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My dog, Trixie, is always begging for food and it seems to be getting worse. What can I do?

Ah, those sad eyes! That hang-dog expression! And, if you look closely, you might see your dog trying to hold in her stomach to further convince you that she is truly hungry and might not last until dinner.

I’m going to make the assumption that your dog does get an adequate amount of nutrition and isn’t suffering from any medical condition that needs attention. So, that leaves us with a behavior that is just that: a behavior. As such, it’s changeable. Animals, and we fit that description, behave in certain ways because it works for them. For example, if your dog were knocking over garbage cans and finding food in them, she’d be reinforced for that behavior. In other words, the next time she saw a garbage can, she’d try to knock it over (remember, dogs are scavengers!) In that case, we’d call that a self-reinforcing behavior. However, when we, deliberately or not, reinforce our dogs for begging, it’s just as powerful.

The first thing to do is to think about what behavior you want your dog to have. If you are reading the newspaper, for example, what do you want Trixie to do? Most people would like their dogs to lie quietly at their feet. The second thing to do is to become conscious of your dog’s behavior before it starts to bother you, and your own actions in response to that behavior. The more consistent you are the quicker she’ll change. You’ll get the fastest results if everyone in the household and all visitors do exactly the same thing.

If you yet haven’t trained Trixie to lie on her bed (a separate behavior which she can’t do at the same time she’s begging) the quickest way to stop a begging behavior is to ignore it. Don’t look at her, don’t talk to her, don’t touch her and above all, don’t feed her! If you sometimes give her food when she begs, she’ll play the odds and try again. If there’s a new person in the house, she’ll try again. Eventually, she’ll stop because it takes more effort than it’s worth.

Do be prepared for the begging behavior to get worse before it gets better. In behavior modification lingo, this is called an “extinction burst.” Behavior that doesn’t get reinforced will eventually not be repeated but it is a common phenomenon to see an increase – sort of the old college try. She used to get food when she begged, so she’ll try again. And, she may escalate the behavior to see if being more pushy, or barking, or pawing at you works. Be strong – don’t give in. She will eventually learn that begging doesn’t pay off so she’ll try it less and less often.

Ellen Brantley  CPDT (Retired)

When my dog is riding in the car, he barks at other dogs he sees. I was told that I should spray him with a water bottle to get him to stop but all he did was growl at me. I was afraid he might bite me so I stopped but he still barks. What can I do?

Imagine being at a party with your spouse, let’s say, with your husband. You see a good friend across the way whom you haven’t seen in a really long time. You let your hubby know that you’re going over to catch up with this dear friend. Time seems to stand still, you’re having a fabulous time reminiscing, laughing and sharing stories. You see your husband walk by out of the corner of your eye but he doesn’t say anything. You continue your conversation. Suddenly, you are hit in the face with a cold spray of water. You gasp, and once you are able to focus, you see your husband holding a spray bottle, looking none too happy. He tells you it’s time to go.

What do you do? How do you feel about your husband right now? Can you imagine ever going to a party with him again? Can you imagine ever having a conversation with anyone when he’s in the vicinity? Might you feel like growling at him, even a little bit?

I suggest that spraying people or dogs is never a good idea. There may be an occasional person or dog who doesn’t mind it (I do ask the kids on my Bouverie hikes on a hot day if they’d like to be cooled off!) but, bottom line, it’s a punishment that will erode your relationship if used to suppress behavior. Not only that, but if you ever have to use a spray bottle around your dog for a medical reason or grooming, you’ve established it as something to fear and you’ll have a challenge getting your dog to trust you.

Rather than using punishment, let’s use a positive reinforcer and/or a timeout instead. Think about what your dog likes to do. I’m going to assume that your dog does like to go for car rides and likes to see the scenery. You’ll need a second person in the car so that you can drive safely while your helper manages your dog. Ideally, your dog is trained to be comfortable riding in a crate. Have your helper put a blanket on top of the crate so your dog can’t see out. Have her flip back the blanket so your dog can see out. As soon as your dog starts to bark, your helper will say something like “Too bad!”, and will then flip the blanket back down so your dog can’t see out. Once your dog is quiet, have her give visual access to your dog again. Repeat as many times as necessary. Notice that the trend will eventually get better but it can take a few sessions. Once you’re able to predict a period of quiet, have your helper start giving verbal praise, “Good quiet!” but do expect relapses. Over time, you’ll be able to keep an eye on your dog in your rear view mirror, observe him watching other dogs that you pass and making the decision to stay quiet. Lots of verbal praise will help reinforce this behavior.

Ellen Brantley  CPDT (Retired)