Modifying Canine Behavior and Peeling Onions

Posted on January 10th, 2012 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

Solving a dog’s behavior problems is like peeling an onion. First, you have to wipe away the tears. And second, you must peel the problem one layer at a time.

Wiping Away the Tears

Canine behavior problems can evoke despair (sometimes they are downright heart-rending), and I commonly hear clients report that their dogs do things just to spite them. Not likely.

Dogs primarily are interested in getting what they want or avoiding what they do not like, and they have some fairly standard ways of accomplishing those goals. Simply put, dogs do what works.

If growling at you makes you let them stay on the bed, they will growl. If barking at a bicycle makes the bicycle go away (and it always does), then that is what they will do. They do not hate you, and they are not being spiteful. They are succeeding!

So, wipe away the tears, and don’t assign human attitudes and thought processes to your dog. There are ways dogs seem psychologically similar to humans, but there are a lot more ways they are significantly different. The good news is, you don’t have to know a lot about a dog’s psychology to teach him alternate behaviors for achieving his goals. Just put on your analytical hat and start addressing the behaviors instead of lamenting perceived (and probably erroneous) emotions.

Peeling the Problem

Clients often want a dog trainer to come into their homes, flip a switch, and solve their problems. And sometimes we can come pretty close to doing that. But, more often than not, modifying a dog’s behavior is a matter solving the problem one layer at a time. Depending on the type of problem, there are two ways a problem can be peeled.

Multi-Faceted Problems

Some behavior issues are actually several behavior issues all wrapped up into one ugly package. For example, a dog may lunge crazily on the leash, bark violently, and whine incessantly when he sees a squirrel. In order to fix this problem, one might address it in this sequence:

  • Figure out if the dog actually knows how to walk nicely on a leash, and teach it to do so if it does not.
  • Teach the dog that pulling on the leash actually causes him to move away from the squirrel. The owner/trainer may mark the lunge with a “no!” and change directions, only turning back around to approach the squirrel when the dog is calm. During this phase of training, the owner/trainer may ignore the barking and whining.
  • Teach the dog that barking at the squirrel causes him to change directions too. Roughly the same procedure as above. The dog is only rewarded with moving towards the squirrel when he is walking nicely and is not barking. The owner/trainer can ignore the whining.
  • When the dog has comprehended that lunging and barking cause him to move away from the squirrel, teach the dog that whining causes him to change directions too.

Notice two things about the above procedure: We first make sure the dog has the obedience skills necessary (i.e. leash walking) to accomplish our goal; and we address the problems in order from most severe to least severe (i.e. lunging first, barking second, and whining, last).

Multi-Faceted Contexts

Other behavior problems are singular issues which much be addressed by teaching a dog to offer an alternative behavior in a variety of scenarios. For example, some dogs will bolt out of a door the moment it is opened. Fixing the problem at a base level is simple enough. However, unless complexity is added, dogs (being contextual learners) may learn their ability to escape is linked to who is opening the door and where the door is being opened from. Here is a sequence that could be used to solve this problem:

    • Teach the dog that moving towards the door causes it to slam closed in his face, but stepping back will cause it to open back up. This can be done without speaking a word, and it creates a sort of catch-22 in which the dog ceases to believe it can get through the door. (After all, if he moves forward it closes, and he cannot get through it if he is moving away from it!) Soon, the dog will cease trying to escape as long as the person training him is standing there with his hand on the doorknob. However, if someone else tries to open the door, the dog probably will give escape the ol’ college try.
    • Teach the dog that he cannot get through the door regardless of who is opening it. Anyone living in the home should practice the above drill, but that may not be enough. It usually is a good idea to get some neighbors or friends to practice the drill so that the behavior becomes generalized to include all humans. At some point, the dog will stop trying to escape when someone is exiting the door. But if someone tries to enter the house from the outside, the context has changed; the dog cannot see a human preventing his exit, and he probably will attempt an escape.
    • Teach the dog that he cannot get through the door even if nobody appears to be holding the knob (that is, if someone is entering the house from the outside). This should be practiced just like the first step, although care should be taken to ensure the dog’s safety, as it is difficult to see where the dog is if you are on the other side of the door. Opening and closing the door more slowly and peeking through the crack or an adjacent window is usually sufficient to avoid an injury. Carefully coordinated signals between two people (one inside and one outside) could be useful as well.

Notice that no obedience training was necessary to solve this problem. (However, another approach could have included teaching the dog to sit-stay in front of the door while people were entering and exiting.) Instead, we taught the dog a single alternate behavior (stepping away from the door) and then addressed his own attempts to work around our solution one layer at a time.

In summary, solving many dog behavior problems requires a slow, patient, non-emotional approach. Take time to break the problem into its essential components, make sure the dog has the obedience skills necessary to succeed, and then address the layers of the problem in order from most severe to least severe or from least complex to most complex.