I can’t believe Thanksgiving is around the corner. It is my favorite holiday because it is the one time of year when my whole family is together.
I think it is our family dog, Sam’s, favorite holiday too – for the extra attention AND the leftovers.
There was a time when Sam was our super beggar during the Thanksgiving meal if we did not keep him away from the table. It got me thinking that there are a lot of other families who probably have skilled beggars living in their homes, especially during this meal.
First of all, remember that if a behavior is reoccurring it is doing that because the behavior serves to get your dog something of value…in this case, the most probably reinforcer is tasty food and human attention. If you can reliably predict this scenario will play out in your home, the time to begin planning for a solution is now (actually before now, but if you really work on it between now and Thanksgiving, you’ll go a long way).
Let’s put our behavior analysis hat on to see what is going on in the environment to set the occasion for that begging. The antecedent (what occurs just before the behavior to set the occasion for the behavior) is ‘guests sitting at the table with unbelievably savory food on dishes in front of them.’ The behavior is your dog bumping or scratching guests in their seats. (We’ll call this ‘begging.’) The consequence is that eventually your dog may get either attention or turkey or jackpot – BOTH!
How can we change the environment to set your dog up for success? If you know in advance that this is highly predictable behavior, one solution is using antecedent strategies to give less value to the begging. Some ideas? Satiate your dog BEFORE you sit down by feeding him in advance, redirect his attention by giving him a tasty steak bone to chew on or a foraging toy that will keep his attention for awhile, take him for a long walk or run prior to the meal to increase the value of resting behavior, have him stay in a crate (that you have previously taught him to associate it as a positive resting place) with one of those toys, or separate him from the table with a baby gate.
Another option involves positive training. Remember, this needs to be done IN ADVANCE of your Thanksgiving Day meal. Teach your dog an acceptable, alternative behavior to pawing and scratching people that will have reinforcing consequences. Remember, as his teacher, his ability to learn is dependent on your reliability (and EVERYONE in your household) to quickly reinforce the behavior you want to see – and every time he does the behavior in the beginning.
Begin by teaching the alternative behavior (like sitting or laying down) and get it reliably on cue. Once on cue you can begin teaching him to hold that behavior for longer durations before delivering reinforcement. Then, you can cue him to do the behavior before you sit down at the table and heavily reinforce it. You can teach him to sit or lay down in a bed or on a mat as an alternative. (Please click here to read tips on teaching sit/down/stay.) Gradually then you can teach him to sit or lay down with more distance from you, then adding in teaching him the duration for his stay. And then add the difficulty of higher value food on your table.
If at any time he gets up and bets, you can simply push your plates into the center of the table and turn your back. Then wait until or cue him to sit or lay down and holds that position for 5 to 10 seconds before reinforcing him for that.
Dogs are pretty smart. If ‘you’ teach him that begging only gets people to turn away and push food aside but sitting or laying down gets a nifty treat, guess which choice he’ll make?
Now, for another issue. If you have a dog who is competing with our Sam for the title, World Champion Counter-Surfer, remember, often times the feat is carried out when your back is turned. (We know this from experience.) The simplest solution is eliminating access to the reinforcement that maintains the behavior. In other words, always be cognizant of being sure that tasty food is kept far enough from the counter edge that your dog can not reach it.
Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me!