After my post of July 19, expressing my distaste for the Dog Whisperer, a CCHS volunteer in the dog walking program gave me some feedback on the post. While he appreciated the critique of “Cesar’s way,” he felt that I left him hanging a bit – I told him what he should not be reading, watching, and doing – but I didn’t tell him what he should be doing to correct troubling dog behavior at home.
It’s kind of amusing that the volunteer inadvertently pointed out that in my column I had failed to do precisely what I most frequently advise dog owners to do when dealing with ‘bad’ behavior. And that is this: don’t focus on telling the dog what NOT to do . . . focus on telling the dog WHAT TO DO.
How many times have you seen somebody repeatedly tell their dog, “No,” “No, stop that!” “No, Fluffy, noooo!” -- while the dog persists with the unwanted behavior? The word “no” means nothing to a dog unless you’ve taught the dog that is means something. Many people inadvertently teach their dogs that “no” is meaningless noise! Why not instead of repeating “no” over and over again, tell your dog what you would like him to do? It goes like this: (1) Dog does inappropriate thing; (2) handler gets dog’s attention and asks for an alternative behavior; (3) dog does alternative behavior and gets reward. Dog can eventually learn to do the alternative behavior in the first place, whenever the same circumstances arise. (Example: dog can learn that instead of jumping on people at greeting, a “sit” “stay” is the appropriate behavior. Don’t say “No,” say “Sit,” and reward your dog for sitting and staying in a sit).
Another way to think of it: Make it worth your dog’s while to do something different. For example, the dogs are pestering the humans for food whenever the family sits down to eat. The humans would prefer that the dogs go lie down in their crates (or on their beds) during meal time. Easiest way to train this behavior? Make your dog actually WANT to go to her crate during mealtime by making it rewarding for her to do so. At the same time as people go to the table for dinner, give the dog a long-lasting yummy chew toy (or food delivery device) in her crate. While you’re enjoying dinner, she is enjoying her stuffed Kong toy and leaving the humans alone. It won’t take more than 2 or 3 repetitions before that dog is eagerly trotting into her crate at meal times, waiting for her reward. This is easy, doesn’t involve force, and makes everyone happy!
My approach to dog behavior problems is to first consider why your dog is engaging in the problem behavior. Many highly credentialed dog behaviorists have determined that the underlying motivation for a dog is rarely “to dominate.” Instead, dogs are simply motivated to do “what works.” If your dog is doing something you find inappropriate, he is likely doing it for one of the following reasons: (1) the behavior is a natural expression of his dogness and is “self-rewarding” (i.e., it’s fun) and he either isn’t getting enough exercise and/or hasn’t learned that engaging in that behavior is not acceptable; (2) it “works” (when he has done it in the past, he has been rewarded); or (3) it’s an expression of an emotional state, such as fear or anxiety.
That said, it’s also important to recognize that dogs have “personalities.” Dogs can be shy, laid back, mellow, confident, insecure, or downright pushy. A pushy dog may often appear to be asserting “dominance” – but it also could just be that the dog has an assertive personality and has learned that being pushy gets her what she wants! When you own a pushy dog, you’re going to need to run a more structured household and do more training to reinforce appropriate behavior then you would if you had a laid-back dog. (With a pushy dog, you should impose a “nothing in life is free” policy – but that’s a topic for another post)
When the cause of a problem behavior is an underlying emotional state . . . training and behavior modification can be very challenging and take a long time. But trying to change a behavior that occurs because of fear or stress without addressing the fear response often ends up being downright inhumane. You can’t bully your dog out of being afraid – and when you try, you’re likely to get bit or actually increase your dog’s fear and anxiety.
Now for the disclaimer. I’m not a canine behavior expert. I am well read on the topic of dog training and behavior and maintain a pretty good library. I try to stay current simply because I find the topic fascinating. I have attended a few seminars featuring leaders in the field. I have some good friends and colleagues who are behavior experts and I confer with them constantly. I’ve also dealt with a number of complex dog-behavior issues in my own life that have motivated me to read, learn, and experiment. I’ve dealt with true separation anxiety, resource guarding (food and toys), managing a multi-dog (& cat) household, leash aggression, territorial aggression, anxiety, fear, excessive pulling on leash, fear biting, counter-surfing, and more. I’ve taught a prey-driven hunting dog to live with cats. I’ve used a variety of techniques and tools and experienced success, failure, extreme frustration and many a melt-down. Owning difficult dogs is, well, difficult.
As you can probably tell, I could talk about dog training and behavior for days, and if you’re still reading at this point, I appreciate your commitment! In another post, I can recommend some great books – or feel free to contact me any time if you'd like additional resources.