1: Convince someone to trade their well-behaved dog for yours.
I’m kidding. Don’t do that.
No matter how tempting it might be.
So you’ve got a dog with some irritating behavior problems. Maybe he’s hyperactive and destructive, maybe he never listens to you. Maybe it feels like he’s constantly getting into trouble. Bottom line, you’re totally fed up and you want dear little Loki’s bad habits solved yesterday.
Yep. I get it. The 3 Lost Dogs archives are full of advice for these situations. Plus, the entire internet exists. The information overload can be a bit much. Where do you even START?
This is where. I’ve distilled some of that advice into 51 tactics you can work on right now. Why 51? Because that’s as far as I got before my brain gave up and left me collapsed in a catatonic heap.
Effective, lasting behavior modification takes more than a week, of course. But if you start implementing enough of these tactics right now, you will begin to see improvements in your dog’s behavior and in your relationship with him.
How to use this cheat sheet
First, we gotta talk a little strategy. The section below will get you up to speed on how behavior modification works. You’ll be able to use the tactics more effectively when you understand how they fit into the big picture.
Next, check out the list of tactics. They’re divided into categories. Pick one or two items from each category and work on them today.
The basic strategy for solving annoying problems and calming your crazy dog
- Prevent unwanted behavior from getting rewarded, while training and rewarding a preferred behavior (i.e. “prevent bad, reward good”).
Read more here: How to Solve Practically Any Annoying Behavior Problem
- Wear your dog out by providing plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and then help her calm down by incorporating structured downtime into her day.
Read more here: How to Live with a High Energy Dog Without Losing Your Mind
There are detailed tutorials for this strategy at the links above. But for now, let’s recap:
- Any behavior that gets rewarded is likely to be repeated. Make sure Loki only gets rewarded for the behavior you want.
- A “reward” (reinforcement, technically speaking) is anything the dog wants or needs at that moment. Liver treats. Going for a walk. Your attention. Walking faster toward the dog park.
- Prevent unwanted behavior from getting reinforced. If Pandora pulls on leash as you approach the dog park and gets you to speed up, she’s just been rewarded for pulling.
- It’s not enough to make bad behavior stop. You have to teach Loki a better way to get what he needs.
- Train a new, good behavior to replace the one you’re trying to get rid of. Sit to greet visitors, instead of jumping on them.
- Reinforce the crap out of any behavior you like. Always be reinforcing.
- Many behavior problems are caused by the dog being bored out of her mind. Give her something cool to do.
- A tired dog is a good dog. But get this: mental exercise is more tiring than physical exercise.
- After wearing him out, give him a calm task to help him settle down. No more being “up” 24/7.
Got a scared, growly or bitey dog?
The above strategy is for irritating problems like the ones listed here, but it will not work for fear or aggression. Those issues require you to change the dog’s emotional response to the triggering situation, and therefore require some different strategies. Here are some of our articles on that subject:
- Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge on Leash? (Intro to Reactivity)
- Training a Behavior Vs. Changing An Emotion: What All Dog Owners Need to Know
- The Real Solution to Resource Guarding and Food Aggression
- What to Do When Your New Dog is Afraid of You
- How Our Online Puppy Training Courses Can Help With Your Scared or Reactive Puppy
Prevent bad habits from getting reinforced
1. Make a list of each of Loki’s bad habits. For each one, ask yourself what reward he’s getting out of it, then make sure that behavior no longer gets that reward.
2. Consider each bad habit and ask yourself: do I actually care? Pick your battles wisely. Not every behavior problem needs to be fixed. If, for example, your dog pulls on leash but it doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about it. Instead, focus on his more serious habit of knocking over your toddler.
3. Make sure your whole household is on the same page as far as rules and cues go. Is the dog allowed on the bed or not? Does “down” mean lie down or don’t jump? Consistency is key, and all that. Write a list of canine commandments and stick it on the fridge.
4. Does your dog play too rough with your kids? Teach them to be a tree.
5. If Loki is a leash-puller, measure him for a front-clip harness, like the Ruffwear Front Range (#notsponsored, I’m just a big fan. It’s one of the most well-designed harnesses I’ve found).
6. Weaken bad habits by disrupting the daily routines that trigger them. For example, if Loki freaks out at the front door when you’re preparing for his walk, stop leaving from the front door. Use the back gate.
7. Does Loki lose his mind when you put his leash on because it always means going for a walk? Desensitize him to the leash. For 30 minutes every day this week, let him wear it around the house without going out.
8. Use a bitter-tasting deterrent spray to keep him from chewing up stuff he shouldn’t.
9. Sprinkle cayenne pepper in areas of the yard you don’t want her digging. (but first make sure she doesn’t enjoy the taste of spicy dirt, like my dog Merlin does. My dogs are very strange.)
10. Get a crate and spend a day teaching your dog to use it.
11. If Loki urine marks inside the house, try feeding him in his usual pee spots (after you clean the area). Most dogs don’t like to soil the place they eat.
