Stopping Puppies From Nipping At Ankles

The other day I was overhearing a woman giving advice to another woman on her puppy’s naughty and very irritating behavior of biting at her ankles and pants when she walks. The advice was to yell at the puppy (take pants out of the puppy’s mouth) and tell the puppy to sit when it happens.

tips for stopping your puppy from nipping at your ankles by Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KAHmm, here is the thing. Usually when I hear people talk about ‘trying’ to solve that behavior problem in that way, they keep having to yell at their puppy because the puppy does not stop doing the behavior.

Why? Well, remember, animals are always using behavior as a tool to get a consequence of value to them. If a behavior is reoccurring, then that behavior is working for the animal. In this case, the potential list of valued consequences for the puppy or dog could be among other things attention, mental and physical stimulation, or sensory stimulation (having pants in his mouth).

Generally speaking, although each dog is an individual, herding dogs are more genetically wired to do this but any dog or puppy can. Among the many dogs in which I have seen the nipping at ankles and pants behavior were a puppy vizsla, german shepherd, labradoodle, great dane, and just this past weekend, a puppy King Charles.

In each situation, I was able to stop the unwanted behavior by focusing on teaching the puppy more acceptable behavior choices instead.

Why isn’t punishment enough to stop behavior?

Before I write about what I did to modify behavior, I wanted to address why scolding a puppy for this (or any unacceptable behavior) is not your best solution. For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing the behavior (meaning, later on will go back to doing the unwanted behavior) then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your body may actually be of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the nipping at your ankle is SO valuable to your puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.  Another possibility from my example above is that, if you have taught ‘sit’ as a behavior that gets your dog lots of positive reinforcement, then asking your dog to sit immediately after your yelling and removing his mouth from your pants, can become a reinforcer for nipping at your ankles.

On the other hand, if your yelling at him does work to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of your puppy’s unwanted behavior, then I’d have to ask, at what cost? It most certainly does not teach your pet what he should do instead. Just a few of the potential negative ramifications of using an aversive teaching strategy are that it can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression and escape/avoidance behaviors. Punishment requires escalating the intensity in order to maintain that suppression, and ultimately the teacher then becomes associated with those aversives.

Puppies, dogs, even birds and other animals did not join our lives inherently knowing what behaviors are and are not acceptable to their human companions. Those are things we need to teach them with fairness.

Solving nipping at ankles

Okay, so let’s look at how to solve the problem in the most positive way.

Firstly, with every behavior it is important to look for two things – what is happening in the environment to set the ankle/pant nipping behavior into motion in the first place and what is the immediate consequence of that behavior that is maintaining or even strengthening it. Then, think about what you can do to prevent practice of that behavior (and getting reinforcement for it) while also building value or teaching a different, more acceptable behavior with lots of positive reinforcement.

With each puppy it can be different. If your puppy is likely to go for your pants or shoes during play, make sure that you have acceptable toys in hand to direct your puppy to playing with them instead of focusing on human legs. I like to engage in constructive play with puppies meaning I am teaching behaviors and self control through play….for example, when they sit, then the toy moves. If you can’t be actively engaged with your puppy (but always you are actively supervising), then another alternative is an interactive toy that keeps his attention like a food puzzle toy. And if active supervision is not an option at that time, then the best place for your puppy is a confinement area like a crate or x-pen so as to prevent your puppy from engaging in unwanted behaviors.

If your puppy tends to grab your pant leg as you walk, think about what you want to do and focus on that, but before your puppy grabs your ankle (because with each practice of grabbing your ankle, your puppy is gaining a reinforcement opportunity for the unwanted behavior). I will slow down as much as needed for that particular puppy and will even begin with marking (with a verbal ‘yes’ or click) and reinforcing the puppy for standing at my side while I am stationary, and continue to mark and reinforce being at my side with his head up as I move. I’ll only gradually move quicker as the puppy tells me through his ability to continue to walk at my side with his head up, that he is learning the behavior I want to see. If at any time the puppy goes to bite my ankle, I become a tree so as to avoid giving any reinforcement for the unwanted behavior; and then, I adjust my plan to go slower so as to help the puppy succeed.

