Food rules, how to get dogs to make good choices

by Jeanine Renzoni, Obe’s progress reports

Remember the scene in Disney’s movie ‘The Incredible Journey‘ where the old hermit sets the table with plates and food for the  animal travelers. His crow eats at the table. They are very hungry, they sit politely on the floor and don’t get up in the chairs to eat from the plates, then he says, well if you don’t want it and takes it away. Oh the difficulties with culture clashes.

Usually polite sitting and waiting for an invitation to eat are not the problem…but then maybe they are, depending on expectations.

This morning I set up a training room with all sorts of goodies (well if you were a dog they’d be goodies); a peanut butter stuffed kong, a smoked pig ear, some bits of cooked chicken skin, some cut up hot dogs, some dog kibble and biscuits to do some more fun training with food.

My basic construct is that whatever I offer I’d like Obe (young Doberman I’ve had for 3-weeks) to try. If I don’t offer, polite dogs don’t try to steal – trying to steal just means trying to take without doing something to earn it – my job in this case is to make it difficult to steal by covering, closing my hand, putting it in my pocket, etc.

If it’s in his dishes on the floor it’s his to eat, drink with no need to seek any permission.  If it’s anywhere else he needs to do something that’s asked, permission and then he can have it.  If offering to the dog wasn’t part of the plan the dog is to just go relax or in Obe’s case do whatever we’re doing since he doesn’t have open-house freedoms yet (he doesn’t know enough and so I’m preventing him from doing things I wouldn’t like him to learn to do while practicing the things I do want him to do under direct and constant fun supervision).

The most important thing is me knowing what my own rules are and that I follow them so it’s clear how stuff works for the dogs. They’ll go along as long as they can figure out how it’s supposed to be. There’s no benefit in thinking they have a bad attitude or in finding hidden disrespect, I mean the rules are mine and so I need to share them in a way the dog can discover and like me/want to be with me in the process.

Ya, sounds good, but add a kid, especially of the younger, dropping food everywhere variety or a family member who is lax about the plan and the plan gets a bit more tricky. OK, so now, corral the kid with the food and corral the dog away from the kid with the food because otherwise the kid with the falling food will teach the dog to eat what ever is within range (short kid/most dogs…well that’s everything). Then the result is a crying kid and dog who steals from kids. With adults, well they need to understand why the dog constantly begs for food from them and continues persistently to bother them while they eat and maybe they can be taught to follow a plan (maybe they can’t, they may mostly want the dog’s attention and just sometimes not want it).

It’s said that dogs are about the same as 2-4 year old children in their learning capabilities (‘they’ said that, I’m thinking this is apples to oranges comparison), but even so the kid ought to be able to learn what the dog needs to learn – stay at the place (for the kid it’s a table) to eat food – and be positively rewarded for that action. With adults, positive reinforcement works too, cheer on their ability to get the dog to do tricks! after the meal is over.

Back to training dogs. Here’s my set ups. First I’m hand feeding – dog (Obe) offers a behavior I like, I mark the behavior with a ‘yes’ or ‘click’ and then offer the food (dog needs to wait for it, not try to take it…my hand goes to his nose), if food drops I point and encourage a ‘find it,’ this quickly becomes a cued behavior – Obe ignores the food that drops until I point, because he wants the bigger, better option of food from my hand. If he’s grabbing or bonking my fingers with his teeth my hand just stays in place, closed and only opens for softer tries. Actually he’s been quite good about this, but often you can tell how anxious a dog is by how they’re taking the food, hard can mean anxious or that the type is food is their most favorite ever (or so worried they won’t take food at all – like at the vets).

Trades. Obe and I have done trades for things since the beginning several weeks ago (he was a 6-month-old raised surrounded by kids) he learned the joy of keep away from them. We’ve traded food for balls, toys, sticks and tugs. We’ve also traded toys for toys, sticks for balls and tugs for different kinds of tugs. Recently I added water into the mix since he seems to ignore drinking needs until he’s extremely thirsty, so if he wants the pig ear he needs to take at least a couple polite laps of water. Dogs quickly understand trades. And if they have a highly desirable thing, they trade and then you give back the highly desirable thing they will really be willing to do trades. Conversely, if you are in the habit of stealing things from them, they will be good at avoiding trades…since you are a crook.

People eating at the table. Obe is on a leash near the table while we eat and rewarded when he offers lying down (his reward is his kibble). The first exposure to this freedom and table nearness while we’re eating is fairly short, just long enough for several successes, his crate is also within 12-feet of the table, so he’s seen a lot of meals without thinking that these are an event he’s involved in.

I don’t care if dogs watch me eat, however if they get nothing for this they will quit watching…it’s not like you have to do something about it as it’s self-limiting (emphasis if they get nothing for this). Or maybe you just would like them to watch from further away, well then reward it.

Food in hands or on low tables or the floor. The same rules apply, dogs must do something to get offered the food, otherwise they don’t get any – it’s their choice. To teach this, close your hand or cover the food, when the dog pulls back to reconsider the options, mark that behavior and offer a reward. Depending what concept I’m working on, the reward may be from the desired covered item or something different entirely, that is even better based on the dog’s preferences. Obe will get an amused look on his face, he sometimes taps my hand with his nose or paw and then decides to focus on what I wanted that’s not the food item.

Another strategy – use a game as a play behavior despite food being there and as soon as the game is really committed to food can be offered as a reward. Then return to the game playing until game is truly committed to and food can then be used. If the game is not committed to, then the dog’s choice means food doesn’t get offered. In this scenario, you need to be persistent in your efforts at game playing…don’t give up too easily. Because ‘mmmm that food was good, really, really, we need to play?’

What about the plates and bowls. At first have them up with mildly interesting stuff on them (biscuits) but you have hotdogs or chicken as a reward for ignoring the plates. If successful at this level move on downward or put something tastier in them, but keep aiming for the dog to be successful and if they end up having some from the plate…oh well, just say oops and make it easier for them to be right again. If they are a confirmed counter/table stealer – which Obe is not – use a sealed plastic container or a good cover.

Usually the reason this has become a problem is the dog had too much unsupervised freedom before they knew the rules and liked the excitement of the successful grab and the upset attention they got during the getaway. Take that away and life gets calmer.

So instead show them the choices that will get them the great offered rewards – that is why Obe and I are practicing this even though he doesn’t steal food or show much attraction for garbage shopping (of course I don’t leave anything very interesting in there – that would be a set up for failure 🙂 and he doesn’t have the unsupervised time to do detective work).

Food, of course, is always interesting. We’re always interested in it. We set up the systems – make it exciting and easy to steal tasty and fun things and things will be stolen and quickly gobbled, but make it possible to get stuff through mutual cooperation, teach trading and earning rewards and that’s what you get because dogs really do want to work with us.

Obe’s on his way, but not there yet – my other dogs can be left alone in the house or in the car with foods that they would love to eat, but they leave them untouched. Obe will need more practice, he was after all experienced in random food dropping kids.


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