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Stop Annoying Behaviours in 3 Easy Steps

How do I stop Fifi from barking at the cat? How do I stop Fido from running off at the park? How do I stop Bella from stealing food off the coffee table? How do I stop Max from jumping all over my guests? While the specifics will vary with each individual case, there's some exciting news - the formula stays the same. Once you understand it, the fog lifts and the world of behaviour change suddenly becomes pretty clear!

 

Adira, our deaf & blind dog, the legendary Uggboot thief.

Half of a dog trainer's job is to help people change the unwanted habits that their dogs have accidentally learnt. We're also no different with our own dogs, there is always something that we just kinda wish they wouldn't do. Bark at their siblings, drink from the toilet, and try to hump the house lamb (all of these are legitimate Poodle behaviours by the way...). Luckily this part of the job is 'reasonably' straightforward. The intricacies of each specific case can make the actual implementation tricky sometimes, but in theory, behaviour change is simple once you understand how it works.


PREVENT ➡ REPLACE ➡ REINFORCE

Now hear me out because it is a litttlllleee more complex than it sounds, but if you can keep that quick formula in mind, you'll be set up to look at those annoying behaviours with the right mindset from the get-go.....


Quick disclaimer: This post is written thinking about the annoying behaviours that happy, healthy dogs do that are not impacting anyone's safety and are not caused by poor mental health. If your dog is fearful, anxious, aggressive or experiencing some other more severe behaviour - this post is still relevant BUT would only be one very small piece of the behaviour change pie. PLEASE seek professional help rather than trying to tackle it on your own.
 


Step #1 - Prevent


The first and easily most important step in the process of changing behaviour is to PREVENT the unwanted behaviour from being practised.


Isn't that avoiding the problem?

Whenever an animal performs a behaviour, they're doing it for a reason. It's likely that behaviour gets them something they want. Jumping up on guests is great fun and gets them attention, digging in your vegetable garden fulfils a natural behavioural drive and feels good, barking at people that walk past the house makes those people go away and successfully saves the day (again) or helps them feel safe etc. etc. etc..


Behaviours are often self-rewarding or reinforced by the environment. That means the behaviour will get stronger all by itself because simply performing it ticks some metaphorical box for the dog that makes them want to repeat it. In these cases, if we do nothing, the behaviour will most definitely get stronger, be that more frequent, more intense, or more resistant to change.


If we prevent the behaviour from happening, we're not avoiding the problem. We're preventing that behaviour from gaining any more traction than it already has. We're preventing it from getting stronger WHILE we train something else (see Step #2 & 3!).



So what does that look like in real life?

Prevention looks like moulding the environment around the dog so that they physically can't perform the behaviour because you've either removed the trigger or you've removed their access. Here are a handful of examples:


  1. The dog that runs off at the park --> now wears a long line so they physically CAN'T leave

  2. The dog that jumps all over guests --> now gets put behind a baby gate or on a leash before guests are let into the house

  3. The dog that digs in the vege garden --> now either isn't out there unsupervised, or your put up some temporary fencing around the garden

  4. The dog that counter surfs --> use an exercise pen or baby gate to pen off the kitchen so they can't access it and/or do your dishes!

  5. The dog that gets into scuffles at dog parks --> now doesn't go to off-leash dog parks and goes to dog-free or quieter parks to play with toys or explore bushland

  6. The dog that stares out the window all day and barks at everyone walking past --> now there's a frosted film on that window so they physically can't see out of it.


Management tools:

Depending on the context, there are many tools that are designed to make your life easier when it comes to managing your dog. If you were to do all the management manually, you'd be full-time tending to them, but by adopting some of these tools, management doesn't need to be laborious or time-consuming or draining - in fact, it makes it really bloody easy and in a lot of cases gives them more freedom, not less!


  1. Fence - Yep, that thing surrounding your whole property. That's a management tool that keeps your dog in and strangers out. Imagine living without it? Would take a lot more time and effort to give your dog the same amount of freedom if you had to be out there supervising them 100% of the time wouldn't it?

