What is begging? Begging is what we call a dog’s general behavior when they bother their humans during meals or for attention/play. Why do dogs beg? Because they are not dumb and you have something they want and maybe, just maybe, you have rewarded this behavior in the past accidentally or on purpose. Remember rewarded behavior will be repeated; random high value rewards will lead to high reliability (think of slot machines) so even just an occasional small bite of human food for a begging dog will lead to an expert beggar. Okay, now that we have clarified that part, let’s talk about how to end begging behavior since most people do not want their dog begging for food or attention.
First of all, if you do not like begging, do not reward it. At all. This may lead to a small uptick in behavior for a dog who is expecting a reward similar to the way a person will press an elevator button a dozen or more times when they expect it to work before deciding to take the stairs. This is a normal part of extinction. In order to prevent this extra annoying uptick in behavior you may want to limit your dog’s ability to beg by limiting their access to you during meal time. This may mean using a crate or baby gate. This limitation will help you finish your meal in peace but you also need to train your dog if you want to prevent future begging- this means setting them up during a time when you are ready and willing to train. By training during set times when you can focus on your dog, you can set them up for success while preventing accidental rewards and eventually have a strong enough behavior to hold through an entire actual meal.
Depending on what you would prefer your dog to do during meals your training sessions may vary but here I will discuss two ways you can train your dog to behave that precludes begging. The first option is to teach your dog to go to an assigned place during meals (and other times) such as a bed or mat. You can begin this by luring your dog to a specific place and rewarding them for first touching it then lying down on it on command or you can shape this behavior.
For example, if I wanted my dog to lie on a yoga mat, I would first put a few small tasty treats on the mat and let my dog find them. As she was sniffing and investigating the mat I might put down a few more before tossing one a few feet away to reset her away from the mat. I might play this game just two or three times to really build interest in the mat. After my last treat toss off of the mat I would wait to see if my dog turns back to look at or investigate the mat expecting a treat. Here is where timing is really important- I would click or praise that curiosity and immediately feed on the mat. Now I know my dog is starting to get it and I might play a round or two of this game. Then up the ante again and begin cueing the behavior. Think of a unique cue or command like “place” or “settle” and now you will use the cue when your dog approaches the mat for a reward. You could even lure at this point if you want by taking a small treat and saying your command before luring your dog to their mat and potentially (depending on your dog’s skill level) having them sit or down immediately when they get to their spot. Remember to use a high rate of reinforcement and have a specific release command like “OK” or “free” when letting your dog off the mat. You only increase distance and duration individually and the goal would be to have an implicit down/stay when your dog gets used to going to their mat- always return to reward and return to release. Over time your dog will happily run to their assigned spot and wait for you to release them during meal times, especially if you really make it worth their while with a good tasty chew toy or other favorite item.
Another option, and one I have used to train my puppies, is to teach your dog to lie calmly at your feet during meals. I chose this method specifically because I lived in Manhattan and wanted to enjoy taking my dogs out to restaurants and cafes with me where space is limited and a calm dog is necessary. To begin this behavior you need something your dog loves that will last a while. I often use a frozen stuffed Kong© or a bully stick. Simply step on your dog’s leash so that it is only long enough to sit or lie down comfortably but not long enough to allow your dog to jump on the table or your lap. Offer them their really awesome chew item and then simply ignore them. You know your dog is safe, can get comfortable, and has something fun so try not to feel guilty or sooth your dog as what you perceive as soothing will be interpreted as praise or attention by your dog. After a few sessions your dog will figure out that it’s way more fun to chew the bully stick than try to get your attention. This method takes the least actual effort but the most patience as your dog may not like the change in plans readily, though puppies generally acclimate to this game quickly and enjoy the time at your feet with their special treat.
These two methods are not your only options and are specifically for meal-time begging. If your dog begs for play or attention in other ways you can address that behavior as well with counterproductive cues and teaching polite behaviors. Just ask how next time you stop by Perfect Pooch and we would be happy to go over some tricks and tips with you.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator