We have a 12 month old Golden Retriever who loves to steal our socks. She has on a few occasions even swallowed the sock, with no ill effects yet. We try to get the socks back but she runs around and it all turns in to a game that is no fun for us but that she loves. She will give the sock back if I have food but I dont want to reinforce this behaviour of stealing. I am running out of socks, and I dont want her to get hurt. Please give us some advice on how to deal with this.
The stealing, and even swallowing of objects is very normal behaviour for a young dog, particularly a breed such as a Golden Retriever, they were born to carry things in their mouths.
In my experience dogs will swallow objects as a way of not having to give them up. If you have chased her around while she has had a sock in her mouth, it is likely that she would have learned to swallow it to either diffuse the situation or keep possession of the sock. This kind of behaviour can be very dangerous to a dogs health and your bank balance so it must be changed.
There are a few things you can do to prevent her from stealing and swallowing these socks. The priority is to remove all socks from the floor. First, invest in a few laundry baskets and place them around the house. If you have only one laundry basket you will still find family members leaving clothes on the ground. Second, use your confinement areas, your dog should not be loose in the house unless she is supervised and until all clothes have been removed from the ground.
When she does pick something up, whatever it may be, tell her what a wonderful girl she is, make a fuss over her. The first place you should go is the fridge, get some food out and toss it to her. Keep telling her she is a good girl and toss the food further and further away from the object so that you can safely retrieve it. If she runs away from you with the object, do not chase her, keep your distance, even sit down and toss the treats to her. This is not a game of chase, it is a game of swap.
You are not alone in thinking swapping will encourage her to steal your things, but the truth is that it will not. By chasing her you have encouraged stealing because she has been reinforced while having the object in her mouth. On the other hand, if you reinforce her for spitting the object out she is being reinforced for the ‘give’. Dogs do not have a long memory when it comes to associations. She will be making the association between giving the object up and the reward, not the stealing, because the stealing actually may have occurred minutes ago.
The side benefit to motivating your dog to give an object up is that she will start to bring things to you, not take them away and swallow or destroy them. It is also wonderful if you want to teach your dog to retrieve, if she is reinforced for bringing things to you she will never be too scared to pick an object up for play. I regularly see dogs who will not retrieve because their owners have chastised them for picking things up. It is very difficult to reverse this process.
Be vigilant, calm, use your confinement areas and create a game of swap so that this behaviour does not end up harming her. All the best.