Dog behavior problems? Change the pattern, change the behavior.

There are certain topics in dog training that come up at least once per day. I find myself saying “Change the pattern, change the behavior” in many situations and I realized that this is a powerful concept that you might find useful when working with your dog. 

My dog training philosophy is based on changing a dog’s behavior, and not focusing on what the dog might be thinking.

 Many people fall into the trap of making assumptions about why the dog performed a certain behavior and then run the risk of basing their training strategies on murky hypotheses. Examples of murky hypotheses include:

  1. “My dog jumped on me because he was being dominant.”
  2. “My dog urinated on my bed because she was being spiteful.”
  3. “My dog bit me because he is trying to take charge.”

I get many questions about why dogs do things and I often say, “I don’t know, but I do know that your dog did the behavior. That we can all agree upon, so let’s start there.” Once you move past the “why” and focus on changing behavior, your world may very well open up to a whole new way of looking at animal behavior. Keep in mind that this is not limited to dogs. You can use these strategies on any animal, including the two-legged variety that roam freely around the streets.

Behaviors can be innate (hardwired) such as breathing, yawning or blinking, or they can be learned such as sitting for a treat or responding to one’s name. Often dog behavior problems such as jumping are rooted in learned behaviors over time. How does a dog learn? A dog, like any animal learns through repetition. A situation presents itself, the dog responds in a certain manner and there is a consequence to his actions. If he enjoys the consequence, then the motivation kicks in and he wants to do that again! 

Examples of learned behaviors include:

  1. Dog puts paws on person’s leg, dog gets petted
  2. Dog barks at person, person moves away
  3. Puppy grabs sock and runs, person chases, dog has fun

In each of the previous examples, the dog interacted with the environment in a certain way and, in turn, the environment responded in a certain way.

  1. In the first example, the dog put paws on the person’s leg and he got petted. What happens if he is never, ever, ever allowed to put his paws on the person’s leg? He doesn’t have an opportunity to learn that this might result in getting petted.
  2. In the second example, what if the dog was kept at a distance where he never felt like barking and never learns that barking causes a person to move away?
  3. In the third example, what happens if  the puppy is never left alone near socks and never learns that grabbing a sock might result in a fantastic game of chase?

I can tell you with certainty what would happen. The dog would never have a chance to decide if the consequence of his actions are enjoyable and these behaviors would not become strong, well-rehearsed “habits”. 

So, how do you use this information with your dog?

Stop behavior patterns quickly when you see them developing. Make sure that you think about what you do not want your dog to do. If you don’t want your dog to dig holes in your nice garden, watch him like a hawk and prevent him from ever learning that digging holes is fun. Stop him as quickly as possible when it does occur, and redirect his behavior into a more acceptable behavior such as playing fetch or playing tug. If you can’t watch him, bring him inside. 

Manage your dog's access to the environement. Don’t be an absentee trainer. If you can’t watch your dog, manage him in a crate or dog-proofed area so he doesn’t learn that the couch tastes yummy, or it is fun to bark out of the window all day long and build barrier frustration in the process.

Change the chain of events. For a dog that jumps on guests, the current chain of events might look like this:

  1. Dog sees person
  2. Dog runs towards person
  3. Dog puts paws on person’s legs
  4. Dog play bites hands of person

My recommended chain events looks like this:

  1. Dog sees person
  2. Dog doesn’t jump
  3. Dog sits to get petted

How to you change the pattern? First of all you need to stop the undesired chain of events from “going down the wrong path”. In this example, the situation degrades when the dog starts running towards the person, so that is where the focus should be placed. To prevent this from happening, the easiest thing to do is to have the dog on leash and prevent the dog from learning that he can run to the person and then jump and then get petted.

Friendly guests can derail great training by petting a dog for jumping. So, you need to take charge and make sure your dog never learns to do this behavior. 

Do this:

  • Have your dog on leash
  • AS SOON as he sees your guest say, "Yes" or 'click' if you are using a clicker and give him a treat
  • Move him a bit farther away if he is too interested in the events in front of him and continue the exercise
  • As his interest moves from the events in front of him to getting a tasty treat, you can try and drop the leash (it is still attached to his collar) and continue working
  • If that is too much for him, pick up the leash and try again
  • At this point you can also ask for a “Sit” and reward that by giving a treat and also allowing your guest to come closer for petting
  • If your dog jumps at this point, move him away and continue the exercise
  • You can also redirect his attention by tossing his favorite toy down the hallway as soon as he sees your guests so he chases the toy instead of jumping on your guests

If you focus on stopping the chain of events before your dog starts the inappropriate behavior, you can change an infinite amount of behaviors including barking, digging, destruction, and even aggression.

Happy training!
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