Stopping Unwanted Pet Behaviors

I get asked a lot when I talk to people about focusing on what they want their pets to do, “But what do I do to tell my pet NO when he is doing something I don’t like?”

Why saying NO isn't the best solution for solving dog behavior problems. Dog training tips from Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA.Here is the thing about that question. First of all, while your dog may or may not momentarily stop what it is doing when you are saying NO, if you are needing to continue to use that word, then it is not solving your problem.

There are many reasons why I do not like using that word. Those reasons include that while NO may stop the unwanted behavior in the moment, it does not give your pet any information on what you would like for him to do instead. Additionally, using aversives has the potential for creating apathy, fear, anxiety and even aggression – and you will become associated with those aversives. As the bad behavior police officer, you may also end of teaching your dog that it should not do the unwanted behavior in front of you. NO also doesn’t do much for fostering a love of learning.

Another thing to keep in mind is that constantly, living beings are making choices based upon where the value is for them. If the behavior serves to get the animal something of value (to the animal) – meaning the behavior is followed by something the animal values – then you will see more of that behavior. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance: Learning & Behavior, fifth edition)

So, if the reinforcement for doing the behavior outweighs the negative of your punishment, your pet will continue to do the unwanted behavior…just possibly when you have got your back turned or are in another room.

You may also be following your word ‘NO’ with a redirection to a different behavior that has a history of reinforcement, and so you are inadvertently reinforcing the unwanted behavior.

Let’s also think about the teaching perspective from a human standpoint. Let’s say you are doing a task at work, and your boss reprimands you, simply telling NO, throughout the day. Does that feedback tell you what you need to do better to earn your boss’ praise? Over time with enough NOs, do you think your performance will continue to break down or will you be more motivated to succeed? I can tell you from first hand experience, I have both worked for people who have been on the look out to find faults and for people who have been on the look out to find strengths. For the first kind of supervisor, somehow, things continue to keep going wrong but in situations where I’ve worked for the later kind of supervisor, I have excelled.

So, what is a pet owner to do when a pet’s behavior is not acceptable?

First of all, step back from the situation for a moment, catch your breath and instead of blaming your pet for it simply doing what works in the moment to get its needs met, ask yourself what YOU can do differently to help your pet succeed.

Since, each practice of a behavior is highly likely to be building that behavior’s reinforcement history (and we know that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated), ask yourself what you can do to set up the environment so that your pet doesn’t have an opportunity to practice the unwanted behavior.

Think about what needs or wants that behavior helps your pet to meet, and behaviors you can teach (with a high rate of reinforcement) that will help your pet to get its needs and wants met in acceptable ways. Then teach those behaviors that will help your pet to succeed in your world. And remember, that while you are teaching those behaviors, to think about what management or arrangement of the environment should be in place to prevent the unwanted behavior from occurring.

And, have a plan for if that unwanted behavior should occur, how you will avoid giving value to that behavior.


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!



Why Ignoring A Pet Problem Behavior Is Not Enough

Dog Training Tip:

When you are trying to stop your pet’s unwanted behavior, do you ‘try’ to ignore it or ignore it ‘most of the time’? Whenever I am meeting with a client and hear those words, right away I know that is a good indicator of why that behavior has become so resilient. Intermittent reinforcement is when you ‘sometimes’ give an animal a valued outcome for that behavior…and it builds very strong behaviors. That is why ignoring alone just does not work ‘most of the time’. Learn about another strategy in my blog post:

intermittent reinforcement  in dog training

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