By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA
When our dogs are engaging in problem behaviors like excessive barking or chewing, it can be easy to get frustrated and angry. With no ideas on how to stop these behaviors, we may react by yelling or punishing our dogs in an effort to get these problems to stop. This is rarely successful and can lead to even more anger and frustration and sometimes more drastic measures. If we take the time to stop and consider the problem behaviors we are experiencing in a different light, we may find that solutions can be easier than we imagined.
First and foremost, we must look at the amount of exercise that our dogs are getting. Dogs have very high energy levels. After all, they were originally bred to work and do specific jobs. Since we no longer have specific, demanding jobs for our dogs to do, we must provide them with alternative ways to use up all that energy! That energy is in there and if we do not provide acceptable, constructive ways for ours dogs to burn it off, they will invent their own destructive ways to use it up. This boredom and excess energy is where many, many problem behaviors stem from. So, take your dog for walks or runs, play fetch, practice your obedience cues, give him interactive toys, and allow him to spend time running around a fenced yard with his doggy friends. Provide a physically and mentally stimulating environment for your dog so that he has ample opportunity to burn off that excess energy in appropriate ways.
Second, we must change our own way of thinking about our dogs’ problems. In the past, the accepted way of training was to wait for our dogs to make a mistake and then “correct” them for it. Imagine how many mistakes it is possible for a dog to make. Wouldn’t it be much easier of we could just teach the dog what he should be doing? With positive training, this is exactly what we do. We must change our own way of thinking about our dogs’ behavior. Instead of thinking in terms of what we don’t want the dog to be doing, we need to start thinking about what we do want. Then, we must arrange our dogs’ environments to set them up for success and reward them for engaging in the appropriate behaviors.
When our dogs are engaging in unwanted behaviors, instead of reacting negatively, we need to try to take a positive, proactive approach. We can accomplish this by using a simple 5-step model. Let’s take a look at the five steps using “inappropriate jumping” as our sample problem behavior.
1. Ask yourself WHY the dog is engaging in this behavior. What is the dog’s goal in doing this? In our example of jumping, our dogs often jump up because they are seeking to get our attention.
2. Consider HOW the dog is being rewarded for this behavior. In order for a behavior to be repeated, there must be some type of reward. If our dogs are repeatedly performing the same behavior, they are getting something out of it. Our job is to figure out what that reward is. In the case of our jumping dogs, their reward is our attention, whether we are petting them “hello” or pushing them off of us, our jumping dogs are getting the attention they were seeking.
3. Manage the behavior. In order to manage the behavior, we can either prevent the behavior from being able to occur in the first place or prevent the dog from being rewarded for the behavior. For a jumping dog, we can simply ignore him to prevent the reward of our attention, or we can use a tether to prevent him from being able to reach us to jump up.
4. Ask yourself what you would like the dog to do instead. The dog will not stop the problem behavior unless he is presented with an alternative way to get the reward he is seeking. For our jumping dog, while we don’t want to be jumped on for a greeting, we would enjoy giving our dog attention if he would sit calmly to greet us. When our dog realizes that sitting calmly always gets him the attention he wants, he will have no need to jump up to seek it.
5. Be Consistent! It is very important that the old behavior is NEVER rewarded and that the new behavior is rewarded consistently. This goes for everyone that the dog has contact with. If the old behavior is even occasionally rewarded, it will never completely go away.
By consistently following the steps outlined above, we can eliminate those problem behaviors without the anger and frustration that comes from not knowing how to get our dogs to stop doing something we do not like. Whenever our dogs start engaging on a behavior that we do not want, we can simply stop and go through the 5-step model to fix the problem. Thinking in terms of what we do want our dogs to be doing can help us to have wonderfully behaved companions and a great relationship with our dogs.
* While the 5-step model is a wonderful jumping-off point to take care of many problem behaviors, it is not a meant to be a substitute for professional advice. Some problem behaviors are more complex and require an individual treatment plan with guidance from an experienced trainer. If your dog is displaying serious problem behaviors, especially those involving aggression of any kind, please seek the assistance of a qualified positive-training professional.