My challenge to you is this: Instead of thinking in terms of what your pet is doing that is bad from your perspective, think about what that behavior is getting him and what you can teach him to do instead. And, as always, have fun!

 

 

Three Steps To Solve Dog Counter Surfing

I think my parents are among the only dog companions who actually find joy in watching our Sam stand with his two front paws on the kitchen counter in search of dinner leftovers. For others, this behavior known as counter surfing is generally not welcome.

I have heard a lot of complaints about ‘bad’ dogs who persistently are in search of higher surfaces. But, before I talk about solutions, let’s talk about labeling these dogs. Are these dogs really being bad? (And what does bad really mean?) Or are they simply doing something very natural to dogs…using their senses to seek out food?

Let’s look at this from a behavioral analysis perspective briefly. Remember that all behaviors that are repeated, and even ststeps to stop your dog from counter surfing by Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnikrengthened, are occurring because there is a reinforcement history in place. And, also intermittent reinforcement – meaning sometimes a behavior works to get a valued outcome and sometimes it does not – is the maker of extremely strong, persistent behavior as it creates the gambling effect.

That being said, if there is a super smelly, super tasty piece of food on a counter, your dog is very likely to put its paws up onto the counter to try and get it. After all, in addition to the ultimate possible outcome of getting that food, your dog is also being reinforced by the activity itself. Think about the value in providing your dog with a food enrichment toy and how focused your dog becomes on working to get the food out. It is exercise for its mind and body, and it is downright fun for your dog.

With an activity that has the potential of bringing so much value to your dog, think now of your expectations that your dog naturally ignores the counter just because you want it to. Behavior, unfortunately, does not work that way.

Using aversive strategies, as I remind frequently in this blog and in my training, are not my choice for a solution. Firstly, as is the case in any training, the timing of your consequence needs to be immediately after the behavior and it also needs to be strong enough to weaken that behavior. But, also, teaching with aversives can have so many potential negative ramifications including that it can create fear, apathy or even aggression; it does not help to teach the learner what to do instead; and YOU can be come associated with those aversive consequences.

What is a better solution?

Thoughtfully Arrange The Environment

An antecedent is a setting event for a behavior to happen. A piece of steak or other tasty food within reach can absolutely be an antecedent for your dog’s behavior of counter surfing. If there is a piece of food on the counter, *then* you can predict your dog will put its front paws there.

Keeping in mind that your goal is for your dog to NOT have any practice of the unwanted behavior (and reinforcement for that behavior), think about what you can do to manage the environment so as to not set the behavior into motion to begin with. Some ideas include having your kitchen gated off so as to prevent those paws from being close to kitchen counters when humans are not watching, and providing your dog with another activity such as a food enrichment toy while you are preparing dinner.

Add No Fuel To That Fire

Additionally, it is important to have a plan that *if* mistakes happen (which may occur), that reinforcement is not available or greatly minimized for your dog’s behavior of putting its paws on the counter. A house rule of NO food left on counters is always good to have in a home with a dog prone to searching it out. Also, note that your attention to your dog after the behavior is set into motion may just be another reinforcer.

Teaching an Alternative Behavior

Remember that your dog is going to make a choice based upon where the value is for it. If you teach your dog that going to its mat, for example, is huge value because when it goes there great things happen….like a piece of that terrific meat lands between its paws, while you remove the value of counter surfing (by keeping food away) – which choice do you think it will learn to do if its goal is to get something of value? As your training progresses, you can put that mat behavior on an intermittent reinforcement schedule.

Building value for alternative wanted behaviors can also be captured by keeping your eye out for your dog making the choices you want to see, and reinforcing those decisions.

The great benefits to teaching this way are they are adding more enrichment to your dog’s life, teaching your dog what you want it to do, and strengthening your relationship.

