Things you can do to improve your dog’s behavior, even if you doubt it.
© Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT
Some of the advice you might hear from me or other trainers might sound like it just won’t work – it is too time-consuming, too hard to remember, too silly, too disciplined, or whatever. But invariably, when clients take the “leap of faith” to try them, they find they work beautifully, almost completely eliminating “bad” behavior and increasing “good” behavior. So here are a number of ideas, “things you might not ever try, but will work if you do”.
1) Plenty In Life Is Rewarding
I highly recommend looking at all of the things that your dog wants, and using some of them as rewards for the behaviors that you want. This is kind of like the program called “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF). Basically you ask your dog to perform a trade: you will provide the Good Stuff he is expecting from you, and he performs an action or command that he knows – “sit”, “down”, “come”, a trick, whatever. Performing those commands becomes the dog’s version of “saying please”. In addition, you prevent them from getting any of the luxuries they may be accustomed to if they are not behaving in a way you wish to encourage.
I usually start with attention, or responding to the dog’s own name. The easiest way to do this is to “capture” any moments when he turns to focus on you. I use the sound of a clicker or a word like “Yes!” to capture those moments – which may be very brief – and then follow up that “marker” with something the dog considers worth working for. This might be a food treat, a desired toy, an activity he wants, anything you think he might be interested in at the moment. In fact, every time you think you may be able to provide him with something he wants, you should take advantage of the moment and ask him to focus on you before providing it. If the dog is already pretty good at acknowledging that I exist, I’ll move on to asking for a “sit” before any of those things. For the advanced dog, I might pull out a random command from the dog’s repertoire of tricks.
You might not think that you control everything that the dog wants – can you provide (or prevent) the presence of squirrels, or bushes to pee on, or other dogs to meet? Well, maybe you can’t store those things in your pocket to pull out at the perfect moment, but YOU are the member of this team with the opposable thumbs, and the free will to decide whether or not you will use them to allow your dog access to the things he wants. You can open the back door to allow the dog to go chase squirrels – or not. You can walk your end of the leash closer to the pee-bush – or not. You can walk closer to the other dog to allow a meeting (after of course checking that the other owner is OK with this, and that your reading of their body language implies that they are safe and friendly) – or not. You control when the leash goes on, and when it comes off. You control when the door is opened, and when it is closed. You control the door to the car, and whether the car approaches the dog park, or stops, or turns around and goes the other way. Whether you in your infinite wisdom allow any of these events to happen or not is up to you – and your whimsy will be influenced greatly by whether your dog responds to your commands or not. Remember, you DO control all the good stuff of your dog’s life.
You don’t have to set aside any special time aside to work on this; you just incorporate it into your life. Your dog is learning what works with you and what doesn’t all the time, so remember that every single interaction you have with your dog is an opportunity to teach NILIF.
This is an extremely effective program that can do wonders to change your dog’s behavior, moving them from being “out of control”, “attention-deficit”, and “acting deaf” to being “well-mannered”, “under control”, and “attentive”. Without having to do anything else, NILIF makes you the most important person in your dog’s life, improving bonding, and helping your dog learn some impulse-control. Clients have marveled at what huge effects it can have, and how easy it is to incorporate into your daily life with your dog (once you get used to it!). You can read more about the “NILIF” philosophy here.
Note: there is no need to take this to ridiculous extremes. You are encouraged to give your dog things that they love just because you are a generous person who loves their dog! But if you are finding that your dog’s behaviors are out of control, look for opportunities to turn your generosity into rewards for the types of behaviors you want to see more of. For a good balance (and a lovely read), see Plenty In Life Is Free – Reflections On Dogs, Training and Finding Grace, by Kathy Sdao.
2) Develop Alternative Rewards
Actually, if you are doing Nothing In Life Is Free, you have already developed a number of alternative rewards – basically everything that you control that your dog wants (and you control everything, or at least the access to everything). But you can go out of your way to get your dog interested in fetch toys, in tug toys, in petting, in happy talk, etc. The more rewards you have to offer, the more your dog is going to believe that her responses to your commands will pay off, and the less she will act as a “show me the money” dog who needs to see a treat or “cookie” in your hand before responding to a command.
For another set of ideas, see “101 primary reinforcers” (that is, rewards that the click indicates) from Steve White, a clicker-using police-dog trainer in Washington state.
3) Strict Management
“Management” is physically restricting your dog’s movements so that they cannot do the wrong thing. It usually means fencing off some part of your house to keep the dog out of it (or in it) for a large portion of time – the time you are not closely monitoring the dog. This is especially important for young puppies and for dogs who are new to your household. They need to figure out where they can go, what they can climb on/sleep on, where to pee, what to chew on, etc.
