Lots of us will be gathering with our family on Thursday to enjoy the food, drink and company; just as many of us will have a pup begging at the table next to us. Puppies beg to get a bit of what we have on the table. It smells good, why not?

In my experience, most pups who are food motivated will start to camp near the dining room table during meals in the hope of getting a morsel from their human families. The real problem is that people drop food to the pup as he begs, which reinforces (rewards) that behavior. A rewarded behavior will increase. That is the science of learning theory. Add to that another learning theory concept called variable reinforcement and you have a very, very strong behavior that is hard to break.

Variable reinforcement means that the behavior is rewarded sometimes and sometimes not. For example, sometimes you hand your pup a piece of your toast in the morning and sometimes you keep your entire breakfast for yourself. Because your pup gets a tasty bite only some of the time, she believes that there always might be a chance that you will drop a tasty morsel to her so she keeps trying and trying and trying! This type of reinforcement is the same type that casinos use to get people to play slot machines in Las Vegas. People sit at those machines for 12 hours!

The solution is to find an incompatible behavior to teach the puppy — and of course to keep your food on your own plate! An easy to teach incompatible behavior is lying down on a bed. Follow the steps below:

  1. Put a comfy bed near the table.
  2. Put a small number of ¼ inch treats on the table in an open container.
  3. Stand about 1-2 feet from the bed, say "Go to your bed," and toss a treat onto the bed. Your pup will most likely follow the treat to the bed.
  4. When she does, ask her to lie down (you will have had to teach this in a different session). If your pup doesn’t know how to lie down, just toss the treat onto the bed to get her to stay there.
  5. Have a seat at the table.
  6. If she gets up from the bed (this is easier if the bed is close to your chair at first) just send her back in the same way as you did above. In the beginning and especially if you didn’t teach the "go to your bed" behavior before sitting at the table, your first 3-5 meals will be interrupted frequently as you send your dog back to the bed. Hang in there, you have to be consistent and send your dog back every time. Don’t forget to toss a treat to your dog each time that you send her back to the bed.
  7. Next, start to require your dog to stay on the bed for 2 seconds before tossing a treat to her. If she gets up, send her back, but wait those two seconds before she gets rewarded. Soon, she will be staying for 2 seconds all of the time. Continue to increase the amount of time that she has to stay on the bed to get the treat until you can comfortably eat your meal without any trouble.
  8. Practice this each time you sit down at the table. This should give you at least one practice session each day.

There is another reason not to let your dog beg at the table, especially on Thanksgiving. The types of foods we eat on Thanksgiving are loaded with fat and sugar. Dogs generally don’t eat those types of foods so when they suddenly get them, or they get them in large quantities, they can not only get diarrhea and vomiting, but also pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is a painful, life threatening disorder, where the pancreas becomes inflamed. Although this can be treated on an outpatient basis, it often requires hospitalization. If you bring your dog in on Thanksgiving, there will also be a hefty fee because the doctor will have to come in on a holiday. Keeping your dog’s diet limited to dog food and low fat, low salt, low sugar human foods will help keep this disorder at bay.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Lucky Dogs by Bev Sykes / via Flickr