Does your border collie beg for food at meal times or bark if you shut him or her out?
The problem: A client had a 5 month old collie that had been allowed to be in the room with his young family at mealtimes but they were finding him becoming a pain so they tried to shut him out. However, he barked and whined when not in the room with them and they were worried about neighbours. Therefore, they tried to keep him in the same room in his pen but he just barked constantly. They came to me wanting to find a solution.
The solution: This is a common issue and often made worse when there are very small children eating, who tend to drop food everywhere, often on purpose, to feed the dog!
In every behaviour issue, there is always an antecedent (A) (what’s happening that causes the behaviour), the behaviour itself (B) and the consequence (C) of the behaviour. If you try and shut the dog out, then the antecedent is probably that your dog can see, smell or hear the bits falling on the floor, or he may just know from experience that this happens during mealtimes, but is unable to get to the fallen food, causing intense frustration. He is barking. Then eventually, while he is still barking or whining after the meal has finished, he is let out of the room, he gets to go and eat the crumbs.
In his head, he barks and eventually he gets the crumbs so he is rewarded. So we need to stop this association and make sure that when he is barking he NEVER gets what he wants.
We then also need to decide what you would like him to do instead of bark. Usually this is something like lie down and be calm. So this is what you need to train.
Manage the situation
Firstly, you need to try and make sure that he can’t see, hear or smell the food falling to the floor. He is only young and this would be too much for him to cope with. So could you put a sheet or blanket over the pen so that he can’t see anything on the floor? I know you said that you have tried giving him chews and something to lick – have you tried a lickimat? These can be good if something really tasty such as primula cheese is spread on it. If using peanut butter make sure it has no xylitol in it (poisonous to dogs). Or a kong with cheap sliced meat stuffed in? This should keep him calm if he can’t see food falling from the table and he has something really tasty to eat. Bully sticks are also very good. Plaited ones last longer. This should ensure that he can’t practise the behaviour.*
You can then begin training him. Start training when it’s not a meal time. Put him in his pen, with a sheet over the sides so he can’t see the floor. It might also help to have a special mat that you use for him at meal times (a new one, not one that he used to) and put that down in his pen right in the area that he normally stands to bark.
One of you sit at the table with a cup of tea and a book or something to do for five mins, not during a family meal time, and every time he is quiet, even if it is only for a second, drop a treat in between his front paws. Start off waiting for quiet to start with, then build up to waiting for him to be quiet AND on his mat. Make sure you are only rewarding for quiet and calm behaviour. Eventually he should hopefully be quiet for longer and longer. Make sure you reward him a lot to start with. He should get more tiny treats (I use cubes of cheese cut up really small) for sitting on his mat than he would get if he was picking up food off the floor while you are eating. Being on his mat must be more rewarding. To start with, this may be up to 30-40 tiny cubes of cheese during those five minutes, assuming he stays quiet for the whole five minutes.
Gradually build up the time that you practice with him during pretend meals, you can even pretend to eat and keep rewarding him every time he is quiet. Eventually you should be able to move on to doing this at family mealtimes. One of you needs to be in charge of treating him every time he goes quiet. Collies aren’t daft – he should quickly build the association. Gradually build up the time you are leaving between treats but always keep it so that he gets more for staying on his mat than he would if he was loose in the room and picking up treats from the floor.
Keep his “magic mat” out of his reach unless you want him to be calm and quiet and bring it out any time you have the time to sit and reward him for staying on his mat and being calm. You can do it in the living room while you are watching TV. Every time he voluntarily goes and lies on his mat, give him a treat between his front paws. If he stays there, give him another after a few seconds. The beauty of the mat is that you can take it out to friend’s houses or pub meals, or anywhere you would like him to be calm, once we are socialising again. The mat will signal to him that if he stays on there and is calm it will be worth his while.
Then finally, as you suggest, he mustn’t be allowed to come out and eat the dropped food. It needs to be tidied up and put away. NEVER let him eat it and he should calm down about being in his pen and wanting out. You will need to be consistent and it will be a pain short term but long term it will be worth it. Collies are great by the time they are about ten months old so you are halfway there. Get this right and you will have a wonderful, well-behaved family pet.
*If he won’t stay calm with a lickimat, kong or bully stick then you will have to keep him out of the room while you are eating, tidy up when you have finished then let him in when he is quiet. If you have a dog that barks to be let in, never let him in when he barks. He needs to learn that he will only get what he wants when he is quiet. See my Crate Training page for further advice about teaching your dog to cope with being left alone or in a different room.
Happily the end result was success and the client came back to me after a few weeks to say that the problem was completely solved.