How to Stop Unwanted Behaviour

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For years and years, dog training was almost entirley problem-based. Owners would give little supervision and instructions to their dogs and then punish them when they broke the rules that they didn’t even know existed, because nobody told them!  Unfortunately most of the time, a dog’s good behaviour is ignored and the owner pays attention to them when they bark, steal something, chew or run away with an inappropriate item. Owners do this to such an extent that many dogs learn that so called misbehaving is the best way to get their owners attention, so they misbehave more. 

Dogs are social animals and thrive on social interaction.  With this in mind one of the most powerful training techniques for puppies is to ignore all unwanted behaviour and to pay attention and reward good behaviours. Easy, watch your dog and whenever he does anything you like simply say, good boy and reward with his dinner (make him earn his dinner, feed him from your hand don’t give it to him for free in a dog bowl). Obviously, simply ignoring unwanted behaviour is not going to cause it to stop completely but you will see a very quick and dramatic reduction in how often this unwanted behaviour occurs, because dogs do what works for them and if the behaviour you want gets rewarded they are going to do this more often, leaving less time for unwanted behaviour to occur.

If you dog is misbehaving then great you have a dog training opportunity, because your dog is going to stop that unwanted behaviour and as soon as he does you can reward him, reinforcing the stopping of unwanted behaviour is better than punishment which would only exacerbate the problem.  If for some reason we can’t ignore the behaviour then teach your dog an incompatible behaviour. For example your dog is humping another dog down the park, instead of yelling at your dog which only raises the arousal levels of both dogs and humans, simply teach him a sit signal and just ask him to sit a dog can’t hump and sit at the same time. As soon as he sits reward him with a treat and by letting him go back to playing with the other dogs. He will soon learn that humping stops the play.

BE CONSISTENT Decide what your rules will be, and make sure everyone works together to consistently maintain those rules. If one person lets Bella cuddle next to them on the couch any time she wants, Bella won’t understand if Mom gets angry at her for jumping up on the couch when mum sits down. Have clearly defined family rules so that you don’t confuse your puppy. The more consistent the environment, the better your dog’s behaviour!

PREVENTION PREVENTION PREVENTION It is your responsibility to prevent your puppy from learning bad habits, pure and simple. This sounds easy enough, but in practice it takes a thoughtful assessment of the house, an ability to always have part of your attention focused on your pup and the acknowledgment that we all mess up from time to time.

Puppy-proof your home and supervise your puppy until he learns the rules. Eventually he will learn how to be good without supervision, but that will take many months of guidance and training. You wouldn’t leave a two year old child alone in a room unsupervised, without their nappy on would you? Well, your pup has just as much to learn about how to be “good” as a human child does, so don’t set your puppy up to fail. Prevent mishaps before they happen.

REDIRECT Always be ready to interrupt your pup from doing something inappropriate and to redirect him toward something that is appropriate. Have a toy in your pocket to redirect him from your shoes by the door to a designated dog toy. Lure him away from chewing on the plant in the living room by asking him to sit, down and stand several times in a row, and then toss him a Kong stuffed with treats while you move the plant out of reach. Over and over again (and truly, that’s exactly what it feels like!) direct him to an option other than the behaviour that could get him into trouble. He will eventually learn that he gets rewarded for the right options, and he will begin to make better choices.

TEACH “No” It’s helpful to be able to communicate to a dog that something he is doing is wrong, without scaring or hurting him. Teach your pup a signal that simply means “Wrong choice, try again.” You can use any word you want. A lot of people say “No!” and there’s nothing wrong with that IF you can continue to use it as a signal and not a punishment. That’s a big “if!” It seems to be human nature to use the word “no” in a loud, gruff voice and many of us automatically shout out an angry “NO” when a pup does something we don’t like. Then, when the first “No” is ignored, it gets louder and louder and angrier and angrier. If the pup has no idea what the sound means, all you are tell him is that you are aroused and potentially aggressive. You are not telling the pup what he is doing is wrong, nor telling him what he should be doing. Use whatever signal you like best, “Whoops,” or “No” or “Uh Uh,” but only use it after you’ve taught your pup what it means. This is easily done by getting some food in your hand and throwing a piece on the floor for your pup to eat. Once your puppy as finished eating and looks at you throw another piece, place it so that you can easily step between it and your puppy. As your pup goes to move towards the food say “No” in a neutral tone and move forward, blocking your pup’s path. As he looks up at you, tell him good boy and reward with a piece of food from your hand or tell him okay and let him eat the food off the floor. Repeat that two or three times, until he automatically stops moving towards the food when you say “No”. When he does that, fantastic! Give him several food rewards in a row. Gradually work your way up to expecting him to respond to your “No” when he is more and more distracted, but be aware it can take many months for a dog to have enough self control to turn away from a dropped piece of cake!

