Solving unwanted behaviours in dogs is a complex job involving problem solving for each individual case, careful timing and consistency.
There’s science behind what I do but there’s also an art to it.
Yet in every case when you strip away all the layers, there is a simple concept to keep in mind that can help you problem solve any issue that might come up. I like to teach dog owner’s how to apply this because even when the problem they hire me for is solved, I want them to be equipped to deal with and understand anything else that might come up in the future.
Here’s the formula to remember:
Behaviour = consequence.
If the dog performs a behaviour and it results in a pleasant or desired consequence, the dog is more likely to repeat that behaviour again.
If the dog performs a behaviour and it results in an unpleasant or undesired consequence, the dog is less likely to perform that behaviour again.
Whenever your dog is behaving in a way you don’t like and would like to change, ask yourself: what is the dog getting out of this?
Dogs won’t just do things when there’s nothing in it for them. Just like us. It might not always be obvious, but if a dog is behaving a certain way, they feel they are getting something out of it.
Sometimes it’s just the dog’s perception rather than reality that they are getting something good out of a certain behaviour. For example, the postman comes by on a motorbike and delivers a letter into your mailbox and your dog madly barks at him the entire time. The postman then continues on to the next house as per usual. The postman was going to do this anyway, but in the dog’s mind the barking caused the intruder to leave. The dog feels good about this; she scared him off! The barking is reinforced and continues to be reinforced each day this happens.
Even though you and I know that the postman didn’t leave because the dog scared him off, what matters is the dog’s perception of the situation. Always keep this in mind when you’re trying to figure out why your dog is doing something.
Once you know what your dog is getting out of a certain behaviour, you can see if you can remove this reward from the situation. This is the first step to stopping the issue from continuing. Then replace the unwanted behaviour with something you prefer the dog to do and reward that instead.
Of course it’s not always that simple. Sometimes the unwanted behaviour is so rewarding to the dog and that reward is difficult to remove, or the dog’s been practicing the behaviour so long it is strongly ingrained. In these cases not only do you need to remove the ability for the dog to practice the behaviour and gain reward and reward an alternative, but you need to punish the unwanted behaviour as well.
A lot of people freak out over the idea of punishing a dog, but it doesn’t have to be harsh – it just has to be something that makes that behaviour no longer desirable or pleasant to the dog, and the other options more pleasant.
I can’t tell you how to punish a behaviour, or even how to reward one, because it depends on the individual dog and what they find to be valuable both to receive and to avoid. Every dog is different.
For example, a lot of people recommend using a water spray bottle to stop a dog from doing a myriad of typical naughty dog habits. This might work for some dogs and do nothing for others. Some dogs could even enjoy it and feel rewarded.
These are the nuances that make training both an art and a science.
The next time your dog does something you don’t like, have a think about what they’re getting out of it and how you can prevent that and teach them to do something you DO like instead.
If your dog’s behaviour is causing you stress, it’s probably stressing them out too. Visit dogmatters.com to arrange an in home visit to work on solving the problem one on one.
My dog is reactive to other dogs, people and noises. Any advice.
This is brilliant. You make a great point here.
We have been struggling with our reactive dog for some time now as positive reinforcement only is not working. This is because in order to reward him we need him to do the right thing which he won’t do. We are working on our dogs reactivity towards other dogs. Your posts really are useful. X
Well said Tenille! You summed this up beautifully and simply .