Last updated: July 7, 2021. Originally published: April 2, 2013
What if I told you that there is a magic formula that can solve all your problems?
And by “all your problems” I mean all your dog problems. And by “all your dog problems” I mean most of the really irritating ones.
That’s still impressive, right?
*removes wizard hat* Serious though, folks. Today I’m gonna teach you a training method that can solve most of the issues dog owners deal with on a daily basis. And it’s not magic – it’s like, science.
Once you understand how to use it, you’ll be better prepared to deal with whatever issues come up on your adventures in dog raising.
You can use this strategy for damn near everything. It’s awesome because:
- It’s simple and effective
- It’s based on a modern understanding of dog behavior and learning theory (yay science!)
- It requires no harsh handling or stabby training collars – dogs actually enjoy this process
- It can improve your relationship with your dog
- It can solve global warming and world hunger and reverse male pattern baldness
This post is rather long (I prefer “epic”), but if you’re serious about finally dealing with your dog’s issues, take some time to read it. Instagram will still be there when you’re done.
Will this method work for your dog’s problems?
For our purposes today, behavior problems are divided into two categories. This post deals with the first category: the “annoying” problems. Stuff that is perfectly normal and acceptable in canine society, but frowned upon by humanity. This is what we think of as poor manners. Things that pretty much any dog will do until taught otherwise.
Including but not limited to:
- Destructive chewing
- Peeing on the carpet
- Digging up the garden
- Jumping on visitors
- Pulling on leash
- Stealing food off the table
- Incessant barking
- Puppyhood biting
- Stalking the cat (the cat owners in the audience might argue that this is more terrifying than annoying, but it’s still a normal behavior you can expect from a healthy dog)
The second category is more serious. It’s the behaviors that result from a dog in distress. This includes any kind of aggressive or fearful behavior. This method might help, but won’t “cure” this dog. Category 2 requires a different approach.
Check out our posts on Category 2 behaviors:
- Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge on Leash?
- A Beginner’s Guide to Helping Your Reactive Dog Get Better
- A Practical Guide to Dealing With Your Dog’s Resource Guarding or Food Aggression
- The Right Way to Use Desensitization & Counter Conditioning to Help a Fearful or Aggressive Dog
How do you know which category your dog’s issues fall under?
Ask yourself: Is my dog in distress? Is he doing this to protect himself or cope with something scary?
Category 1 behaviors can be caused by boredom. Category 2 indicates a deeply unhappy critter. To tell the difference, you need a good understanding of how dogs communicate.
Take our free online course all about canine communication and body language: Dog Speak 101
This twelve-video course will teach you the basics of body language, including how to tell when a dog is in distress. Did I mention it’s free? Click here to check it out!
If you’re still not sure, you can book a virtual coaching session with us.
Schedule a vet visit
Any time a dog develops a new behavior issue, your first step should be to talk to your vet. Many behaviors that look like a dog is just being obnoxious can be a result of illness or injury. House soiling, fear, aggression, guarding, hyperactivity, ignoring you, destructive behavior, etc., can all be symptoms. For me, the biggest tip off that a dog has a health problem is when their owner says, “Pongo just started doing this…”
Dog problems don’t just develop for no reason. Is Pongo trying to tell you he’s sick?
If your dog is not afraid, ill, or injured, if he’s just blowing off steam or acting like a dog, proceed to the next section.
The Basic Formula
It goes like this:
Prevent unwanted behavior from getting rewarded, while training and rewarding a preferred behavior.
Or even simpler:
Prevent bad, reward good.
That’s pretty much it. The tl;dr version. You can stop reading now, if you want. Go back to scrolling through cat videos. Have a nice day!
You’re still here! Apparently, I’m more interesting than cat videos. TAKE THAT, CAT VIDEOS.
It’s all about replacing bad habits with good habits. You teach the dog a new behavior that you like and reward the crap out of him every time he does it, thus making it into a good habit. At the same time, you prevent the dog from practicing the old habit. The old habit weakens and eventually goes away.
The ABCs of Behavior Modification
Antecedent (aka the cue) – this is the thing that triggers Pongo to do the thing you don’t like.
Behavior – the thing you don’t like.
Consequence – this is what happens as a result of Pongo’s behavior. This consequence is something Pongo likes or needs, obviously, or he wouldn’t do it.
Example: Grandma comes over for a visit (the antecedent or cue). Pongo jumps on her, leaping up to lick her face (the behavior). Grandma gives Pongo her attention (the consequence).
In this behavior modification strategy, the antecedent and the consequence stay the same. The behavior is what changes, as we replace it with a new behavior that you like.
Example: Grandma comes over for a visit (antecedent). Pongo sits down (new behavior). Grandma gives Pongo her attention (consequence).
At the same time, you can change the consequence for the bad behavior. If Pongo jumps up, the new consequence is that he loses Grandma’s attention.