  2. Long lines - leashes that are longer than your average 6ft lead. Usually 5 or 10m long, long lines are the in-between that gives your dog more freedom whilst still making sure you have control if you need it. Adira lives on a long line out and about and she will do forever, if we go to a big open area we attach 2x 10m leads together and she can run and hoon and explore to her heart's content - safely. All dogs that come to us for boarding or board & train also always wear long lines when we take them out. It reduces the risk of incidents from dogs buggering off too far so I think they're amazing.

  3. Baby Gates & Exercise Pens - If you've ever seen photos or videos of our home, you'll probably notice the pens everywhere. As I'm typing this we have 4x resident dogs, 2x boarding dogs, 1x 8week old deaf/blind puppy and 1x 2week old lamb living in our tiny 50sqm house. Without the pens, it simply wouldn't be possible (not to mention extremely stressful and probably quite unsafe). With the pens - it's actually pretty easy and very peaceful. There's no conflict. The adult dogs don't have to deal with the puppy, the lamb is safe and undisturbed, the dogs that don't get along don't have to interact or share a space. It's brilliant. They take all of the effort out of management because once you've set them up, they do the work for you.

  4. Tether points - tethering your dog on a bed inside the house is a handy option if you have guests over and cant be training your dog the whole time. They're not ideal for long periods of time because they don't allow the dog much freedom of movement, but helpful for short stints. Longer outside tethers can also be used to give dogs freedom when there isn't a fence, or when you need them to stay further away from the fence. Note though that I wouldn't leave a dog unsupervised on a long outside tether in case they get tangled - but we use this option a lot for Adira if we're away camping with her where there aren't fences to keep her close by.

  5. Muzzles - if your dog isn't super comfortable at the vets or groomers for example, having them trained to comfortably wear a muzzle keeps everyone safe just in case something goes wrong.

Exercise pens and baby gates are dog trainers' favourites because they require no ongoing input from you. Once you set them up, they do the work for you from then on. Lazy & effective 👌 The below photo is from inside a pen that was set up for a board & train who needed space from the other dogs.











Step #2 - Replace


Alrighty, so we've had a brainstorm and figured out what we can do to prevent the unwanted behaviour from occurring. Brilliant. The next step is to REPLACE the unwanted behaviour, by teaching them something else we would like them to do instead.

We can't simply say NO or don't do that, because there is no such thing as a behavioural vacuum - your dog can't just do nothing. If they stop one behaviour it is ALWAYS being replaced with something else (whether we like the new option or not). Just saying no doesn't give the dog any information about what they should be doing, it leaves them totally in the dark. They're aware that you're not happy and so they're likely keen to avoid escalating YOUR behaviour, but not only do they have no idea what to do instead if we don't teach it, but there is also a genuine reason why they were doing the unwanted behaviour in the first place and so they are still motivated to perform that behaviour and have no motivation to do anything instead because we haven't taught them that something else is worth their time! Can you see the problem here?


So by choosing that other option for them and training that instead, we're helping to clarify to them exactly what we would like and we're ensuring that they understand and are being provided with sufficient motivation for them to actually want to do it. For successful behaviour change, we need both of those pieces of the puzzle.

  1. A dog that fully understands what you'd like them to do, AND

  2. A dog that is genuinely motivated to do it (See step #3!)


So what do we train them to do instead?


This is the part where you can start to get creative, the world is your behavioural oyster. But there are some tricks that will help you be successful. All behaviour serves a function as I mentioned earlier, so when we're looking to replace an unwanted behaviour with a new one, our first job is to see if we can figure out WHY they're doing what they're doing. If we can work that out, then it is easier and often fairer for the dog to choose a replacement behaviour that still fulfils the same or similar function.


What do I mean by function?