 

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Are You Puppy Police?

When the subject comes up of scolding a puppy (or dog) for getting into something humans think it shouldn’t, chewing up something of value to humans, or going potty in the house, I want to remind you of this comparison I like to use.

You are in essence playing the role of the traffic cop who is watching passersby from the side of the road to pull over and punish (with a traffic ticket) them for driving over the speed limit. Think about that for a minute…if you have ever seen those flashing red lights in your rear view mirror, has that very irritating fine – and mark on your driving record – caused you to stop driving over the speed limit every time you get in the car. Or does that experience cause you to be more vigilant in looking for police when you want to get somewhere faster?

Here is the thing about punishment. It has so many potential negative ramifications, among them being that it can create apathy, fear, anxiety and even aggression; and if you are the punisher, then you will become associated with that aversive consequence. Punishment also does not teach your pet what you want it to do instead.

Why punishing your puppy for bad behavior won't stop behavior. Another thing to keep in mind is that, just as with any consequence, if you are scolding your puppy for a behavior that was done in the past, too much time has gone by for your puppy to learn that association between the unwanted behavior and the punishment so you could be simply teaching your puppy that doing whatever it was doing at the very instant just before you yelled (which could be coming to you) caused you to respond that way. I am sure that is not your intention.

So, here is the other thing, if are having the housetraining problem of your puppy peeing on the rug for example and you yell, spank or do something else aversive to it at that instant, think about it. Are you really teaching your puppy to never pee on the rug (What happens if his bladder is really full and he has to relieve himself?) or are you teaching your puppy that if he cannot wait and has to go, that he better find a spot that is out of view from humans (think about your lesson with the traffic cop)? If your puppy is bored and his teeth ach, and he really needs something to put in his mouth, do you think your punishment would teach him he should never chew on whatever happens to be available, or do you think you are teaching him to stay away from you when he has a human object?

One more point is that, once you have gone down that road of using aversives with a puppy who has had accidents in the house, it is so much more difficult to do effective housetraining since your puppy will be less likely to go potty in front of you (and you need to be able to see him go so that you can provide reinforcement immediately).

Lesson here: Set your puppy up for success with good management to prevent unwanted behaviors from being practiced while you are teaching your puppy the behaviors you want to see…with lots of positive reinforcement!

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Why Puppies Pee Inside

This has come up in conversation several times these past few weeks. If you are trying to teach your puppy to go potty outside, and your little friend, who just emptied his bladder outside urinates after being inside for even a few minutes, it is understandable that you could be frustrated. Let’s talk about that a little.

First things first, understand that it most certainly is not happening to make you angry but there are many other possible Some potential reasons why your puppy may be peeing in your house, and how to stop it. Puppy housetraining tips.causes.

Below are a few possible reasons why your puppy is peeing inside :

There is a medical reason. It could be that your puppy has a urinary tract infection or diabetes or something else. These are some symptoms to be watchful for: frequent urination, dribbling urine, blood in the urine, straining or crying out while urinating, frequent licks to the genital area. If you notice any of these symptoms, please visit your veterinarian.

Your puppy is not fully emptying its bladder when outdoors. This can especially happen in the morning as your little friend is so eager to begin the day, or when you first come home after an absence. If it does not empty everything, it will still need to go when you come back inside. You may want to stay out a little longer to see if your puppy needs to relieve itself again.

Your timing is off in reinforcing the urination. If you are too quick and mark/reinforce its peeing behavior, you will be interrupting (and stopping) the behavior before it is complete. Your mark/reinforcement should come immediately after your puppy finishes going potty. Also remember to keep the treats out of sight so your puppy will not be focused on the food, and will more readily learn the association that the behavior of urinating outside ‘causes’ the treats to appear.

To that point, you may not be providing clear enough information to your puppy that going potty is why you are outside. This can occur if you let your puppy out without being on leash and it finds many reasons to explore its environment and get reinforcement from other behaviors.

