It started when she was just three months old – grabbing, grabbing, grabbing at everything! But the real trouble starts when they begin to crawl, and they start grabbing all sorts of illicit items. Suddenly we were snatching away lego pieces, used kleenex, empty pop cans and so on. It doesn’t help that we have a five year old, also known as an Entropy Generator.
Babies really are like puppies. They get into everything, and everything goes in their mouths.
Of course, as soon as you try to take something away, the baby starts to scream. This is where resource guarding starts. She wants to play with something, and she learns that if she lets go of it, it will be snatched away. So she holds on even tighter.
This does not exactly set her up for a lifetime of sharing and generosity. Empathy and altruism will come later, but in the mean time, we have an active baby who screams if you take something away.
What do you do?
The Puppy Way
Resource Guarding is a serious issue when it comes to dog training. Dogs who resource guard will growl or even bite someone who comes near their precious food/toy/bone/bed. It is dangerous and generally a bad idea, so you start working on prevention right from puppy hood with Object Exchanges.
How Object Exchanges Work
Your dog needs to learn that if he lets you take something from him, he will get something in return. By exchanging treats or other toys in return for whatever your dog has in his mouth, you set up a fair exchange instead of simply stealing whatever your dog happens to be enjoying right now.
You wouldn’t voluntarily hand your favourite book or the keys to your car to a thief. But you would give them to a good friend who you feel sure will pay you back or give back the book/car when he is done with it.
If your puppy has something that shouldn’t be held/chewed by a dog, you need to get it away. But if you try to tug it out of the puppy’s mouth or chase the puppy, then that actually teaches Rover to guard forbidden objects even more closely.
After all, if they let go they lose that delicious shoe/sock/rat poison, but if they run away then they enjoy a fun game of tag, and if they hold on tight, they get a fun game of tug. This is a no brainer! Hold on to that sock as if it were your most prized possession!
Instead, you say, “Oh, look what you’ve got, can I see that?” and encourage puppy to bring it to you. This sets the puppy up for a lifetime of retrieving, and retrieving is NOT a behaviour problem. A dog who picks up loose socks and brings them to you is helpful, but a dog who steals socks is a problem.
If you coax the dog and get really excited about what he is holding, he will often bring it right up to you. That’s when you offer either a delicious treat or another toy.
The puppy’s jaws will loosen as he is struck by indecision – should he hold on to the sock, or take that yummy treat? Whisk the forbidden object away, give the treat and/or alternative toy, and throw a big fun party.
What the dog will remember is that bringing you the sock led to treats and fun play time, and he will be more likely to give up another sock in the future.
You also need to ask your puppy to give up his own toys/food, since this is often where resource guarding gets the most intense. It’s the whole “MINE!!” attitude.
So, when puppy has a lovely bone to chew or a great squeaky toy, do the same thing as above – say “ooh, look what YOU’VE got, wow! Bring it here!” and then offer a treat or another toy, wait for jaws to loosen, and whisk it away.
Give the treat and/or have play time with the other toy, and then (HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT PART) give the original toy back!
This sets up a win-win situation for your dog – he knows that if you take his bone or ball, it’s only temporary. Really, you’re just holding it for him while he eats his treat. then he’ll get it back. Nothing to worry about.
The Baby Way
It’s easy enough to transfer this process over to a baby or toddler. What you want to teach your tot is that handing things to people is GOOD. It’s much better to have your child voluntarily offer you whatever she is holding with a smile, rather than chase her down and pry it from her tightly clutched fist while she screams blue murder.
How To Do Object Exchanges With A Baby
Babies are usually ready for object exchanges at 8-9 months of age, once they have figured out how to open their fists voluntarily.
When your baby snatches your glasses off of your face, or gets her hands on a fountain pen, you say “Oops! Nope, not for babies! Give it to me, honey, thank you!” and hold out your hand.
Give your baby a chance to hand it over.
If she doesn’t, pry it away obviously, for safety reasons. Then hand over something else, preferably something novel or rare or exciting. Not the toy she has already played with for half an hour, but maybe your car keys, or some other interesting but relatively harmless object.
Then make a big fuss over the baby “giving” you the forbidden object. “Thank you, honey! Look, have some keys! Ooh, they jangle! Fun!”
This is the most important part. It is so great to have a baby who voluntarily gives up toys, especially if you have an older sibling who always wants whatever the baby happens to be holding.
Start by holding out your hand and saying, “oh, a rattle, can I see?” and wait for baby to hand it off. The baby may hold it out for you to see, but resist allowing you to take it. Don’t pry it away! Just accept that that toy is too high value, and start with something more boring.
Once your baby hands you something, say, “oh, thank you!” and pretend to play with it for a second or two, then immediately hand it back. Babies quickly catch onto this game and start handing it to you, then reaching for it again.
Once baby has the back-and-forth game nailed, you can add another toy to the mix. Take the offered toy, thank the baby, and then offer a different toy in exchange. When baby hands you Toy B, give back Toy A. When baby hands you Toy A, hand back Toy B.
This is especially helpful when there is an older sibling. Our five year old knows that his sister will often give her whatever she has if he has something else to give in exchange.
It can also turn into a complicated passing game involving multiple family members where everyone just keeps passing different toys back and forth to each other.
Our own baby is 11 months now, and she has pretty much mastered the Object Exchange game. Sometimes she even offers us her special lovey, a stuffed lamb that she sleeps with.
Usually the first time she offers it she changes her mind and we let her hold on to it. Then she tries again and actually lets go. We make a fuss, cuddle the lovey briefly, and hand it right back, and she and her lovey have a joyful reunion that usually involves several seconds of intense making out. Then she offers it to us again.
We did this same game with our son when he was small, and by the time he went to daycare he was very good about letting other kids play with his toys, or, as they called it at daycare, “sharing”.