After enjoying a delicious family dinner, you take your plate to the sink. You turn back to grab the dish of leftovers — and your dog is already standing on the table and chowing down! How did he get so fast?
If your dog steals food, it can make you paranoid. You work hard to keep everything out of reach. You make sure to push in the chairs, so she can’t climb up. You hammer the lesson into your kids that they can’t leave food sitting around.
But it doesn’t really stop the behavior. And it can be incredibly frustrating.
When your dog steals food, he’s acting on an instinctual behavior. Food in the wild is scarce, so dogs learned to scavenge to survive. In essence, unguarded food is up for grabs — if you didn’t want him to eat it, you shouldn’t have left it alone. Cesar delves more deeply into this in his DVD Essentials of Dog Behavior: The Language of Dogs.
So how do you get your dog to cut it out? More than the behavior, you need to change your dog’s emotional state. Food means excitement for dogs, but that’s not what you want — you need calm and submissive. There are a couple of ways to get this.
Snap him out of it — literally
Get a plate of food, and bring it close to your dog. Most likely, he will become excited. Possibly drooling, and maybe even standing or jumping.
The first thing you want to do is get him to sit and stay. He’ll still be excited, but at least you can get the food to him without having your fingers chewed off. Place the plate a few feet away from him on the floor. If he comes near it, snap your fingers or make some other kind of sharp sound, like “Tsch,” and tap him gently but firmly with your fingers.
Most likely, this will take him out of his excited state, but you’re not done. You should push the plate toward him. If he goes for it, snap and tap again. Your goal is for him to back away from people food and for the excitement to disappear.
Encourage her to lie down
How? By giving her treats — even treats from your own plate.
Here’s how this works. Before you begin cooking or eating, get her to lie down and stay. When she does this, reward her by sharing a scrap of food. Do this frequently until she starts to associate lying down and staying with getting a treat. Eventually, she will lie down in the hopes of getting fed instead of hovering and trying to get the food herself.
A related version of this technique is to create a “treat area” for your dog, such as her bed or a comfy rug. With enough reinforcement, she will automatically head to this place when you start cooking or eating because she knows that’s how she gets food.
Of course, nothing is going to completely erase this behavior. It’s something ingrained from thousands of years of evolution. If you leave food lying around, eventually your dog will likely go after it. So while you work to change your dog’s emotional state, don’t forget to work on your own behaviors.