PROBLEM BEHAVIORS

I.  EVALUATE THE BEHAVIOR

Who decides what behaviors are problems? 

 

Dogs lick, sniff, comfort, play, greet, keep us company, and entertain.  Dogs also jump, bark, chew, growl, and yes, even bite.  And while some of these behaviors may appear to be problematic from the human perspective, these behaviors have developed over thousands of years, and continue to play a critical role in dog-to-dog interactions to prevent conflict, encourage cooperation, and survive.

Natural as these behaviors are, we humans want to let our pups know that our expensive new shoes are intended for our feet, not their mouths.   And while Aunt Sally loves your newly adopted fifty-pound bundle of joy, she may prefer to skip his exuberant jumping and face to face greetings.  So we must work together to find that happy place where dogs get to be dogs and humans get to be humans.  This can be accomplished with a little understanding,  patience,  practice - and a few tools at our disposal. 

 

Rule out medical or underlying behavioral issues.

It is paramount that we rule out any medical or behavioral issues such as pain, fear, separation anxiety or frustration.   This is done by evaluating the reasons for the behavior, often with the help of professionals.   Only after the reasons are understood, can an effective treatment or training plan be implemented.  Without the evaluation, there are risks of using ineffective, or even harmful, approaches which can worsen the underlying condition and behavior.

 

A few examples are listed below.

  • Lunging while on leash:  Lunging towards another dog might simply be excitement and an invite to play, but it also can mean the opposite.  His way of saying 'go away, I'm afraid'.  Correcting the latter requires a very different approach.

  • Barking:  Barking takes on many different forms, for many different reasons, including warning, guarding, frustration, excitement, or learned.  The reason for the barking must be identified before any intervention takes place.   

  • Destructive behaviors:  Chewing and tearing things apart might simply be a result of your dog seeing an object as a chew toy - a natural behavior that can be resolved using the tools below.  However, other destructive behaviors can stem from serious underlying conditions such as separation anxiety, boredom, or lack of exercise - all of which are serious issues and require different interventions.

Meet your dog's basic needs.

The first step in an evaluation is to ensure your dog's basic needs are met - this, in itself, often resolves the problem.

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  • Health:  Step one of every evaluation is to ensure that the problem behavior is not due to a medical issue, such a bladder infection, joint pain, or injury.  Keep your dog healthy by feeding him high quality food, maintaining an ideal weight, and regular visits to the vet. 

  • Exercise:  Providing adequate exercise and socialization - such as going to the dog run or taking long walks - alone can reduce or eliminate problem behaviors.

  • Crates:  Crates are a great option to use for house training or keeping dogs safe after a medical procedure,  but should not used as a primary means to restrict your dog's ability to move about your home freely.  This is inhumane and unhealthy.  If you need to restrict access, consider using gates or play pens with adequate space for your dog to move around and play.

  • Mental Stimulation:  Training, play, and enrichment toys such as puzzles, snuffle mats, and Kongs, all serve to keep your dog mentally stimulated - essential to reduce anxiety and boredom.  Note that interactive toys that include you, such as tug,  should be put away when playtime is over- all other toys should be rotated such that they remain fresh and interesting to your dog.

II.  CORRECT THE BEHAVIOR

Once medical or behavioral issues are ruled out, there are many tools to use in order to reduce unwanted behaviors.  The techniques described below can be used alone, or in combination with each other, depending on the situation.  I illustrate these techniques by assuming you want your dog to stop jumping on people when they approach.  I use this as a simple example since it is a common and often unwanted behavior, and it is highly unlikely to be due to anything but a dog displaying natural behavior.

1.  Prevent Rehearsals

 

If you want to stop a behavior - stop the behavior!  This means stopping the dog from rehearsing the problem behaviors through management.  The more the dog rehearses the behavior, the stronger the behavior becomes.  In some cases, management is all you need.  For example, dogs find rummaging through garbage fantastically rewarding and a ton of fun - solution -  keep the garbage out of reach!​  (Yes, sometimes it is that simple.)

Jumping example:  Prevent your dog from jumping on people.  

  • Tether your dog to prevent jumping on guests entering your home.

  • When walking, politely ask people not to greet your dog.

  • In an elevator, step on the leash to prevent the dog's ability to jump up should someone enter.

2.  Make Positive Associations

 

Dogs learn through making associations.  If you want your dog to like his bed, having treats and chew toys on his bed will result in him liking his bed, good things happen there.  There are many opportunities in training and behavior modification where making positive associations are extremely effective.

 

Jumping example:  Make the floor the place where good things happen.

  • Throw treats on the floor upon arriving home.  This is a wonderful way to both make positive associations with him orienting towards the floor, and also serves to prevent him from jumping (he cannot eat the treats on the floor and jump at the same time).

3.  Reward the Right Behavior

Jumping in an innate and naturally rewarding behavior for dogs, and is often rewarded with our attention.   To counter this, we can simply reward any other behavior besides jumping, such as sitting, standing, or moving away.   At first, you can reward the 'not jumping' behavior by giving him attention and treats.  Eventually, once he is consistently 'not jumping', you can remove the treats and just give him attention.   

Jumping example:   Give your dog attention when all four paws are on the ground. 

 

  • Once all the paws are on the ground for a couple of seconds, reward this with attention.  Eventually, this will happen more frequently and with longer duration.   

4.  Train an Alternative Behavior

 

Training your dog to perform a behavior that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior is another useful tool.   This is a similar approach as above, the only difference is that you are training and rewarding a specific alternative behavior, such as those listed below.

 

Jumping example:  Train your dog to fetch a toy or other incompatible behavior

  • Your dog cannot fetch a toy and jump at you at the same time.

  • You can also have your dog 'go to his place' or any other alternative behavior. 

  • Have toys at the door, and be ready to throw or play with a toy to keep his paws on the floor

5.  Stop the Rewards, Stop the Behavior

Dogs do what works.  If it stops working, they stop doing it.  This is a fundamental law of behavior. 

 

Jumping example:  Remove the attention.

  • Your dog is happy to see you, jumps up, and is rewarded with your response, even a 'No!' or 'Off!' or pushing him away is attention and can be perceived as rewarding.  Therefore, practice entering calmly and remove all attention if he jumps up on you (or a cooperating friend).  This means avoiding eye contact, talking, touching, or pushing.  Fold your arms and turn away, remain still, or remove yourself briefly by doing such things as going back outside and immediately reentering once he stops jumping.

  • Your dog will no longer find jumping rewarding, and when combined with the other tools, this will reduce or eliminate jumping.  

  • Keep in mind that it is always more effective to manage unwanted behaviors before they happen through management, and employ one or more of the tools above.