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How to Teach Your Overeager Eater to Wait for Food

Ms. Manners -- aka Victoria Stilwell -- instructs how to improve impulse control in your dog and train her to wait for food.

Victoria Stilwell  |  Jan 19th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our December/January issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Dogs love being rewarded, particularly with treats and toys, but some get so excited at the prospect of receiving a reward they forget their doggie manners. Whether your dog is too grabby with toys or assaults her food bowl at mealtimes, there are some steps you can take to stop (and prevent) this impulsive behavior.

Teaching a dog to “wait” for food

If you want to prevent food bowl guarding issues or just work on general impulse control, teaching a “wait” cue with your dog’s food bowl is a great way to help improve her dinnertime manners. Instead of being confrontational, this training requires a more humane approach by teaching your dog an alternate behavior. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1: Put a treat in your dog’s food bowl, and hold the bowl at chest level.

Step 2: Ask your dog to sit (or stand if that is more comfortable for her), and lower the food bowl 6 inches or so toward the ground (or less if you have a large dog). Ask your dog to “wait.” If she is able to stay sitting or standing in one place as you bring the bowl down toward the ground, gently praise her. If your dog moves while you are lowering the bowl, simply raise it up again and repeat.

Dog waiting expectantly by Shutterstock

Dog waiting expectantly by Shutterstock.

Step 3: Once your dog is consistently waiting as you lower the bowl, gradually place it on the ground. After a few seconds, use a release cue such as “OK” so she can move toward the bowl and eat the treat.

Step 4: Once your dog successfully waits in front of the food bowl and leaves it until you give the release cue, start using the wait cue with higher-value food until you are ready to use the technique for mealtimes.

Teaching a dog to be gentle with treats

When it comes to treats, some dogs are like four-legged sharks! If you have a dog who eats your hand in the process of giving her a reward, you can easily teach her to be less grabby. Some dogs might snatch at food when they are stressed, overly aroused, or very hungry, so pay attention to your dog’s body language to make sure there is not a more serious reason for her lack of impulse control.

To begin, place a treat in your hand and close your fist completely. If your dog tries to grab at the food, say, “Ouch,” and remove your hand from her reach. Wait for a few seconds, and present your closed hand to her again. If she starts licking your hand or nibbling, gently say, “Gentle,” open your hand, and give the reward.

Working with a resource guarder

Working with a dog who is protective of food or toys can be dangerous, so consider hiring a reputable trainer in your area.

If you prefer to work on this yourself, avoid confrontation or punishment. Guarding behavior is usually a result of insecurity rather than dominance, so confrontation will only serve to make the behavior worse and might get you bitten.

You can prevent resource guarding and help teach your dog to be more confident around valued possessions by teaching the “take it/drop it” cue.

Step 1: Give your dog a low-value toy (not one of her favorites), and ask her to “take it” as she starts to play with or chew on it.

Step 2: When she has played with the toy for about 30 seconds, present another toy of similar value.

Step 3: As she drops the first toy, ask her to “drop it,” and give her the duplicate. As she takes it into her mouth, say, “Take it.”

Step 4: Repeat this trading game, swapping toys until she effectively responds to your cues.

Step 5: Once your dog consistently takes and drops lower-value objects, start using higher-value toys and chews. The more she sees you as part of the fun trading game, the less she will guard the things she values.

Read more by Victoria Stilwell on Dogster:

About the author: Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer, TV personality, author, and public speaker best known as the star of the international hit TV series It’s Me or the Dog, through which she reaches audiences in more than 100 countries. Appearing frequently in the worldwide media, Stilwell is widely recognized as a leader in the field of animal behavior, and is the editor-in-chief of Positively.com and the CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training, the world’s premier global network of positive reinforcement dog trainers. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter.