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Real-World Solutions to Dog Training Challenges: Begging

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When was the last time you enjoyed a guilt-free snack? For us dog lovers, it’s not usually the guilt over calories that gets us; it’s those sad, sweet, pleading puppy dog eyes staring longingly in our direction. 

We might interpret ‘that look’ (plus or minus varying amounts of drool!) as begging. But from a behavioral and scientific perspective, is that really what’s going on? Or is “begging” more of an observational label that we humans project?

As positive reinforcement practitioners, we know that animals offer behaviors that have a history of getting reinforced in some way. So, if in the past, we gave attention (even in the form of yelling, “Go away! Stop bothering me!”) OR we gave food, we provided reinforcement. In that case, essentially we trained our dogs to offer a behavior – and then we labeled that behavior “begging.” But, from a canine point of view, dogs are just doing what works, right? If puppy dog eyes, demand barking or pawing at the hand reaching for the chip bag has yielded success in the past, even just that one timewhen we thought it was super cute, for instance – then dogs will keep trying! They’re tenacious. Ironically, this example demonstrates just how powerful and effective positive reinforcement can be when implemented skillfully.

So then, can we use our positive reinforcement dog training skills to try to stop our dogs from begging for snacks, food scraps and/or treats? You bet! The Inquisitive Canine has some suggestions for you to chew on whether you’re a first-time pet guardian or seasoned dog guardian.    

The Basics

To help decrease the chances of a pup begging, you can do the following: 

  • Dig Deep – Guardians should do all they can to never reinforce begging. Although it’s easier said than done, resist the urge to “give in,” which can backfire. Hey, we’ve all been guilty of this at some point in our dog-guardian lives. We understand. But here’s the thing, once a dog gets reinforced for a behavior, that behavior will become stronger — so they’ll do it again. Remember, reinforcement can include giving dogs pieces of food, or even just attention, such as talking to them or shooing them away.
  • Compromise – When it comes to mealtime, it’s all about individuality and preference — it’s your family, it’s your mealtime, it’s your household. So, you should do whatever you prefer and whatever works best for the people and pets. For some folks, that means sharing mealtime with the family dog because they all enjoy it. Just be mindful of the precedents you’re setting. Try to choose a more appropriate position than by your side near the dinner table. For instance, during mealtimes, offer food rewards only when your dog is in her bed and nowhere else. Practice sitting at the dining area while reinforcing Fluffy for settling at her designated ‘place.’ You can walk over to pet, praise or give a treat, or you can toss a treat from where you’re sitting — you might need to work on your aim though! 
  • Get Creative – If you want to occupy your dog while you and your family are snacking or dining, then offering enrichment can help. 
    • Use this time to feed Fido his own meal using an enrichment food toy, such as a Kong. This way, he’s included in the family gathering but engaged in his own activity, perhaps near where people are eating, but not too close. 
    • You can also provide a chew bone, as long as your pup generally prefers to stay in one place while devouring this type of snack, as dogs should be monitored while chewing on bones.
    • Or try sending him off for a scavenger hunt to search for pre-hidden treasures away from the dining area. 
  • Prepare for Meal Preparation – For those times when it’s too chaotic; Fido is underfoot during meal prep and you just don’t have the time to train — then manage the environment to help prevent your dog from practicing behaviors you don’t want. 
    • Using a harness and short leash, you can tether your inquisitive canine safely to a large, sturdy piece of furniture. Make sure to do this in a way that is safe for all involved. Then take a few seconds from time to time to keep reinforcing the behaviors you do want (resting calmly, observing quietly, etc.). And be ready to employ a different option (see below) right away if your dog starts to become upset or stressed while tethered. We want to keep associations with the harness and leash super positive!
    • You can also use a crate, X-pen or baby gate to close off an area if you need to sequester your pup to a different location altogether. But again, make sure he or she is safe and has been previously trained to be comfortable alone in an area away from the family and isn’t exhibiting signs of stress.
    • Once again, think about enrichment like a food toy, scavenger hunt, or someone else to hang out with. 

Beyond the Basics

Especially when it comes to multiple people in the home, your inquisitive canine might learn to discriminate who is more of a snack jackpot and who isn’t. Some people drop food; some people think it’s cute when a dog works the room, showing off those adorable puppy eyes. In theory, ignoring a begging dog is a good approach, but let’s face it, it’s often too difficult for humans to do! That’s why training and rewarding a different behavior, that’s incompatible with begging, works best. 

