Teach Your Dog Basic Mealtime Manners: Here's How

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Does your dog steal food from the table or jump up on you while you're eating? Are you never alone while in the kitchen? Attracted by the delicious smells, many dogs are experts at begging for food. Teaching your dog not to beg at the table or try to steal food off your plate is a great skill to practice, especially if you want to bring your dog out to eat at a restaurant, or if family will be coming over for holiday meals.

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Positive reinforcement approaches

It can be frustrating if your dog is constantly trying to sample your meal, but it's important to approach this behavior from a positive reinforcement training approach. The goal is never to punish or scold your dog, but instead to reward your dog for the behavior you do want, and to create situations at mealtime where your dog doesn't have an opportunity to rehearse the behavior you don't like.

One behavior that is especially useful to reinforce is "relax on a mat," which the SPCA of Texas breaks down in detail here. Designate a mat or towel for to be your dog's spot, and reward them anytime they go to their mat. Later, you can work up to rewarding them for "relaxed" behaviors on their mat, such as lying down, and for going to their mat during distracting times like mealtimes.

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Prevention and management

One of the best ways to stop begging is to prevent your dog from self-rewarding by giving them a chance to steal food. Avoid leaving food out on a table or counter where your dog can reach. For smaller dogs this might look like a coffee table, and for large or giant breed dogs you'll want to avoid keeping food unattended on your kitchen table or even your counter. If dogs can't sneak food from those places and self-reward, they will be less likely to keep trying.

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Don’t accidentally reinforce begging

Our dogs are always watching us and learning from the way we interact with them. This means that sometimes we accidentally teach our dogs things, or reinforce behavior that later we find frustrating - oops! One of the best ways to stop your dog begging at the table is by aiming by not ever reinforcing the behavior. If dog's begging bothers you, don't ever feed your dog from your plate while you are eating whether you're sitting at the table or on the couch. If your dog never eats from your plate your dog will figure out quickly that watching you eat is boring and go entertain themself with their toys, or even take a nap.

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Create a space for your dog

If your dog can't leave you alone while you're eating or is always underfoot in the kitchen at mealtime, you'll want to create some space from your plate and your dog. Not only will this likely decrease your frustration, but it will make mealtime less overstimulating for your dog and naturally is likely to decrease the begging behavior. A baby gate in the doorway of your kitchen or dining room is an easy way to help create some space. Keeping your dog away from the table is especially useful if you have young children who regularly drop food (accidentally or intentionally for the dog) and will make mealtime less exciting for your dog.

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Keep your dog busy

Our food smells awesome, so it makes sense your dog would be interested in it. Regardless of if your dog is under the table or behind a baby gate in the other room it's helpful to give your dog something to occupy their attention while you eat. As you are cooking, or sitting down at the table, give your dog a dog safe chew, or an interactive toy. The chew/toy will keep your dog so busy they won't even think of pestering you for treats from your plate. Over time your dog will make the association that your mealtime means something fun is coming for them to do as well.

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Be consistent

The key to shifting your dog's begging behavior is to decide what your family rules and preferences are and then be consistent with reinforcing them. Depending on your household dynamic you might not mind a fuzzy helper in the kitchen, and you might even want to share your snacks while on the couch. If you do want to share food from your plate with your dog, make sure that it's in limited quantities and that the foods you are sharing are safe for dogs to eat. The ASPCA poison control is a great resource for making sure that the foods you're eating aren't going to be toxic or harmful to your dog. Dogs thrive on consistency and clear expectations. Make sure that everyone in the family including any children in the home, or guests know the rules about mealtime. If one person is feeding the dog from their plate, and someone else isn't it sends a mixed signal to your dog and will likely increase the begging behavior that bothers you.

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