Does your dog chew your favorite shoes? Jump up on guests? Bark at the cat? Most people spend a lot of time yelling at their dog – or doing worse – to stop him. They believe their corrections will end the problem. But they never do. Why? Though a sharp NO might interrupt your dog temporarily, it’s also likely to encourage more of the unwanted behavior. This is because, when he does the thing you hate, it gets your attention. Which is something he really wants. Your correction is strongly reinforcing.
It helps to understand how dogs learn. They don’t start out by trying to get your attention. Rather, they learn by trial and error. But they learn quickly what “works” for them. Say your dog absent-mindedly goes for the shoes you left at the door because he needs to chew and they smell like you (his best friend). If you respond to him in any way – even angrily – he learns that you really react. WOW! That’s AMAZING! Well, count that as your mistake. He is bound to repeat the shoe-chewing now, because your reaction gave him a big reason for doing it. You ask why he would want to do something that makes you angry? An angry owner is better than one who isn’t paying attention to him. And he may even think your angry yell meant you were barking for fun. WOW! DAD GETS SO EXCITED WHEN I DO THIS! THAT’S GREAT! What’s the solution? The next time he starts chewing your shoes, don’t make any fuss at all. Don’t even look at him. Instead, redirect him to a different toy that he is allowed to chew. Start playing with the safe toy yourself, and pretend you’re having a party! Praise him when he comes over to you and starts playing with it. Then, while he’s busy with the safe toy, quietly move your shoes out of harm’s way. Crazy? Maybe a little, but he’ll remember the toy you gave him and forget all about the shoes.
The takeaway: Attention of any kind from you reinforces the problem you’re trying to solve. If you want a behavior to stop, you need to stop rewarding it:
- Prevent problems with barriers, gates, tethers, etc. Only allow access to rooms and spaces where he can’t get into trouble. If he can’t get to the sofa, he can’t chew it, right? When guests visit and you can’t watch him fully, put him in a crate or an exercise pen. To prevent jumping up on people, put him on leash, and keep him away from people until he calms down – THEN let them pet him. Put away your shoes. Take food off the counter. Until he learns the ropes, it’s your job to prevent problems in the first place.
- Meanwhile, spend some time teaching your buddy skills you DO like: go to your mat, kennel up, do a jig, roll over. If you reward those things well, and make the training experience happy, he’ll start to shine. And maybe even show off a little. Reward the great things, and the other behaviors will become ancient history.
Reinforcing good behavior, even a silly parlor trick, gets you out of the punishment game and gives you a much a better way to communicate with your dog. “Rover, go to your mat!” sure beats “Rover, get off me!” Your relationship with him will improve dramatically.