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Figuring Out What to Do With Unwanted Behavior

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

I visited a client this past week whose puppy peed on the floor within minutes of my arrival. They were giving him run of a large area of the home, and they admitted they forgot to take him outside. A couple days earlier, another client recounted to me about how their shy, nervous Australian cattle dog repeatedly growled at acquaintances who tried to pet her while she was leashed after they briefly stopped by outside the front of the home to visit. That client and her husband were embarrassed and upset at their dog's behavior because the dog came across as aggressive. Both sets of clients had the same question: "What do I do when my dog does that?". They didn't like my answer initially (until I explained it), which we will get to further below. They want positive training, but don't know how to address unwanted behavior unless it is punishment. For decades, punishment was how unwanted behavior was always handled. So much has changed in the dog world with how we approach unwanted behavior from our dogs. I liken it to a similar level of change as was the entrance of Dr. Spock into the world of parenting human children. Everything has been upended for pet parents who likely handled issues with the dogs very differently decades ago. These pet parents were earnestly seeking my help looking for answers.

They asked, "Do we punish softly and hope she will get the message?". "Should we punish firmly to quickly stamp out his unwanted behavior before it gets worse?"

People are sometimes rankled by my initial response: "Ignore it and we will do better next time."

"Ignore it?! Do better?!" These typically aren't the words people are expecting to hear, but they are not meant to blame. Learning and teaching are a cooperative enterprise.

I explained that we need to shift our mindsets from attempting to squelch bad behavior to attempting to actually create the behaviors we want to see. If we are teaching, perhaps we need to see how we can set the learner up for success. What could we change about the situation that would set the dog up to perform the behavior we want (instead of him choosing a behavior we don't want)? Effective teaching involves helping them be successful. We hold almost exclusive control over the circumstances and environment in which we place our dogs. It is far more effective to have them practice the behavior patterns we want to see again than to punish them for behaving in unwanted ways, leaving them to guess what behavior is the "right" behavior.

In the situations above, I advised the first client to limit the puppy's access to a smaller area of the home where he can be closely monitored. They should set their cell phone alarms to remind them to take him outside every hour. Praise and reward within 1-2 seconds of his going pee/poop outside in the yard. For the second client, I advised that their dog should not be forced to interact with strangers while on leash since she is uncomfortable and her flight route is taken away. What else is she left with except a "fight" option when cornered? She should always have an escape route. I advised that they should tell anyone who wants to pet their dog that she is shy and doesn't like attention from strangers. Alternatively, they could put her in a "sit" and "stay" and let others know that she should not be approached since she is in training.

When considering punishment, I always advise clients to ask if this would help their dog learn the lesson more effectively. Usually, the answer is "no". We have to approach the situation from the perspective of the dog because he is the one internalizing the experience. If we were to exact a punishment, how would he perceive it? What associations might he make? How might it change his actions in the future? The dog who was nervous being cornered and touched by strangers may become more antagonistic toward strangers if every time these events occurred she was punished by her owners. She may not understand that she is being punished for growling. But should we not all have the right to consent to touch? I think everyone should get to say "no", which is why an escape route should always be available. Otherwise, a dog has no means other than a growl or other inhibited signal to let others knows that he is uncomfortable. A dog who is punished in this situation may become distrustful of the owners who are not protecting her. They would instead be punishing her for acting in her own defense when in a fearful situation. A punishment would not help the situation at all.

As for the puppy, he may learn that peeing/pooping is bad if his nose were rubbed in it every time he were to pee/poop in the home. He may not understand that the location of the pee/poop is the issue. He may attempt to hide his pees/poops from the owner, and may even refuse to go potty while on leash around the owner. This would not helping him to learn the behavior we want, which is to go pee/poop outside.

Punishment in both of these scenarios would cause more confusion for the dog and create distrust toward the owner. However, this is where our minds first go because of how we have been programmed by the dog-training industry that focused for decades on punishment and dominance. It may also be our short-sighted human nature, in which we focus on what we want to stop instead of what we want them to do. This requires a bit of forward thinking, some planning, and patience. This is what teaching, learning, and effective communication are all about.

Who wants to take the slow, unclear road to behavior change? Not your dog! He wants to do the right thing, but we have to challenge our outdated mindset to be better able to communicate what the "thing" is we want. When they are doing something you don't want, don't think about what you want stopped. Yelling may help us feel better, but don't do it! I can be hard to be cool as a cucumber sometimes, particularly when the behavior is especially troublesome. I am thinking of my own situations over the years...when I have had a young dog growl at my senior dog who was getting lots of attention; a time when one of my dogs was going through reactivity and lunging at people while on leash who stopped to talk to me at a park; a time when one of my puppies took a diarrhea dump then ran through it tracking poop around the room; a time when my dog would not stop barking at noises on the other side of the wall after we moved to a new home; and the list goes on. Yes, being patient and calm can be a challenge! But I challenge you to try it. Instead, ask yourself, "What would I rather have my dog do, and how can I set him up for success to make that happen? What does he need from me and/or others in order to get there?" THIS is what will bring about the changes you want to see, and help develop the dog and relationship of your dreams.

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