Too many cooks in the kitchen
One day I was chopping vegetables and getting tired of stepping over two Labradors. I had an idea: feed them the very same food for which they were begging.
Seems counterintuitive at first. But I figured that if I was thoughtful about how, when, and where I delivered those food tidbits, I could use the food to my advantage. The goal behavior: dogs that relax patiently outside the kitchen while I peel, chop, and cook. The trick would be to beat the dogs at their own game by giving them the food they desire, but under my criteria instead of theirs.
My dogs don’t tend to hang around when meat is being prepared, even though that’s probably a more delicious smell to them. They hang around when the fruit and veggies get chopped. Why? That stuff tends to make its way onto the floor accidentally. Rarely do I drop a piece of rib-eye on the ground accidentally. But, a bit of carrot or celery? That’s much more likely to end up on the floor.
The dogs weren’t staring up at me, and they certainly weren’t “counter-surfing,” but they were in the kitchen, lying directly underneath me. Every time I dropped bits of fruit or vegetable, the dogs were there to snatch it up. Opportunistic scavengers.
Because I drop food occasionally, the dogs hang around hoping that I drop food again accidentally. However, from their point of view, there are no “accidents,” only reinforcers delivered on a random, intermittent schedule. The dogs were playing the slot machine: “If I stay here long enough, eventually this will pay off!” The sight of me chopping vegetables or fruit had become a powerful cue for the Labs to hang out at my feet—because I just might drop something yummy.
Options for behavior change
I wanted to change the situation, and I had a few different punishment-free options:
1. Ignore the behavior. The dogs weren’t grabbing stuff off the counter or being a major pain. They were simply lying politely (okay, expectantly) at my feet. After all, the behavior of lying down is one I reinforce often! So, I could certainly choose not to change their behavior and simply be careful where I stepped.
2. Prevent the behavior with management. I could put the dogs in a crate or in another room whenever I cook. This is a perfectly acceptable, humane solution. No training required, because my dogs are already comfortable being in a crate or another room. This option doesn’t change any underlying motivation, but it prevents me from tripping over them, so that would be a fine solution, too.
3. Train an alternative behavior. This solution is a favorite for many clicker trainers. If the dog is doing something you don’t like, teach him something else to do instead.
I chose Option 3. My goal was to turn the act of chopping food into a cue that means “scram.” My task was to make it a better deal for the dogs to hang around outside the kitchen than inside the kitchen where food falls occasionally. It’s not exactly intuitive for a dog to go away from food in order to get the food—especially when there’s a history of being rewarded intermittently, albeit unintentionally, by dropped food.
To accomplish my goal, I needed three things:
- a powerful reinforcer
- good timing
- decent aim
The training plan
I decided to give the dogs exactly what they wanted: random food tidbits from chopping. The plan was two-fold:
1. Ensure there were no more accidents and that the dogs no longer got food tidbits in the kitchen
2. Reinforce the behavior of remaining outside the kitchen
I’m a lazy (ahem, I mean efficient) trainer and I wanted to make things easy for myself. I didn’t want to keep dog treats on the kitchen counter. Nor did I want to dirty my hands with dog treats while chopping vegetables. I wanted to be able to reward the dogs instantly when I saw something I liked, and then immediately go back to chopping.
I decided to keep the dogs’ criteria really simple: if they remained on the hardwood floor just outside the kitchen while I was cooking, I would toss them some of what I was chopping. Although I didn’t require them to be in a specific position, their sits and downs had been so heavily reinforced previously that they were almost always in a sit or a down when they got their food bits.
If the dogs wandered into the kitchen, there was no food. Ever. This meant I had to be more careful about not dropping food (not always easy for a non-chef like me). If I ever did drop food, I had to be more fastidious about it. I needed to be faster than the dogs so that they wouldn’t get reinforced for being in the kitchen anymore. (This second requirement was easier for me. I may not be much of a cook, but years of dog training have taught me to hone my timing!)
Dogs are smart. They figure out pretty quickly what is reinforcing and what is not. If suddenly they start getting a free paycheck for hanging around outside the kitchen, and suddenly all food reinforcement in the kitchen stops, the behavior of hanging out outside the kitchen will increase. Likewise, the behavior of hanging around in the kitchen will decrease.
As I began reinforcing them for being outside the kitchen, I noticed that sometimes when I chopped fruit or vegetables there would be a Lab in a sit or down outside the kitchen. When I saw that, I would toss some food. Usually, just one tossed food piece was enough to keep said Lab over there waiting for more—and enough to send the other Lab racing out of the kitchen hoping for his food. This provided another opportunity to reward them both.
With very little effort on my part, I had two dogs that were beginning to understand that there’s something good about being outside the kitchen. There was no need to carry stinky dog treats in the kitchen. And, because these behaviors (sit and down) are already well-trained, there was no need to reward the dogs every time they sat or lay down outside the kitchen. I could maintain that behavior by rewarding them periodically.
The more we practiced, the quicker they caught on: we hang around outside the kitchen, we get free delivery service. Soon enough, by tossing them the very same food for which they were begging, I had two dogs remaining on the hardwood floor outside the kitchen instead of moving under my feet.
The clearer you can make the dog’s criteria, the faster this type of training will go. In my case, because the behavior of lying at my feet was not that bothersome to me, I was not in a huge rush to make it go away. For most dogs I would recommend a specific spot where the dog can hang out, like a dog bed or a mat (an old bath towel is perfect!), placed just outside the kitchen. If you’re going to use the food you’re chopping as a reward, the dog’s spot has to be someplace where you can easily throw the tidbit to the dog when he’s in the desired location.
For puppies or newly adopted dogs, I would definitely recommend the crate option. I would give the puppy something delicious, like a frozen, stuffed Kong as soon as I put him into the crate. This buys you a good chunk of time for food prep while he relaxes in the crate. It’s much harder for a little puppy or a new dog that is still learning the rules of the house to have the self control to stay out of a high-traffic, delicious-smelling kitchen. I wouldn’t expect a dog to make that leap without a well-established reinforcement history for behaviors like “sit,” “down,” and “settle on a mat.”
But, if you do have a dog that understands sit and down, and you have decent timing and aim, use the food you’re chopping. Who says feeding table scraps is a bad idea? It’s all in when and where you deliver them!