AVOID PHYSICAL CORRECTIONS Physical corrections should not be a routine part of your pup’s education. If you find that is happening, please seek out a good positive reinforcement trainer and/or behaviourist to help you get your relationship with your dog back on track. Frequent physical corrections indicate a lack of communication and understanding between you and your dog. Teach and educate your pup. You probably don’t learn much when someone is angrily screaming in your face or hitting you, and your pup won’t either. Does that mean you’ll never find yourself frustrated by your dog? No! If you find yourself losing your temper, take a deep breath and in the sweetest voice imaginable, say: “You “[email protected]*” dog.” Take advantage of the fact that dogs don’t come speaking English, just keep saying it like its sweet talk. Your dog won’t learn a darned thing, but you might feel better!

REINFORCEMENT: We know that dogs only repeat behaviours if they get something out of it and we don’t always provide that reinforcement intentionally. So if your dog keeps doing something then it is being rewarded, if we want to stop them doing it then we have to stop the reward. Sometimes the environment rewards the behaviour. Chasing a cat is very rewarding, but we haven’t provided that reward. Sometimes we reward the dog accidently, for example, when we allow the dog to pull on a tight lead to sniff a post, pulling on lead is being rewarded.

Below are some examples of so called “Naughty” Behaviour and how to deal with them.

Jumping & Other Accidently Trained Behaviours

A cute puppy is allowed to jump up and gets lots of petting and attention. We now have a huge reinforcement history to overcome when puppy is over 30kg and the family decides that jumping up is no longer a good behaviour and wants to stop the dog jumping. Pushing the dog off actually reinforces the behaviour[1]. Jumping up is about needing approval or attention, “needing being the key word”. By punishing the dog’s needs we are losing the communication that we understand them. So a jumping up dog needs to be listened to. Why does he jump up in the first face? Dogs get reinforcement from face contact. It is our fault that they have to jump to get to our faces, jumping up is purely a side effect of the physical difference in height. The way I greet my dogs is I calmly bend over and let the dog get approval and they have received the reward that they want at that time a greeting from me[2]. Imagine if your partner comes home from work bursting with news about their day and you turn around and ignore them? Stuffing their mouths with biscuits is not going to satisfy their need for you it is just going to frustrate them, so give them some focus and listen to them, it is you they want. For non-doggy people, teach an incompatible behaviour such as sit, a dog can’t jump up and sit at the same time. Teach your dog that holding out a particular object like a blue ball for example is a signal for sit. Keep a blue ball (or whatever object you desire) by the front door. Non doggy person comes in? Hand them the ball. The dog sits. Reward (Depending on what the dog finds reinforcing at that time the reward could be food, a pat from you or a pat from the visitor). End of jumping. 

For dogs that look to strangers for reinforcement by jumping towards them on a walk – Not a behaviour that should be encouraged we don’t want a dog that runs up to everyone and anyone uninvited (Goldens are one of the worst breeds to do this because of their friendly nature, but this causes problems in the park); who wants to lose their dog in the park when they see a stranger. Do we want to encourage behaviour that will lead you to spending all your time trying to get your dog’s attention on you? We need to teach our dogs that they can only say hello to anyone or anything when we say it is okay. Dogs don’t need to greet everyone. So for strangers passing by on our walk, put your dog into park – a useful behaviour that enables mutual relaxation and one of the first things I teach my dogs (See Article– Parking the dog). Then ask the stranger to walk on by without interacting with your dog, they don’t need to pat your dog, your dog is also in park so he can’t make a mistake and be reinforced for jumping up on the stranger.

Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a natural, normal canine behaviour. In fact it is natural for most animals, even us humans – we guard resources quite fiercely. We lock our doors, companies hire security guards, Banks have vaults and we have all heard of guns being used to protect valuables. However, most owners think they should be able to take a bone or any item from their dogs at will. Owners become easily upset if their dog becomes possessively aggressive about their food or toys. We can teach dogs that it is a good thing to give up their possessions, but it doesn’t come naturally. Sharing their food and toys with others (particularly of another species) goes against a survival instinct.

Resource guarding is a safety issue for humans and a stress issue for dogs but it is a relatively easy problem to fix if you keep a cool head and avoid threatening the dog. There is no need to assert your authority and be the so called mythical ‘alpha dog’. Decades ago, science moved us beyond the need for dominance-based methods to help fix problems we have with our dogs.

- Teach your dog a Give or Trade signal

- Teach your dog the OFF cue if he is guarding the furniture – Get him up on the sofa by patting the sofa or luring him with a treat. Don’t give the treat yet (we want to reward for “off” not jumping on). Then say off and lure him back onto the floor, reward as soon as he heads off the sofa and reward by tossing the food on to the ground. Don’t start to teach off when the dog is settled and comfortable on the sofa – we need to work up to that level.

- Condition your dog to expect good things when you approach him, when he has a resource that he highly prizes.

- Eliminate the dog’s need to growl, freeze, stare or show other resource guarding behaviour by not doing things that push him beyond what he can handle at this stage of his training.

NOTE: Growling is an obvious sign, but there are less obvious signs of mild resource guarding, like stiffening up, moving his head lower and over the guarded object, turning his back on you with the object in his possession, running away from you with the object, turning his head away but keeping his eyes staring at you so you see ‘whale eye’ (see later article on body language) this is a sure sign that you are too close and the dog will more than likely bite if threatened.

- If there is already an issue of resource guarding be proactive remove the items that he guards from the living area so that he can’t accidently be triggered, this is especially important if there are children in the house.

- DO NOT punish a dog for growling by scruff shaking or any other show of violence. All you are doing is showing the dog that he was right – humans are crazy and you’ve got to protect your things and yourself from them.

For more info Check out Jean Donaldson’s book, Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding.

Digging

Digging is a normal behaviour of dogs but it is undesirable to most owners. Dogs dig for a number of reasons:

1. Thermoregulation; to keep warm or cool when outside for prolonged periods of time.

2. Hunting; Insects or other animals. Dogs can smell and hear animals in the ground.

3. Burying; Hiding a treasured item to be recovered later.

4. Escape or anxiety; this usually involves digging along a fence line. For example dogs left outside during a thunderstorm might try and get away from the perceived threat; intact males might escape if they scent a female in season.

 Digging is also a self-reinforcing behaviour so ignoring it will not make it go away.

Prevention and Management

Owners will need to manage their dogs by not allowing unsupervised access to their favourite digging areas. If a dog is bored they are going to be more likely to dig, by providing that dog with more walks, play time, training and less time alone in the back yard might help the problem. Providing the dog with an appropriate place to dig, like a sand box, can provide your dog with appropriate digging time. Make the location enticing by burying and hiding treats in the spot.

SUMMARY

  • Remember that good habits take a long time to solidify; reinforce your puppy generously for good behaviour with praise, treats, pets and play.
  • Respond to problem behaviours (like chewing, digging etc) by managing the environment to prevent problems, redirecting your pup to an appropriate behaviour (ask yourself: “What DO I want my pup to do”) and teach a signal that means “Wrong choice, try again”
  • Teach your dog an alternative incompatible behaviour to the behaviour you don’t like.
  • Avoid physical corrections and ignore advice that you have to “dominate” your dog. Teach your pup what you’d like him to do, and discourage what you don’t want through management and re-direction.
  • Don’t let a puppy practice and reinforce behaviours that you don’t want to see when they are adults.

 



[1] Sparring with paws is one way that dogs greet each other.

[2] If your dog is highly excited then hold the collar before bending over, we want to avoid black eyes.

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