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How to Train Your Dog to Be Calm During Family Meals

How to Train Your Dog to Be Calm During Family Meals

One of the best ways to train your dog to be calm during family meals is to set up a comfortable space for them in the same room where you eat. This gives them their own area to relax in while your family is eating. Choose a spot that's out of the way, such as a corner or along a wall, so they're not right underfoot. Place a dog bed, crate or mat in this spot with some of their favorite toys. You can even drape a blanket over part of the crate or bed to make a little "den" area feel more cozy and enclosed. This will help your dog feel relaxed and settle in for the duration of mealtime.

Practice "Go to Your Spot" Command

Before you can expect your dog to go relax in their designated spot during meals, you need to teach them the "go to your spot" command. Start by guiding them to the spot and rewarding with a treat when they go there. Use a verbal cue like "go to your bed" along with pointing or hand signal towards the spot. Reward every time they go to the spot on command, then start adding the cue from further distances. Practice this until they reliably go settle in their spot when you give the verbal cue. Make sure everyone in the family uses the same cue and rewards the dog for complying.

Reward Calm Behavior

Any time your dog is laying down calmly in their spot during mealtime, reward them with praise and occasional treats. This reinforces the good behavior you want them to exhibit at this time. If they get up or start begging/bothering people, simply redirect them back to their spot using the "go to your bed" command but don't reward them again until they have settled down. Be patient and consistent, and they will learn that being in their spot calmly is what earns rewards during mealtime.

Practice "Stay" From the Spot

Once your dog is reliably going to the spot on command, you can start training them to stay there during the whole meal. Tell them "go to your spot" then when they are settled give the "stay" command. At first reward them for short durations of staying, even just 30 seconds or a minute, gradually working up to staying for the entire mealtime. If they start to get up, interrupt with a firm "ah ah!" and redirect them back to the spot to reset. Increase the time they have to stay there as they master each duration.

Keep Your Dog Mentally Stimulated

Dogs often have trouble settling during mealtime because they are bored. Make sure your dog has some mentally stimulating activities to engage in while in their spot to help them relax. Give them a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, a Kong with peanut butter or a chew bone. Rotating different toys will keep them occupied and less focused on what's going on at the table. This mental exercise along with praise for calm behavior will help them learn to relax during meals.

Ignore Attention-Seeking Behavior

If your dog starts whining or doing other things to try and get attention during mealtime, ignore the behavior. Giving them any reaction, even scolding them, can inadvertently reinforce the behavior. Keep your attention focused on family conversation and eating. If the dog is persistent, you can give a brief "quiet" command then redirect to the spot with "go to your bed". Praise when they comply to reinforce the desired behavior.

Crate Train Your Dog

An alternative to having your dog stay in a spot is crate training them. Feed them their meals inside the crate so they associate it with good things. Start with short durations of crating during your family mealtimes, gradually working up to longer periods. Give them a stuffed chew toy to keep them occupied and settled while crated. As long as the crate is a place they feel safe and relaxed, this can be an effective way to have them calm and out of the way at mealtimes.

Exercise Before Meals

Make sure your dog gets adequate exercise before your mealtimes. A daily walk plus playtime in the yard can help your dog be tired and ready to settle in their spot when it's time to eat. Pent up energy and boredom is often the cause of begging, restlessness and other undesirable behaviors in dogs. So meet their exercise needs first, then ask them to relax during mealtime.

Use Baby Gates

If your dog is insistent on bothering people or sneaking scraps during meals, set up a baby gate blocking access to the dining area. Install it in a doorway or hallway so your dog can still see the family and relax in their spot but can't actually get to the table. Close the gate when you sit down to eat and remove it after the meal ends. As training progresses, you may be able to phase out using the gate.

Teach "Leave It"

The "leave it" command is very helpful when training dogs to be calm around food. With tasty smells tempting your dog at dinnertime, teach them to ignore dropped scraps or kids sharing food from their plates. Have family members periodically drop treats on the floor, covering them with a hand while firmly saying "leave it". Praise and reward when your dog resists going for the treat. This impulse control helps them choose an appropriate settled behavior instead of sneaking food.

Reward Calm Approach

If your dog tends to get overly excited when approaching the dinner table, teach them to approach calmly for rewards instead. Have your dog "sit" or "down" a short distance away, then calmly walk over for a treat while praising their composed behavior. Slowly decrease the distance until they can walk up to the table without breaking their calm demeanor. This refocuses their energy from excitement into disciplined restraint for the reward.

Use Positive Reinforcement

While training your dog to relax during meals, stick to positive reinforcement techniques. Punishment like scolding, yelling or pushing your dog can undermine the calm, settled behavior you want. It can also scare your dog away from their spot altogether. Consistent rewards for going to their spot and staying there calmly is the most effective and gentle way to teach this behavior. Correct unwanted behavior by redirecting or ignoring, not punishment.

Be Patient and Consistent

These techniques will take consistency and patience before you have a dog who reliably settles during family mealtime. For some dogs, it may take weeks or months of training before the behavior is truly learned. Stick with it using positive methods and setting your dog up for success. If you need a break, use baby gates or crate your dog during meals until they are ready for full training sessions. Consistency from the whole family is key.

Start Young With Puppies

It's much easier to shape this behavior in a puppy than correct an established bad habit in an adult dog. If you bring a new puppy into your home, start training them right away for calmness during meals. Set up their spot, work on commands like "go to your bed" and use rewards to reinforce staying there quietly while your family eats. Establishing these expectations early will help prevent begging and restlessness.

