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Just Ask the Expert: How do I help clients keep their dogs from begging?
Dr. Valarie Tynes has advice for resisting those begging eyes.
Dr. Tynes welcomes behavior questions from veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
Click here to submit your question, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Behavior questions."
Several of my clients have dogs that are on a weight loss program, and they seem to be compliant in following their individualized feeding instructions. However, many clients tell me that their dogs beg for food all the time. How can I help my clients correct or prevent this behavior in their dogs?
A. Begging is one of those problem behaviors that is easy to fix in theory but harder to fix in the real world since some important laws of learning are at play. But clients can take steps to stop this behavior.
FACTORS AT PLAY
The first thing we all need to help our clients understand about their pets is that animals perform behaviors for specific reasons. Animals tend to repeat behaviors that get rewarded and not repeat behaviors that are not rewarding in some way. This information can be challenging to put to use if it is not clear to us why an animal finds a particular behavior, such as barking or chasing cars, rewarding.
(Photo by Gregory Kindred)
However, it should be clear to everyone why begging is rewarding—it usually results in getting something delicious to eat! Therefore, the instructions to the owner have to be, "Stop giving the dog food when it begs." If your clients are like mine, they will say, "But Doc, we tried that, and it didn't work!" When pressed for further information, they will explain that when they tried to ignore the begging and not give in, the pet simply became more persistent—maybe it began to whine or bark, or maybe it just continued to sit and stare until the owner could no longer ignore those "beautiful brown eyes."
No matter what the cause, most people finally give in and give the dog some food. The dog has now learned that if it is just persistent and does not give up, something delicious will be forthcoming. Two important aspects of learning psychology are evident here: the power of intermittent reinforcement and the extinction burst.
Intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful forms of reinforcement there is. It can be an extremely useful tool in dog training. When trying to teach an animal a new behavior, it is most effective to reward or reinforce every time the animal displays the desired behavior (called continuous reinforcement). Once the animal has learned a behavior, if you want the behavior to become resistant to extinction, you should begin rewarding intermittently. You are then acting like a slot machine; the dog continues to display the behavior because it never knows when or if it will be rewarded for the behavior. With this method, the behavior becomes very firmly established.
The extinction burst refers to the continued efforts that the animal will make to get the reinforcement that it had previously received. The previously reinforced behavior actually increases for a period of time before the animal eventually stops trying. It is this extinction burst that is so hard for most pet owners to ignore when trying to stop a previously rewarded behavior.
(Photo by Gregory Kindred)
WHAT TO DO: SEPARATE, REWARD SEPARATELY, IGNORE CONSISTENTLY
With that in mind, the first practical instruction to give clients is to not put the dog in a position where it can beg since it can be so difficult to ignore a begging dog. I have found that the easiest way to do this is to place a dog that begs in a different room—or a crate if the pet is crate-trained—before the family sits down for meals. In some cases, the dog may need to be placed in this area while meals are being prepared. The room or crate should be far enough away so that whining can be ignored. If an owner would feel better about feeding the dog during this time, that is fine, too, as long is the dog is away from where people are eating.
Alternatively, owners can be instructed to give their dogs a special treat before meals such as a boiled marrowbone, stuffed Kong, or other food-dispensing toy. The animal is then well-rewarded for being away from the family and their food. This can be extremely useful for dogs that are not comfortable being alone or in a crate. For dogs that are on restricted-calorie diets, teach clients how to measure out the amount of food for the day, every morning. They can then use part of the animal's daily allotment for filling the food toys or as training treats.
After being given these instructions, owners may still question how to handle snacks and other food items that are present at times other than mealtimes. The rules remain the same: if owners are ever to stop the behavior completely, they must never reinforce it. All family members need to be in agreement about this in order for it to work. If small children are in the home, the dog should be kept separate from them when the children eat unless an adult can supervise and prevent children from feeding the dog. Every family member must ignore the begging. It will eventually stop. It is at this point that the outcome will rely on pet owners being more persistent than their dogs. With patience and knowledge about these learning processes, clients can be assured that eventually the unwanted behavior will be extinguished.
Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting
P.O. Box 1413
Sweetwater, TX 79556