Part II: A Plan"I thought she would grow out of it.” I’ve heard this statement multiple times in the last month since I wrote Part I of this article, and I’m sure I’ll hear it many more times in the future.
Last month I talked about how we tend to hold onto the hope that our dogs will magically grow out of problematic behaviors of their younger selves. Whether you have a dog whose behaviors have reached a tipping point, or you’ve adopted a dog who is difficult to manage, it’s time for a plan. Without one, it’s likely things will get worse. After all, we get better with practice, and that includes practicing “bad” habits.
“Don’t Blame the Lettuce”
It’s not the dog’s fault for having learned what works for him, and it’s not his fault that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. “Don’t blame the lettuce” alludes to the fact that we don’t blame a plant for not living up to our expectations; we attribute failings to its care, environment, and other factors which together affect it. Blaming the lettuce would be ridiculous. We need to keep this thought in mind when we work with our dogs. They are just behaving in ways which have been nourished by their situations, genetics, and learning. It’s never too late to learn new things, though.
Keep the above lettuce lesson in mind as you work with your dog to change his behavior. Embrace the fact that he may have a long history of habits you’d like to modify. How hard is it for us to learn a new habit that conflicts with something we’ve already learned? Very hard. Patience, consistency and a plan can help you get to the other side.
We cannot teach the absence of behavior, but we can teach what to do instead. This is why “no” is an insufficient response when our pups do something we don’t like. There must be an accompanying “yes.”
Below is a basic protocol for modifying behavior. It can be applied to just about anything, but please contact a professional certified positive trainer if there is any potential for aggression or if you are having difficulties.
Identify the problem behavior(s) in as much detail as possible.
We’ll use “excessive mouthiness” as our example, and “in the evening after dinner when we are sitting down to watch TV.” Be specific!
Identify the reinforcer. What drives it?
Interaction, attention, movement, pleasure of contacting human skin with teeth.
Note: it’s normal for dogs, no matter their age, to need to chew and use their mouths on things; chewing is very satisfying and calming and helps relieve boredom. Find out what type of objects your dog likes to chew and have a variety of them available for him. Ripping and tearing are fundamental joys of being a dog. A simple cardboard box stuffed with paper and a few treats may keep some pups occupied and happy.
Eliminate the reinforcer.
“Consequence Drives Behavior.” If there’s no “payment” per se, for a behavior, it is likely to weaken.
“What did I do that made the good thing go away??” asks the dog.
If our dog crosses the line, we want him to understand that it was a specific behavior that resulted in the removal of the desired outcome. For instance, if you are playing a game of tug and your dog grabs your hand instead of the toy, I like to insert a neutral signal like “oops”, then abruptly stop the game in order to help the dog know it was teeth on me that caused the game to stop. It may take several repetitions for the pup to make the connection between teeth on you and Game Over.
Define an alternate and realistic behavior your dog can do instead (use mouth on appropriate objects such as toys, chews, a game of tug, etc.) and teach the dog other skills that will help satisfy his needs. Teach yielding (patiently waiting and not pushing), settle on a mat, eye contact, “Zen Dog,” a clear release cue, etc. There are many simple exercises that can help a pup learn to be more polite.
Prevention is Key
Prevent mouthiness by preemptively physically preventing those teeth from reaching their intended victim. This might mean separating the pup from you, crating, tethering, etc. In the example above, when the behavior is rather predictable, you will give the pup a project to work on in the evening, maybe feed from a treat-dispensing toy or scatter feed before he decides to make a poor life choice.
We need to have good options for separating and confining our dogs from the action, for their and our benefit. Next month I’ll talk about the importance of “teaching chill” and alone time.
Please contact me to let me know about management challenges you may be experiencing because your dog “grew into” his bad habits.
Happy Training! See you next month.
Diana Logan, CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge-Assessed
Pet Connection Dog Training, North Yarmouth, Maine | www.dianalogan.com | 207-252-9352