Some people really balk at this. They don’t want to restrict the dog to a small part of the house, or fence off parts of it. Or maybe they just don’t want to go through the trouble of changing where they leave their keys, shoes, homework, kids’ toys, etc. to keep them out of the dog’s reach. Or maybe they don’t want to use a crate or harness seat-belt in the car, Or maybe they don’t want to have the dog on a leash in the house when they are greeting guests, or needing to tether the dog just out of reach of the dinner table or kitchen counters. But all of these will help keep the dog from practicing (or starting) bad habits.
And remember that most management tools are temporary – they are used as quick fix to stop unwanted behaviors, while your training is “installed”. (One exception is car seatbelt harnesses or car crates – they are a safety precaution that could save your dog’s life in a number of ways.) A lot of management in the short-term can pay off in a lot of freedom in the long run.
For more information, see Quick Fix Tools.
4) Catch Them Doing Something Right
I’ve seen this advice in dog training books and in child raising books, and it seems to hold in both cases. Behavioral scientists have found that behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated, at a higher frequency and/or strength. So when you see a behavior in your dog that you like, be sure to reward it. This is not restricted to “capturing” the actions of basic training commands. Sure, you should “capture” your dog’s sit, down, and settle behaviors (with a marker and a reward). You can capture a number of other behaviors for cute tricks (the play or stretch bow, play dead, yawn, sneeze, head down, etc.). In addition, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of things that your dog already does that you would like to have her continue to do, or maybe do more of, or maybe do it on your command.
Is your dog walking (or running) towards you? Reward it (and name it “come”). Is your dog lying on her bed? Reward it (and name it “on your bed”). Is she heading towards the bed? Reward it! Is your dog alerting to the sound of a passerby, a neighbor’s dog, or a firetruck siren, but not [yet] barking? Reward it! Is your dog stopping barking? Reward it (and name it “hush” or “quiet”). Is your dog sitting quietly in the car? Reward it! Is your dog peeing/pooping in the right spot? Reward it! Is your dog chewing on an actual chew toy? Reward it! Is the dog ignoring the cat as he walks by? Reward it! Does your dog “check in” on you while off-leash at the dog park? Reward it!
Ideally you could click (or otherwise “mark”) as the dog completes one of these actions, and follow it up with some kind of reward (food or otherwise). But often just praise will get you far – especially for a non-precision action (like lying on her bed).
One of the hardest aspects of this is teaching yourself to respond to the moments when your dog is NOT doing something you don’t want them to do – like not barking, not jumping up, not pulling on the leash, not chasing the cat or your child. In classes I assign students to catching their dogs doing something right ten times per day. It’s hard and they are not good at noticing and responding quickly enough – at first. It gets easier as you get in the habit. And as you get in the habit of noticing and rewarding, your dog gets in the habit of doing each of those things more often. (As extra credit, I suggest watching the humans around you and also capturing them doing something right – just use compliments or express your appreciation, rather than clicking and treating it!)
As you see your dog about to do something you like, you can start saying whatever phrase/command you want to use to tell them to do it. Start by saying it softly (so as not to distract her from what she was about to do).
5) Stop Rewarding Bad Behavior
This may seem obvious, but sometimes your dog is gaining something from her interaction with you that is subtly rewarding her behavior. Many dogs who jump up, steal things, play roughly, pull on the leash, or bark, paw, nudge, or whine to get your attention, are getting rewarded because it makes you focus on them. If your dog is bouncing off the wall while you try to put on the leash, but you manage it anyways, you have rewarded that hyper spazz session with a lovely walk. If your dog scratches at the door to get let in (or out), and you respond, you have rewarded that behavior and strengthened it. If your dog barks at something, and you bark back, you are probably rewarding the barking (often dogs hear “No! Stop! Hush!” as barking – unless you’ve taught them to associate one of those commands with an action of shutting down the barking).
“Unrewarding” bad behavior is the flip side of catching your dog doing something right (which is rewarding good behavior). If you are doing “Nothing In Life Is Free” you will not give away goods like your attention, or the opening of doors, or the putting-on of leashes, in response to “bad” behavior.
So if your dog is doing something you don’t like, take a moment to think about what good stuff might result for the dog for doing it. Then figure out how you can prevent or stop that. (Also look for management tools you can use to prevent the dog from performing the “bad” behavior in the first place).
