Dogs offer unconditional love and have the potential to make great companions, but many dog owners have that something about their dogs they would like to change. Whether your dog jumps up at guests, pulls on the leash or steals food from your table, you may be looking for solutions to curb the problem. The saying “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” may sound somewhat discouraging to owners of adult dogs, but it is also true that “when there is a will, there is a way.” Now is the time you can act on your dog’s unwanted behavior and wait for positive changes to take place. These scientifically-based methods will take care of the rest.
When it comes to getting rid of your dog’s unwanted behaviors, it is important to realize that no magic Genie will come out of a lamp to grant your wish and wipe out all your dog’s misbehavior overnight. Rather, it takes, time consistency, and cooperation from all family members to help your dog overcome its problems. There is really no quick fix, but these methods will eventually work in the long term. Just keep in mind that after years and years of practicing certain unwanted behaviors it may take some effort to overcome them and some behaviors will tend to get worse before getting better. Hold on to dear life, and the storm will eventually pass and you will finally see the light after the tunnel!
Teaching Incompatible Behaviors
Putting Behaviors on Cue
Rewarding Wanted Behaviors
Acknowledging Underlying Causes
In most cases, your dog’s unwanted behavior is fueled by some form of reinforcement. It’s important to acknowledge what exactly is reinforcing the behavior so to better understand the dynamics behind it. For instance, if your dog is jumping on your guests, most likely the behavior is reinforced because your guests give him attention. If your dog begs at the table, his behavior is likely reinforced by that occasional morsel of food you give him when he looks at you with those pleading eyes. If your dog pulls on the leash, the pulling is reinforced by the opportunity to go sniff that bush or meet that other dog.
This is not really an ultimate solution, but a management tool. Once you have recognized what reinforces your dog’s behavior, you will do your best to prevent that reinforcement from taking place. Your dog is too rowdy when guests come over? You put him on leash or you put him behind a baby gate. Your dog pulls on the leash when he sees a squirrel? You turn around and walk the other way. Your dog raids the trash? You prevent access to the trash can or keep him out of that room. Basically, you keep the dog out of trouble and prevent him from rehearsing the unwanted behavior. This method does not ultimately teach your dog anything, but it works in managing the problem and preventing it from occurring. Consider that the less a behavior is rehearsed, the more likely it will eventually extinguish since it’s no longer reinforced, which brings us to the next technique.
Extinction takes place when a dog realizes the behavior no longer brings result and therefore gives up. If your dog likes to beg at the table and you stop giving food, eventually the dog will give up one day and stop staring at you with those pleading eyes. In the same way with dogs who like to jump, if you stop giving your dog negative or positive attention when he jumps, and instead turn around and become boring like a lamp post, your dog will eventually give up. Be aware though of extinction bursts, that is, your dog’s behavior temporarily becoming worse; this is a natural process and a sign that what you are doing is working.
We often tell dogs what not to do, but what about teaching them what to do instead? If your puppy chews on your shoes, you may feel tempted to scold him or even give him a swat with a rolled newspaper on its bum. Puppies though get easily frightened and bewildered when punished. Indeed, puppies should be trained only with positive reinforcement and by teaching your puppy alternative behaviors. So, instead of getting mad, try teaching an incompatible behavior. If your puppy chews your shoes offer a chew toy and praise when he plays with it, (your dog cannot chew on unwanted items if you offer him better toys to chew on) if your dog barks at the door send him to his mat to lay down (dogs cannot bark well when they lay down), if your dog is afraid of thunder try to initiate a play session (dogs cannot play when scared) and so forth.
A good thing about training is that when a cue is under stimulus control it mostly reliably happens when you ask for it. For instance, if you are in class and the trainer is training your dog to sit, as your dog gets better at it, he will sit exclusively when you ask for it. You know your dog has learned a command well when he performs it reliably it on request. You can use this to your advantage. So if you have a dog that jumps a lot, ask him to sit for attention before he has the opportunity to jump.
At times, it is very worth it to reward absences of misbehavior. For instance, if you have a dog who likes to jump on you, when he has all four paws on the floor praise, pat and give treats. If you have a dog that likes to lunge at other dogs to scare them off, the moment you catch him heeling on the leash, reward him as much as you can. Try your best to capture moments when your dog is being good and not rehearsing the bad behavior. You are now providing positive reinforcement for being good, so you should see an increase in the being good behavior.
Last but not least, dog owners must carefully evaluate in an honest matter why their dog may be misbehaving. Is the dog receiving enough exercise? Many dogs that chew, bark, and act rowdy are ultimately bored, lonely, anxious or under-exercised. A tired dog is a good dog. Is the dog barking when left in the yard? Most dogs dislike social isolation and would rather be with their owners instead. The barking may reduce dramatically once in the home. Many times, an honest evaluation will stop the bad behavior if steps are taken to make your dog’s life happier and more fulfilling.
The Bottom Line
Dogs do best with positive reinforcement training rather than punishment. While punishment may seem the fastest and most effective way to stop an unwanted behavior, in most cases, it may teach your dog to fear you or may confuse him and impair learning all together. And even when punishment works in suppressing a behavior, there are risks that a replacement behavior will take place and this new behavior can be even worse than the behavior you were attempting to suppress in the first place.