We’ll get to the step-by-step instructions in a minute, but first:
Three Things You Must Understand Before We Begin
Unwanted behavior, yes. Bad behavior, not so much.
In this context, calling behavior good or bad makes me a bit twitchy. Pongo is not being bad on purpose. He’s a normal dog following his doggie instincts, which happen to clash with his owner’s human instincts.
The way you think of a behavior changes how you treat that behavior. It’s easy to get pissed off by what you perceive as your dog trying to make your life miserable. But getting pissed off at a dog doesn’t help anything. Pongo is not getting his revenge for when you left him home alone yesterday, he’s not trying to take over the household, he’s not a Bad Dog. He just has no freaking clue why he shouldn’t do what he’s doing.
From now on, this post will refer to Pongo’s indiscretions as the old behavior, which we’ll replace with a new behavior.
Suppressing the old behavior is not enough.
Pongo does what he does for a reason. He barks incessantly because it makes that evil mail carrier go away. He tears up the sofa cushions because he’s bored and it’s fun. He pulls on leash because it makes his infuriatingly slow owner walk faster. You can yell at him not to jump on Grandma all you want, while he just replies, “but how ELSE am I supposed to say hello to her?!”
It’s not enough just to make a behavior stop. You have to teach Pongo a new behavior that will accomplish the same consequence. Often, dogs seem quite relieved when you provide clear direction like this. Take some time to teach them a better way to ask for what they need, and watch the light bulb switch on: “oh! Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”
“Reward” doesn’t always mean cookies.
You’ll be doing a hell of a lot of rewarding during this process. But before you head to the supermarket to stock up on cheap hot dogs (which is not a bad idea. Get me a couple packages while you’re out), keep in mind that a reward doesn’t have to be treats.
A reward (reinforcement) can be anything the dog wants at that particular moment. And since you know that Pongo does what he does for a reason (please refer to the previous point), you know exactly what he wants. The dog who loves to say hi to Grandma gets reinforced with Grandma’s attention. The dog who pulls on leash is reinforced by getting where he wants to go faster.
Treats are a great additional reinforcer, and you should definitely use them, but they’re not always the main attraction.
Sometimes you’ll have to be more clever about the rewards you use – you can’t exactly reward Pongo the Cat Stalker by letting him hunt your cats. Instead, reward him with something he likes that fulfills that same need, like frisbee training or a toy-on-a-string.
Any behavior that gets rewarded is likely to be repeated. Make sure Pongo only gets rewarded for the behavior you like.
The Three-Step Training Plan
1. Decide what you want your dog’s new behavior to be
Imagination time, kids! Come up with some ideas for Pongo’s new replacement habit. This is the thing you want him to do instead whenever he encounters the thing (the antecedent) that triggers his unwanted behavior.
This is what dog nerds like to call “establishing an incompatible behavior:” Pongo can’t jump up on Grandma if he’s lying down on a mat. He can’t bark at the mailman if he’s picking up his favorite toy and bringing it to you.
The new behavior can be as simple or as complex as you like, as long as it’s something you’ll actually work on. Some ideas to get you started:
Fancy: Go lie down on your bed
Barking at the door
Simple: Bark/Quiet on command
Fancy: Go grab a toy and bring it to me
Begging at the table
Go lie down on your bed
Digging up the yard
Digging in a designated sand box with toys
Come up with as many ideas as you want, but pick just one. Asking for more than one behavior will confuse everyone involved.
Next, train the dog to do the new behavior outside the problem situation. To learn how to teach your dog to do a new trick/behavior, check out How to Teach Your Dog to do Practically Anything.
Check out our 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.
2. Prevent the old behavior from happening or getting rewarded
You’ll need to manage the environment to physically prevent Pongo from engaging in his old ways. Learn more about mischief management here.
Step one is pretty much useless if your dog still practices his old habits when you’re not paying attention. Allowing the dog to engage in inappropriate behavior means he’s being rewarded for it. The more he does it, the more he’s reinforced for it, so the more he does it, and the more he gets reinforced for it. It’s a vicious circle.
When trying to break your dog’s habit of barking at contrails (your dog does this, too, right? It’s not just Jonas… right?), do not leave him in the backyard unsupervised. He will bark his fool head off and any training progress you’ve made will go down the drain.
Should you prevent it or ignore it?
Sometimes you don’t have to prevent the old behavior, you just have to ignore it.
How do you know which one is appropriate when? It’s all about controlling the reward.
My dog Friday had this habit of barking at me when she was hungry. She was the spokesperson among my dogs. As a group, they would confer silently, decide that yes, it was indeed dinner time, and Friday would come over and start yelling at me.
