As trainers we often hear the phrase “I love my dog but…”. When we hear this remark (or request for help) from a client, friend, and/or family members remark we quickly prepare ourselves for a general answer to most of the common behavioral issues. Realizing that dog and owners’ issues are different and unique to each situation, there are common methods or steps that can be used as a starting point to address each of them. The questions that trainers typically start with are (i) why is the dog repeating the behavior, (ii) what do you prefer the dog does instead of the “unwanted” behavior, and (iii) how can you manage the current behavior while in the training process? To clarify, when we say “behavior,” we are referring to the way your dog may act in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Let’s look at these things separately.
Why is the dog performing this behavior?
A dog will only repeat a behavior that is reinforcing to them which, in other words, how does the dog benefit from that behavior. A couple more common examples may include a nervous dog barking at an approaching human. The human stops approaching due to the bark. How does your nervous dog benefit? The scary human leaves. The behavior of barking is reinforced through the human leaving. What if your dog jumps on guests as they enter your house or when you meet them on a walk? The guest’s hands come down and they begin to touch and talk to the dog. How does your dog benefit? That human just gave your dog their attention and dogs love attention. The jumping behavior is unintentionally reinforced by the attention and the dog repeats behavior in order to get the same result.
It is important to quickly identify what is causing the dog to repeat the unwanted behavior. If you cannot identify why the behavior continues, it becomes very difficult to create a plan to manage or change the behavior.
What should the dog do instead?
Deciding what you want your dog to do instead of the unwanted behavior is key to moving forward and past your current concerns. Clients share the stressor or the unwanted behavior but generally have never considered what it is they do want their dog to do instead. To be honest, I think we are kind of hardwired that way. We feel the stress and just want it to go away or be resolved. However, when we focus on what it is we would like instead, we can start creating some strategies for getting to that result. When this thought process does happen, it tends to generally be vague. EX: I do not have a job. What I would like is to have a job. That example shares what it is that I want but very broad. The stress is not having a job. The solution would be a job in the animal industry making at least $35K. This is specific. If we can be more specific in the goal, the solution, even in small increments of success, can start to take place.
Let’s think about this in terms of a common dog behavior. The stressor or behavior is the dog jumping on guests when they enter the door or you meet on a walk. A common response is that I want them to stop or greet nicely. A specific goal or behavior might be that I want them to sit on their dog bed or at my side until the guests come say hello. Once you have decided what the dog should do instead you can better focus on the process to get there and start to create a training plan (on your own or with a trainer) to create and teach that new (or substitute) behavior.
Managing the Behavior
Management is key when training a new behavior. This becomes especially true when you are trying to replace an unwanted behavior (EX. jumping, barking, house soiling) Management is about preventing the dog from having opportunities to repeat or “rehearse” the unwanted behavior. The more the dog successfully rehearses the unwanted behavior the more ingrained it becomes and that will become how your dog handles that situation. This makes it harder and take longer to replace with a new “wanted” behavior. Examples of managing a behavior might be putting your dog on leash before guests come in the door to give you more control and decrease your dog’s ability to jump or putting wax paper over the window where your dog typically has those distractions that result in barking. As you manage a behavior and decrease the dog’s opportunity to rehearse and be reinforced for the unwanted behavior, the quicker that behavior will begin to subside. Do not expect overnight change so have realistic expectations and be very pleasantly surprised when your dog exceeds those expectations. Combine this with a great training plan to teach your desired behavior and you will be well on your way to creating the more desired behavior.
Keep these three easy steps in mind every time you run into a problematic behavior. Though these steps do not discuss the actual detailed training, they will help you interrupt the behavior before it gets worse. They will also prepare you for your next session with your favorite trainer.