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Teaching an older dog to wait for their food is something that can make mealtimes more pleasant for everyone. It is also an opportunity to teach your dog “impulse control,” a term professional trainers use that basically means any trick that teaches your dog that waiting leads to great things.
If your older dog is used to things a certain way, it can be tricky to teach him a new way of doing things. That is why our methods start by teaching some version of “wait” independent of dinner time, only adding the dinner time 'wait' ritual once your dog understands the concept of waiting in the more general sense.
We have included three methods for teaching your older dog to wait for their food:
Sit Method: This method will simultaneously teach your dog to stay in a sit when told to wait, a trick you can easily develop for use at any time or place.
Behind the Line Method: This method will teach your dog to respect a barrier that you create with a rope or yard stick on the floor. Take this trick with you on the road to teach your dog to respect boundaries, such as not entering a specific room while visiting with family.
On the Mat Method: This method gives you a tool that will serve you well in many situations – you can send your dog to their mat even if you are traveling (as long as you bring the mat with you!)
Caution: If you suspect your dog is a food guarder (for instance they growl or bark if someone comes near to them while they are eating) consult an animal behaviorist before working on this skill around dinner time. In some cases, working on “Wait!” around feeding time can exacerbate already established food guarding behaviors.
Get the following items ready, regardless of the training method you choose:
- Food bowl
- Kibble and/or treats cut into tiny pieces
- Clicker--or use a marking word of your choice that you always reward during training
You will need the following additional items for the different methods:
Behind the Line: You will need a 3’ rope, yard stick or other item you can use to demarcate a line on the floor that you can pick up and move to practice this behavior from different locations.
On the Mat: You will need a mat that your dog can sit on.
Note that teaching any “impulse control” behavior takes some time and practice, especially with older dogs. Keep your training sessions short, and return to the prior step each time you resume training. All of the methods described assume that you will be breaking the training up into several sessions as your dog picks up these skills.
The Sit Method
Start by having your dog sit near his feeding location, but in between feeding times so he is not keyed up for a meal. Click/reward a few times while he sits just to let him know that a training session has begun and good things are coming.
Take a piece of kibble and put it in your hands and close your fist so your dog can’t get it. Your dog will probably try to sniff or lick your hand, just ignore that. As soon as he gives up on that, open your hand a tiny bit and when he goes in to get it, snap it shut. Notice, you don’t actually say anything at this stage.
Open hand wait
Repeat the above step until you can leave your hand open for one second without your dog going for it. Then say the release word “Okay!” in an excited tone and let your dog have the treat from the palm of your open hand. Repeat this process 20-30 times, slowly extending the time you can have your hand open before giving the release word.
Add the cue
Once your dog is reliably not going for the food in your hand for about 10 second before you release, you are ready to add the cue “wait” said in a drawn-out tone. Remember to continue to snap your hand shut if he goes for the kibble before the release word.
Back to the bowl
Place a piece of kibble or treat in your dog’s dinner bowl, say “Wait!” and slowly start to remove your hand. If they go for it even a little, snap your hand over the treat and ignore any attempts to lick it, just like in the second step. If you get even a few seconds of them ignoring the kibble in the bowl, give the release word, “Okay!” and let them have the treat.
Increase distance and duration
Start to increase your distance from the food bowl as you continue to practice this behavior over the next few training sessions. If your dog goes for the kibble before the release, you can use a spray of water from a squirt gun or loud stomp on the floor to “proof” the behavior. Just keep your expectations reasonable so that your dog is successful at least 90% of the time.
Now it is time to start practicing at meal time since your dog should know the drill. Instead of starting with the entire bowl full of kibble, try pouring 1/3 of their portion into the bowl while giving the command “Wait!” Give the release within 5 seconds the first few times. Over time you can extend this to a few minutes or more.
Practice makes perfect
Continue to practice 'wait' in other situations, such as with a favorite toy, treats, or before going outside, to strengthen the behavior and give it meaning for your dog beyond dinner time.
