Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holiday Manners 101

Holidays are fun, right?

The holidays are nearly here. Visitors, music, food… what could be better?
"Well," you may be saying, "the holidays are great for people whose dogs are well-behaved, but the holidays always seem to bring out the worst in my Fido." Don't worry. You are not alone. We've all had dogs that jump on guests as they enter, or steal food from guests (or the counter).

Taking the time to deal with a few of the behaviors that create problems during the holidays can make your celebrations more relaxed and enjoyable. If you are worried about counter-surfing or stealing food from the table, there is help ahead.
The first time I heard the phrase "counter-surfing," I pictured a dog hanging ten on the counter as a big ocean wave broke around him. Alas, the reality is nowhere near that engaging. Dogs that are tall or athletic enough to reach a counter often learn that good stuff is left up there. All they need to do is check the counters periodically to find food. Counter-surfing is particularly problematic during the holidays, when a lot of goodies can appear on the counter. To help your dog learn better habits:
Eliminate temptation by blocking off the kitchen or keeping the counters clear. Managing the environment is the easiest way to change a dog's behavior. If your dog can't enter the kitchen unsupervised, your dog can't surf the counters for goodies. Similarly, if you keep counters clear of goodies, your dog will soon learn that the counter is not that exciting a place.
Teach your dog that good stuff in the kitchen is on the floor.
"Preload" the kitchen with treats. Armed with a clicker or the word "Yes", walk into the kitchen with your dog. Before your dog has a chance to look up toward the counter, click and toss a treat on the ground between your dog's feet. Then, as he looks up from the first treat, click and toss another treat between his feet or nearby. Move around the kitchen, clicking and tossing treats as you go, and then exit the kitchen with your dog.
After the first training session,  toss a few treats ahead of you as you begin your next session, so that as soon as you enter the kitchen your dog finds treats on the floor. Proceed to click and treat your way around the kitchen, and then leave again. In time your dog will learn to look down for treats, instead of up, as soon as you walk into the kitchen together.
Strengthen the association of floor = food.
It can be helpful to "seed" the kitchen floor with treats once in a while, so that your dog learns to look down for food, rather than on the counters, even when you are not there. Be sure to keep the counters clean just in case, though!

Stealing food from the table

It may sound unbelievable, but there are dogs that steal food right off their humans' plates. If you are one of these unfortunate humans, you know that there is no way for you to match the speed and dexterity these dogs demonstrate. There is a solution, though, and it's quite easy to implement.
Set up a mat for your dog to use during meals, in a "tetherable" spot.
I suggest that my training clients set up a mat in the room where meals take place, so the dog feels more included. The mat should be positioned at least four or five feet from the table where you will be eating, and near a door or a heavy piece of furniture. Use something as simple as a towel or as fancy as a dog bed as the mat. The mat needs to be comfortable enough for the dog to lie on for extended periods. It should be positioned so that you can tether the dog to something stationary while he lies on it.
Before the meal starts, take your dog to the mat and tether him.
Use a leash or, better yet, a chew-proof tether to tie your dog securely to a doorknob or piece of furniture. If your dog tends to pull on leashes, it's a good idea to attach the tether to a harness, rather than to your dog's collar. Whether you tether the dog to a doorknob or to a heavy armchair, make sure the tether is set up so that the dog can stand, sit, and lie down on the mat—but cannot reach the table where you are eating.
As you start the meal, feed your dog a treat on the mat.
Be very matter-of-fact about this action, and pay no attention to what your dog is doing (unless your dog is barking or whining, in which case you should wait for a quiet moment). Simply walk over to the mat, drop a treat onto it, and then walk back to the table.
During the meal, drop treats on the mat periodically.
Every few minutes, repeat the process of walking over, dropping a treat on the mat, and then walking away.
Keep an eye out for calm behavior, and when you see it, feed the dog an extra treat.
Any time you see your dog do something calm, such as going into a sit, or settling into a down, feed your dog another treat. You can either keep a clicker nearby and click just before feeding the treat or say the word "yes". If you find the clicker seems to amp up your dog, though, skip the clicking and stick to using the "Yes" command. 
When your dog has begun to lie down for extended periods during meals, only drop treats when the dog is lying down. At this point you are teaching your dog that lying quietly on the mat earns treats.
At least once a meal, drop some of your own food on the mat (choose dog-safe food, of course).
What your dog wanted all along was the food on your plate. By giving your dog food from your plate once or more during the meal, you are teaching the dog that there's an easier way—simply lying quietly on the mat will do the job.
When your dog remains lying down for an entire meal for several meals in a row, remove the tether.
Continue to drop treats, including food from your plate, every few minutes during the meal. Your dog already has an established habit of staying on the mat, and will most likely continue to stay there even without the tether. If the dog does not remain on the mat, go back to using the tether for a few more meals.
Gradually reduce the frequency and number of treats you provide during meals, but not down to zero.
Never entirely stop feeding the dog treats for lying on the mat during meals. With most dogs, you can reduce the number of treats to just one or two per meal and still maintain the behavior.

Gifts of the season

Even the most annoying and worrisome pet behaviors can be managed or eliminated before the upcoming holidays, if you are willing to put in some training time. Be patient, set your pet up for continued success, and remain positive as you work to curb nuisance behaviors. Training success could wind up being the greatest gift and joy of the holiday season!

Brooke Fagel

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