Most dog owners at least once fell for those beautiful, hungry eyes during dinner and gave a tasty morsel to their pet. I envy those for whom this seemingly innocent act went unnoticed because usually from now on we eat most of our meals in the company of our beloved dog, who does not intend to remain unnoticed. If staring with wonderful, sad eyes is not enough to force a tasty bite of „human food”, he will put his head on our knee and then start to force his portion of our (!) meal with further staring without blinking, squealing, barking, running from one member of the family to another, jumping on a chair, a table, an armchair or other available objects, which can at least a little bring his muzzle to the food or his sad eyes to the gaze of the so far unmoved owner. Our dogs can see right through us and almost always find a way to get something. Why? Because their behaviour becomes so physically or emotionally oppressive to us that we prefer to „break” to relieve ourselves. Yes, yes – to ourselves, not to our starving dog. I think each of us can sense the irony?
There are ways around extortion, and the key to success is to be more persistent than our dogs. Let’s treat the problem of begging for food ambitiously, let it be a competition where the reward for us is uninterrupted meal time as the leader. The dog, on the other hand, will gain a stable place in the pack and fix meal times which are familiar to him. It may sound strange from our perspective, but please believe that for our pet, stability is extremely important and gives a sense of security.
After this long introduction, which was necessary to put you in the right mood, let’s get down to business. The ways to remedy the problem are not complicated. Once we understand why our dog thinks that begging makes sense, refusing it should seem easier. This is in theory, in practice it can be worse, but let’s not give up without trying
Why does our dog beg for food?
The dog stands over our plate because once (!) he got something good from it. Animals tend to repeat the behaviour for which they get a reward, so our dog’s reasoning is simple:
„I stared hard at my handler during lunch and was rewarded with tasty food, so I will repeat this behaviour to get a tasty reward again. This time staring didn’t do anything – I don’t understand why, I guess I’m not trying hard enough, maybe barking will satisfy my master. It helped! This time I tried hard enough to deserve the reward from the plate.”
Surprised? That’s exactly how your dog sees it – you’re giving him the message that if he’s persistent enough, he’ll get something tasty. So what’s the conclusion? The only right decision that will break this vicious cycle is to stop giving food when your dog is begging.
Why is it impossible to break even once during unlearning?
To answer this question, we need to know two concepts that are important in the psychology of teaching. These are sporadic reinforcement and the explosion associated with extinction.
Occasional reinforcement consists of rewarding or praising intermittently to consolidate the learned behaviour. In this way, even though the dog is not rewarded every time, it still behaves appropriately because it never knows when it will be rewarded for the behaviour. In this way, the learned behaviour is firmly established.
The explosion associated with extinction involves intensifying a certain behaviour to obtain the reinforcement previously received.
How do these two concepts relate to begging? At some point, however, we decide that this dog habit does no good and we try to eliminate it. We think that if we ignore extortion long enough, our pet will finally give in and stop. This is perfectly logical and it will happen, but we did not foresee that our dog would not give up so easily and for some time, his begging would intensify. We were not prepared for this, we do not know how long it will take, the dog pushes us to the limit and finally reaches his goal by getting another tasty morsel. It seems to us that it is not so bad, admittedly we have failed, but sometimes we have not let ourselves be broken and it is quite a good solution – to give something tasty only when we no longer have the strength to resist the extortion. This is nothing more than reacting to the outburst associated with an expiration, i.e. perpetuating the unwanted behaviour. Feeding at the table once in a while or for the sake of peace because we are having a bad day is sporadic reinforcement. In this simple way, we are only making life more difficult for ourselves by perpetuating the habit in our dog’s mind. At this point, most readers are probably thinking that in this case, it’s not worth trying, because you know your dogs’ capabilities and you certainly can’t handle the sight and whining. Please remember that the reward is great and the attempts are always worth making. This whole game is not just about a meal without sad eyes and a head in your lap, it’s about a permanent place in the pack hierarchy, which gives you a sense of security and health. It may come as a surprise, but teaching your dog to beg for food can, for example, solve his problem with overweight, stomach problems or, paradoxically, the problem of inappropriate behaviour on walks (it is all about the aforementioned pack hierarchy).
What exactly to do?
Don’t feed at the table, ignore it even if it’s a fire and brimstone and our dog out of desperation has learnt to do jumping jacks and speak with a human voice. It is necessary to keep repeating in our heads that we understand what is happening now, why the dog is doing it, and why it is currently behaving worse and worse. When you understand something, it is easier to resist.
If, despite everything, you are unable to ignore the persistent begging, isolate the dog by locking it in another room or a cage (if it has been used to this before).
→ Isolate your dog before you sit down to a meal, and sometimes even while you are preparing it, in other words before any situation in which it may try its tricks
→ The place of isolation must be far enough away so that the caretaker can ignore the whimpering and all other attempts at coercion and displeasure.
If isolating the pet is too much trauma for us, ultimately for our mental health, we can reward him for being away from the eating family by giving him some kind of treat, such as a bone or a toy filled with food.
→ This method is acceptable provided that the dog is still in confinement, away from people eating (i.e. we do not give the dog a bone under the table during our meal – then he does not beg because he thinks he has already got something from our plate, and after all, we do not want to have peace, but to eliminate the undesirable behaviour).
→ If the dog is on a diet, use part of the daily ration as a treat.
We must never break the established rules – let us be aware that breaking them will cause our dog to give us even greater hell next time (it’s like with a child who once forced a desired toy or lollipop in a shop – we know how subsequent shopping trips look like, they are not pleasant either for the parents or for the child …).
For the method to be successful, all the members of the household must act together and understand why they are doing it.
→ The rules also apply to guests.
If there are small children in the house, keep the dog away from them when they are eating, unless an adult can prevent the dog from being fed.