By Dr. Becker
As every dog lover knows, our canine companions come equipped with their own distinct personalities and peculiarities. It's a wonderful adventure getting to know your dog and watching his personality unfold as he matures, in the case of a puppy, or as he adapts to life in your family, in the case of an adopted adult dog.
One of the best things about being a dog parent is watching the adorable and often hilarious antics performed by our four-legged family members. As many a pet owner has been heard to say, "This stuff just never gets old!"
I'm So Excited, and I Just Can't Hide It!
For reasons known only to them, many dogs absolutely must put something in their mouths when they're excited.
I have a client whose Golden Retriever invariably grabs one of her or her husband's "outdoor shoes" at the front door every time he comes home from the dog park or an errand with his dad.
He picks up a shoe, gallops up the stairs and prances around with the thing in his mouth, his tail held high, until he's properly greeted and the excitement of his "I'm home!" routine winds down. He repeats this performance whenever his mom or dad or a guest comes through the door as well.
I also have a friend whose little 5-pound Chihuahua mix is deliriously happy when he wakes up every day. As soon as his crate is unzipped, he makes a beeline for his toy basket. He picks a small toy out of the basket and runs, hops and jumps around with it in his mouth, in some sort of ritual celebration of daybreak!
Why Dogs Put Things in Their Mouths When They're Excited
If your dog also grabs things to hold in her mouth when she's excited, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung in an interview with Vetstreet, she may be:
- Offering a gift
- Looking for attention
- Showing she's happy
"I think some dogs are so excited to see a visitor because it may represent a new person who will play with him/her, so the dog grabs a toy to try to entice the person to play, whether it is tug or throwing the object," says Dr. Sung.1
Pet parents also sometimes teach the behavior to dogs as a replacement activity for barking or jumping up on people.
According to Sung, " … [these] owners have recognized that their dogs may appear anxious or worried, but if they get the dog engaged with their toys, they appear less concerned about new visitors in the house."
Sometimes a dog is just picking up on the excitement of his owner and responding in kind. Sung says it seems retrievers are especially fond of the behavior, which makes sense since they are, after all, "retrieving" something with their mouths.
What If the Thing Your Dog Has in His Mouth Makes You Blush?
Occasionally, the "something" an excited dog grabs and parades around with is an item the owner would really prefer no one else see (use your imagination!). Obviously, it's best to make sure those things are inaccessible to your pet at all times.
However, stuff happens, so if you welcome a guest into your home and turn to see Buddy circling happily with your granny panties or your husband's Jockey shorts dangling from his mouth, head immediately for your dog treat stash. Keep your cool and quickly exchange the unmentionable for a yummy snack.
If for some reason darling Buddy is reluctant to make the trade, whatever you do, don't chase after him, as you could easily turn this into a really fun game for him, thereby dragging out the agony of your embarrassment indefinitely as he dashes through the house still holding your drawers in his mouth!
Embarrassing moments aside, most pups who grab things in their mouths when they're excited are just being their happy, adorable selves, so this isn't a behavior you need to worry about or extinguish. Just be sure not to leave anything priceless in your pet's path, and join in the fun!
Funny but Risky Canine Behaviors
Unfortunately, there are also behaviors dogs perform that, while amusing, are potentially dangerous. One of these is the large dog pastime known as counter surfing. (For the record, small dogs have been busted counter surfing as well, but always after a human has inadvertently provided them access to the counter.)
The Golden Retriever I mentioned earlier who likes to run around with a shoe in his mouth is a mouthy dog in general. He often has something in his mouth, usually one of his toys, but once in awhile it's a no-no, like a pair of dad's sock.
When he has something in his mouth he knows he shouldn't, he paces with his head down, waiting to be discovered and get some attention. One evening around dinnertime, he started with his pacing routine, and clearly had something in his mouth.
Rather than the usual contraband, his owner extracted a full stick of wrapped butter from his mouth that he'd snatched off the counter. It was the first time he'd ever counter surfed, and my client was very thankful they got the butter out of his mouth before he was able to swallow it.
This was one of those wake up calls most of us with dogs know all too well. Now everyone in my client's household has to be vigilant about not leaving food items accessible on the counter, and keeping an eye on the dog at mealtime. As dog behavior expert Mikkel Becker writes in Vetstreet:
"Every successfully stolen morsel of food increases the likelihood that your dog will continue his thieving ways in the future. In addition, the attention he receives for putting his paws up on the counter or trying to swipe a bite may itself be a reward — even if that attention is all negative.
Managing your dog's environment and channeling his energy into more acceptable behaviors can help to decrease your dog's scavenging attempts."2
Curbing a Counter Surfing Canine
It goes without saying that counter surfing can be risky for your dog. Not only might she eat something that makes her sick, she could also encounter a hot stove or a sharp knife. If your dog is a confirmed food thief, you'll need to do whatever it takes to block her access, including putting her in her crate, behind a baby gate or in a separate room at mealtime.
If necessary, you may also need to put locks on kitchen cabinets and drawers. It's important to keep in mind that many food-thieving dogs become expert at looking completely disinterested in what's happening in the kitchen or at the dinner table, when in reality they're waiting for the first opportunity to grab a snack.
In addition to denying your dog access to the kitchen and dining room, you'll also want to redirect his energy with food puzzles or recreational bones and chews. You can also train him to go to a specific spot, usually his dog bed, away from the kitchen and dining room, while meals are being prepared and eaten.
Finally, for those times when all your best efforts fail, you should train your dog to respond to the "drop it" command. For most dogs, "drop it" is easy to learn when taught the right way, which is to present your pet with a trade — the object in his mouth for the treat in your hand.