When dealing with dogs’ problematic behavior, it is often possible for owners to predict that the dog is likely to misbehave in particular situations. Many owners are not overly surprised when their dog engages in behaviors often referred to as “bad habits”, since they have come to expect or anticipate these responses. However, if we can predict it, we can, and should, prevent it.
Like people, dogs behave in ways that have worked for them in the past. Behaviors, problematic or otherwise, continue because they are being somehow reinforced. Reinforcement for the behaviors can come from how others respond, or possibly just by the internal state created in the dog. The more the dog has the chance to engage in their problematic behavior and earn the resulting rewards, the stronger the likelihood that they will repeat this behavior in the future. Allowing a dog to continue to engage in problematic behaviors over and over again can strengthen bad habits. Practice makes perfect when it comes to behaviors such as barking when other dogs pass their yards, jumping on visitors, or even bullying other dogs in the dog park.
While some problematic behaviors are minor annoyances, others can actually put people or other dogs at risk, and are unacceptable. We have a responsibility to make sure our dog’s behavior does not negatively impact others, through appropriate management and training.
To properly address problematic behaviors, the dog must be prevented from having the opportunity to engage in them and be rewarded. Before we find ourselves in the actual situation again, we need to be proactive, and ask ourselves what we can do to prevent the dog from engaging in problematic behavior in the future. We can’t expect a different outcome if we keep putting the dog into the same situation. Better control of the situation or environment may be necessary to ensure that there is no opportunity for the dog to practice bad behaviors. Some of these proactive changes are common sense, but owners may be reluctant to do them because they may require a loss of freedom for the dog or are inconvenient for the owner to carry out. For example, having the dog on a leash or using a crate to prevent access to certain areas will allow more control of the dog’s movement, and we may even need to restrict off leash privileges or unsupervised time in the yard. Once we have some prevention strategies in place, we need to commit to following through with these in order to set ourselves and our dogs up for success.
We will also want to teach the dog a more appropriate behavior to do in these situations, ensuring that it is equally or even more rewarding for him to do that. This will motivate him to choose to repeat the new, appropriate behavior in the future, instead of engage in his “bad habits.”
A professional dog trainer or behavior consultant can help determine how your dog’s behavior may be being rewarded and maintained currently, how you can change the situation to prevent the behavior, and help you teach the dog new, appropriate behaviors to do instead.
Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.