Stop Begging! How to create a dinner routine

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of building routines and how they can be used to make your life, as a dog guardian, so much easier (this post).

Like I mention in the other blog entry, dinner routines are something I that I think is important (for me personally) and teaching dogs “not to beg at the dinner table” is something I’m frequently asked about by students. Even when I bring foster dogs into the house, I immediately start working on a dinner time routine with them.

Now, I don’t really TRAIN anything with the routine when I’m working it with a puppy or a new foster. But one could ABSOLUTELY use a mat/place behavior to teach a dinner routine. You either need to have a dog who already knows the mat behavior or take the time to teach the foundation of mat behavior. If your dog already has a long duration mat behavior with some distraction, you can start by increasing the distractions by having short mock meal times. The mock meal times will work on proofing for distraction (food, yummy food) and increasing duration.

If you are working with a young puppy, a new dog, or would rather not start with teaching the mat behavior, you can pattern in a meal time routine pretty easily. It takes time but if you are consistent it’s not difficult to achieve (this does assume your dog is comfortable in a crate).

1. I start by having crate in the room or within sight of where I typically eat dinner–make sure there is a special dog bed in the crate that you feel comfortable having in that space for later in the training. Since I sometimes eat at the table and sometimes on the couch (when my dinner table is in craft-table mode), I put the crate next to the couch but in full view of the dining room table. I do not want my pup to feel alienated so I want the crate ‘in the action’.

2. Have a frozen Kong prepared with really yummy stuffing (see this post for my favorite Kong Recipes). I’d actually suggest at least 2 kongs (or other stuffable toys) so you can rotate them daily since you will be using them every dinner time.

3.Everyday at dinner time, before you serve your food, get the super fantastic Kong out of the freezer and place it in the back of the crate. Encourage your pup to go in and get his special treat (this is easier if the pup hasn’t had his full dinner yet and is hungry). I would start with a shorter dinner for the first few days so your pup is let out pretty much as he finishes his treat and doesn’t have to wait to be let out. When you let him out, make sure you cue him to come out of the crate BEFORE he exits (a release cue). When you are able to have a full meal with your pup eating the treat and then laying down calmly/quietly in the crate you can move on to the next step. This may take just a week or three or it may take longer–it depends on the pup.

4. Since we are making one aspect more difficult, I’d shorten the first meal time or two just to set up for succes. This meal time you will put the kong in the crate as usual but this time do not lock the door. Close it but leave it unlocked–first few meals you should finish up a bit sooner so you can let Fido out of the crate as he finishes his meal. IF Fido tries to open the door or gets out, simply encourage him back into his crate and lock it–next time shorten the meal or make the kong better to entice him to stay in the crate. When you can go your whole meal without locking the door and Fido stays put in his crate, you can move to the next step.

5. This is where it gets a bit more challenging so I’d, again, shorten the meal time so you can finish before Fido finishes his Kong. By this point it’s likely that Fido is going in the crate before you even put the Kong down for him. This meal time you are going to put the Kong in the crate and leave the door ajar, by just an inch to start. If he is successful, you will lengthen your meal time to a normal length and THEN start opening the door more and more until it is wide open. If at any point Fido comes out of the crate, encourage him back into his crate and then shut and lock the door for the duration of the meal (he can keep his Kong in there if he hasn’t finished it). Then the next time you have dinner go back to the last successful opening size. When he can spend the whole meal in his crate with the door completely open reliably, you can move on to the next step.

6. The next step involves removing the crate. The bed that is ALWAYS in the crate will be in the same place but the crate itself is removed (but keep it handy). Since we are increasing one criteria, we will decrease another by making it a shorter meal to start. Before dinner time, like the normal routine, encourage Fido to get on the bed and give him his kong. Eat a shorter meal and be ready to release Fido from his bed as soon as he’s done with his Kong. Work on making each meal a little longer so he’s having to hold his position on the bed until he’s told to get up. TROUBLESHOOTING: If Fido gets up, encourage him back to his bed and re-offer the Kong. IF he takes his Kong elsewhere and lays down to eat it, I would put a thing knotted rope through the kong (before stuffing it) so I could tie the Kong to an object and prevent Fido from running off with it. If Fido is having a hard time transitioning to the bed without the crate, you can go back to the crate with a wide open door and continue to really solidify that concept OR you can be consistent with brining him back to his bed during meal times if he gets up each and every time OR you can use a tether system to help him transition to the bed without crate (by having him tethered in place, he will likely settle on the bed to eat his Kong.

7. Eventually you can fade the Kong and make it a ‘sometimes’ thing but you want to keep it until the behavior is reliable WITH the Kong.

For an idea of timeline of building this routine, foster dog Chase was with me for 3.5 or 4 weeks (I think) and he got about 3/4’s the way through step 5 (door was 3/4’s the way open during full meals–he had zero training when I got him but was okay in the crate to start). Puppy Jethro (about 3 months when I got him, had zero training, and didn’t really love the crate to start) was with me for 6 weeks or so and he got about 1/2 way through step 5. Rio got all the way through the process in about 4 weeks (he was 1.5 years old when I started and had a long history of training at that point). How long it will take depends on the dog but it really is a simple process. It’s just a matter of being consistent–every day the same dinner routine and the dogs will start running to their crates and eventually beds at dinner time to get their Kong without being asked and will patiently wait to be released.

Good Luck!

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