The reward in this situation was me getting up and making dinner. This is the kind of thing you can ignore. Unlike barking at the mail carrier, which will be rewarded if you don’t intervene, Friday was not rewarded for barking at me. I ignored the behavior, waited until she was silent, and then got up to make dinner. (*in theory only, anyway. Half the time, I found her demands more endearing than annoying, so I never worked on it consistently)
This also works for begging at the table. As long as the whole family strictly follows the No Feeding The Dog At The Table rule, ignore him and leave him to figure out that his tactics aren’t working.
3. Reinforce the crap out of the new behavior
This is where you put it all together.
Grandma is coming over for a visit. Pongo is being managed: he’s on a leash so that he can’t jump up. Grandma knocks on the door, you ask her to ignore the dog until he does what you ask.
“Pongo, sit!” you tell him.
Because you have practiced this trick many times in many situations (you have, right?), Pongo sits. Grandma leans down to say hi. You hand Grandma some chopped up hot dog bits and she feeds them to Pongo as long as he stays with his butt planted firmly on the ground.
Or let’s say you’re trying to rehabilitate Pongo the Chronic Leash-Puller. You’ve been teaching him to walk nicely at your side in a less distracting practice situation (step one). You’re managing him with a front-clip harness so that any pulling effort will be thwarted (step two).
Now, you’re walking toward the park. You ask Pongo to walk next to you, just like you’ve practiced. As long as he does, you feed him a steady stream of hot dog bits, tell him what GOOOOOD PUPPY he is, and keep walking toward the park, where he will be allowed to play and sniff to his heart’s content. As long as the leash remains slack, he gets all of these rewards. Pretty sweet deal.
The “sweet deal” part is key. You want Pongo to decide that this new habit is much more rewarding than the old habit, so be generous. Use really good treats; hot dogs or real chicken, not dry biscuits. if your reward for not stalking the cat is playing with a tug toy, put some enthusiasm into it!
The Extinction Burst: Why bad behavior sometimes gets worse before it gets better
Imagine this: It’s time to go to work. You get in your car, put the key in the ignition, and turn. You have performed this behavior every day for months or years and it has always resulted in the car faithfully rumbling to life, delivering you to work on time.
This time, nothing happens. Do you just accept it, shrug your shoulders and say, “oh, okay. I should make other plans, I guess?”
Not likely. Not at first. You probably try turning the engine a few more times while swearing and pounding your fist against the dashboard.
That little tantrum is called an extinction burst. Before you give up on the behavior of turning the key (making it “extinct,” see?), you increase your efforts.
This happens in dog training when the dog realizes that a behavior that always gets him what he wants no longer works. Friday yells at me to feed her, which has always worked because I’m a sucker. But when I start ignoring her, she doesn’t give up right away. She barks louder. “Helloooo! Can you hear me? What the hell, man? FEED ME!”
Don’t give up when your dog’s behavior gets worse during training, just ride it out. The extinction burst means training is WORKING. The dog is learning. This is when they realize that they have to change tactics, but they aren’t happy about it.
How to make sure this actually works
Be as consistent as the sunrise.
This process only works if you are abundantly clear in your message to your dog: the old behavior doesn’t work anymore, but this new behavior works much better. If you sometimes give in and let Pongo do things the old way, if you constantly get bored and change your strategies…** then this ain’t never gonna work! Always ask for the same behavior, always manage, and make sure everyone in your household is on the same page. I know it can be kind of boring, but boring works.
Be as patient as… something that’s really patient.
This is not a quick fix. It’s very simple once you get the hang of it, but it takes time. All those dog training reality shows make behavior modification look all dramatic and sexy, taking dogs from delinquent to angel in a neatly packaged 45 minute episode. But in actual reality, slow and steady wins the behavior mod race.
I know, “be patient” is something that’s easier said than done. This is what I personally find most challenging about dog training. I’ve
given up on put on hold a few training projects because I’m not patient enough. But I’m working on it.
I cannot emphasize this enough: REINFORCE THE MOTHERFRICKING CRAP OUT OF THE NEW BEHAVIOR.
A lot of people don’t really hear this part. Perhaps I should be more assertive. Imagine me standing next to you with a bullhorn, shouting in your ear: ALWAYS BE REINFORCING.
We’re teaching Pongo that the new behavior is much better than the old one. You cannot skimp on the reward part. People tend to reward the dog really well for the first few training sessions, and then think the dog has got it and they’re done. No no, padawan. Remember what I said above about being patient and consistent? That applies to reinforcement.
Want your dog to learn to dig in his new sandbox instead of the flowerbed? Make sure the sandbox is always well-stocked with treat-filled toys.
Want your dog to stop jumping on Grandma? Make sure Grandma showers him with affection every time he sits.
Want your dog to play tug with you instead of terrorizing the cat? Make sure you turn tug into the best game EVER.
Generally speaking, if you think you’re reinforcing enough, you need to reinforce more.
Holy buckets, this post is epic. Even so, I probably left some details out. Check out these further resources for solving behavior problems.
P.S. Always be reinforcing