CINCINNATI - When you eat dinner, does your dog sit at your feet and whine, paw you, bark, or even put two paws on the table for a better look?
A dog with "bad table manners" can be frustrating, and, as anyone who shares a home with one of these companions knows, it usually is a pretty persistent set of behaviors. You may have tried pushing your dog down, yelling, or some other tactic--all to no avail.
What is going on here?
First of all, I need to point out that behavior always occurs for a reason, and that reason is to get a consequence of value to that animal. "Operant learning" occurs when a relationship is formed between the behavior an animal does and the consequence of that behavior. It’s important to understand that if a behavior (either wanted or unwanted) continues to happen, it is because something in the environment is reinforcing it.
In the case of begging behavior, there are several possible reinforcing consequences that could be coming into play: human attention and tasty food are two likely suspects.
Ignoring alone doesn’t usually end begging
You more than likely have already learned that ignoring the behavior alone more often than not does not work to solve the problem.
Let’s face it, ignoring an unwanted behavior is pretty difficult to do. That is because when you withhold an expected reinforcing consequence from an animal’s behavior, you will see an abrupt increase in the behavior--known as an extinction burst.
If you offer any kind of reinforcement for that higher intensity behavior, guess what you have just taught? That is why you may have seen your dog go from simply sitting at your side to making a slight noise to bumping you and so on.
What can you do?
For one, if you can reliably predict under what circumstances these "bad table manners" will occur, you can decrease the value of those behaviors with antecedent strategies. (Antecedents are setting events for behaviors to occur).
You can play games that require mental and physical stimulation before sitting down at the table, to tire your dog and lower the value for him of begging behaviors. You can give him a foraging toy or other chew toy that he only gets before meal time.
Another option is teaching your dog that doing something else can fulfill his needs instead.
Differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI) involves teaching your pet an acceptable behavior that cannot be done at the same time as the unwanted behavior--and giving that alternate behavior as much value to the animal (or more) as the behavior you do not want to see.
It also involves careful arrangement of the environment so as to try and avoid practice of the unwanted behavior, and, in the event that the unwanted behavior should occur, making sure you do not give value to it.
Bed versus beg
One example of an incompatible behavior you is getting your dog to lay on his bed at dinner time Here are some very simple steps to help you begin the process:
1. Teach your dog the value of laying in his bed prior to dinner time, going there on cue, and staying there for longer durations as you move away with high value reinforcement.
2. Practice teaching your dog to go to his bed when you walk to the table without food on it, then add duration. Remember: If your dog’s valued consequence is human attention and tasty food, then use this for building value for this skill. You may want to increase the value even more by adding in another high value consequence.
3. Practice this with food on your table.
4. Practice this with others sitting at the table with you.
About Lisa Desatnik
Lisa Desatnik said she used "Look at me," training to remind her dog Sam what to do for this holiday photo shoot.
Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. She is part of the leadership team for Dr. Friedman’s international companion parrot owner group teaching mini-lessons of applied behavior analysis.