Many dogs loooove their food. It’s part of what makes them so easy to train – and it’s what keeps them alive. But some dogs have a food obsession that goes a bit too far.
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, we’re going to tackle the problem of dogs who pester their owners for mealtime. Our reader asked,
“We used to feed our dogs first thing in the morning. Over time they have wanted to be fed earlier and earlier. My husband now gets up at 2-3am to feed them. We also feed them around 3 in the afternoon. Please help us to get a good night sleep.”
– Sincerely, Sleepless Spaniels
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Oh dear! Two or three in the morning is not an appropriate time for breakfast! These little dogs must be very persistent (and very charming) in order to get their owners to feed them at such a time.
This problem is going to require a lot of persistence to solve. It’s tough to have resolve when you’re half-asleep at 2am, but you’re going to need to dig deep to solve this.
Here are a few potential solutions for the owners:
- Get an automated pet feeder and schedule feedings at 3am for now. The WOpet Automated Pet Feeder is a good option. In a week, schedule feedings for 3:30, then 4:00, then 4:30, and so on. (Or perhaps using 10-minute increments). The dogs can’t influence the automated pet feeder, and it takes the focus off of the owners. I think I like this idea (though I generally don’t like automated feeders). I think it would be easier for me!
- The clock predicts food, not the dog’s behavior. This is a bit harder. It requires a lot more willpower because you are going to have to get up based on an alarm and ignore your dogs if they beg otherwise. You also have to get up during the training process, which the automated feeder saves you from. Right now, the pups are begging for food at 3am. Set an alarm for 2:45 and feed them at that time for a few days. Slowly change the alarm to an earlier and earlier time. If the dogs are begging and pestering, they don’t get fed until they stop.
Extinction bursts. That’s the problem here.
Right now, the dogs know that if they pester their dad, he’ll feed them. They know if they just bug him enough, they get BREAKFAST! The best part of the day!
Essentially, this means that the poor owners have trained their dogs to be incredibly persistent. We’re likely to see the dogs’ begging behavior get worse before it gets better. This is called an extinction burst.
Imagine you get into an elevator to go up to the 23rd floor of a building. You press the button and nothing happens. So you press again. And again. Then you press it harder. Then you press it 132 times in 30 seconds, just to be 100% sure it doesn’t work. Then you curse a bit, then you finally take the stairs. That’s an exctinction burst.
Your dogs are likely to experience similar feelings of frustration (why isn’t this working anymore?!). Unfortunately, if you withstand their begging for 3 hours before giving in, you’ve just taught them to beg for three hours.
Here are a few other things I’d try to make this training go a bit smoother:
- Feed the dogs 3 or 4 smaller meals. If you feed them shortly before bed, at 3am (during training, see above), at 7am, and at 6pm, they’ll be less frantically hungry at 3am. In fact, you could actually try this approach alone and then gradually reduce the size of the 3am meal until it’s nonexistent.
- Get earplugs. You might have to wait out some pretty irritating behavior from your pups. I’m not normally a fan of “riding out the extinction burst” because I don’t like frustrating a dog in training. Hopefully following the schedules suggested above will prevent that. But earplugs might help anyway.
- Get a checkup for the dogs. I suspect that this is a learned behavior for the dogs. But it’s smart to make sure there aren’t any GI or metabolism issues for one or both dogs that are causing the frantic begging behavior.
- Have the dog sleep in bedside crates. If the dogs paw at you as part of the begging, consider putting them inside of crates that are at the level of the bed (so they are less likely to be upset about the change in sleeping arrangements) during training. I’m all for having dogs sleep in the bed – but not if it’s ruining your sleep. Once they’re used to the new feeding schedule, they can be welcomed back in the bed.
Good luck. This behavior problem isn’t terribly complicated, but it’s sure a tough one to fix because it’s hard to be your best “dog trainer self” at the dead of night!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley.