There are as many different ways to eat dinner with dogs as there are people and dogs, and the routines we establish are not written in stone. Is there a right or wrong way for you to interact with your dog when you are eating? As a dog trainer, my answer to that question is: no, as long as your dog is being polite. That means: not stealing food or threatening to steal food; not putting pressure on you to feed him, such as swatting, whining, barking, or growling; and not climbing up on you, nudging you, or poking you. Beyond that, it is up to you as human parents to decide what is permitted at mealtimes and what is not.
Permutations of dog habits at dinner…
When my husband and I first had dogs in the mid-eighties, we completely ignored our dogs during mealtimes except to watch their playful antics while we ate (they were puppies). For their entire lives (a full twelve years), they never received food from the table and they never asked for it. However, twenty years and four dogs later, Lola, our wonderful golden, trained me to give her food bits while she lay with her head in my lap at our coffee table. She never drooled, stared at me, or whined. Over time, this morphed into not only Lola, but Tess and Vera (of “Finding Vera“) lying under the coffee table while we ate our dinner, in their designated spots, heads resting on their paws. None of them looked at me, and none of them drooled. I would occasionally hand them each a dog treat for their good behavior. Meal time had become family time and we enjoyed it as much as they did.
Fast forward to Annie, our two-year-old collie. Annie entered our lives when we still had our reactive German shepherd, Vera (Tess and Lola were no longer with us). By that time, Vera had turned the whole dinner-time ritual into a game by lying somewhere in the living room with her back to us, and waiting to see where the treats (strategically tossed between her paws) would fall. We still ate at the coffee table watching the news (or Big Bang Theory), and little Annie stayed in her towel-draped crate or X-pen and chewed on her stuffed, frozen Kong in another part of the room.
After Vera died, however, we changed our eating habits. We now eat at the dining-room table, and, reluctant to give up our routine of sharing dinnertime with our beloved girls, we now allow Annie to lie beside us at the table. She’s permitted to place her chin on our chairs which is very cute, and will occasionally get a treat which I keep with me for that purpose. She tried swatting my husband once, and was immediately placed in her crate for the duration of the meal. She never swatted either of us again.
Tips for changing habits
- Remember that food is a valued resource, so if your dog bullies or pressures you for food (swatting, whining, barking, growling, climbing up on you or poking you etc), he should be calmly removed from the immediate area and placed in a comfortable crate or room, given something to entertain him (such as a stuffed Kong) and ignored–or verbally reinforced for good behavior–until you’ve finished eating. Once your dog has matured, or no longer associates human mealtimes with automatic handouts, he can be invited back, and teaching him acceptable behaviors can begin.
- Acknowledge that your food is of value to your dog. He will most likely be interested in it and will want to watch you indulge. Many of us spend a lot of time and effort training our dogs to watch us, so it will take time and patience to teach a dog to be neutral around food.
- Decide what you are going to expect of your dog. Do you just want him present, but invisible in the room? Do you want to include him as part of your family’s culture by having him participate in some way? Do you want him to be on his bed beside you enjoying a parallel treat? Do you want to give him occasional healthy treats while you eat? Do you want him to be across the room, lying at your feet, or curled up on a chair beside you?
- If you don’t want your dog staring at you while you eat, reward him verbally or with a treat ONLY when his head is on his paws or when he’s looking elsewhere in the room–don’t make eye contact or feed him when he is staring at you (the opposite of how we train our dogs to make eye contact). Remember, negative attention such as “no” or “uh-uh” is still attention and can therefore be reinforcing to your dog.
- If you want him lying at your feet, tell him what you want him to do, then reinforce that behavior with calm verbal praise, a pat, and/or a small dog treat–or valued chew toy–when he is in position. You will need to reinforce him consistently at first, then randomly, then gradually fade out the treats altogether once he is staying by you. By placing a towel or dog bed beside you for him to lie on, it will be easier to teach him where you want him to stay.
- If you want him to lie on his dog bed across the room while you eat, the same principles apply. You would toss him treats to reinforce his behavior only when his head is down or he is looking away from you.
- You need to be absolutely consistent. A dog who occasionally gets a treat or attention (eye contact included) from the table will be much more difficult to train NOT to beg than a dog who gets treats consistently from the table. It’s just the way the brain works.
If your dog is driving you crazy:
- Stop any behavior you don’t want by making it impossible for your dog to practice that behavior. For example, if you don’t want your dog to be a part of mealtimes, place him in a covered crate with a special long-lasting treat such as a chew toy, a snuffle mat, or a stuffed Kong, either in another room, or gated in a different part of the room from where you are eating. Praise him for quiet behavior. When you are finished eating, clear the table and invite him out nonchalantly.
- Ignore all behavior that could be construed as begging (drooling, staring at you). This will end any begging behavior though it will most likely get worse before it improves. Ignoring him means not looking at your dog, not talking to him, and NEVER giving him treats when you are at the table eating. If the behavior escalates into pushy behavior such at barking, pawing etc., remove him from the area as described above.
- Dogs learn that being persistent will get them what they want. They can be much more patient and much better trainers than we are.
- Here are some training video links of Vera demonstrating how to learn three helpful skills:
- Take it/Leave it
- Impulse control exercise
- Go to your mat or “place”.