A question I am frequently asked is, “How can I stop my dog from ….?” People are often focused on stopping the problem behavior, as quickly as possible and with minimal effort. Looking for “the easy button” is perfectly understandable, but often leads to reliance on correction or punishment of the dog for misbehavior. This can cause distress for the dog, negatively influence your relationship with him, and often is not effective. Punishing the dog for misbehavior does not teach it what an appropriate alternative behavior might be for that situation. Punishment may be able to interrupt or temporarily stop a behavior, but the dog may substitute one problem behavior with another, potentially worse behavior, if we have not taught it what to do instead. If the dog doesn’t know what behavior is desired by us, it is very difficult for it to comply with performing that desired behavior. It is unfair to subject the dog to unpleasant treatment or cause it distress when it may not even understand what arbitrary rules it is breaking and being “corrected” for. We need to teach the dog which behaviors we would like it to perform and reward this, instead of focusing on stopping problem behaviors.
When people ask me the question, “How do I stop my dog from ….?”, I often ask them to re-frame their thinking to, “What would I like the dog to do instead?” We need to focus on teaching dogs what we would like them to do instead of what not to do. Positive reinforcement training focuses on teaching your dog to perform an alternative behavior in the situation, and rewarding this new behavior so that the dog feels motivated to choose this new behavior in future. Using this approach requires just a little more initial thinking on our part, but behavior problems can be solved quickly and effectively. Positive reinforcement training strengthens the relationship between dogs and guardians, as you are working together toward a common goal, instead of trying to struggle with conflicting agendas.
Effective dog training and work with behavioral problems involves thinking about the dog’s motivation for engaging in particular behaviors, and then addressing the actual issue. There is usually a really good reason that the dog is choosing a particular behavior. The dog finds it to be rewarding for him in some way, whether it allows him to gain something he desires or to avoid something he finds unpleasant. For example, a dog barking at strangers approaching him may feel threatened, and want the stranger to get away from him. His barking causes that person to stop approaching the dog, or his owners to move him further away, resulting in the dog feeling safer. Instead of just focusing on stopping the dog’s barking, we need to address the actual issue by working on helping the dog to feel more comfortable around strangers. Part of an effective training plan may also include managing the dog’s environment, to ensure that he is not repeatedly put into a situation where he is likely to continue choosing an undesirable behavior. Once we have some insight into the reason the dog is engaging in particular behaviors, we can do a better job of ensuring that it’s needs are met appropriately.
Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.