How to make sure your dog is on his best behaviour around food

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Food is an important resource to most dogs, and apart from main meals and tasty training treats, there are often many edible temptations that are hard for them to resist. Tony Shelbourne reports.

Teaching food manners makes life easier at home and ensures your dog is a welcome visitor at dog-friendly cafes and in other people’s homes.

Counter surfing

When there’s something really desirable on a work surface, dogs can display great ingenuity and an amazing reach! Teach your dog that food on tables or counters is out of bounds.

1. Have some yummy treats in your treat bag and pop your dog on a lead. Place a plate with some low-value food on the floor and prevent your dog from getting to it. Mark (by saying a short, happy word like ‘YES!’) and treat your dog for looking away from the food and paying more attention to you. Don’t give a ‘Leave’ cue as you won’t always be around to reinforce it.

2. With your dog still on the lead, move the plate onto a low table so he can still see it. Start adding more appealing food to the plate, or place some on the table. Mark and treat him for not approaching it.

3. When you’re sure your dog won’t touch the food, try him off-lead; stay nearby to gently step in and prevent stealing if he shows too much interest.

Your dog can learn to settle on a mat.

Grub’s up!

Whining, barking, crying, giving you ‘the look’, pawing — don’t create a rod for your own back by slipping morsels from your plate to your dog or you’ll never get any peace and quiet to enjoy your own meals. And he won’t just pester you, but all your visitors too. Teach your dog to settle on a mat or in his bed at mealtimes — with a long-lasting treat if you find it hard to enjoy your meal while every mouthful you eat is being watched intently!

Teach your dog to ignore you while you’re preparing food or eating by asking him to go to and stay on his mat.

Food and children

Children and dogs are not a good mix around food, whether they’re babies or older; children may tease, or dogs may simply grab what they want, and will be germ as well as food sharing. Management is the key; training a settle on a mat or separating them is wise. Prevent children from wandering around with food in their hands, or encouraging the dog to scavenge by dropping food for him from the table. 

Children and dogs — not a good mix where food is concerned.

Bin diving

Scavenging comes naturally to most dogs — even the most picky feeder may not be able to resist a smelly kitchen bin or dustbin. Apart from the mess created, most of what he’ll find in there may be dangerous. Teaching him to leave bins alone may work fine while you’re around but when you aren’t on the scene, it may be too much for you to expect of him. Keep all bins (including kitchen waste caddies) out of his way, shut securely in cupboards or in a garage or shed where he cannot access them. You can also buy bins with child locks, although check reviews as some are better than others.

Bins are just too tempting for some dogs.

Multiple dogs

If you have more than one dog, feed them both at the same time, but not necessarily in the same room! Feeding in separate rooms will prevent conflicts if you have a resource guarder, and will mean that neither dog will feel pressured into bolting their food. It also means that one won’t be getting more than his fair share if there are any leftovers to clear up, as you’ll be able to pick up the bowl first. This is also important if one of your dogs has medication or a special diet. If you have no choice but to feed both in the same room, make sure there’s plenty of space between them, that you supervise at all times, and don’t allow them to swap bowls. If one finishes first, ask that dog to sit and wait.

Pick all the bowls up before giving a release cue to tell each dog he’s allowed to move around again.

Food guarding

Resource guarding is normal — I do it myself, with chips and chocolate! We can often be the cause of guarding behaviours if the dog perceives a highly valued item is about to be taken from him, such as meals, bones, or long-lasting treats. He may also protect them from other dogs, so be vigilant and prevent incidents by separating dogs into different rooms or popping them in crates if you use them. With dogs who guard their food it’s important not to get into conflict; if you took a chip off my plate we would definitely have an argument about it! Instead, seek professional advice on how to manage this behaviour as it can be complicated and dangerous to deal with yourself.

Grabbing at treats 

There are many reasons why  a dog may be unable to take a treat gently from your hand, including poor mouth/eye co-ordination, greed, impatience, arousal, or even tension in the jaw inhibiting fine motor control. Firstly, investigate why he might be grabbing and deal with any underlying causes; a trainer or behaviourist can help you with this. You can also try:

 ● Delivering the treat from an open hand.

● Dropping treats on the ground.

● Using more boring treats or small pieces of carrot or apple to encourage him to take them gently and slowly; capture the more gentle taking of the treat by adding a ‘Gently’ cue and praising him.

Start teaching the ‘Leave’ cue by asking your dog to ignore the food in your closed hand.

Progress to asking your dog to leave the food with your hand open.

The next stage of leave training is having food on the floor. Here Smooch is ignoring the carrot, a favourite treat, until she is released to take it.

Leave it!

Teaching your dog a strong ‘Leave’ cue is important if you accidentally drop a piece of food, or come across discarded food on a walk; it can even be a lifesaver.

1. Hold a treat in your closed hand but have a treat bag or pot of yummy treats close by. Wait until your dog takes his nose away from it, then immediately mark and reward from your treat bag or pot. Once he is consistently not going for the food, add in a cue of ‘Leave’.

2. Repeat until your dog is really good at this, then try the same exercise with your palm open so he can see the food. If he tries to grab it, don’t pull your hand back, just close your fingers so he can’t get it. If he doesn’t grab at the food, mark and reward from the other hand. Once showing good self-control, gradually increase the time before offering a treat. 

3. Start to lower your hand until you can place food on the floor, and use your foot to cover the food should he move towards it. 

4. Make it harder; stand further away from the  food, then progress to dropping or flicking it  across the floor. Train this in lots of places, including out on walks.