Many people are conditioned to put dog food in a bowl, ask for a sit and put the bowl down, end of story. But we know that dogs learn through repetition just like humans do, so why not use feeding to teach an automatic behavior?
I believe we can truly prevent many unwanted behaviors by simply playing a daily game with our dogs during meal time. Let’s say you have a puppy who is a jumper or a dog with emotional control issues, a high energy pup, or a boxer that just can’s stop climbing on you or a big rescue dog who is a bit reactive. Having our dogs practice a bit more emotional control is a good thing, right!
Ok, let’s begin, prepare your dogs meal as always and rather than asking him for a sit, take the bowl with you and go sit in a chair. Think of a behavior you would like from your dog, maybe eye contact or a simple sit. Wait for your dog to do this behavior and toss him some food over his head. When he returns after eating, wait for the same behavior and repeat, repeat until his bowl is gone. Do this once daily for several days. The first behavior you choose will most likely be the behavior he will offer you each day and all day long when he wants something from you.
For example, you are rewarding the sit, your dog will begin to offer this behavior to have access to many things all day long. Let’s call this behavior the “automatic” behavior because your dog will automatically begin to offer this behavior when he wants his crate opened, or to go outside, to jump out of the car, to run into the dog park, or to have his leash put on, get his meal, receive petting from anyone, you to throw the toy, anything your dog wants in life will be asked with this automatic behavior. With each pause you are lowering your dogs arousal and helping him think. This game of rewarding your dog for a specific behavior and tossing food away and having him return to you and ask again is so easy and fun, even your kids can play!
To keep this behavior strong, I recommend you reward it often even when your dog offers it when you haven’t asked! Scratching, petting, massaging are all easy ways of rewarding a polite request. Should you ask for the behavior? Nope, just let it happen, and reward it. No behavior, no reward. Your dog will be thinking rather than always needing to be told what to do. Helping your dog learn to ask nicely to receive wanted resources will shape your dogs behavior into a calm, thinking dog, rather than a pushy reactive dog you will want to keep for a lifetime!