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Resolving Problem Behaviors

Who decides what behaviors are problems?

Drop It with Shoe_edited.jpg

Dogs do not have good behavior and bad behavior - they simply have behavior.  They behave in ways that work for them; are we any different?

Wait, how can you say that?  My dog just destroyed my brand new sneakers when he has his own huge bin of toys - he knows better!  What he knows is that the last few times he picked up his stuffed toys and pranced around your home - everyone ignored him.  But when he discovered his 'new toy' (shoes), not only are they wonderful to chew - the shape, textures, scents, and laces  - but his humans join in on the fun with a good game of chase and some high pitched sounds.  His choice is clear.   

So how do we 'fix' this?  Maybe we don't need to - we can simply put our shoes away.   And if he does manage to grab one, we can stop reinforcing this behavior by not chasing him or yelling 'drop it'  from across the room.  How about making his own toys more interesting by identifying his favorites, rotating access to them such that they remain fresh and interesting; and initiating or joining in on the fun when he does grab one?   

In training jargon, we would say let's employ good management techniques to reduce rehearsals of the unwanted behaviors; put the current behavior on extinction by removing all reinforcers; and in its place, let's reinforce an alternative behavior that works for all.  Below outlines the steps required to achieve this.

How to stop unwanted behaviors

1.  Ask what is the function of the behavior (WTF)?

We cannot modify a behavior if we do not understand the function of the behavior.   For example, in the above example, he is chewing on the shoe because he enjoys chewing on it, and  (if lucky enough) the ensuing chase game.   In other words, the behavior is a rational choice!  These types of behaviors are called operant behaviors - repeated because they have a history of reinforcement - and are resolved using the steps below.

On the other hand, suppose your dog barks continuously when left alone.  This is most likely an emotional reaction.  Will rewarding or punishing distress resolve the barking?  Of course not.  Our aim in this case is not to reduce the barking, but to change his emotional response to being left alone.  These types of behaviors are called respondent behaviors.  Respondent behaviors are biological or neurological reactions, not choices - and include such categories as separation anxiety, resource guarding, leash reactivity, and many other fear-based behaviors.  These behaviors require an entirely different approach than those described below (often with the help of a professional).   

All types of behaviors are influenced by environmental factors, and worth examining.  In the case of separation anxiety, people are often told to crate their dogs, but in reality, confinement generally contributes to increased anxiety.  So removing the crate can lesson, or even resolve the problem.  Similarly, lack of adequate mental and physical stimulation often results in behaviors such as frustration barking or destructive behaviors.  Modifying the environment and meeting your dog's social, mental and physical needs often reduces or resolves the problem behaviors.

And most importantly, before addressing any behaviors, we must rule out medical issues.  Pain often disguises as aggression, excessive urination can be a sign of an underlying disease, not offering certain behaviors, such sitting on cue, might be due to joint pain or injury, the list goes on.  Take your dog in for a thorough veterinary examination prior to the start of any training.​

The hard part is over!  We ruled out medical issues, modified his environment to ensure he feels safe, met his basic needs, and we identified the behavior as operant (not respondent) - now we can proceed to training!  Don't worry, there are plenty of behaviors that fall into this category!  Jumping on people, attention barking, pulling on the leash, 'begging' at the dinner table, jumping on the table, etc.  

2.  Define your target behaviors:  what not to do, and what to do.

When I ask someone what behavior you do not want, the answer comes instantaneously.  But when asked what behavior you do want - silence.  This might be the reason that people resort to punishment - which only tells the dog what not to do, not what to do.  At best, punishment suppresses the behavior, but does not truly resolve the issue (the dog is left with not knowing what to do, so he may try other less desirable behaviors, or, in the case of jumping, start fearing guests.).  Punishment comes with these and many other risks and negative side effects.   So let's define both what you do not want and what we do want - using jumping as the example.

  • Target Behavior 1:  My dog stops jumping on guests upon entering our home.

  • Target Behavior 2:  My dog keeps all four paws on the ground when someone enters.


  • When defining a behavior, focus on observable behaviors - such as 'to keep his four paws on the ground' - rather than 'to stay calm'. 

  • When defining the behavior you want less of, identify all contexts in which you want the behavior to stop.  

  • If you change the alternative behavior to something like 'go fetch a toy' or 'go to your mat' - train this first, using the steps outlined in The Training Process.

3.  Implement a Management Plan to prevent the behaviors you do not want.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of management.  Management means finding ways to prevent the behavior from happening in the first place.  Why is this so important?​

  1. Behaviors that get rehearsed, get repeated.  Read this line ten more times.

  2. Sometimes, management is all you need.  Put your shoes away, problem solved.

  3. And of course, who doesn't want to stop a behavior you want to stop?  Seems logical to me.

To prevent  jumping on people, you can do the following:​​

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

  • Ask guest to walk in calmly - without knocking or ringing the bell.

  • 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.

  • When guests enter your home, scatter a bunch of treats on the ground - your dog can't jump and eat treats on the ground at the same time.

4.  Put the unwanted behavior on Extinction  

Putting the behavior on extinction means identifying and removing all reinforcers that maintain the current behavior.  In the case of jumping, the reinforcers are:   

  1. Jumping and face to face greetings are natural behaviors for dogs - he is happy to see you and greeting you feels good.   

  2. Jumping up often results in humans returning the greeting with attention, kisses and praise.

  3. Other times, jumping up results in humans yelling 'Off!' or pushing him down - these too can be perceived as attention

We cannot remove the the fact jumping is intrinsically rewarding - we can only rely on management techniques to prevent it.   But we can remove all the attention, positive or negative, by remaining quiet, folding your arms, turning away, and remaining still (or removing yourself briefly) until he stops jumping.


  • Identifying and removing all reinforcers require 100% compliance.  

  • When compliance is infeasible or impractical, we must employ bullet proof management techniques to prevent the jumping.

  • Removing the reinforcers is only effective if we combine this with immediately reinforcing an alternative behavior, described below.  

5.  Reinforce the Alternative Behavior

Most people readily catch on to removing the reinforcers, in this case, attention.  They turn into logs, and the dog stops jumping.  And they remain logs!  So the dog jumps up again, and again.  This sometimes works, eventually, but not without the dog getting frustrated and trying even harder, and  the humans often giving up.

This is why it's paramount to immediately acknowledge the moment the dog is on the ground - standing, sitting, lying down - don't care.  Click then toss the treats on the ground.    At first, the dog may only be on the ground a few seconds, that is ok.  We do not ask for long durations in first go - training is step by step.


  • Click the moment those paws touch the ground, then scatter treats on the ground rather than from your hand. This keeps the dog grounded, and his focus downward; adds duration,  and give you an opportunity to calmly give him attention while he is on the floor.

  • Eventually, attention will be the only reinforcer necessary - after all, this is the function of the behavior.

  • Even if you define a more specific alternative behavior, such as go fetch a toy or go to your mat, it is still makes sense to start easy, reinforcing "all four paws on the floor" as a first step.

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