I was standing and talking with a new client the other day as her puppy was at her feet. The deeper into our conversation we got, the more her puppy began moving around. A few minutes later, he jumped on her leg, grabbed her sweater, and then when she removed it from his mouth, he took interest in her shoe.
Her instincts were to tell him no and push him away. She very much wanted to know how she could teach him those activities are bad.
Here is the thing to remember about behavior. (I know I keep repeating myself but it is important to keep it forefront.) It always happens to get a consequence. If the behavior reoccurring, then it is working to get the animal a consequence of value to him.
Okay, so before we go down that path, what is wrong with simply yelling at a puppy to tell him Bad boy when he has his mouth on a sweater or shoe that should not be there? For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing that behavior then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your arms and lets is actually of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the chewing on a sweater or shoe is SO valuable to that puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.
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. You can read more about punishment here.
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.
In this case, there were many things that occurred prior to the unwanted chewing behavior to set the occasion for that behavior. Those things are called Antecedents; and some potentially could have been lack of other opportunities to chew on appropriate materials, boredom, lack of exercise, lack of attention. But also, the consequence of the inappropriate behavior was fulfilling those needs – attention, play, sensory stimulation, etc. After all, no attention was given to him until he decided to put something into his mouth.
There are many ways to solving this. One way is management. When you cannot actively be involved with supervising, playing and/or training; a puppy who is crated with tasty chew toys or who is actively engaged in a puzzle toy is not interested in chewing on a sweater. A puppy who is tired from active training and exercise also has less value on seeking out that sweater and more value in resting.
And, another consideration…did I mention training? You can teach your dog or puppy an incompatible behavior that he can do INSTEAD of the unwanted behavior with as much or greater reinforcing value as the unwanted behavior. Think of it this way. If your puppy or dog does not know (because you have not taught him) what behavior you want him to do when you are standing with him at your side, then is it fair to blame him for coming up with his own ideas?
During that meeting, I began reinforcing the puppy for laying down by giving him a treat when he was laying on the floor. Within minutes, guess which behavior he was choosing to do on his own? After awhile, I incorporated play as a reinforcer for his laying down. When he lay down, I clicked and released him to retrieve a toy. Wow, talk about building HUGE value for laying down! After talking in the hall, when we walked into another room, can you guess again which behavior he immediately did?
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!