Your Chihuahua looks at you with big sad eyes. A subtle whine, some barking and perhaps a hopeful tail wag when you look his way, or a paw scratching on your leg. Someone has done a “great” job on how to train a Chihuahua not to beg. That’s right, poor table manners were learned, initially reinforced when someone slipped a tasty tidbit to a begging dog because they thought it was cute, or thought it would make the behavior stop once the dog got what he was begging for. It’s not too late, however to change this embarrassing behavior.
It’s only natural to want to give your Chihuahua the occasional tidbit. After all, food is how we celebrate with family and friends, and it’s at the center of home life, so of course we will want to include our four-legged family member in family dinners, holidays, and other celebrations. Of course, how you share that tidbit is what makes all the difference in your Chihuahua’s behavior during mealtimes.
Stopping the behavior is a relatively straightforward process, theoretically. If the behaviors of sad eyes and a low whine stop paying off for your Chihuahua, he will stop those behaviors. Ignoring the dog completely at mealtimes will prevent begging or stop it when it does occur. Of course, if someone slips Fido the occasional tasty tidbit from the table, even if it happens once, it will actually strengthen the behavior because it’s being intermittently reinforced. Now, he’s playing the table tidbit lottery!
For any real success at tackling the begging behavior, it’s important to set up rules that everyone can reasonably comply with. If most of the family is ignoring your Chihuahua during meals to extinguish the begging behavior, but Grandpa is still slipping the dog something under the table, he is undermining all of the other training.
The most effective method combines reinforcement of an incompatible behavior with extinction of the actual table begging behaviors. Sit down for dinner, with the agreement that everyone will completely ignore your Chihuahua while they eat their meal, with one person keeping an eye on the dog. Have someone at the table set aside any tiny tidbits, as long as they are healthy and safe for dogs, that they would like to share to use for this exercise.
Your Chihuahua, of course, will initially put on his best show, begging like his life depends on it. He’s convinced he is starving to death and is trying to convince you, too. He will try everything he knows, including at some point backing up, sitting, or lying down away from the table. Bingo! This is the time that someone will get up, put a small goody in the dog’s dish, and then come back to the table.
Now your Chihuahua has just been reinforced for not begging. Time for the next repetition. Continue to ignore Fido and eat your meal, putting aside a just-right reward for the next time. Wait for Fido to back up from the table, lie down, or otherwise do something that is not pesky and rude. Put the tidbit in the dish, away from the table! Make sure everyone gets a chance to practice during the course of the meal.
Once your Chihuahua catches on to the new game, you can start to shape a more specific behavior. Many people shape the dog to lie in his bed, or on a mat. Sometimes just staying away from the table can be their criteria. Some people don’t mind if Fido sits under the table, they just don’t want whining and a tiny paw scratching their guests’ legs.
You are now shaping good behavior by rewarding your Chihuahua for polite behaviors, while you ignore the pushy behavior. The pesky behavior you ignore will disappear, sometimes quite dramatically. The behavior you’re rewarding will strengthen and get repeated. Grandpa still gets to give his tidbits, and your Chihuahua will learn to calmly wait at your feet while you eat your meal and will patiently wait for his tiny tidbit. Everyone is happy.
As his manners become established, you will then start to reward less frequently and then only occasionally. You will gradually switch from giving something at each meal, to one tidbit after the occasional special meal. Now your Chihuahua is playing the lottery again, so make it worth his while, and you will strengthen and maintain the new, non begging behavior during mealtimes.