The other day I was working with a client whose dog had a ‘bad’ habit of pulling really hard on a leash to greet oncoming people. It is actually not an uncommon behavior problem that I get called upon to help with.
On that appointment, over the course of one hour with numerous short sessions, that same dog learned to stay at his owner’s side with a loose leash while I walked up to pet him. Much more work will be needed with different people in different settings but the learning process was begun.
How did that change occur so quickly?
Really, it comes down to where the value is for the animal. Whenever I see a dog or parrot or other animal doing something that is unacceptable, the first question I ask myself is – what is reinforcing that behavior? In other words, what purpose does that behavior serve for that animal because if a behavior did not help an animal get something of value, then the behavior would weaken.
Often what that means is that people, as their caretakers, can often be the cause of unwanted behaviors without even realizing it.
Dogs are incredible observers. They spend their waking hours watching and learning and figuring out the best way to get what they need and want.
I thought I’d share a few of the ways you may be ‘teaching’ unwanted behaviors without realizing it.
Ignoring your dog UNTIL he does a behavior you do not like. (I see this with human kids too.) When I was assisting with a class I saw a student standing with his dog sitting at his side. However, while his dog was doing exactly what that man wanted his dog to do, it was only when his dog got up and barked at the dog next to him that the man looked down to talk to his dog, tell his dog to sit and say ‘good girl.’ Here, that dog was learning *if* I sit down calmly, I get no attention but *if* I get up and bark, my owner talks to me and tells me what a good girl I am.
Punishing GOOD behavior. If you call your dog to come when he is playing outside, and he promptly comes running but only to have you bring him inside so that you can leave, you will be teaching your dog *the fun stops* when I come when called.
Reinforcing unwanted behavior without realizing it. If you open the door when your dog is jumping on it, you are teaching your dog that jumping on the door gets it to open. If you put your dog’s leash on him while he is barking, jumping and whining, you have just taught him that barking, jumping and whining get the leash attached which then leads to an awesome walk.
I wanted to share this as another reminder that teaching occurs daily with every interaction. Training is not only about the formal sessions where you are teaching obedience or trick behaviors. It is about those every day moments where you catch those behaviors you want to see more of, and find a way to make those behaviors valuable to your pet; while making sure you do not give value to the unwanted behaviors – and even set the environment up so those unwanted behaviors do not occur in the first place.