Your puppy simply drank too much water. Remember that what goes in, also goes out. They tend to drink more in the waking hours of the morning, and after eating dry food and playing.

What are some ideas for solving this?  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Contact your vet if anything does not seem right to you. Ruling out possible medical reasons is the first step.

Management is SO important. If your puppy does not understand that outside is the place to go potty, preventing practice of urinating (and having bowel movements) inside – and getting reinforced for that behavior – is key while you are teaching your puppy wanted habits. Unless you are certain that your puppy has fully emptied its bladder outside, either having it in a crate or tethered/having a leash attached to its collar while you are ACTIVELY supervising it is just so important. Only when you are ACTIVELY supervising it, will you see it begin to show signs that it has a need to urinate and you can act quickly to bring it outside.

Take your puppy out more frequently. As a very general rule, take your puppy out first thing in the morning and last thing before turning in for the night, immediately after your puppy wakes up, shortly after eating, within about 15 minutes from drinking, after playing or other activity…and frequently during the day. It is helpful to write out your schedule of activity so that you can see patterns in your routine and your puppy’s behavior and cycle.

Stay outside longer with your puppy, especially in the morning. Give your puppy the chance to empty its bladder more than once. If your puppy urinates quickly and then wants to run off and play, keep it on leash.

Choose a potty spot and bring your puppy to that spot consistently. Do not play when you are in that spot. Teach your puppy that THAT place is for pottying.

No punishing for incorrect decisions. If your puppy has an accident in your house, do not punish it. Instead, clean it up with an enzymatic cleaner (such as the Nature’s Miracle Stain & Odor Remover) and then think about what you can do in the future to prevent that behavior from being repeated.

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Stopping Your Dog From Biting The Leash

I have seen and heard about the problem with large and small dogs and puppies. Instead of walking with all four paws on the ground on a loose leash as their head is facing forward or slightly to the side, they are grabbing at the leash to pull it, chew on it or play with it. (NOTE: I how to prevent and stop your dog from biting and tugging on the leashwill refer to this as ‘bad leash behavior’ in this post.) Ugh, it is a frustrating problem!

So, why does it happen and what can you do about it?

Why it happens

There are many reasons but what they all have in common is this. Behavior is simply a tool animals use to get consequences. If that behavior persists and even strengthens, then it is being reinforced by the environment.

That being said, it could be that a puppy has not had enough exercise prior to clipping that leash on which means your puppy has a greater need for mental and physical stimulation. Jumping at or tugging on a leash while the human on the other end is reacting in some way by either tugging back or pushing the puppy down or another reaction, may be even heightening the value then of your puppy’s bad leash behaviors since, from the puppy’s perspective, ‘bad leash behaviors’ cause games with humans to begin.

Another possible cause could be that your puppy has a real need for chewing or having something in his mouth, and the leash being in close proximity to your puppy’s mouth is an easy solution. The sensory stimulation from having something in his mouth could be a reinforcer for maintaining or strengthening those ‘bad leash behaviors’.

It could also be that your puppy is over stimulated by his environment or even stressed by his environment and those ‘bad leash behaviors’ are being reinforced by the release of tension.

Your sudden attention to your puppy could also be a source of reinforcement.

What can you do about it?

Well, one thing I do not recommend is the use of reprimands. Not only are there so many potential serious side effects from punishment (please see this post) including that punishment does not serve to teach your puppy what you want him to do instead and that your puppy will come to associate you with that negative, in order for punishment to be effective, it needs to be strong enough to stop the behavior.

Instead, think about the function that the ‘bad leash behaviors’ serve for your puppy – in other words, what is of value to your puppy that he gets by doing those behaviors? What can you do to prevent those unwanted behaviors from occurring in the first place (and getting reinforced)? And, what can you do to lower the value of that consequence and also teach your puppy a different behavior that can get him the same or greater value.

It may seem like a lot to think about but it really just takes some consideration, and practice.

