Don’t jump on people! Don’t bark! Don’t steal my food! Usually owners search for dog training when their dog is doing something they don’t like and want to stop.
Why Dogs “Misbehave”
Dogs aren’t born knowing all of our human rules. The fact that they so easily live with us and generally get along with serious issues is a tribute to how special they are. When things don’t go right though, it is generally because there is a misunderstanding between what we humans think and know and what our dogs think and know. If we take a minute to understand their motivation, we can usually resolve the issues.
Doing What Works
Much of your dog’s behavior is driven by consequences. They do the things that earn them food, play, attention, and other things they want. They stop doing things that don’t get them anything or that have an unpleasant result. Whether getting in the car generally means going to the park or the vet will influence how quickly they hop in.
Often your dog’s motivations are simpler than you think. They pull on the leash because they want to walk faster, they jump up to greet people and get attention, and they ignore your request that they “sit” because it doesn’t get them anything.
The other major motivator for a dog’s behavior is emotion. How a situation makes a dog feel will affect how they behave. A dog that is uncomfortable or scared will try to escape or make things stop. A dog that is relaxed and happy may be more able to listen and learn. When trying to understand and change your dog’s behavior, you’ll need to ensure they feel safe and comfortable.
They Don’t Know Any Different
Dogs don’t pee in the house to annoy you or make a point about your decorating. They simply don’t know that they shouldn’t. Dogs often have a different understanding about what is true or important in the world than we do. A medium-sized home for us may be a huge space for a dog; so why not use some areas for pottying? Likewise, that one tree on the end of the street may mean nothing to us when we want to go for a walk, but to our dogs it is covered in interesting and important messages that need sniffing.
If your dog behaves differently than you want, it is your responsibility to teach them what you expect and to give them ways to get what they need, too. They can’t read your mind and they can’t be expected to instantly give up doing what makes sense to them.
First Things First
Often our first instinct when we see a problem behavior is that we need to punish it to make it stop. But to fully stop an unwanted behavior, you need to start with the basics.
Check with the Vet
Behavior problems can often be linked to health problems. The first sign that a dog isn’t feeling well or is in pain may be a change in behavior. Especially if the behavior is new, contact your vet and share your concerns so medical issues can be ruled out.
Meet Their Needs
Dogs need to run, play, sniff, chew, and have social interactions. If their basic needs aren’t being met, they may display behavior problems in an attempt to get what they need. While exercise doesn’t solve every problem, meeting your dog’s needs must be done before any other training can be productive.
If the problem behavior is motivated by fear or other intense emotions, you’ll need to address those first. No other techniques will fully solve the problem behavior without this step (though teaching other behaviors can be a part of the plan). Read here for more about changing emotional reactions.
Prevent The Problem
“Management” is taking steps to prevent the problem behavior from occurring in the first place. Unlike training, management relies on setting up your dog’s environment so that they are unable or unlikely to do a particular behavior. Using a crate while housetraining is a type of management. Never leaving food on the counter for your dog to steal is another management strategy. Unlike training, management will not necessarily teach your dog to behave differently, but management is extremely important for preventing bad habits from being repeated and getting stronger. You can learn more about management here.
Tools for Handling Unwanted Behavior
Teach Another Option
There are probably many, many things you don’t want your dog to do but only a few that you want. Rather than chasing your dog around constantly trying to stop the unwanted behavior, it is almost always faster to focus on teaching and rewarding a desirable behavior. This way you make your life easier, save your dog from punishment and frustration, and end up with a dog that happily behaves themselves.
Training a new behavior does take some time and energy, but it is rarely as difficult as it would be to constantly punish every problem behavior. Using positive reinforcement is effective, safe, and fun and, when combined with management, desensitization, and counter-conditioning, can address every behavior challenge you might be facing. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement willingly and happily choose the “right” behavior. You can learn more about teaching a new behavior here.
Interrupt and Redirect
When you see a problem behavior happening, you can interrupt your dog and redirect them to the correct behavior. Gently get their attention and show them what you want them to do. This works particularly well for puppies who are just starting to learn what works and what doesn’t. For example, if your puppy is testing the chewability of the coffee table, offer them a toy instead. Along with management to help prevent mistakes, redirecting can help your dog see what the preferred behavior is.
Interrupting and redirecting works best when the “correct” choice meets the same needs as the wrong choice and is equally or, better yet, more available to your dog. While useful, rely on redirection sparingly as you can set up troublesome patterns where the dog thinks the only way to get the thing they want is to first make the “wrong” choice.
Remove the Reward
A big part of eliminating unwanted behavior is making sure that it doesn’t pay off for your dog. Dogs will do what works to get something they want or need. Ideally, you make sure the problem behavior never “works.” Management is one way of making sure your dog isn’t rewarded for doing something you don’t want but sometimes you are in direct control of the desired thing. For example, you may be rewarding begging and annoying behavior with your attention or a little snack off your plate. If you don’t want these behaviors to continue, you will need to remove that reward by ignoring the behavior, resisting the begging puppy dog eyes, or leaving the room.
Not all problem behaviors are motivated by attention, though. Ask “will my dog care if I ignore them when they are [insert unwanted behavior]?” Even if the answer is “yes”, it’s also important to reward your dog for the behavior you do want so they know how to earn that attention in a more desirable way. It’s only fair to give your dog a “right” way to get what they want or need.
Note: If you suddenly try to stop rewarding a behavior that was previously “working,” your dog can get very frustrated. They may try even harder for a while and be more annoying, louder, or more determined to keep trying. The way to prevent this is to teach your dog an alternative behavior first.
Since your dog’s behavior is often motivated by getting what they want and avoiding what they don’t like, punishment can seem like a promising tool. After all, if the dog does something and then gets a scolding, a leash jerk, or another uncomfortable or painful experience, they won’t do that behavior again, right? The trouble with punishment is that it is usually the most difficult way of stopping a behavior.
To be effective, punishment must:
In practice this isn’t easy at all. You may have had the experience of trying to use punishment to change a behavior and finding that you have to do it over and over and over. That means the punishment isn’t working and you aren’t getting any closer to truly changing the behavior.
A serious potential risk with punishment, especially punishment that isn’t done perfectly, is that your dog starts to become fearful or even aggressive in situations where punishment has been used. The dog doesn’t connect the punishment to only their behavior but instead connects it to the person doing the punishment or other people or animals in the area at the time. This is not a small risk and must be taken seriously if you are considering using punishment.
There are many ways to change your dog’s problem behavior. Every situation will have a slightly different solution, but working through these steps will get the fastest and longest-lasting change.
- Make sure your dog is healthy and feels safe.
- Consider the motivation – what is your dog getting from the behavior?
- Use management to minimize the practice of the problem behavior.
- Decide on an appropriate behavior and reward that.
- Think long and hard before attempting to use punishment as it is generally harder and riskier.
If you need help stopping your dog’s problem behavior, schedule a private behavior consultation.