

You sit down, and show the dog the first thing. Squeak it, shake it, whatever. The dog should come over and put his mouth on it. If she’s not all that interested, go get a higher-value object, because you do want the dog to think of it as a good thing.

When the dog is happily interacting with the object or chew (keep it in your hand while she is doing this) you cheerfully say “Trade!” and bring your other hand over and shove a Tiny But Incredibly Awesome Treat in her nose.

She will, unless she’s really unusual, immediately let go of the first object and go for the TBIAT. And you pull the first object slightly back, give her the TBIAT, and say “Good girl! Yay! Goooood trade!”

And then repeat. Offer the object, let her put her mouth on it, then say “Trade!” happily and offer the TBIAT.

Most dogs “get” this very quickly. By the end of twenty repetitions they are rather vociferously spitting the first object out as soon as they hear you start the “T” sound.

And now you just repeat this, several times a day (each time should involve a handful of treats, so maybe 20 reps per session). Begin with the mid-value objects and move up to raw bones, favorite toys, pieces of leather, etc.

Once the dog is totally solid when you’re sitting and holding the object, move to trading when the dog is actually the owner of the object (when she’s lying on the floor chewing a bone, for example). Once that’s solid, move to trading for the food bowl (in other words, feed the dog, stand there, say “Trade!” and the dog should pop its head up and eagerly come over for a TBIAT).

Trade for the couch (the dog has to get off the couch to come over to you; you go sit where the dog was sitting), trade for a stick, trade trade trade.

For a few weeks, you’ll do this a LOT. Then, in the same way that you don’t necessarily ask the dog to sit a zillion times a day for its whole life, you can reduce the frequency. I probably do this with Clue once or twice a month, since she’s known it for two years and has no guarding issues. I need to be doing it with Bramble about ten or twenty times a day. I did it with Ginny a lot when she first came, not as frequently now that she rarely feels worried about hands anymore.

So go! Trade!

VERY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: “Trade” is PART of training, not the whole thing. I think it’s awesome to re-orient a dog who has hands issues, but you should also be in a training class (I will try to talk more about why this is important later) and you should also be implementing good, calm, happy pack-leader skills in the other areas of the dog’s life. And I should add that just about every dog I know who has guarding issues also has exercise issues. Guarding becomes a way to work off energy. A good two-mile run in the morning may make the “problem” disappear faster than anything else.


The first object–small squeaky.

The TBIAT: hot dog pieces

Here–chew on this!


Again, first object.


One last time


Bramble is happy. Happy, happy Bramble.


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