Big holiday dinners have enough stress without your pet staging theatrics under the table. You know the schtick: the forlorn, puppy-dog eyes. The whimper. The fidgety tap-dance with the front paws. A pool of drool on the floor for good measure. The barking. And when all else fails, the futile attempt to paw a bowl of stuffing off the table.
Of course, other dinner guest may not appreciate how dang cute your pet’s antics are. But there are other reasons why you’d want to discourage pet begging. Feeding pets table scraps can lead to upset tummies. Many human foods can be toxic to pets. Those extra calories can pack on extra pounds. And it simply encourages an annoying behavior.
But there is a way to curb pet begging, so everyone enjoys Thanksgiving dinner, including your pet. Just follow these suggestions.
Be consistent. If your pet is sometimes rewarded with a bite of dinner roll, and other times isn’t, this is not only confusing for your pet, but it can create an “addictive” expectation, not unlike people playing slot machines. Your pet will keep trying, knowing that at some point, they’ll hit the jackpot with a bite of turkey.
Once you decide to stop rewarding begging, everyone in the family should stop, too. Being consistent with your pet helps them understand that much sooner that begging won’t get them anywhere.
Start early, if possible. If your pet has been begging for years, he or she won’t transform into the perfect well-behaved pup overnight. If you have time, it helps to start training sessions a few weeks before the big night.
Train your dog to a mat. If there’s time, you can train your dog to “down, stay” on a mat in the dining room so they can be with the family without being a bother. Start with a non-skid mat, a clicker and some treats. Any time your dog shows interest in the mat, even if he or she just looks at it, press the clicker and give a treat. Each move closer to the mat is rewarded the same way. When your dog steps on the mat, click and treat.
Toss a treat away from the mat, and when your dog returns and steps on the mat, click and treat. Next, start saying “mat” right before your dog steps on it, so he or she starts associating the word with the mat. In this way, gradually reward your dog for lying down on the mat. Extend the amount of time between the time your dog lies down and when you click and treat. With patience, you can eventually get your dog to stay on the mat during dinner, and you can reward good behavior by tossing treats to the mat.
Provide an enticing distraction. During dinner, give your dog something even better than table scraps, like a frozen, stuffed Kong. Or consider a food puzzle, which provides entertainment and keeps your pet busy as they work for every kibble.
Ignore the begging. It’s an attention-seeking behavior. That’s why it’s not enough to simply stop feeding your pet at the table. You also need to stop rewarding your pet with attention. Even negative attention, such as a stern look or gently admonishing your pet by saying, “Stop begging,” actually encourages the behavior. Instead, avoid looking at your pet and act like he or she isn’t in the room.
Initially, the begging may actually get worse, because your pet may think it just needs to try harder to get your attention. But if you stick to your guns and keep ignoring your pet, the behavior will eventually go away.
Avoid temptation. If possible, take your dog for a long walk so they can work off all that extra energy and spend some quality time with you. Then put them in a separate room with their favorite toy or a stuffed Kong so they’re not even tempted to beg during dinner. Then they can join everyone again after the food is safely put away.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.