Thanksgiving is quickly coming upon us. Oh to taste the turkey…stuffing…sweet potatoes…and pumpkin pie. I can hardly wait! So can Sam….and I bet your favorite pooch too.
So, let’s plan ahead. Sharing your meal with your guests AND your dog doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the holiday. The time to work on teaching your dog new skills is now – not dinner time on November 22.
Let’s put our applied behavior analysis thinking caps on and brainstorm. Remember, ABA is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs.
We ask ourselves “What happened IMMEDIATELY prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the ball rolling for the behavior?” and “What happened IMMEDIATELY after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?”
I’m going to simplify it and use for the sake of this column that the antecedent is ‘guests sitting at the dinner table with unbelievably savory food on dishes in front of them.’ The behavior is your dog bumping or scratching guests in their seats. (We’ll call this ‘begging.’) The consequence is that eventually your dog may get either attention or turkey or jackpot – BOTH!
How can we change the environment to set your dog up for success? If you know in advance that this is highly predictable behavior, you can use antecedent strategies to give less value to the begging. Some ideas? Satiate your dog BEFORE you sit down by feeding him in advance, redirect his attention by giving him a tasty steak bone to chew on or a foraging toy that will keep his attention for awhile, take him for a long walk or run prior to the meal to increase the value of resting behavior.
Another idea would be to teach your dog – in advance – an alternative behavior that will reap him the same or more reinforcing value than what he would get if he begged while also removing all positive consequences of begging. Remember, as his teacher, his ability to learn is dependent on your reliability (and EVERYONE in your household) to quickly reinforce the behavior you want to see – and every time he does the behavior in the beginning.
So, begin by teaching the alternative behavior (like sitting or laying down) and get it reliably on cue. Once on cue start teaching him to hold that behavior for longer durations before delivering reinforcement. Then, you can cue him to do the behavior before you sit down to a meal and reinforce it. At the same time, if he begs, you can simply push your plate in to the center of the table and turn your back to him while sitting. Practice. Practice Practice.
Dogs are pretty smart. If ‘you’ teach him that begging only gets people to turn away and push food aside but sitting or laying down gets a nifty treat, guess which choice he’ll make?
If you have a dog who is competing with our Sam for the title, World Champion Counter-Surfer, remember, often times the feat is carried out when your back is turned. (We know this from experience.) The simplest solution is eliminating access to the reinforcement that maintains the behavior. In other words, always be cognizant of being sure that tasty food is kept far enough from the counter edge that your dog can not reach it.