Give your dog opportunities to earn reinforcement by teaching alternate — and useful — behaviors. After all, no matter how diligent you are when it comes to management and prevention, life with a dog means that eventually you’ll need to determine what you want your dog to do should edible items hit the ground. An important foundational skill, for a wide array of circumstances, including when food items end up on the floor is “Leave it!” (We walk you step-by-step through training this skill in a previous post.)

Sit, Stay, Down and/or Targeting a mat or bed are also behaviors that are useful. For instance, if Fido begs at the dinner table, be proactive by taking time to teach him to go lie down on his bed (and Stay there until given the Release cue). Then, when dinner time rolls around, you can cue and reward him for doing this series of behaviors- instead of begging- which ends up as a win-win for everyone! 

Here’s how pet parents can approach this sometimes-challenging skill set:

  • Teach and practice the general skill of Targeting a mat or bed (covered in detail in a previous post). 
  • Next, work on duration — the amount of time spent on the mat. Okay, so how do you tackle duration? Like anything you would like to train, it is all about motivation and practice. Let’s break it down: 
    • Give your dog a cue such as “Go to Your Place,” sending her to her designated towel, bed or mat.
    • Reinforce her once she gets there. 
    • Then, cue her again with “Stay” (or an equivalent) and continue reinforcing her with the following tips in mind: 
      • In positive reinforcement (dog) training, it is the consequence, not the asking, that drives behavior. So, deliver small pieces of kibble or treats to reinforce the Stay intermittently. At first, keep the rate of reinforcement on the higher side, approximately 10-15 pieces per minute for a few rounds. Then 5-10 pieces per minute for a few rounds. Then varying the rate and number of reinforcers. 
      • Remember, the end goal is to keep your pooch engaged in the game and motivated to Stay, rather than wander off and go investigate the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen table!
      • If Fluffy keeps jumping up and wandering away from her place, she is telling you that your reinforcement is not reinforcing enough for this level of difficulty; your timing might be too slow, and/or the motivation is just okay, and not truly that enticing in the face of distractions. Experiment with adjusting your timing and the yumminess of the motivators. 
      • Keep in mind that you shouldn’t need to maintain such a high reinforcement rate or use filet mignon forever! Initially though, you’ll want to make this training game a really fun party! The aim is to eventually make relaxing calmly on the mat, while the family sits down to eat, more fun and rewarding than begging at the table. A very tall order. 

Teach a release cue such as “All done!” or “You’re free!” 

Throughout the training process, especially when working on any new behaviors, remember to give your doggy student breaks now and again, especially before you or your pooch need one. Here are some pointers:

  • A release cue such as “All done!” or “You’re free!” lets dogs know that they’ve done a great job and now they can roam freely. 
  • Give the Release cue and wait a little while (a few minutes to a few hours) before going back to practice another round. Pacing yourself helps teacher and student avoid frustration and boredom. 
  • Specifically, when it comes to discouraging begging behavior while you’re eating, you can even use allowing your dog to ‘vacuum’ the floor after dinner as a reinforcer for staying on the bed or mat during the family’s meal. 

The Wrap-Up

Teaching and practicing fundamental skills such as Leave It, Go to Your Mat, Stay, Wait or Settle, gives your pup structure and boundaries with a pawsitive foundation. Training in this manner is a great way to enhance your bond and relationship. Plus, teaching life skills will help your dog problem-solve, learning to earn reinforcement in productive ways! You know inquisitive canines are getting more proficient in their new skills when they offer the behavior on their own, as if they’re saying, “Here I am, ready, willing, and able. Let’s work together!” Keep in mind, you’ll still want to reinforce you dog intermittently even when they’ve mastered this behavior skill set, to help maintain their proficiency! (One yummy treat at the end of the event? The opportunity to vacuum the floor?) 

So, when it comes to reducing begging behavior, go back to the basics: think about what you would like your inquisitive canine to do instead, use positive reinforcement to teach the preferred skill(s), then cue and reward desired behaviors often. As always, practice is key. Also, remember to be clear and consistent and avoid reinforcing behaviors you don’t want to see repeated. Behaviors that are reinforced are repeated. As the saying goes, it’s not always easy, but it is simple.

Thanks for being an inquisitive dog guardian! Here’s to guilt-free snacking!

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