We know that many dog parents struggle with this. We become paranoid when they are near the dining table, watching their every move and constantly reminding ourselves to avoid leaving food near table edges. These are, however, all signs to suppress the issue instead of addressing it.
Stealing of food is an instinctual behaviour shown at home as food is a scarce resource in the wild. Controlling instinctual behaviours is a crucial part of behavioural rehabilitation. The good news is that this can change, with trust and communication being brought forth into the relationship.
Steps you can take
1. Encourage calmness around food
It is best to communicate with dogs by letting them associate the desired behaviour with the situation through reinforcing. There are two ways this can be done. Firstly, get your dog to either sit or lie down using a command and upon doing so, give your dog a dog treat, which should be readily available. This works for dogs that bark which raises concern that the noise may affect your neighbours. Progressively randomise giving the treat once your dog associates that he must sit or lie down during human mealtimes. Always avoid giving table scraps which can be unhealthy for your dog.
The second method is waiting until your dog calms down automatically, before rewarding the behaviour through the provision of treats. This can be done both during your dog’s mealtimes and your mealtimes. This method may cause some dogs to bark in protest before giving up and may take a few more seconds as compared to the previous method before calming down. However, this method is more ideal as your dog figures the outcome on his own. Thus, the behaviour is understood instead of being told. A behaviour that is understood will be more likely to be replicated in the future.
This is a command that your dog rests comfortably on his bed a distance from the dining table. This prevents your dog from even walking up to the table, and thus prevents the temptation to steal food. This may be a challenge for dogs that are stubborn or tend to have high excitement. Consistent reinforcement of the idea that he will only get treats on his bed instead of the table is key. After some time, he should automatically head to his bed during human mealtimes.
3. Claiming items on the floor
Claiming ownership of food and furniture (not toys) lying around on the ground is a fast way of enforcing the “leave it” rule without saying anything. Drop a treat in front of your dog, making sure he sees it. If he tries to approach the treat, walk firmly up to him and stand between the treat and your dog. If he tries to move around you, move with him along the radius such that you are always between him and the treat. Wait till he sits down automatically before picking up the treat and giving it to him. Avoid commanding him to pick the food up from the ground on his own, unless it is in a dog bowl. Repeating this exercise requires you to be firm and if done correctly and consistently for a few days, should observe your dog leaving dropped food on the ground.
Always follow the rule, prevention rather than intervention. The “leave it” command only works if a human is present to intervene. Teaching him to only drop items upon command means that he can still help himself to any food on the ground. That means food or any other objects like furniture lying around is susceptible to damage at the mercy of your dog. This is dangerous especially if that object is harmful or dangerous if ingested.
As described in the introductory paragraph, keeping food away or preventing your dog from getting to the food are ways commonly taken to suppress the issue, not address it. Making sure food is not left on the table makes having a furry companion become troublesome. After all, they are meant to integrate into our lives, not the other way around.
A common misconception is that some try conditioning their dogs to stop associating jumping onto the counter with food, hoping that their dogs will abandon the idea of getting up tables and counters in the future. However, the undesirable behaviour is not addressed. Furthermore, dogs have a keen sense of smell, making it highly impossible to hide food from them.