One of the easiest ways to train your dog is at feeding time. Yet I can’t tell you how often I hear from owners of hyper, disobedient pups: “But I DO make my dog sit before he gets his food!“
Here are three key tips on making the most out of your mealtime obedience ritual:
Whatever commands you start to work on at feeding time, you MUST also train them elsewhere – in other places, at other times, and under different circumstances.
There’s something known as “generalization”, that dogs aren’t particularly good at: your dog might respond to “sit”, even “down”, “paw”, “roll over”, or anything else, like an A-student just before dinner is served, but completely ignore you once you’re outside on the sidewalk – not to mention when he’s offleash in the dog park.
This isn’t just about him being distracted by all the exciting sights and sounds (though that’s part of it); what he’s been trained to respond to are your commands PLUS all the stimuli associated with your kitchen – he hasn’t generalized that those same words mean you want him to do those same behaviors, no matter where he is.
Second: “Mix it up”
If your dog rushes over to plop his butt down on the doormat as soon as you start to fill his bowl, even before you’ve said “Sit”, that does not mean he’s being obedient. Think of it this way: he’s not doing what you asked, because you haven’t asked him to do it yet!
If he does that, have him stand all the way up, or lie down (or lie flat on his side; or move to the hallway; or go lie down in his bed; or…) before you finish filling his bowl and give him his food. The idea is for his attention to be on you, attuned to what you ask him, instead of on the food: “What does Mommy/Daddy want me to do?” Otherwise how I like to put it is that he has YOU trained: “All I need to do is touch my butt to the floor over here, and Mommy will give me my food! How great is this!”
“Mix it up” means to constantly change up the routine – in fact, don’t get into a routine at all. If you stick to this new methodology you should see huge improvements in your dog’s obedience and attention to what you want and what you’re asking for, not only before feeding but also outside at other times. It will transfer into the dog park, where he’ll pay you more mind even when distracted by dogs he wants to play with or balls he wants to chase; it’ll transfer to the walk where he’ll pay more attention to you even when he wants that chicken-bone lying in the gutter; etc.
99% of the feeding rituals I see involve the dog’s butt or belly touching the floor just until the owner starts to lower the bowl; then the dog is instantly up and hovering to gobble as soon as the food is within striking distance. What’s lacking here is making the dog wait for your permission to get up and eat; so again, your dog has YOU trained, not the other way around.
Instead, try lowering the bowl only until your dog’s but pops up off the ground; as soon as it does, instantly reverse your actions, standing all the way up and putting the bowl back on the counter, and say “Uh uh!”, motioning your dog back into position. What’s happening is that at the first lack of patience/self-control, the positive reinforcer (the food bowl) disappears – and believe me he’ll notice! After a few trials, he’ll stay sitting; only now instead of his eyes being on the food, they’ll be on you. THAT’s what you want; attention, obedience, respect, and above all PATIENCE. At that point use your “release” command – I like “Ok!”, with a snap or clap – a big, happy, tension-breaking release that tells him he’s done great, the exercise is over – jump up and chow down!
To increase your pup’s patience, over the next days and weeks extend the amount of time you wait before the release, also moving yourself further and further away, into more relaxed positions. About half the trials you should see what I call a “break”, where Fido starts to get up (he just can’t stand it anymore, or he thinks you forgot to release him … or he wishful-thinks that you might have released him and he just didn’t hear it). That’s good; instantly make him re-comply, then when he does, release and reward for the recompliance. This exercise will add bundles to Fido’s patience, his calm energy, his trust, respect, and overall happiness.
Final thoughts: Isn’t it cruel, torturing poor Fido like that?
If done correctly, obedience training is the furthest thing from cruel. First of all dogs love to please, and the more you can teach them ways they CAN please you, the happier they get. It’s a win-win situation!
Second of all dogs are highly intelligent and motivated animals, in constant need of mental and physical challenge. Learning your language, responding to your wishes and needs, and working toward having self-control are all exhausting and fulfilling exercises for the doggie mind.
Most importantly, to my mind, is the use of obedience training to teach your dog to be patient, calm, and trusting. If you reward only after your dog gives you calm submission, you’ll bring out the happy, peaceful being that your dog truly wants to be – because you are teaching him that he doesn’t have to be anxious, hyper, and demanding to get what he wants out of the world. Instead, by sticking to a few consistent rules and boundaries, you can introduce Fido to a benevolent world that provides him with all of the fun and delicious things he wants without him having to desperately or anxiously try to get them! He learns that it’s precisely when he relaxes and waits, that great things happen.
If only we could learn to view the world in the same way!