12. Does Pandora get into the trash? Stick a brick in the bottom of the can so she can’t knock it over.
13. Read this list of mischief management ideas. Pick one that will work for you. Can you come up with more ideas?
Train and reward good habits
14. Pick one teeny tiny training goal.
15. Make a list of everything your dog loves. Then brainstorm ways to use each of those things as rewards for good behavior.
16. Brainstorm a bunch of possible replacement behaviors (see step one in this tutorial), then pick one.
17. “Sit” is incredibly useful as a replacement behavior. So strengthen Pandora’s response to the sit cue by teaching her that sitting gets her what she wants. This week, have her sit before feeding, playing, going outside, petting, etc.
18. If your dog doesn’t know sit yet, get on that.
19. Teach Pandora to really respond to her name. Wait until she’s not looking at you, say “Pandora!” and toss a really good treat at her head. Repeat until she whips around as soon as you call her.
20. Have you been meaning to start clicker training? Take five minutes to load the clicker: Click, immediately offer Loki a pea-size treat, repeat 20-30 times. You are now ready to begin training. Click here to learn more about clicker training.
21. …But stop immediately if your dog seems afraid of the clicker. Switch to a similar, but quieter sound: the click of a retractable pen.
22. Keep a close eye on your dog this week. Any time you “catch her in the act” of behaving nicely, toss her a treat or a toy. Basically, reward her for doing nothing.
23. Chop up some hot dogs, cheese or chicken into tiny pieces. Put them in a sealed container in the fridge for easy access.
24. Stash a few containers of (non-perishable) training treats around your home for quick access for impromptu training sessions, or when you catch your dog doing something right.
25. Train your dog while you watch TV. Commercial breaks are the perfect length of time for training sessions. It’s an easy way to fit in 3-5 sessions per day. It also helps take your mind off that horrible thing that just happened on The Walking Dead. When your show’s over, reward your dog with some playtime.
26. Is Pandora an excessive barker? Train her to bark on command! It’s a counter-intuitive but strangely effective way of getting loudmouth dogs to shut up.
27. Play these training games (they’re not just for puppies). Which one is your dog’s favorite?
28. Review your list of Loki’s bad habits. See if there are any that can be channeled into dog sports. You may have a star athlete on your hands.
Check out our new online course: Focus & Come When Called. With step-by-step instructions and video tutorials, you’ll learn how to get your dog to pay attention to you and looove to come running when called, with just 15 minutes training per day. Click here to learn more.
Wear your dog out with exercise and mental stimulation
29. Take ten minutes to plan a morning routine for your dog. Follow this template: exercise followed by two calmer interactive activities (grooming, training, cuddling, etc), then solitary activities (breakfast in smart toys, chewing on a bone, etc). The right morning routine will wear Loki out and significantly reduce his destructive tendencies. Tweak plan until you settle on the right formula.
30. Learn the art of controlled chaos. Fill a cardboard box with smelly treats and crumpled up newspaper. Give Pandora permission to make a huge mess. It works for wolves.
31. Build a flirt pole. Watch hilarity ensue.
32. Challenge Loki to a game of soccer (especially popular with herding breeds).
33. Make a puppy piñata for your dog. Here’s a demo on our Instagram.
34. Take your dog on a hike. Let him navigate (you know, within reason. Don’t let him navigate you off a cliff).
35. Take a scent walk: let Loki’s nose lead the way, and let him stop and sniff as much as he wants.
36. Get some tennis balls and an old muffin tin and make the muffin tin puzzle toy.
38. Keep Pandora’s dog bowl in the cupboard this week. Feed her meals out of food-dispensing toys.
39. Mix a meal’s worth of kibble with some pieces of cheese or meat. Toss it into the lawn for him to forage.
40. Go fishing: fill a plastic kiddie pool with water, then add treat-filled toys or pieces of chopped up hot dogs.
41. Fill a kiddie pool with sand. Bury Loki’s favorite toys or chews in it. Make sure to keep it well stocked.
42. Set up a backyard agility course.
43. Stash some treat-filled toys and chews around the house. Send Loki on the hunt.
44. Sit on the floor, cover yourself with a blanket, and let her “rescue” you.
45. Teach him a stupid pet trick. This will wear him out, improve your training skillz and give you a nice way to take a break from Serious Dog Training. (Here’s how to get started with dog training)
46. Get three plastic cups. While Pandora watches, put a treat underneath one. Shuffle the cups around. Let her guess where the treat is.
Help your dog chill out
47. Teach Loki to lie down on a mat. This video will show you how.
48. For five minutes every day, have him lie on the mat while you calmly but generously reinforce him with treats and praise.
50. Practice separation. Put a baby gate, door, or crate between you and Pandora while she eats a chew. If this is hard or scary for her, start with three-minute sessions and work your way up.
51. Click for calm. Once your dog is clicker trained (see #20), hang out with him in the living room, and just watch. Click and treat any and all actions that indicate calmness: blinking, sitting, lying down, relaxed stance. This is like a more structured version of rewarding your dog for doing nothing (#22).