Pet Connection: Don’t reward your dog’s begging

Standing on her hind legs, paws posed prettily in front of her, with a pleading expression that could melt the hardest heart, our dog Harper has been the focus of many photographs as we dine outdoors in Laguna Beach. Passers-by ask in awe, “How can you resist that face?” My husband and I just laugh.

She’s a cavalier King Charles spaniel, so trading on her charm is second nature to her. It doesn’t get her much, because we are about as hard-hearted as cavalier owners come. Well, OK, I confess: She gets the occasional french fry or bit of bread. But there are rules.

•  Begging at the table at home is never rewarded. Ever. Our dogs know that the best way to get food is to wait patiently on the sofa until meals are over and then hope for bites of leftovers.

•  Begging during meal preparation is not rewarded per se, but calm, out-of-the-way watchfulness may be rewarded with a piece of bell pepper or cauliflower in exchange for a sit, spin, down or other trick.

•  Paws may not be put on people at the table or in the kitchen. Not ever. Guests are firmly instructed not to permit this.

•  At restaurants, the aforementioned french fry or crust of bread appears magically on the ground when Harper isn’t looking – and, I might add, when she’s not begging.

Teaching your dog not to beg is a matter of consistency. Dogs do what is rewarding to them, so if you – or your toddler in a high chair – give him food from the table when he’s a puppy because he’s just so gosh-darn cute, he’s going to continue that behavior into adulthood. It’s a lot harder to teach a dog to break a habit than it is to not establish the habit in the first place.

What else can you do? My pal and colleague, dog trainer Mikkel Becker, has some great suggestions. Mikkel lives with pugs, who are equal to cavaliers in their begging ability, cuteness and manipulation skills, so she knows whereof she speaks.

• Make the dinner table a dog-free zone. Teach your dog to go to his bed, a mat or his crate when meals are served. It’s a great opportunity for him to practice a long down-stay.

•  To sweeten the deal, give him a stuffed Kong or food puzzle to occupy his time. That way, he doesn’t feel deprived, and you are rewarding him for being away from the table.

•  Feed him first. If he has already eaten, he’ll be less interested in your food when you sit down at the table.

•  Finally, never give attention for begging. No laughing (I know; it’s hard not to), no talking to the dog, no yelling at him. Attention, even if it’s negative, just reinforces the behavior.