Dogs run mostly on instinct, and often that instinct leads them to counter-surf for a plate of steaks fresh off the grill. If your pup has a habit of nudging your arm (or your plate) while you're enjoying dinner, that's just the way they're wired. Fortunately though, with some training and consistent reinforcement, you can teach your dog that your meal is off-limits.
Your Dog May Not Be Able to Control Themselves
Dogs are opportunistic feeders. They often steal food because of natural instincts and learned behaviors. As descendants of wolves, dogs have scavenger instincts embedded in their DNA. They can also learn to steal through habit. It could be that your dog is just hungry. Or it could be that you fed them from the table, and they don't make the distinction between your food and theirs anymore.
This behavior is hard-wired for some dogs. Some are just more food-driven than others. If there's food available, they're likely to go for it. Human food is especially enticing with its fragrant aromas and flavors. Dogs like human food, but you can teach them not to take yours. Understand that your dog probably can't help it without your intervention.
How to Get Your Dog to Stop Stealing Food
Remember, your goal is to redirect your dog's behavior. You don't want to get mad and yell. Instead, you have to teach them that your food is not for them, and give them alternatives for appropriate behavior.
1. Feed Them Well
When dogs are offered a diet that caters to their breed, age, and activity level, they're less likely to feel compelled to steal your human food. Feeding the right portion sizes on a routine basis can help. Overfeeding can lead to obesity, while underfeeding can lead to malnutrition and more food-stealing situations.
Providing a varied diet, which could include high-quality dog food or even a raw food diet, along with safe fruits and vegetables, can help satisfy your dog's nutritional needs and palate. Use puzzle feeders or slow-feed bowls to make mealtime last longer and feel more fulfilling for your pet.
2. Start With Training
Basic training can go a long way. Teach your dog commands like "leave it" or "stay," which can be used when you're eating or when there's food around that they shouldn't have. These commands should be taught in a calm environment initially, gradually introducing distractions like food once the dog is consistently responding. Remember, consistency is key.
Punishing dogs typically doesn't work. If your dog attempts to steal food, calmly remove the food and redirect their attention.
3. Make Them Wait to Eat
Before their meal time, place your dog's bowl in their eating area and make your dog sit in place before you allow them to eat. This takes training (and it's easier if you start when they are a puppy). First, make them sit. Then, place their bowl down, while you stay close to make sure they stay seated.
Wait a few moments, and if they stay still, release them with a command such as "okay" and let them eat. If they get up before you give the command, give them the "sit" command and keep them waiting. Make sure that every time they break their sit, they have to go back and start over. If you start them young, your dog will learn quickly that they have to wait before they can eat.
4. Don't Encourage the Behavior
The big problem with food stealing behavior is that if your dog is successful, they get a strong reward. And if you stop them in the act, you may be inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. This is true because intermittent reinforcement is the strongest type of behavioral conditioning. Instead, it's very important to limit your dog's chances to steal food in the first place.
Yes, this can be a pain, but your diligence will pay off. It's also common for dog owners to scold their dog or get angry when their dog steals food. If your dog steals food, stay calm. Don't reward them even more with attention. If you do, it can lead to your dog stealing your food more often. Instead, redirect their attention with something other than food.
Be careful with rewards! If you offer your dog a food treat as a form of redirection, they may begin to associate grabbing your food with getting their own. Instead, remove your food, and distract them with a trip outside.
5. Use Positive Reinforcement
You need to teach your dog that stealing food does not produce a reward. Instead, they need to show good behavior to get your attention and praise. Using positive reinforcement is an effective method to train your dog to stop stealing food.
- Start with commands and praise: Positive reinforcement involves rewarding your dog for acting the right way. They learn that good actions lead to positive results. For example, when your dog obeys a "leave it" or "stay" command when there's food on the table, immediately praise them. This helps establish a positive association with obeying commands around food.
- Stay consistent: Make sure you're right there with immediate rewards when your dog does the correct thing. This helps to make sure your dog understands the association. Over time, your dog will learn that their self-control around food has positive outcomes, and stealing food doesn't get them any attention.
- Give them a place to wait: Don't let your dog beg at the side of the table. This is too likely to lead to situations that reinforce their bad behavior. Instead, have them wait on their dog bed while you eat. If you're having a hard time getting them to stay put, try crate training your dog so they learn that it's time for a rest while their humans are eating.
- Only reward them after you eat: Once your dog learns to wait patiently for you, it's time to up their reward. If your dog stays put without whining or begging at all, when you're finished eating give them lots of treats and praise. Teach them that staying patient means they hit the reward jackpot.
Keep all of your interactions positive. Just stay firm and consistent. It's OK to say "no," but show them the behavior you want them to do instead. This approach not only helps prevent food stealing but also strengthens the bond you share with your dog.
Everyone in the household must be aware of the rules and training methods in order for this to be effective. If you are very consistent, but someone in the house is feeding the dog under the table, your training won't work.
6. Always Stay on Alert and Keep Food Out of Reach
The most important thing is to not give your dog opportunities to steal food. Keep food in places your dog can't easily access. Don't leave food on counter tops your dog can reach. Clean up immediately after meals. Never give them a chance to earn a sneaky reward for bad behavior.
We know, it's hard to stay vigilant all the time. And mistakes will happen. But the more consistent you are, the better your dog will behave. You can learn to build this into your food prep routine, too. My family keeps our bread in a bread box, because we learned the hard way that our dogs will grab the entire loaf of bread if they have the chance. Use storage to your advantage and stay consistent to keep your dog from stealing in the first place.
Consistency Pays Off
As long as you stay patient and focus on not giving your dog the chance to steal, your training has a good chance of paying off. Once your dog learns that they can't earn a reward by being sneaky, step in and show them a better way. Once you start training with positive methods, you will see results. The end goal is to live in harmony with your pup, and you will get there together if you remain calm and consistent.