Every morning it's the same routine: you get your dog's food bowl, and as you start preparing your dog's meal, your dog starts whining and whining and whining, up to the pointing of making you wonder: Why do dogs whine for food? You might be surprised in learning that you may be inadvertently encouraging this behavior. Fortunately, there are some strategies to reduce this type of whining, so if your dog's whining for food is getting out of hand, you may want to change a bit your routine, obviously unless, you don't mind it!
Reminiscent of Early Puppy Hood
The behavior of whining for food is most likely reminiscent of the early days when the puppy was in the litter with mother dog and siblings. When puppies are cold, hungry or briefly separated from their mothers, their whining grabs mom's attention, soliciting her care. This form of whining is categorized as an "et-epimeletic behavior" which means that it is a care-seeking behavior.
A dog who is therefore whining for food is most likely soliciting you to feed him! Rover is therefore there telling you "I am very hungry right now and I want food! Won't you give this poor starving dog something to eat?"
Did you know? While et-epimeletic behaviors encompass care-seeking behaviors, epimeletic behaviors are those that encompass care-giving behaviors.
A Matter of Timing
OK, let's face it: getting food is important and even us humans tend to get upset and impatient when food service at a restaurant is too slow. How many episodes of Hell's Kitchen have you watched where customers waiting for their meals got irritated and angrily put down their napkins on the table and left the restaurant?
Back to your dog, if your meal preparation service for your dog is slow, you might expect to hear some whining from your dog, possibly along the lines of "I am hungry, and you are killing me with all this back and forth you are doing, can't you just place the bowl down once and for all?"
Your dog doesn't realize that you have to soak his kibble for some time, mix every thing together or perhaps even open bottles and add medications to his chow, so he might just think that you are being unfair and are having fun torturing him!
Did you know? A common way to train a dog to bark or whine on cue is to juggling with a ball and getting Rover all excited by it and then hiding it behind the back. Most dogs will have something to complain about and will whine or bark from frustration.
The Power of Reinforcement
Why do newborn puppies keep on whining to grab their mother dog's attention? Well, the first time the puppy whines, the behavior may simple be fruit of instinct. Whining in this case is an adaptive behavior that increases a vulnerable, atricial puppy's chance for survival.
However, there's likely more to that. Whine after the whine, the puppy quickly learns that whining is effective in grabbing mom's attention which leads to getting food and warmth. The whining behavior therefore is rewarded with mother dog's attention and since the behavior is reinforced, it strengthens and repeats.
So when your dog is whining, and whining when you prepare his meals, you are rewarding the behavior because he finally gets his meal. It's sort of like a child crying for candy at the store.
As annoying as you find this behavior, consider that you might be doing the same though at home or at your favorite restaurant. If your husband, wife, mother or other caregiver is preparing you a meal and it smells really good but it's taking very long, most likely at some point you might complain "Hey, honey! When is this meal ready? I am starving, ya know!"
Since this behavior often leads to an expedition in the meal preparation process, you're likely to complain again in the near future. An most likely, the person who prepares the meal also speeds up just to stop hearing your nagging!
Lack of Impulse Control
What makes one dog patiently wait for his meal lying down on his mat while another one is pacing and whining in anticipation? Most likely, it's the dog's level of impulse control, in other words amount of training!
After all, if you think about it, training a dog mostly encompasses teaching a dog to better control his impulses. So just as you can train a dog to heel and control his impulse to forge ahead and pull, you can train your dog to calmly wait for his meal.
It might just take some extra time to master if your dog has been rehearsing his whining behavior for most of his life. So here is a brief guide to reduce, and potentially finally put to a stop your dog's whining for food behaviors.
Stopping The Whining
If serving your dog his meal while he's whining is rewarding the whining for food behavior, how can you put a stop to it? You still need to feed him food, so it's not like not feeding him is an option. Get upset about it and scolding the dog may not do much and some dogs may find it intimidating.
How about instead, informing your dog that his whining doesn't expedite you, but rather makes you slow down or stop? Let's therefore take a look at how we can stop this type of whining.
Tip: this exercise works best if your dog already knows a down/stay, but it's not necessarily a requirement, you can always teach this later on.
Whining Makes You Stop!
So on a day when you have plenty of time, start preparing your dog's meal. The moment your dog whines, stop in your tracks. Just freeze like a statue. Then, once he stops whining, resume preparing his food. Keep doing this: freeze when he whines and resume and expedite when he is quiet.
When it's time to put walk towards your dog and put the food bowl down, do the same. As you are walking towards your dog, stop if he whines, walk towards your dog when he's quiet. What if your dog happens to still whine when you are frozen? You can just ignore it, or even make an about face and walk a few steps away. When he's quiet, turn around and advance.
Lower the food bowl but the moment your dog whines, lift it up. When he's quiet, lower the bowl. You want to let him eat from the bowl only once he's calm and quiet, this way you are no longer rewarding your dog's whining.
Tip: To help your dog succeed and not make the exercise too difficult, it would help if for the very first sessions you have your dog's meal already prepared in advance or needs minimal preparation. You can prepare your dog's food while your dog is out in the yard or is out for a walk.
Troubleshooting Some Problems
Training a dog who has whined for food for a good part of his life will take some time and it's normal to encounter certain problems. For instance, if your dog's whining seems to be increasing rather than decreasing, this may signal what's known as an "extinction burst," bit no worries, this is a good thing!
Basically, what's happening is that your dog is increasing his whining in hopes of getting your attention since it no longer seems to be working, so your dog may at some point try to whine louder or longer than before.
It's as if your dog is saying " Hey, what's up with you today? Usually, when I whine you speed up and feed me, today instead you are slowing down and even stopping! Don't you hear me? Whiiiiiiinneeeeee!"Whiiinnnnneeee! Whiiiineeeeee!" There are also chances that your dog may try another behavior, a different one, such as barking.
If your dog goes through such an extinction burst, no worries! It's actually a good thing, signaling that your training is working! Just keep stopping food preparation during whining and resuming when your dog is quiet. If you keep it up and persist, your dog will get the point and reduce whining, but be careful: if you are lazy one day and give in just to stop the whining, chances are you will end up with whining that's even worse than before because your dog will be learning that persistence pays off! So keep up the training!
A word of caution is also needed with dogs who get very frustrated. Frustration may at times cause displacement behaviors such as yawning and scratching and in some cases even aggressive displays, so if you are dealing with a particularly challenging dog who has a hard time dealing with frustration, consult with a professional.
And finally for those who stumbled here looking for solutions for dogs whining for food when begging at the table, the solution is the same, don't reward the whining by giving food! If you really want to give some healthy table scraps, make sure you give them only when your dog is calm and not whining or pawing at you. If your dog whines while you are lowering your hand, raise it back up and wait for calm, quiet behavior, or better, ask your dog to do sit or lie down so that you don't get stuck with a smart dog who learns to whine first and then be quiet in order to get food.
So there you have it... If you want to reduce your dog's whining for food and your dog can use a bit of training to attain better impulse control, give this strategy a try. You may see the whining increase at first, but if you are persistent, you will start seeing a considerable reduction in your dog's whining for food behavior.