Owning a dog isn’t always the idyllic dream we wish it was, it takes hard work and commitment in many ways, and training your dog can be one of the biggest challenges. Some people are blessed with a dog who never really requires a second thought when it comes to training, almost like they’re just born ‘perfect’, but that’s not the reality for most dog owners.
There may come a time when your dog’s behaviour becomes too challenging and you reach the point where you need to take action. It can be hard to know where to start, or maybe you’ve spent months or years trying to stop a certain behaviour without any success. There are endless bits of advice available, Google alone will suggest hundreds of ideas to solve your dog’s problems, and likely you’ve met a few fellow dog owners with their fair share of opinions.
Just for a moment, forget all that past advice and think about one simple idea, which will arguably solve everything …
Prevent the bad, reward the good
It sounds too simple, and sure it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it doesn’t need to be over-complicated. The idea is that if you prevent your dog practicing an unwanted behaviour and at the same time you teach them a more desirable alternative behaviour, rewarding it heavily enough to make it a habit, then eventually the old habit will weaken and be replaced with the new one you’ve been rewarding. Essentially, that bad behaviour you dislike, will be replaced with a new behaviour you much prefer.
In order to deal with unwanted behaviours effectively, you need to take the time to understand it from your dog’s perspective. It’s easy to become frustrated with your dog, especially when you feel like he’s deliberately making your life difficult! Remember, he is not trying to wind you up, he’s not trying to ‘dominate’ you, and he’s not seeking revenge for something. He is simply being a dog and doing what he believes ‘works’… whether that’s working to gain something he wants or just expressing his feelings.
Stopping the unwanted behaviour isn’t enough on its own. You can’t just punish your dog when he does something you don’t like, this will only leave him confused and, quite possibly, scared of you. Dogs appreciate direction and clear boundaries, and part of this means rewarding him for making good choices. Rewards don’t always have to be food-related. People get hung up on the idea that they have to constantly reward their dog with treats, but that’s not always the case. Food rewards are important but you can also use ‘life rewards’, this could be a fuss from you, access to something in the environment or even something as simple as walking through a doorway. Every dog will have different motivations in life, you need to find out what your dog’s are and then work these into how you tackle his behaviours.
Remember: any behaviour that gets rewarded is more likely to repeated, so reward the behaviours you like!
Before you begin to work on an unwanted behaviour, you need to ask yourself ‘what would I rather he did instead’. It’s no use saying ‘I don’t want him to jump up’ or ‘I want him to stop barking’, you need to replace this with ‘I would like him to do this in this situation’.
Teaching a new behaviour is important, but on its own, it won’t make a difference. While you teach a new behaviour, you also need to prevent the old behaviour from being practiced otherwise the new behaviour can never replace the old one.
Management and consistency are key.
Management will mean you have to make some sacrifices; you will probably have to give up the easy options and do things which are inconvenient. If your dog likes to hunt in the woods, avoid the woods until you have established a better recall and taught your dog to find other reinforcement on his walks. If he pulls like crazy on the school run, stop taking him on the school run and work on his lead walking away from this situation until you have enough reliability for him to walk to school again. If he steals food in the kitchen or barks out the window, don’t give him unsupervised access to these parts of the house. It’s inconvenient but it’s important.
If your dog jumps up at guests, don’t let him to interact with them unless you’re able to consistently reward him for not jumping. In the early stages of this training, it’s vital you don’t give in to those people who say ‘oh I don’t mind if he jumps’ and then proceed to reward him for jumping by giving him all the attention. Likewise, it’s no good if you’re working on not jumping one day but the next day you come home from work and fuss him while jumps at you.
Every successful training session you do will be completely undone if you leave him practicing the unwanted behaviour 5 minutes later!
As with any behaviour, you MUST prevent the unwanted behaviour. Behaviours like hunting and lead pulling can be intrinsically reinforcing, so each time your dog practices it, he will be reinforced, making your job of teaching a preferable alternative even harder. Management and prevention of these behaviours may mean walking in different places to reduce the impact of previous associations, only returning to familiar walking routes once you have reliable loose lead walking or a reliable recall.
Ignoring or Preventing?
Preventing the behaviour is important, but there are some situations where ignoring the unwanted behaviour can also work. A word of caution before you try to ignore every unwanted behaviour: it does not work for everything and sometimes ignoring will only worsen the behaviour.
It all comes down to what is ultimately rewarding the behaviour. If your dog is barking at people passing the house, no amount of ignoring will help because his reinforcement is coming from the fact that those people keep walking and his barking appears to make them go away. Whereas, if your dog is barking at you when he wants to be fed, you could ignore this behaviour and only feed him when he stops and offers a quiet behaviour.
Watch out for the Extinction Bursts…
This is an unfortunate side-effect which can ruin even the best training efforts and in turn completely dishearten the most dedicated dog owner. An extinction burst is what happens when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer works … you try harder just before you give up. In human terms, if you use a lift multiple times a day and every time it opens within seconds, then one day you press the button and nothing happens, it won’t take long before you press it again, and again and again, until you start to get frustrated and perhaps you press it for longer or you stab at it harder. Eventually when still nothing happens, you give up and take the stairs.
In dog terms, if every time he jumps at you, you say something to him, and then one day he jumps and you do nothing, he’s going to try harder to get a reaction from you. He might jump higher and then he might add something else, perhaps nip you or bark at you. If you react to this stronger behaviour, he will know what to do next time the jumping doesn’t work … next time he just needs to add in that nip or bark and then you’ll talk to him!
You cannot give up or give in at this point! Take reassurance that it means your training is working, your dog is learning and he’s trying to work out what he needs to do. This is the biggest problem in ignoring unwanted behaviours, your dog can always find something which you can’t ignore. If you can ignore the extinction burst then all credit to you and it will be worth your persistence. However, many of us won’t be able to ignore the extinction burst, the nipping will hurt too much or the barking will be too loud, and we have no choice but to react to it in some way.
The longer your dog has been practicing a behaviour, the harder it will be to replace it with a new behaviour, and it may also mean you’re in for a tougher extinction burst. Plan ahead for these extinction bursts and have a plan of action ready. If your dog is escalating his jumping to a point you can’t ignore, quickly remove yourself from the situation before you have to react to his behaviour and only return when you’re ready to redirect his focus onto a better alternative. If his attention barking is increasing in an attempt to gain your attention, make sure you work harder to manage the situation and reward him more when he’s not barking for attention.
There are some fundamentals which this training will not work without …
- Manage the situation to prevent behaviour you don’t want reinforced
- Train for behaviours you do want
- Be consistent and reinforce, reinforce, reinforce, and then reinforce some more
- Gradually relax management bits, testing to see if training is taking over
You have to grit your teeth and establish new habits for yourself during this process. And that might mean inconvenience on your part. You will probably need to change your own habits in order to help your dog change theirs.