Many dogs have problem behaviors that predictably occur in certain situations—for example, dogs that tend to jump on people when greeting or dogs that bark excessively at passing dogs or people. While owners are not surprised when their dogs engage in these behaviors, they may feel helpless in the actual situations, because they don’t know what to do, have been caught off guard, or feel social pressure which can prevent them from doing what should be done to help the dog be successful. So, dogs repeat the problem behaviors and obtain outcomes that reward and strengthen these inappropriate behaviors.
It is possible to change your dog’s behavior in these situations. However, you can’t just wait until the situation randomly presents itself in real life to work on it, because when you are unprepared, you often are not able to manage it well. To increase your chance of success in preventing your dog’s problem behaviors in real life situations, you need a plan of action, and practice in dealing with this situation repeatedly, so that both you and the dog can perfect your skills. The best way to do this is to arrange “set-ups”, or practice scenarios, where you can approximate the situation that usually causes the behavior to occur. This way, you have control of all the variables. Start by creating an easier situation so that the dog can perform the desired behavior correctly, and will be able to get rewarded for that. Once the dog has reliably mastered the desired behavior in a slightly easier situation, you can begin to gradually progress to more challenging situations, such as working closer to distractions, or more stimulating situations. If the dog is struggling, you can modify the variables within the set-up situation so that the dog can get it right.
While it may seem like a lot of dedication and effort to arrange these “set-ups”, it is actually not that difficult to do. If you are well-prepared, you can use daily occurrences such as people or dogs that you see on walks as training opportunities. Ask your friends, family, or neighbors to help you practice. Be creative. You may need to go to places where you are likely to encounter your dog’s “triggers” and work there. For example, if your dog is distracted by people on bicycles, go to a field where there is a bike path visible. Keep your dog on a leash, a safe distance away from the path and move further away, if necessary. With just a little bit of planning and effort, you can address your dog’s problem behaviors using “set ups” to practice. The results of your efforts will be evident when real-life situations arise, and both you and your dog perform brilliantly.
Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.