Fresh Start for the New Year: Fun Fixes for Annoying, Rude or Embarrassing Dog Behavior

The other day I noticed one of my dogs has not learned the concept of a Zen “leave it” the way I meant him to. The Zen leave it means, if you notice something tempting, automatically (without prompting from me) leave it alone unless you’re given permission to investigate, grab or eat it. This goes for food belonging to people eating at the table, sitting on the couch, or putting a plate of food put down on the coffee table. It goes for food accidentally dropped on the floor, and for snacks clenched in the tiny fists of toddlers ambling around. In other words: dog, that food is none of your beeswax. Even if I leave the room. The cue to leave it alone is not a threat or even a pleasant verbal cue like “leave it.” Rather, the very presence of the food is the signal to avoid grabbing it. (That’s the Zen part.)

Fancy as it sounds, most dogs pick up on this very quickly, and they don’t need reminding, reprimanding or bribing to maintain the behavior. (Generally speaking, behaviors trained using reward-based methods become rewarding in themselves to perform, so gradually you don’t need any external rewards once the dog has the hang of it.) With my other dogs, I have left the room with a snack out in plain view, intending to use the restroom but getting sidetracked with email, and then returned to find my snack intact.

It all starts with teaching the concept of “leaving the food alone is the surest way to score something you like; trying to eat the food makes it disappear.” Once those concepts are established, it is not hard to move to more advanced versions of it. You can teach your dog if the tiny kid has a snack that temps you, that is your cue to leave it alone (to get started, see the how-to teach leave it video.)

Back to the dog in question. I have trained him not to take food from someone’s hand, their plate, or the coffee table. But I’ve noticed that he will hover within literally a half-inch of said tasty morsels. Technically he is correct. “See, I didn’t touch it, momma!” he must be thinking. And yet, his adorable whiskered lips, his gigantic head, and the enthusiasm for the game oozing out of his very being are not what I want in a dining experience. In fairness, the reason he has learned to hover over the food is that I have not put in the effort to help him choose as his default behavior “leave other people’s food alone with room to spare.”

So I decided that, when I enter the room with food on a plate, sit on the couch with food, or place food on the coffee table I want those actions to be his cue not just to leave the food alone, but to go to lie down. Believe it or not, you probably already know how to teach a dog to do that.

If you have ever taken a dog training class, you know that luring a dog into a sit position ends up giving you a hand signal to indicate you want the dog to sit. The hand motion associated with luring with the food becomes the salient cue for the dog. Meaning that, even without food, when you sweep your hand upward the dog reads that as a signal to sit. But you may want to switch to a new cue, like the word “sit” (with no arm motion). The tried and true method is to use the new cue (“sit”), pause a beat (important), then use the old cue (arm motion). A few pairings later, the dog figures out that the new cue predicts the familiar cue, and the behavior you want him to do.

I applied that same principle to to this issue around food. My dog already has a cue to go lie down, which is “place.” So I cut up some treats, put them on a little plate, walked into the room & sat down (new cue), paused a beat, then said “place.” When he lied down at his place I rewarded him by tossing a treat to him. I released with “ok” and did that a few more times. Then I walked into the room & sat down (new cue) and paused. And paused some more. And the wheels in that magnificent head sprang into motion, and he went to his place and lied down. I tossed a treat to him for that. Then I generalized it to me sitting on different pieces of furniture. I’d come in with food, sit down, and he would go lie down at his place. I started doing it at human mealtimes with a real plate of food (dog treats in my pockets to use as rewards).

I think he is getting the hang of it better than I’d realized, because we had dinner guests the other night who did something more challenging than I’d yet practiced. Someone walked into the room with the appetizer, put it on the coffee table, and guess who trotted right on past it, right to his place, and lied down? (My jaw was on the floor, but I tried to play it cool.)

The moral of the story is you don’t have to live with behavior you consider obnoxious, pushy, loud, aggravating or rude. And you don’t have to nag, punish, bribe or distract your dog from doing it every time the same situation comes up. Why not teach the dog that the very thing that used to prompt the reaction you don’t like is actually a cue to do something you do like? Pretty soon a simple “good boy” will be all you need to help him keep it up (just like you probably no longer give your dog a treat for sitting every time).

If you are like most of us, your dog engages in a behavior or two that bothers you. What would you rather your dog do instead? If your hand on the door predicts attempted bolting, then maybe teach him that hand motion is a cue for backing up. If a stranger approaching predicts jumping, try teaching that is actually  cue to sit. You may need to be creative, breaking the training into tiny steps, and many times you have to be very patient if the temptation is very great, or the dog has been practicing the annoying behavior for a long time. But it works, and it’s amazing to see the dog’s wonderful brain engage as he learns the association with the new cue.

Your dog is doing the best he can with what you’ve taught him. Start the new year with a plan to replace dog behavior you don’t like with dog behavior you like a lot. Happy new year, and happy training!

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