These are just a few ideas:

Teach your puppy to sit with relaxed body muscles while you clip on the leash to begin reinforcing that response from the beginning.

Teach your puppy that walking beside you with a loose leash is what gets great things to happen. I may use a combination of tug toys, food, or the opportunity to sniff a mail post as a reinforcer for walking at my side.

Teach your puppy to hold a ball or other toy in his mouth on walks if your puppy is one that likes the sensory stimulation of having something in his mouth.

If you need to walk your dog at a time when you can not be in training mode (like when you are rushing him outside to go potty), you may want to use some management to help you both succeed. Using a double-ended clip, you can attach a metal choke chain (the only time I will use a choke chain) to the color and clip the leash onto the other end of the choke chain. Puppies are much less likely to get reinforcement from chewing on metal.

Additionally, if your puppy does get a hold of that leash, it is important that you be very careful so as to NOT reinforce it. Many times I have found that if I drop the leash immediately when a puppy mouth touches it (although still holding the end, just dropping the length to the ground) that it becomes boring.

Also, by knowing under what conditions your puppy is most likely to begin those ‘bad leash behaviors’ – like when he is stressed, over stimulated or lacking exercise, then take care to not walk him in those conditions until you have sufficiently taught him wanted behaviors, taken care to give him an acceptable outlet for getting his needs met (like giving him something to hold in his mouth), and/or are managing the situation so practice is less likely to occur.

 

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

 

 

Effectiveness Is Not Enough In Animal Training

I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryer Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way. What also made the weekend special for me was the chance to see my very first teacher and long time mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman (who pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Science to the care and training of captive and companion animals). Susan is who opened my floodgate to behavior science and got me hooked on it.

In one of her lectures, ‘Effectiveness Is Not Enough’, Susan reminded us to make a habit of two things: to HELP or at least to DO NO HARM.

Ask yourself…

When a dog snarls at youth on skateboards and is held down while they continue to skateboard in small circles around him until he stops reacting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog struggles to escape a comb held close to his face and is restrained at the scruff while combing his muzzle until he stops resisting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog lunges, growls and barks while on leash while another dog is around and is restrained until he stops those behaviors, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

What do all of these approaches have in common?

In each of these circumstances, the frequency and/or intensity of a behavior is decreased in order to remove or get distance from an aversive stimulus that is added to the environment. Scientifically this is called positive punishment.

Does this work to change behavior? Unfortunately, it does, and every time it does the teacher is reinforced for using it.

Susan has reminded me time again the cost of using this approach.

Sure, you may have changed behavior but punishment can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression, and escape/avoidance. Punishment does not serve to ‘teach’ the animal what you want him to do instead and most certainly does not teach the teacher how to help the animal succeed. It requires escalating intensity to maintain suppression. It is actually a double negative in that it both it is a big withdrawal from the positive reinforcement bank while also being highly aversive. AND, for all of this, the teacher can become associated with those aversives.

In fact, in several of the cases above what has happened is called ‘learned helplessness’ as a result of flooding. Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But can you imagine the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process? It is either sink or swim basically. In many cases flooding only serves to make the animal more anxious and forces it to adopt different coping mechanisms to ensure safety and survival.

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

Watch this video where Ceasar Millan teaches a dog to ‘calm down’. Specifically at about 3:14 into the video you will see an example of flooding. Watch the body language of the little dog he is working with. Sure, that little guy is not lunging and barking any longer after being held back but does he look like a dog who has learned a positive association with being near to the golden retriever or is this a case of learned helplessness? (What is that little dog’s tail, face, and body doing?)

Susan teaches a Humane Hierarchy when it comes to behavior change strategies. As much as possible, animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control significant events in their life. Read more: Dr. Susan Friedman: What’s Wrong with this Picture

The Humane Hierarchy is a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive with Level 1 being the most socially acceptable and giving the animal the highest amount of control. “The overwhelming majority of behavior problems can be prevented or resolved with one or more strategies represented in Levels 1 to 4,” she wrote in a paper.

