Anyone who has ever seen me with my dogs knows that I’m a great big sucker. I’m a bit of a foodie, and I know how much I would hate to eat the same thing every day. I’m also a big anthropomorphizer, so I project those feelings onto my grateful, spoiled dogs.
Just because I like sharing my meals with them, doesn’t mean that I allow them to eat an unhealthy diet, or bother me during dinner. Just like everyone else, I find a dog’s nose pressed against the side of my dinner plate annoying, gross, and unappetizing. I also share the dogs and the house with a husband, who is even less enamored of these habits than I am.
For that reason, we made a house rule, and trained our dogs to beg politely. Dogs aren’t born knowing how to harass people for food. They do what works, and often times, that’s the rude behavior that gets them noticed.
My dogs have learned that what works in my kitchen is laying on the floor several feet away from the table. No noises, no getting up and poking the people, just relaxing on their dog beds. When everyone is calm and relaxed, I toss them a bit of food. If I’m eating something dangerous for dogs (fatty foods, spicy stuff, onions, garlic, grapes/raisins, chocolate, etc. – ask your vet or look online for a complete list), I’ll usually pop a sweet potato in the microwave until it’s soft and use that as a reward. Crust corners from sandwiches, bits of pasta or grains without sauce, plain yogurt, tofu, squash, green beans, popcorn, the list of common people foods that aren’t bad for dogs in moderation is huge, and treating them during dinner is great bonding, and an excellent way to start working on the idea that calm behavior gets rewarded.
Generally speaking, treat foods should be less than 10% of your dog’s total daily calories. You can get away with a bit more of really healthy foods, such as plain steamed veggies or poached lean meats, but most of their diet should be dog food. Some dogs have sensitive stomachs, and may need even less than that. For smaller dogs, that means using teeny tiny pieces, or even an eye dropper or syringe to offer treats. Use some common sense and speak to your vet if you have concerns or your dog has specific diet requirements. Don’t give a Mastiff sized treat to a Yorkie!
To begin with, you’ll need a little bit of self control. Ignore your dogs until they give up, and go lay down. You shouldn’t have to tell your dog to behave, this is a behavior that should simply be expected. I stacked the deck in our favor by placing dog beds where I wanted them to lay, and tossing them a treat for laying there during non-meal times. Any behavior that is rewarded will be repeated, so the kitchen beds soon became their favorite places to lounge.
My dogs popped back up into traditional begging position the first few times I threw them treats for laying down, but very quickly they figured out that laying down=treat, and after that, training was very quick and easy. To start with, you’ll want to toss quite a few treats during a meal, so they really get the idea, but soon, they won’t need so many rewards to maintain the behavior. The hardest part is remembering to reward them! Sometimes I’ll discover that I’ve eaten my whole meal without tossing the dogs their bit. Some nights, they only get a little dog treat, but that’s okay. Variable reward schedules are actually good for training, even if you feel guilty for not giving them the people food they “earned” by laying around.
Once they had the idea that laying down during meals was a good idea, I extended the behavior to when I’m cooking. It’s dangerous and obnoxious to have a dog underfoot while you’re using a knife, stove and oven, and if I drop something dangerous, I don’t want them on site to snatch it up before I can get to it.
I don’t ever punish them for getting up during a meal, I just don’t reward them. If they decide they would rather wander around, or go bark at passers by during dinner, or even sniff at my plate, that’s fine, but they’re not getting any yummy people food. Needless to say, it takes quite a lot to get them off their butts during dinner.
I like to take the dogs out to eat with us, and getting this behavior firmly established during meals at home has been a great help when we’re eating in public. They already know what’s expected of them during meals, so it’s very easy to transfer the idea to a restaurant. It’s a little harder to ignore distractions in a busy place, but they have the foundation. Remember that you and your dog are much more likely to be welcomed if you’re polite and set yourself and your dog up for success. I choose restaurants that advertise that they welcome dogs in their outdoor seating, and because they’re polite and friendly, usually someone will bring them a bowl of water and the staff will fuss over them. Our dogs enjoy this attention, but if your dog doesn’t want strangers all over them, keep them away! This should be a fun outing with special, yummy food, not the dining equivalent to a trip to the vet.
If you’re not sure how your dog will react during a meal out, it’s best to start somewhere you can immediately leave if they start to misbehave. I started with a frozen yogurt place that had outdoor seating, and wasn’t in a busy area. I could prepay and take my food if there was a problem and there weren’t going to be other dogs or many people walking by. A bit of vanilla frozen yogurt isn’t dangerous, but it’s high in sugar, so it’s not a good “all the time” treat. Remember that calorie-free sweeteners can be dangerous for dogs, even natural ones, like stevia, so small portions are better than sugar free options. At restaurants with a bigger menu, I’ll often order a side of plain, grilled chicken for the dogs. I’m treating 210 lbs spread over three dogs, so those of you with a more reasonable number of, or sized, pooches may want to simply pack a few treats from home, or offer a bit from your own plate. The first few times, you’ll want to reward the correct behavior frequently, but once your dog has it down, you can begin to offer less rewards for restaurant eating, just like you do at home.
Dog food companies have spent millions to formulate dog food exactly to the nutritional requirements of our canine buddies, and we shouldn’t ignore that fact. However, just like people, dogs are omnivores. They enjoy variety and have many of the same preferences that we do. Table food to excess isn’t healthy but a few shared bites in moderation aren’t harmful and, in the case of veggies and lean meats, are actually healthy additions to your dog’s diet! I enjoy sharing my meals with my dogs, and by using these methods, I can do it and call it training.