6) More Exercise
I cannot stress enough how important it is to get a young dog enough exercise. If she gets to chase a ball a bit at lunch, she is probably burning off a bit of the excess, but she is not really wearing herself out to the point where she will be good and tired when hanging out in the house with you. We say “A tired dog is a good dog” because a tired dog is more likely to be calm, lie on her bed, chew her toys, and greet you with gentle enthusiasm!
Do some activities to cause her to use the space she lives in (fetch, hide treats, play recall games, etc.). If she seems to be fine with other dogs off-leash, try to take her to dog parks or invite friendly dogs over for “play dates”.
Another option is a good doggy daycare . I can *almost* guarantee you that a few days at a daycare will wear her out to the point where a lot of her problems seem to solve themselves! Please note that I said “almost” and “seem to” – you would need to step in and make sure that she finds her new way of behaving very rewarding and worth changing her old habits for, once the tiredness wears off! If your dog already attends daycare or visits dog parks or goes on walks, you could increase these temporarily as you implement training – a short-term investment for long-term payoff.
Give your dog more chew toys. For “legal” toys to chew on, I believe the best ones are those that reward the dog (with food as well as chewing pleasure) for chewing on them or interacting with them. This is the “kong” and a few other similar toys. You can even find “recipes” for stuffing a kong. There are lots of similar toys on the market – for a sample, you can visit my favorite on-line store, SitStay. There are also toys that you can fill with her regular dry kibble but she has to work at them to get the food out. Some good ones include the Roll-a-treat, Buster Cube, Hi.Q., Tug-a-jug, TreakStik, and Tricky Treats Ball (see PetExpertise.com).
I truly believe that an early investment in extra chew toys will pay off, because you will save yourself from losing a number of other items (kids’ toys, pool equipment, garden supplies, etc.). The investment is not just of money, of course; it’s some time spent stuffing the Kongs (or other similar toys) with a few treats. I usually spend about 15 minutes once a week, mixing wet and dry dog food and spooning the mixture into 5-7 chew toys. I throw them all into the freezer, and each day over the next week if I need a chew toy I can pull one out. My dog is happy to take it even if it’s still frozen (I think that adds to the challenge for him!). I might give it to him before I leave for the day if I will be gone a long time, or in place of breakfast or dinner, especially if I know my attention will be occupied and I kind of want him occupied, too.
More exercise will be a key to really making your dog a calmer, safer, more welcome family member!
7) Practice Recalls 10 Times Per Day
In the morning, put 10 super-good treats in your pocket, and every once in a while, whenever you think of it, look for an opportunity to call your dog. If your dog is not that good at coming to you, call her when she’s coming towards you anyways. If she’s OK at it, “test the waters” by calling her name first, and then calling her to you (saying “come”) if she responds to her name. If she needs encouragement, take a few steps backwards (an air of excited expectation helps!). When your dog comes to you, give her one of those 10 great treats, gently take her collar, and praise her generously. Then release her to go back to whatever it is she was doing.
At the end of the day, if you still have treats left in your pocket, you know you didn’t do 10 practices. Hey, it’s not too late – try calling your dog to you right then, practicing as many times as you have treats left.
I like freeze-dried liver (in a sealed bag) as a type of super-good treat that will not smoosh, rot, or leak. They may crumble, though, and they smell just awful (which is why dogs love them).
8) Record Your Progress
I’ll admit it – this is one that I myself balk at. But every once in a while I do it, and it almost always helps me see a way to progress further. One impediment to successful dog training is raising your criteria too quickly – that is, asking for too much, too soon. So sometimes recording your progress can really help to show you where your criteria shift happened. Your goal for each stage is that you have an 80% or better succes rate.
So for example, if you practice recalls 10 times per day, you can record how many of the times your saying”come” resulted in an immediate response from your dog. If it’s 8 times out of 10, you’re probably working at the right level; if it’s less than that your situation is too challenging.
So if your dog is doing something you don’t like, take a moment to think about what good stuff might result for the dog for doing it. Then figure out how you can prevent or stop that. Write it down. Then for each “bad” behavior, record how often your dog does it, and what the result was. See if the number of incidences of “bad” behavior decrease over time. If they do not, change your approach. And if your dog is doing something that you do like, but not doing it enough, write down what they are doing and how you are rewarding it. See if you can change something. At the very least, as you make progress you will have a record of just how far you’ve gone!
Last updated August 8 2007 by Stacy Braslau-Schneck. Reprints for non-commercial use, and with the author’s permission only.