That headline sounds ridiculous, right? While we may laugh, the truth is it happens nearly every day in the homes of many pets with training and behavior challenges – especially those related to impulse control.
“Sammy is doing really well with his potty training and never has an accident in his crate, but I swear if I look away for a few seconds when he’s out in the house he’ll have an accident!”
“Last night I had my in-laws over for dinner. Tonto jumped on my mother-in-law when she came in, and knocked her down!”
“Sunny and I were out for a nice walk in the woods. He was staying with me wonderfully off leash until a porcupine showed up and then BAM! $250 in vet bills later…”
“We had Chinese food for Thanksgiving because Jake jumped on the table and ravaged the turkey.”
These are real-life problems clients have had (names are changed to protect the guilty), and they all have two things in common: Untrained dogs who are poorly managed. What is management? In the dog-training world, it’s when you manipulate a dog’s environment so he doesn’t have the chance to get reinforcement for unwanted behaviors. It’s the way you can set up your dog to be successful while he learns better replacement habits. And it often involves mechanical tools, like crates, gates, leashes, tethers, and fences.
All of the dogs above lack impulse control, and these behaviors are usually the products of extensive reinforcement history. “Positive” trainers know that reinforcement isn’t always food; it’s anything that makes behavior stronger. Sammy gets reinforced by the relief he feels when he empties his bladder. Tonto learns that jumping is a great way to get humans really excited when they haven’t been paying attention to him. (“NO! No, Tonto, No!” followed by a lot of physical contact and sometimes a toy.) Sunny’s body is overcome with the adrenaline rush that comes from stalking and chasing prey. Jake, well, that’s pretty obvious.
Though their owners weren’t giving them food treats for the unwanted behavior, they were unknowingly teaching their dogs poor canine etiquette by letting them steal reinforcement from the environment. While there are a lot of important things to remember about dog training, perhaps two of the most important are: 1) set up the dog for success and 2) control the resources.
Setting up the dog for success generally involves teaching him what you’d like him to do instead of the unwanted behavior by teaching him an alternative, incompatible behavior. It also means that you need to work with the dog in situations where he has at least an 80 percent chance of being successful. Most of the clients seeking help for the issues above estimated that their dogs had less than 20 percent chance of being successful in any of those given situations.
Controlling the resources is just that. Owners (sometimes with the assistance of a trainer) need to determine, “What’s my dog getting out of this behavior?” and “What’s maintaining the behavior?” If you have a dog that jumps on guests, for instance, it’s likely that attention and interaction are the motivating factors. Once you realize what is maintaining the behavior, you have to make a decision: Will my dog earn access to this resource (in this case, a guest) from rude or impulsive behaviors, or through the alternative of being polite?
Let’s examine a situation where one of my dogs required management to solve a behavior problem. My first Saint, Monte, really liked to hump legs whenever Jim or I would have a guest over. This behavior was embarrassing for Jim and me, and potentially dangerous. I also thought that Monte was very stressed during these encounters, and wanted to reduce his arousal level. I suspected the reinforcement for this behavior was both attention and stress reduction. The behavior happened primarily when unfamiliar or new visitors came to the house, and very rarely occurred with frequent visitors, like my closest friends.
The replacement behavior I chose was having Monte settle on a bed – a behavior he already liked and one he certainly could not do concurrently with leg-humping. My goal was to have the sight of people hugging become a cue to quickly run to his bed, lie down, and await a treat or marrow bone. I started practicing with my hubby, a readily available, accomplished volunteer hugger. It only took one session to get Monte quickly running to the mat when Jim and I would hug. The reward was either a treat or marrow bone on the mat, or being called over to get scratches while he kept all four paws on the floor.
I had a lot of familiar friends over that week, and we practiced multiple times with each of them. We began by introducing a single new visitor. My guests thought I was crazy, because we hugged a lot, with random hugs throughout the visit to practice. The next step involved asking couples over, where Jim and I would each be hugging someone. Then we moved on to small groups of people. In a few weeks, we had “cured” the leg-humping and decreased stress for everyone.
Monte’s “go-to mat” behavior was fairly strong. I correctly guessed that he had at least 80 percent chance of being successful in the training environments I put him in. Until I was at the point where I could have small groups of guests with multiple hugs going on at once, I had to manage the situation. When guests were arriving or departing (most likely times for hugging), he would be crated with a marrow bone or stuffed Kong. Allowing him to run around the house willy-nilly, humping the legs of unsuspecting huggers everywhere, would have been irresponsible and counterproductive – almost like giving a robber the keys and codes to the bank safe and hoping, praying, crossing your fingers that “nothing bad would happen.” I knew something bad would happen if I weren’t proactive about making sure nothing bad could happen. I had to break the habit, completely and immediately.
Sometimes management is a permanent solution, but sometimes it’s a temporary aid while permanent training and behavior modification takes place. Regardless, when dogs frequently get to engage in problem behaviors like house soiling, panty raiding, fence fighting, digging, and garbage stealing, it’s nearly impossible to create lasting and reliable change.
Have you given the thief the keys to the bank? We’ve all done it, but it’s never too late to reclaim the keys! Think of the answers to these questions, and you’re off to a good start: What might be maintaining your dog’s problem behavior? What incompatible behaviors can you think of? How might you manage the dog and environment while you make these changes?
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