Behaviour is simply a tool that is used by all organisms to either gain access to something they want or to avoid something they don't want. The book "Canine Enrichment for the Real World" (buy it here, it's bloody brilliant: https://www.dogwise.com/canine-enrichment-for-the-real-world/) has a brilliant breakdown of the different categories of a dog's needs that could be the root purpose of your dog's annoying behaviour. Here is that list:

  1. Health / veterinary

  2. Hygiene

  3. Diet / Nutrition

  4. Physical Exercise

  5. Sensory Stimulation

  6. Safety

  7. Security

  8. Instinctual behaviours

  9. Foraging

  10. Social Interaction

  11. Mental Exercise

  12. Independence

  13. Environment

  14. Calming

Let's take the example of Fido running off at the dog park to greet and play with every other person and dog he sees.

Firstly we're going to prevent it using a longline, tick!

Secondly, we need to replace the behaviour. So what is the function? From that list above, we can probably guess at: physical exercise (run around like a loon), sensory stimulation (new people and dogs to meet), instinctual behaviours (play) and social interaction. Or in short - he's having a bloody good time and it feels good.

So what can WE offer for Fido to do INSTEAD, that's still going to tick those boxes so that in future when he gets the choice between the old unwanted behaviour and the new one, he genuinely wants to choose the new one?? Most people would immediately turn to food. 'Come back Fido, good boy here's a treat'. That will work for many dogs, however, I would argue that the function of him running off is not to have a snack, it's to interact with others and PLAY. So if we want to change that behaviour effectively, I would assume that we might have more success if we were to teach Fido to spot other people/dogs, and immediately return to us for a game of tug or fetch or chasey. The new behaviour of choice will be still be play, but it will be with US instead.


Some other quick examples using the same list as in step #1:

  1. The dog that runs off at the park --> firstly wears a long line so they physically CAN'T leave --> then is taught that parks are for playing with their owners

  2. The dog that jumps all over guests --> initially gets put behind a baby gate or on a leash before guests are let into the house --> then is taught to orient back to their owner for treats while in the presence of guests

  3. The dog that digs in the vege garden --> now either isn't out there unsupervised, or is restricted by some temporary fencing around the garden --> then is taught and encouraged to dig in a specific sandpit to fulfil that natural behaviour

  4. The dog that counter surfs --> use an exercise pen or baby gate to pen off the kitchen so they can't access it and/or do your dishes! --> then is taught food refusal games, an 'off' cue to put 4 feet on the floor, and how to station on their bed during meal prep times.

  5. The dog that gets into scuffles at dog parks --> now doesn't go to off-leash dog parks and goes to dog-free or quieter parks to play with toys or explore bushland --> then is taught how to ignore unfamiliar dogs in the environment and also a bombproof recall - but to be honest I still wouldn't be taking them to places with off-leash dogs!

  6. The dog that stares out the window all day and barks at everyone walking past --> now there's a frosted film on that window so they physically can't see out of it. --> then you teach them to come and report to you when they spot something outside in exchange for treats or a game


Here's a link to the 'yes no game' we like to play with puppies, it's a handy one to keep in mind when almost everything a puppy does initially is an unwanted behaviour!! https://www.thinkdog.nz/post/the-yes-no-game-for-pups


If Adira had her way, she'd likely eat all the livestock! Obviously, that's not ideal so alongside managing her very carefully, we teach her alternative behaviours to practice in their presence. Like orient back to your handler to engage in a game of tug.







Step #3 - Reinforce


Without this step, you may as well throw the previous steps in the bin. As I mentioned earlier, dogs behave either to access something or to avoid something. So if we don't provide sufficient motivation for them to do the thing we're teaching them to do (which remember - ISN'T what they wanted to do in the first place)... they simply won't do it - especially if what they really want to do is the old unwanted behaviour that's self-reinforcing! Why should they?


Contrary to popular belief, dogs don't do things simply because we told them to, or because they have an inbuilt willingness to please. If this were the case then myself and every other dog trainer in the world would be made redundant.


Dogs do what has worked for them in the past.

They are not moral critters with a right vs wrong moral compass like we are. They will never know that a certain behaviour is 'wrong'. Behaviour is just behaviour, that's it! They know that X behaviour worked to gain them what they wanted and that Y behaviour didn't.