We all know that feeding table scraps to dogs is not a good idea, but it is likely that most pet parents do it at least once in a while. Table food is almost always not the best choice for dogs, but most of owners seem to have missed the message. Surveys indicate that begging at the table is one of the chief owner complaints, and is both charming and endearing and annoying and sometimes embarrassing, all at the same time.
Most people find that begging, if allowed to get started, is very hard to change or extinguish, partly because dogs are to some degree genetically programmed to seek food from people, partly because sharing food or trying to is part of the close connection between dogs and people, and in large part begging eventually works and dogs learn that persistence pays.
We Get More of Any Behavior We Reward
Most animals will naturally be drawn to the smell of food on the table, and dogs are famously good at determining and persisting in behavior that achieves the desired result. Dogs are also very skillful at interpreting human body language, and they can usually tell when a particular behavior is even partially rewarded, and are more likely to persevere with it. Even a morsel now and again, or for that matter expression of affection and implied approval of hovering around the table, is reinforcing. It’s classic operant conditioning: we get more of that which we reward.
But the behavior will lose strength if the dog concludes that the payoff of shadowing humans who are eating or about to eat is going to be zero. Dog behaviorists recommend attention, praise and petting for dogs in places away from the table, but not in locations where eating is taking place or is about to.
Even if not reinforced, there is an innate tendency to acquire food from humans that is part of the dog’s evolution from the wolf. Long ago, some of the more intrepid wolves began to scavenge people’s food in human settlements, and in the process became tamer and more accustomed to getting food from people. Physical and behavioral changes accompanied this increasingly close relationship.
The most successful dogs were those who most effectively prompted human nurturing and care-giving, and they in turn were reinforced in seeking it. These were often dogs with the most infantile appearance, as humans have instinctively sought to care for such dogs as they do for human infants. The most-domesticated and best-cared for dogs have generally been those with shorter skulls, larger eyes, floppier ears and curlier tails, which gave them more of a newborn appearance.
How to Break the Begging Habit
Defusing the urge to seek food from people and not reinforcing behavior that does this is not hard, but requires consistency and more determination than the dog has. Food should not be shared directly from the table, partly for behavioral reasons but also because people food is often not good for dogs, and is associated with allergic reactions and sometimes serious pancreatitis, particularly from high-fat foods.
Highly caloric human foods containing fat and sugar may also be the reason that as many as 50 per cent of dogs are overweight or obese according to some studies. This does not mean that human food must never be shared with dogs, because food is love in most human cultures and most dogs see it that way, too. As a healthy treat we strongly recommend fresh vegetables and fruits (in that order). Carrots and green beans are the go-to staples of healthy treat giving, but broccoli, peas, sweet potato (but not white potatoes due to their high glycemic index), and the occasional slice of apple or banana are all much healthier than store-bought treats.
It is important for all family members to avoid rewarding begging behavior all the time, and to communicate this to guests, as even one success in a hundred attempts will be enough to reinforce begging. Some family members, such as young children, may not be able to follow the rule, and the dog is best kept away from them at mealtimes. Attention, even looking at or scolding the dog, has been suggested as a reinforcement of begging; withholding attention can be hard to do, especially if begging behavior gets worse before getting better as it sometimes does.
The behaviors can also be channeled in other directions, such as feeding the dog in a separate area at the time of human meals, or giving dry food or a healthy snack inside a toy or puzzle from which the dog will have to work to get the food. Long-lasting chewing treats will also occupy the canine attention while people eat. Training in some behavior other than the actions of begging is another option, and encouraging the dog to lie down on a bed or mat instead of begging, then rewarding the lying down with a food treat will tend to suppress the begging behavior. A word like “bed” or “crate” or “kennel” can be used to initiate the alternative behavior, and a reward for the desired response to this will over time convince the dog that lying down is worth doing and begging at the table is not.
This training may take discipline for pet parent and families, and may not be easy for the dog, particularly if meal-related bad habits have already been established. If as much perseverance is put into the training as most dogs will inherently put into begging, however, the result will be a calmer human mealtime and a calmer and healthier dog.