Welcome to our new blog series, Dogs will be Dogs, on addressing common problem behaviors!
In this first post we’ll discuss some basics of how to approach problems and considerations when dealing with any problem behavior you’re facing. Future posts will give insights on how to apply this to different common problem behaviors clients want to address, and change.
Many times in training, and in life in general, we focus on consequences for behavior. Consequences are of course important. If the animal we’re teaching finds consequences reinforcing for a behavior, that behavior will likely increase. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the consequence is punishing or unpleasant, the behavior will likely decrease. Having this knowledge and understanding how it applies based on the animal and the behavior s/he is presenting is crucial. Far too often, however, we are looking at it from our own point of view and not through that of the animal’s.
Let’s take a simple example of this: if my dog is barking at me because he wants me to feed him dinner, and I feed him, then I’m reinforcing his barking. That seems pretty simple and most people can understand how feeding the dog dinner if he is barking at me is actually working against me and my goal of a quieter dog.
If my dog is barking because he not only wants dinner, but my undivided attention, and I decide to yell at him or tell him QUIET to communicate that I’m unhappy with him, then I am very likely still reinforcing the behavior even though I’m trying to discourage it. Any attention, even if it’s “negative” attention to try and dissuade him, is still reinforcing for him. This is not as obvious to some people–attempts to discourage him are actually giving the dog what he wants: attention!
However, if I know once I get home my dog is going to bark at me for dinner, or attention, and I ignore him COMPLETELY–maybe even going straight from the front door to the bathroom, shutting the door–then I have removed myself, and the attention he finds reinforcing. I then wait patiently for quiet. Once it’s quiet for a few seconds, I go out and give my dog a treat, or attention. The dog will learn that by being quiet, he will get what he wants, if I’m consistent with these consequences.
Consequences are important. Sometimes, though, they can be too little too late, and make for more frustrating or stressful training. With barking, it may be just as stressful for the human as the dog because the loud noise can be jarring and unpleasant. Also, if the dog has been rewarded a lot for barking, it can take longer for the dog to quiet, meaning the person has to be patient and deal with the noise.
What if I told you there is a better way?
Antecedent arrangement–what happens before a behavior occurs–can make for less stressful, and more efficient and effective training. It is proactive rather than reactive!
So, if you know your dog is going to bark as soon as you get home, how can you arrange things to make it work better for you?
If your dog is very good at a behavior that is incompatible with barking, you can ask for that behavior as soon as you walk through the door. One option may be to go get his favorite toy. If you’ve taught your fabulous, food-loving Labrador retriever to “go get his ball,” then ask for that as soon as you walk in. He can’t bark with a toy in his mouth! Once he brings it to you, you can play with him.
If you take careful consideration of how to set you and your dog up for success to prevent or redirect the problem behavior through antecedent arrangement, you will benefit the most: your dog won’t get practice with the behavior you don’t want, making it stronger, and you will instead be able to reinforce behaviors you want instead of resorting to punishment, and experiencing frustration and a deterioration in your relationship with your dog.
You will learn more about the ABCs of teaching dogs as we continue this blog series with addressing common problems like jumping, digging, bolting doors and more. Most of what we perceive as problem behaviors are naturally occurring behaviors for dogs, which is why we have named this series Dogs will be Dogs. With patience and careful planning, you can remedy problem behaviors, give your dog appropriate outlets, and instill good manners in him.
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Owner, Delightful Doggies