Overcoming Your Dog's Behavioral Challenges

Have you ever found yourself saying, "He's a great dog, BUT..."? It seems like most dogs have one or two behavioral issues that drive us batty, even though 99% of the time the dog is the best friend we will ever have. So, how do you help your dog learn the rules of the road for that other 1% of the time?

Labrador dog destroying pillows
If you have allergies (or expensive pillows), keeping your dog off the bed may be at the top of your list of training issues.

Decide what you can and cannot live with

You may be one of those lucky people who can live with your dog's behavior issues. However, chances are that each person in your home will have a different idea of what's acceptable and what's not. For example, your 15-year old son may think it's really cool when your Great Dane jumps up to greet him every time he comes home. Your 98-year old grandmother may have a different opinion. As a family, you will need to decide what you can and cannot live with, keeping safety for all household members and visitors in mind.

Start by making a list of the behaviors that each family member finds objectionable. For example, you might include barking at random air molecules, counter-surfing, jumping up, and shredding the toilet paper. Next, have each person rank the behaviors as to how troublesome each of them is. Rankings might depend on such things as the cost of repair or replacement of destroyed items, the inconvenience of clean-up, and the impact of the behavior on people outside your home. For example, if the behavior is that your dog tears up your garbage and drags it around the neighborhood, repair/replacement costs would be low, but the clean-up inconvenience for both you and your neighbors would be high.

Ranking will allow you to focus on the most important behaviors first, then work your way down the list. Anything safety related such as jumping up or biting should be at the top of the list. Choose one behavior to work on first, ignoring the others. When the first behavior is resolved move on down your list.

All family members should be on board with whatever behavior you are tackling so the dog doesn't get mixed messages. If it's only a crime to be on the couch when mom's home, then the dog may have a hard time learning when it's okay and when it's not okay. Consistency is key.

Observe your dog and keep a journal

Once you have decided which behavior to work on first, spend a few days observing your dog to see what brings on the bad behavior. Does the dog chew up the toilet paper only when you leave him alone for a certain number of hours? Does he steal food off of the counter only if you have neglected to fill his food bowl until late in the day? Does the animal bark only at men or people in hats?

Keep a journal, with all family members recording their observations throughout the day. Narrowing down the precursor to the behavior can go a long way in helping you desensitize the dog to whatever sets him off.

Chihuahua eyeing leftover people food
If he is a counter-surfer, help him be a good dog by removing temptation.

Look for ways to minimize stimuli

In a perfect world you would be able to train your dog to simply ignore his bad behavior triggers, but you should also look for ways to minimize your dog's ability to behave badly. For example, if your dog licks your face to wake you up for no reason every night at 2 am, you will want to work on an intervention, but you may also want to shut the bedroom door. If your dog is an inveterate counter-surfer, a baby gate across the kitchen door may be just the ticket.

Positive training works the best

There is no doubt in my mind that you can train any dog to stop any behavior simply by smacking the dog every time he behaves badly. But you will only be training the dog to behave when you're around - out of fear - without giving the animal any incentive to behave. In other words, you will be punishing the dog without teaching him anything. It is far better to teach, making the dog think about the behavior and deciding whether or not to continue that behavior.

It's a gradual process, but one that can produce life-long results. Here's how. Let's say your dog likes to chase your cat. To train the dog positively you might put the dog in a crate and allow the cat into the room. If the dog barks or goes nuts, you will tell him in your best command voice to stop. Eventually, you will find a small window of silence and you can reward the dog with a treat for taking a break.

Reward each step the dog makes toward doing the right thing. In the example of cat chasing, you might reward no barking during successively longer or closer visits from the cat. Once the dog has mastered not reacting to the cat from the safety of his crate, you might put the cat on the other side of a screen door and let the dog out of the crate. Once the dog masters being near the cat without reacting, you might advance to having the cat run across a room, but not necessarily near the dog. If the dog doesn't react, a treat is given. Finally, you might have the cat run right past the dog and if he doesn't react, you give a reward.

Once the dog has mastered the total skill, it's time to make the rewards sporadic. You might reward every other time, or every third time the dog behaves as expected. The dog will continue to perform the right behavior if he knows an occasional reward will be presented. Next, reward the animal at random intervals so he won't be able to guess which time will be rewarded. Sporadic rewards have been shown to produce the most consistent behavior in dogs.

If the dog's performance begins to wane, just step up the reward schedule to reinforce the correct behavior, then slow it back down again as the dog catches on. You may be able to replace reward treats with play time or some other activity that the dog sees as valuable. This can be especially important in small breeds where weight gain is an issue.

Positive training may take a little longer than aversive training, but it is more likely to produce lasting results and a happy dog. Be prepared to consistently persist and your dog will eventually catch on.


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Teala Ling
Really good article. We used this same concept for our mini pincher and it worked really well. She can now at least be in the same room as our cat . The cat is still not crazy about the dog,but tolerates her now. Probably because the noise level has dropped.
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