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How to Teach Your Dog Good Manners

Shih tzu dog standing in kitchenBy Jill Sackman, DVM, PhD, DACVS

Holiday season is upon us. Parties, guests, music, food – what could be better? But, as many pet parents know, the holidays can also bring out the worst in their canine companions. When your dog barks like crazy at the door, jumps on guests as they enter or steals food from the counter, it’s embarrassing and annoying.

Taking time to address behaviors that create problems during the holidays can make gatherings more relaxed and enjoyable. Here are some tips to coax the best behavior out of your dog before the festivities begin.

PROBLEM: Stealing food from the counter

The phrase “counter-surfing” conjures up the image of a dog hanging ten (or is it 20?) on the counter as a big ocean wave brakes around them. In reality, it’s nowhere near as much fun. Many athletic and creative dogs learn that “the good stuff” is left up on the counter. Counter-surfing during the holidays is especially profitable for dogs when there is a bounty of very tasty treats on the counter.

SOLUTION: Teach your dog that good stuff is on the floor

First, to keep your dog from swiping food from the counters, you can manage the environment and eliminate temptation. If your dog can’t even enter the kitchen unsupervised, he won’t be able to steal goodies. Similarly, if you keep counters clear of food, your dog will soon learn the counter is not that exciting of a place.

But, you can also teach your dog that good stuff in the kitchen is on the floor. Armed with lots of tiny bits of tasty treats (think pea-sized, soft bits), walk into the kitchen with your dog. Before your dog has a chance to look up at the counter, toss a treat on the ground between your dog’s feet. Then, as he looks up from the first treat, toss another treat between his or her feet or nearby. Move around the kitchen, tossing treats as you go, and then exit the kitchen with your dog.

After the first session, toss a few treats ahead of you so that as soon as you enter the kitchen your dog finds treats on the floor. Treat your way around the kitchen, and then leave again. In time, your dog will learn to look down for treats, instead of up at the counter.

Try “seeding” the kitchen floor with treats once in a while, so that your dog learns to look down for food, rather than on the counters, even when you are not there. But, always keep the counters clean just in case!

PROBLEM: Swiping a meal from the table

As crazy as it may sound, there are dogs that steal food right off plates on the table during a meal. If that’s the case in your home, you’ll need to teach him that being away from the table can also be rewarding.

SOLUTION: Train your dog to go to his new “happy place” away from the table.

During meal time use a leash to tether your dog to a heavy piece of furniture, or place the end of the leash over a door knob for small dogs, in the same room where you will be eating (so he feels included). Make sure the tether is set up so that the dog can stand, sit and lie down on the mat – but cannot reach the table. Set up a soft rug or mat for your dog to sit or lie on during meal times. His new space should be positioned four or five feet from the table. When meal times begin, do the following:

  1. Before the meal starts, take your dog to the mat and tether him. Next, matter-of-factly and paying no attention to what your dog is doing (unless your dog is barking or whining, in which case wait for a quiet moment) go to the mat, drop a treat onto it, and then walk back to the table. Every few minutes, repeat the process of walking over, dropping a treat on the mat, and then walking away. Keep an eye out for calm behavior, and when you see it, feed an extra treat. When your dog lies down for extended periods during meals, only drop treats when the dog is lying down. From here on, you are teaching your dog that lying quietly on the mat earns treats.
  2. At least once a meal, drop some of your own food on the mat (choose dog-safe food, of course). By giving your dog food from your plate once or more during the meal, you are teaching the dog that there’s an easier way – simply lying quietly on the mat will do the job.
  3. When your dog remains lying down for an entire meal for several meals in a row, remove the tether. Continue to drop treats, including food from your plate during the meal. Your dog already has an established habit of staying on the mat, and will most likely continue to stay there even without the tether. If the dog does not remain on the mat, go back to using the tether for a few more meals.
  4. Gradually reduce the frequency and number of treats you provide during meals, but not down to zero. Never entirely stop feeding the dog treats for lying on the mat during meals. With most dogs, you can reduce the number of treats to just one or two per meal and still maintain the behavior.

PROBLEM: Pouncing on guests at the door

It’s the worst when your super-excited dog barrels to the door and jumps on, and sometimes knocks down, your guests as they walk through the door. A simple fix is sending your furry friend into another room, a crate or outside when you expect company to ring the doorbell. But, what about the times the delivery man shows up, a neighbor stops by or Girl Scouts come knocking?

SOLUTION: Help your dog simmer down

Start training quiet behavior at the door using a similar technique to going to mat during dinner (see above). First, tether your pup to a stair rail, heavy furniture or a hook on the wall near the door. Then set up a soft rug or mat for your dog to use while tethered.

Training initially should be done in a quiet environment (no door bells please!). Toss a treat or two to your dog on the mat. To reinforce calm behavior, toss extra treats to your dog if he’s quietly lying or sitting down on the mat.

Repeat the exercise 8-10 times walking to the door from different areas in your home (as if someone had just rung the doorbell). Reward your dog for sitting or settling down on the mat.

Next, try adding the ring of the door bell while your dog is tethered. Toss a treat over to your pup for sitting and remaining calm on the mat. Keep a container of treats near the door to make it easier to practice each time you ring the bell.

When you try this with actual guests, invite them to come into your home one at a time and avoid getting congested in the entryway, which may make it more difficult for your dog to maintain his “sit” or “down.” Keep in mind that you will need very high-value (liver, cheese, hot dog bits) treats for dogs who find the arrival of guests highly rewarding. Your treats need to be of greater value than the guests!

When your dog is able to remain politely on his mat when someone is at the door, gradually taper off the treats until you are feeding just one treat when the doorbell rings and the door is opened.

PROBLEM: Your dog gets overexcited at parties

The holidays can be a great time of year for everyone, including our four-legged family members. Remember, however, that guests and parties can be overwhelming for dogs (and cats!) who are used to a quieter home environment. Many times, providing a quiet zone where your pet can escape from the hustle and bustle of holiday celebrations is the best choice.

SOLUTION: Provide a calm retreat

The quiet zone can be a crate or bed in an out-of-the-way part of the house. Alternatively, it might be an entire room where the door is propped open but marked “keep out,” so that only you and your family (human and otherwise) enter that room.

Even the most annoying and worrisome pet behaviors can be managed or eliminated before the upcoming holidays, if you are willing to put in some training time. Be patient, set your pet up for continued success and remain positive. Teaching your dog good manners could wind up being the greatest gift and joy of the holiday season!