Don't Allow Playing at Meals

Some families allow their dogs to playfully engage with children who are eating by "sharing" food or taking dropped pieces. This can quickly become disruptive for meals and reinforce bad habits. Set household rules that mealtime is calm time for the dog in their spot, not play time. They get treats and praise for lying quietly, not for begging from children's plates or playing under the table.

Use Mealtimes for Training

Once your dog has mastered being calm and settled during meals, use this time to practice other commands. Have family members periodically ask for simple behaviors like "sit", "down" or "stay" from the spot, rewarding your dog when they comply. This strengthens their overall obedience and impulse control skills. Mealtime becomes another positive training session.

Crate Your Dog If Needed

For some dogs, the temptation of food or interaction at mealtimes is just too much in the beginning. If your training efforts aren't succeeding, temporarily confine your dog during meals in their crate until they are better conditioned to relax at that time. Provide stuffed chews or puzzles in the crate so they have an outlet for mental energy. As training improves, transition back to having them settle on a spot in the room again.

Seek Professional Help

If your dog is highly excitable, anxious or food motivated, overcoming problematic mealtime behaviors may require help of a professional trainer or behaviorist. They can assess your dog's unique issues and offer customized training plans and techniques. For example, some dogs may need desensitization training around food to teach them to remain calm. Getting individual guidance can greatly improve your success.

Be Realistic

While it's reasonable to expect a well-trained dog to settle politely during mealtime, it's unrealistic to ask them to hold a long down-stay for the entirety of a lengthy family dinner or holiday gathering. Make sure your dog has potty breaks, exercise and some interactive reward breaks over the course of a long meal to keep them engaged and comfortable.

Manage Serving Style

Having food passed around frequently or kids eating in a chaotic manner can undermine your dog's mealtime training. During initial training stages, serve food family-style instead of passing dishes around to minimize activity. Have kids sit while eating to avoid moving around too much. This controlled environment sets your dog up to succeed in their calm spot.

Correct Children's Behavior

Kids slipping food to the dog or engaging them in play under the table can sabotage mealtime training. Have clear rules for children about not interacting with the dog during meals. Correct them with reminders like "Sparky is in his spot right now" so the focus stays on the dog's location, not their behavior. Having the whole family on board is key.

Use a Cue Word

Train your dog to associate a word with settling in their spot calmly at mealtimes. Say "relax" or "easy" when redirecting them to the spot then use it during meals when they start to become restless. The cue reminds them what behavior is expected. Make sure everyone uses the same special word consistently when wanting the dog to chill out.

Manage Distractions

Loud or boisterous family meals can be very distracting and overstimulating for a dog. Keep tv, music and rowdy behavior at a minimum during initial training stages to avoid getting your dog over-excited. White noise like a fan running or calming music can help mask distracting sounds and create a relaxed ambiance.

Practice Alone First

If your dog struggles to settle when the whole family is present, practice mealtime training sessions alone with just you and your dog first. Once they are reliably relaxing in their spot, gradually add in more family members over multiple training sessions until your dog remains calm with everyone there. Go slowly so as not to overwhelm them.

Reward Politely Taking Treats

Instead of having your dog beg for food during mealtime, teach them to politely take treats from family members' hands when offered. Cue them to "sit" or "shake" then reward calm behavior by placing a treat in their mouth instead of letting them snatch it. This controlled interaction prevents overwhelming excitement.

Feed Your Dog Beforehand

Make sure your dog has been fed before your meal and has had a potty break so they are not restless due to hunger, thirst or needing to go outside. Meeting their basic needs beforehand means they can relax and focus on settling during your family meal instead of being preoccupied with other urges.

Keep Leash Nearby

In the initial training stages, keep your dog on leash during meals even if they are in their spot. This allows you to immediately correct unwanted wandering or begging behavior by redirecting them back to the spot. Praise and reward when they settle again. The leash provides more control as they learn.

Allow Chew Toys

Giving your dog an acceptable chew toy in their spot provides an outlet for their need to use their mouth during downtime. Rotate through chew toys stuffed with treats or food like Kongs to keep them engaged. The chewing distracts them from temptation at the table. Supervise toy time to avoid possessive or competitive behavior if you have multiple dogs.

Troubleshoot Setbacks

If your dog was doing well with mealtime training but suddenly starts acting up again, objectively evaluate whether something has changed to undermine the behavior. Did you ease up on rewards? Is there a new distraction like a TV show they find exciting? Is someone unintentionally engaging them? Pinpoint the cause of the setback and adjust your methods to get back on track.

Have Realistic Expectations

Keep in mind that while you can train your dog to stay settled and calm during mealtimes, their nature is still to be curious about food and people. An occasional whine or effort to sneak a scrap from under the table is normal dog behavior. The goal is to establish the habit of relaxation in their spot as much as possible, not demand perfection. Be patient and consistent in your training.

Make It a Family Effort

Getting your dog to relax during meals requires the participation of the whole family, especially children. Make sure everyone understands the training plan and sticks to the rules of redirecting your dog to their spot, ignoring unwanted behavior, praising calmness and not slipping food. Consistency from everyone is key to helping your dog learn faster.

Be Positive

Approach mealtime training using positive reinforcement, patience and calm assertiveness. Getting angry or punishing your dog for having trouble settling will undermine your bond with them. They want to please you, so channel your energy into rewarding desired behaviors, not scolding their nature. Your dog will feed off your positive leadership.

Don't Give Up!

If you feel your mealtime training efforts are not succeeding after several weeks, don't get discouraged or give up. Some dogs take longer to pick up new habits. Stick with a consistent approach using rewards, redirection and praise for calm behavior. Avoid yelling or punishment. With time, your dog will learn your expectations for mannerly conduct during family meals.

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