The levels include:

Level 1: Distant Antecedents – address medical, nutritional and physical environment variables.

Level 2: Immediate Antecedents – redesign setting events, change motivations, and add or remove discriminative stimuli (cues) for the behavior.Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy in animal training

Level 3: Positive Reinforcement – contingently deliver a consequence to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur, which is more reinforcing than the problem behavior.

Level 4: Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.

Level 5:

  1. Negative Punishment – contingently withdraw a positive reinforcer to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.
  2. Negative Reinforcement – contingently withdraw an aversive antecedent stimulus to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur.
  3. Extinction – permanently remove the maintaining reiforcer to suppress the behavior or reduce it to baseline levels.

Level 6: Positive Punishment – contingently deliver an aversive consequence to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.

Learn more about antecedent arrangement and using it by clicking here.

Learn more about differential reinforcement, by clicking here.

 

When I train dogs and other animals, I always work to empower them, by teaching them that making a wanted behavior choice will result in a positive consequence. What is an example of how you modified your pet’s behavior in a positive way? I’d love to hear.

 

In Dog Training, Focus On The Positive Vs Punishment

Hundreds of dog trainers (actually probably upwards of close to 1000) from across the country converged on Covington in October. It was the very first time that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) has held its large annual conference here and I was fortunate to be among the attendees. APDT is a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to becoming better trainers through education.

Steve WhiteSteve White was one of the presenters. Accredited as a master trainer by the Washington State Police Canine Association, Steve has served as vice president of the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and has been an instructor for the K-9 Academy for Law Enforcement. He specializes in teaching behavior modification, tracking, and scent work through the use of positive reinforcement-based operant conditioning.

In his talk, he reminded us about the danger of using punishment in our training. He even went so far as to compare aversive-based training with a nuclear war.

“If the blast doesn’t get you, the fallout will,” he said.

How about that for making a point?

I’ve seen it all too often…a dog whose fear issues have only heightened, who has become aggressive or disinterested in learning OR a bird that cowers in a corner of its cage or gives a nasty bite because an owner used a form of punishment to stop an unacceptable behavior.

Dr. Susan Friedman has written extensively about the topic. “We are virtually surrounded by punishing strategies to influence behavior. Fines, penalties and reprimands whirl around us like leaves in a storm,” she had written. “Unfortunately every time an animal responds to punishment by doing something less often, the person who delivered the punishment is rewarded.”

 So, how do you define punishment?

Functionally speaking, it is any consequence to a behavior that reduces its frequency or intensity – but that is a very individualized. What one animal may see as aversive, another may find rewarding. Uh oh!

And punishment is just an umbrella term for a number of strategies. A mild strategy is withdrawing or removing something from the environment such as each time your bird chews on your ear, you gently remove him from your shoulder. No rough handling is ever needed – just immediate removal followed by an opportunity to do it right.

Another example of a mild punishment is to ignore a behavior – but that can be too difficult (for us not our pet) to do properly and affect change. One of the reasons so many birds have become loud and incessant screamers is because their owner ‘tried’ to ignore the behavior but couldn’t. And, it is only after the bird has increased the intensity of the behavior that the owner finally gave in with attention (remember – whether something is aversive or not is in the eyes of the behaver). Then guess what? The owner inadvertently reinforced the louder, more obnoxious scream. Ugh!

Ignoring an unwanted behavior while also hugely reinforcing another acceptable behavior instead is a much more effective approach. In fact, it is that approach that I learned over 11 years ago that not only saved my relationship with Barnaby but got me hooked on the study of behavior. (I have the story of my behavior plan in solving Barnaby’s screaming on my pet behavior blog.)

I won’t detail the more aggressive strategies of punishment here because I’d rather not focus on them. I’d rather focus on the fact that we can affect behavior change in our pets AND foster a love for learning if we switch the way we look at it. Instead of working to get your pets to stop doing something, work to teach your pet the behavior that you would like to see him do instead…then reinforce the heck out of it.

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