Bad dog! Solving problem behaviors.

We wrote earlier this week about how easy it can be to accidentally reward your dog for bad behavior. So, how can you avoid this common training mistake? Let’s talk about how to fix behavior problems.

Photo by Jordi Espel

It’s important to pay attention to what’s rewarding your dog’s behavior. If you notice a behavior increasing, pay attention to what happens right after your dog performs that behavior. If your dog dances into the living room with your dirty underpants in his mouth and you cry out and give chase, what did your dog just learn? (Stealing underwear is a great way to start a fun chase game!) If your dog lunges at the end of his leash and you say his name to get his attention, what did he just learn? (Lunging at the end of the leash works to get my owner’s attention!)

Now, there are some other factors to take into consideration here. If your dog is displaying an unwanted behavior, there are three possible reasons why. Either you haven’t taught your dog what you want him to do in that situation, your dog’s needs aren’t being sufficiently met, or the rewards for that unwanted behavior are more powerful than the rewards for not doing it.

In most cases, dogs display unwanted behaviors because we haven’t taught them what we want them to do in a given situation. It’s normal behavior for dogs to dig, bark, chew things up, urinate, defecate, mark, hump, jump up, lick, roll in stinky stuff, and steal food. With the possible exception of humping and rolling in filth, we don’t mind when our dogs do any of these behaviors, as long as they do so when and where we wish. However, until a dog has learned where and when it’s appropriate to engage in these behaviors, it’s not fair to blame him for doing what comes naturally.

It’s completely unfair to blame your dog for engaging  in a natural behavior if you haven’t shown him what to do instead. Oftentimes people will punish their dog for doing something “wrong,” but forget to reward him when he gets it right. Consider this: there are probably hundreds of horrible behaviors your dog could do at any given time, and only one or two behaviors you’d like him to do. Instead of having to tell him “no” for each of those horrible things, why not just teach him what the correct option is right from the start? For example, if your dog chews up the table leg and you tell him no, he’s learned not to chew on the table leg. He still hasn’t learned that he can’t chew on the carpet, the stairs, the sofa, or the kids. If you instead make sure to reward him every single time he chews on his puppy toys and make his chew toys especially tempting by occasionally stuffing them with food or treats, he’ll quickly develop a preference for his own toys and will stop chewing on the furniture altogether.

Sometimes dogs engage in unwanted behaviors because their needs are not being sufficiently met, and if that’s the case, you need to address your dog’s needs if you want his behavior to change. A dog who lunges and barks at people or other dogs because he’s insecure needs to have his safety issues addressed before the lunging and barking will disappear. A bored dog who barks or destroys your property needs to be provided with physical and mental exercise before his destructive behavior can be resolved. Make sure your dog’s physical, social, and emotional needs are being met, and you can prevent most behavior issues before they start.

If you’ve taught your dog what you want her to do in a given situation and provided lots of reinforcement for doing so, and if you’re sure that all of her needs are being met, it’s likely that the rewards for performing the problem behavior are more powerful than the rewards you’ve provided for the alternate behavior. This is often the case with instinctive behaviors, such as predatory chasing, sniffing/scent tracking, or digging. Some behaviors just plain feel good to dogs, and a self-reinforcing behavior such as chasing squirrels or nipping at moving feet can be a difficult problem to resolve. In these cases, it’s important to manage your dog to prevent her from rehearsing the unwanted behavior (remember, “practice makes perfect!”) and work at strengthening her response to other behaviors you can use to interrupt the naughty one, such as come and leave it.

Finally, consider whether you can utilize the naughty behavior as a reward in training in order to harness its power. If your dog can walk on a loose leash, perhaps he can earn the chance to pee on the fire hydrant. If your dog can turn and look at you, perhaps she can earn the chance to chase that squirrel (on leash, with you holding the other end of the leash for safety). If your dog loves to bark and howl, perhaps you can put being noisy on cue and give her permission to let loose after she’s been especially well behaved. This is called the Premack principle and is an incredibly powerful training concept.

There is no magic cure for problem behaviors, but there is a simple formula that will resolve must issues.

1. Manage your dog to prevent the bad behavior (remember, practice makes perfect!)

2. Figure out why your dog is engaging in the bad behavior and resolve any underlying issues that may be contributing.

3. Decide what you want your dog to do instead, and train this.

If you’re struggling with a behavior problem, whether it’s a dog who can’t be potty trained or a serious issue such as fear or aggression, there’s no shame in consulting with a professional. Talk to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and get their help in putting together a plan to fix your dog’s problem. Getting the benefit of a professional’s experience and education can be a godsend to struggling owners, not to mention the benefits of getting an extra set of eyes to look at the problem.

So, does your dog have any major issues you’d like help resolving? Which of the three reasons above do you think is contributing the most? What have you tried so far, and did it work? Please share your stories in the comments!

11 responses to “Bad dog! Solving problem behaviors.

  1. What a great breakdown! Love this!

  2. Great article…our two young BC’s engage in chasing one of our cats as he goes out the window and along the verandah ( the dogs are inside), and it is a self rewarding behaviour from what I can work out, tails are wagging and lots of barking. We have tried using high value treats to distract and redirect, but they have so much fun, they are not interested in anything else. We are working on “leave” which they will do for lower stimulating behaviours, but I don’t think they even hear the word when the chase is on. Not sure what else we can try other than trying to avoid them having the chance to chase and desensitize them to the fun of it?

    • I am having the same problem! If one of the cats walk by he will chase them. He doesn’t hear any of our commands (usually “come” or “no”)…

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  5. Just love your blog!!!! Always sharing the posts on Facebook… as they are well-written for pet parents to understand and relate! : ) Lori

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  7. good info, thanks for sharing

  8. A very well written blog indeed. Some of the dog behaviors are really mentioned in detail. I agree to the fact that the bad behavior of dogs requires an immediate fix. Recently, I read a blog on the same topic. It talks about various ways through which the bad behavior in dogs can be avoided. Have a look:

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    This is such a helpful Page. I just thought I share a product that really love, at least give it a change.

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