The Behind the Line Method
Introduce the line
Training your dog to wait behind a line has so many applications that can be useful, for example: room containment, keeping your dog out from under foot while you train another dog, or as in this case, keeping them out of their food bowl until released. Start by placing the line between you and your dog, and immediately click/treating them for being on the other side. You should be close enough to hand the treat to their mouth at this stage. Repeat 10-15 times, rapidly.
Toss the treat
Start tossing the kibble a few feet past your dog, on the other side of the line. Keep your body right at the line on your side so when your dog comes back towards you after getting the treat, you can block him from crossing the line. If your dog does cross the line, just ignore it at this stage. Wait for him to get back on his side, and click/treat. Repeat 20-30 times or until you sense that your dog “gets it.”
Add the cue
Add a cue that you want to use for your dog to go behind the line. For example “Behind!” is a good one. You can just start saying the cue right after your dog gets their treat and is heading back to the line to wait.
Add distance and duration
Now slowly start extending your distance from the line, and the duration that they wait for a click/reward. Continue to use the cue. Continue to toss the treat behind your dog. Continue to ignore if your dog crosses the line, waiting patiently for him to get back on his side before click/treating. Work on this stage until your dog is staying behind the line for up to 30 seconds with you several feet from the line.
Add a release word
Your dog is now well aware of the line and has the sense that it is some kind of boundary. It is now time to teach him that he can only cross the line with a release word. Sitting a few feet on your side of the line, place a treat or piece of kibble on the floor and let your dog see it. If he breaks the line, snap your hand over the kibble and ignore him. Once he gives up on the treat, say “Behind!” and point to the other side of the line. As soon as your dog is there, again lift your hand off of the treat. Once your dog stays over the line for one second with the treat exposed, give the release word “Okay!” and let him cross the line to get it.
Back in position
Say “Behind!”, pointing to the other side of the line. Wait for him to go across and repeat this drill. You will now ONLY be rewarding when you give the release word and your dog gets the kibble on your side of the line.
Add duration and distance
Continue to extend the duration of time your dog must wait on his side of the line before getting released, slowly. In addition, as your dog gets better at this game, start sitting farther from the line. Repeat the process until you are sure your dog understands the expectations, and he is able to wait 20 seconds on his side of the line before being released for the treat.
Add the dinner bowl
Switch to his dinner bowl, dropping kibble or treats in the bowl and continue to repeat the steps above. By extending time and duration as your dog “gets it” you will soon have your dog behind the line, waiting diligently for their food until released. If you practice the line at the boundary of the kitchen, for example, eventually you will not need the rope there at all.
The On the Mat Method
Introduce the Mat
Some folks like to use a mat to contain their dog’s movements for various reasons. One of them may be to have your dog wait for their dinner. Start by taking your dog over to her mat, asking for a sit, and click/treating. Repeat 10-15 times.
Add release word
Use the release word “Okay!” to invite your dog off the mat, and click/treat when she moves away.
Add the cue
Add the cue “Go to your mat” before directing your dog over to the mat. You now have a cue for the behavior and the release word in place. If your dog breaks the stay on the mat before the release word, do not scold her at this stage, simply redirect her to the mat by pointing and resume the training. At this point you will stop rewarding her on the mat, you will only reward when you give the release word and your dog gets to go get the treat.
Add duration and distance
Extend the time you expect your dog to wait on the mat before the release word is given. In addition, although you will start right next to the mat, you want to increase your distance from it as you repeat the pattern: On the mat, sit and wait, release word given, off the mat, treat, repeat.
Add the food bowl
Now you are ready to bring the food dish into the equation. Start by placing it down empty a few feet from the line. Once your dog will wait for 10 seconds, place a piece of kibble in the bowl, wait 1 second, then release your dog to get it. Send her back to the mat, repeat 20-30 times, increasing the duration.
Practice makes perfect
With regular practice and extension of time and distance, you will have your dog going to her mat, and waiting to be released for her meal.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 01/08/2018, edited: 01/08/2021