You’ve just sat down to a romantic dinner for two when your dog appears at your feet, staring longingly at your food and begging for a handout. What’s the harm, you tell yourself. You offer him a morsel, hoping he’ll then leave you in peace. Quite the contrary. Soon he is pawing and drooling on your lap as you slip him one tidbit, then another so as to avoid creating a scene. What is the cause of this irritating behavior? How did you get such an ill-mannered pooch?
Because you’ve taught your dog that begging works!
Begging in dogs is a learned behavior. At some point dogs discover that pawing, nudging, whining, drooling, barking, or simply riveting their gaze on your plate, will usually yield a prized reward. Some people intentionally teach their dogs to “beg” on command for a food reward. But most people do so inadvertently. Food isn’t the only reward for which a dog can learn to mooch. Dogs may agitate for affection, playtime, toys, or anything else that seems worth the effort. As soon as you give in to this bad behavior, you have taught your dog that begging works.
The best way to prevent begging is to never give your dog people food or table scraps in the first place. Easier said than done. Who can resist those soulful eyes and that endearing head tilt? After all, dogs have evolved through the centuries to seduce us with their humanlike charm. And even if you’re immune, this may not be the case for dear Aunt Sally, or your two-year-old who slings Cheerios from her high chair. Sometimes giving in seems easier than just saying “No.”
To prevent bad habits, it’s important to set ground rules. Your dog should not be underfoot during meals or meal-prep time. Consider scheduling your dog’s meals at these times. But if your dog has already learned to mooch, the following should help:
- Go cold turkey. Stop giving your dog table treats immediately. Do not give in to begging. Even one small transgression can be a huge setback. Be prepared that the begging may intensify before your dog finally gets the hint.
- Put your dog on a schedule. Feed your dog during your own mealtimes, but in a separate location. This will keep him occupied. If you must share leftovers, put them in his dish along with his regular dinner.
- Restrict your dog’s access to the food-prep or dining area during mealtimes. This could be done by crating your dog or by using a scat mat. Use a Buster Cube or similar feeding toy stuffed with an appropriate treat to keep your dog occupied. If your dog approaches the table, immediately direct him away.
- Nothing in Life is Free. This all-purpose strategy is helpful in nearly all canine behavior problems. Teach your dog that he must “earn” the things he desires by being in a calm sit-stay first.
- Counterconditioning. In some cases it may help to direct your dog to perform another behavior that is incompatible with begging, such as to “go lie down,” or “fetch.”
- Punishment will not help. Yelling or giving a harsh correction when your dog mooches will just cause confusion and may lead to other behavior problems.
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