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Dealing with Dogs that Beg

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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You sit down to a juicy T-bone steak cooked to perfection. Your dog is already there, however, begging and pawing for a piece, then another, and another. Doesn't he have any dignity?

That all depends on how he was raised. Begging is one of those learned behaviors that can be considered either endearing or a nuisance behavior depending on your viewpoint and situation. If you are standing eating from a bag of chips and a friendly dog approaches, sits on his haunches, and looks up at you appealingly, you might think it's cute. Some people even train their dogs to beg in order to receive food or food-treats.

Occasional begging for food isn't the biggest behavior problem owners encounter with their dogs. In fact, as a form of communication, it may even strengthen the human-companion animal bond. However, at the other end of the spectrum are dogs that won't leave their owners alone at mealtimes, constantly nudging for a piece of the action to the point of ruining the meal.

Begging may take the form of sitting next to the diner's chair, perhaps whining, eyes riveted on the target of attention, the food. In other cases, the dog may take a more proactive role in begging. He may paw, jump on the owner's leg, or bark incessantly.

Whatever form the begging takes is testimony to what has worked for the dog in the past. And the behavior leaves no doubt in the owner's mind as to its meaning. It's not just food that can cause a dog to beg. The object of a dog's begging can be anything that he wants enough to work for. Toys and attention are other commodities that can inspire a dog to beg.

Because begging is a learned behavior, it is best not to train it in the first place, though lots of folk unwittingly do so. Some owners do not have to contend with begging at all because they have never encouraged it, condoned it, or reinforced it. The perfect example of this is the owner who refuses to feed the dog from the table ... ever ... and never feeds him human food. The dog receives his meals at the same time, in the same place, every day.

Those owners who do have a begging dog problem must have rewarded the behavior at some point, either inadvertently or intentionally. Perhaps they found that giving their dog food from the table occupies him for a while and temporarily prevents food mooching. Perhaps they find that giving their dog a piece of hot dog is easier for them than just saying "No." In both these instances, what the owners have taught their dogs is that begging works. The learning involves classical Skinnerian reinforcement of an operant behavior. Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Similarly, the begging dog's philosophy is, "It works, therefore I beg."

Some owners of begging dogs decide to try to break the cycle of begging and reinforcement, but don't have the willpower to stay the course. Instead, they occasionally cave in, reinforcing the dog's begging behavior on a random intermittent schedule. This schedule of reinforcement produces the most indelible learning of all. It ensures that the dog will continue to beg on the off chance that next time he may win.

Methods to Quash Begging

  • Have a set feeding regimen for your dog. For instance, feed him twice daily at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Feed proprietary dog food only so that there is no confusion over what is human food and what is dog food.
  • Feed your dog at the same time as you sit down to eat, so that he is fully occupied during mealtimes. Also, feed him in a separate location.

  • If necessary, crate train or tie your dog so that he is not free to roam (and beg) at mealtimes, but make sure he has something to do when confined.

  • Never give in to begging after you have indicated, "no" – not even once. Recognize begging for what it is and stand fast against repeat requests.

  • Remember that a behavior that worked in the past will initially be carried out at an even greater frequency when the expected reward is withheld. Don't worry about this exacerbation and don't let it weaken in your resolve. Your dog will eventually stop trying something that doesn't work.

  • Teach doggy Zen. Hold a food item in your closed hand. Whatever your dog does by way of begging/nudging do not open your hand. When he relaxes into calm acceptance of the fact that you are in control, by sitting patiently and stopping begging, say "take it" and open your hand. You are now training an acceptable behavior – waiting for a command (more appropriately cue) before the "goods" are produced. The message is that good manners work; bad manners don't.

  • Punishment is never appropriate. Your dog would not understand why he was being punished and would wind up confused. Punishment teaches a dog nothing except how to avoid the punisher.

    A well-behaved dog is a pleasure to have around. One that is constantly trying to push people's buttons is often viewed as a little beggar. The decision to reward or not reward should be made by the owner, not coaxed by the dog.

    If the time is not right for the game in question, the dog should be instructed to perform some other behavior that is incompatible with asking/begging, such as going to his dog bed or blanket and lying down. This will only be possible if the owner exhibits firm but fair leadership.

    Be in charge. Stay in control. As your faithful friend and follower, your dog will appreciate your lead.

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