I confess—a sliced hot dog is one of my “go to” foods when I need a high-value treat to get a dog’s attention. Upon hearing this, some clients will ask me not to use “people food” for training because they don’t want their dogs begging at the table.
I remind my clients dogs don’t differentiate between people food and dog food—to them, food is food! Dogs beg at the table because they have been fed from the table at some point, either intentionally or accidentally. Parents teaching their children how to eat at the table realize food often ends up on the floor, to the great joy of the family dog. Adults give in to those “puppy eyes” and sneak a treat to the dog from the table when nobody is looking. After a Thanksgiving dinner, the leftover turkey is left unsupervised and the family dog jumps on the table, grabbing the carcass while you entertain guests in another room.
Dogs counter-surf because at some point when left unsupervised, they discovered the countertop is a great source of food. How many of us have defrosted items on the counter only to discover later the food has mysteriously disappeared?
The obvious solution to begging at the table or counter-surfing is to not allow the behavior to occur in the first place. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t realize we have created a problem until it is too late.
What can you do to stop the undesirable behavior that is already in place?
Consistency is key; all family members and visitors need to agree to stop feeding the dog from the table and stop leaving food on the countertops.
Behaviorists tell us the best way to retain a behavior is by randomly reinforcing it. For example, when teaching a dog to sit, the dog is initially rewarded with a treat every time he sits. But once the dog understands the “sit” cue, the best way to keep the behavior is by randomly reinforcing it. Unfortunately, this holds true with behaviors you don’t want as well. If you want to stop begging at the table, you’ll need to go cold turkey.
When doing this, the begging behavior will probably get worse before it gets better. Since begging has worked in the past, your dog will intensify his efforts to get your attention. You may also find your dog will behave for a week or so and then try again. This common phenomenon is called an extinction burst. Be strong and don’t give in.
Management—in conjunction with consistency—is often the easiest (and quickest) way to address most undesirable behaviors. Keep your counters clear of food to prevent counter-surfing. Until your dog realizes the counters are no longer a source for food, you may need to put up a gate to prevent access to the kitchen.
If your dog begs at the table, crate your dog during mealtime or figure out another way to control access to the table by using baby gates or tethers. Try feeding your dog at the same time you are eating. Tire your dog out before your mealtime with a long walk or game of fetch.
Training: teach ‘go to your place’
“Go to your place” is a useful, simple cue to teach your dog. My husband and I use this cue to keep the dog from under our feet in the kitchen while we are preparing meals. “Go to your place” can also be used to keep your dog from begging at the table, charging the door when visitors arrive or jumping on guests.
“Go to your place” asks your dog to go to his designated place (a bed, blanket or platform such as a Kuranda bed), lie down and stay. If your dog knows the stay cue, you’ll find teaching “place” to be relatively easy.
Select a bed, mat or throw rug to be your dog’s place.
Start near the mat and lure your dog into a down on the mat. Praise your dog and give him the treat.
Repeat several times until your dog starts lying down on his own in anticipation of the treat (without much luring). Be sure to verbally praise and treat each time.
Repeat, but now start adding the cue (word) “place.”
Start adding a little distance—take one step away from the mat, point, say the cue “place” and reward.
Start experimenting with duration by having the dog stay for a second or two before rewarding with the treat. This is the same process you would go through when teaching a regular down stay; the difference is the down stay is on his “place.”
Search YouTube for “How to train a dog to go to a ‘Place’ Mat (K9-1.com)” for a visual on teaching this cue.
My husband and I initially worked together teaching our latest dog the “place” cue. While one of us cooked, the other stayed near the mat reinforcing “place.” The dog learned that walking up to the cook resulted in no food—but staying on his mat did. We no longer need two of us in the kitchen; the cook is the one who randomly reinforces the “place” cue by occasionally walking to the mat and rewarding the dog with a small piece of food while on the mat.
Doris Dressler is a CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed) with more than 20 years’ experience training service dogs and family pet dogs.