Training is NOT always the answer to solving your dogs problem behavior.
Every day, dog owners ask me questions in person, on the phone, and online, how to stop their dogs or puppies from doing something. The variations are virtually limitless:
“How do I stop him from going to the bathroom on the carpet?”
“How do I keep her from chewing up my shoes? (or books or furniture)?”
“How do I make him stop stealing food from the counter?”
I normally answer these questions with an explanation of how to resolve the presented behavior problem, but every once in a while I am sorely tempted just to answer the question with a succinct, “Don’t let him do it!”
As absurdly simple as this seems, behavior management is, in fact, the appropriate answer in probably better than 75 percent of the questions I am asked by dog owners. Management is the key to resolving the vast majority of behavior problems people face with their dogs, and even more important, it is key to preventing those behaviors from ever occurring in the first place!
In many cases, management is necessary while the dog learns a new, more appropriate behavior. In others, management simply replaces unrealistic training expectations. I offer my clients a three-step formula for reprogramming or preventing unwanted behaviors:
1. Rephrase. That is, identify what you want the dog to do instead of what you want him not to do. In all the behaviors described above, the owner is asking how to get the dog to stop doing something rather than how to get to dog to do something.
2. Manage. Figure out how to prevent the dog from being rewarded for the unwanted behavior. This is actually the easiest part! Behaviors that are rewarded are reinforced – in other words, the dog is more likely to do them again. Chasing a cat is very rewarding to a dog – he gets a big adrenaline rush, and the cat runs away – what fun! Every chance your dog gets to chase a cat increases the likelihood that he will chase (and maybe eventually catch) the next cat he sees. If you don’t want him to be rewarded by chasing cats, don’t let him do it.
3. Train. Figure out how to consistently reward the dog for the desired behavior identified in Step 1. This is often the hardest part. Each of the training programs for the behavior challenges listed above could be a full-length article of its own (and frequently, they have been; we’ll refer you to relevant articles as we proceed).
Let’s take a look at a number of problem behaviors and see how they can be addressed by our three-step formula, with particular focus on the management aspect:
• How do I make him stop stealing food from the counter or table?
Rephrase: “How do I get him to only eat things that are in his bowl or on the floor?” (By the way, dogs are opportunistic eaters by their very nature. They are morally incapable of “stealing” food. A dog in the wild who eats food when and where he finds it is smart – and much more likely to survive than one who passes food by just because it happens to be above eye level.)
Manage: Prevent him from being rewarded for counter surfing. Clearly, the food that he finds on counters tastes good and is very rewarding.
Management tools: A: Doors – If food must be left out, shut the dog in another room so he can’t have access to it. B: Cupboards and the refrigerator – Put food away. Never leave it out as an invitation to counter surf. C: Crates, pens, baby gates, leashes, and tethers – Use other reasonable means of restraint to prevent his inappropriate access to food.
Train: Teach him a positive “Off!” or “Leave It!“ cue and consistently reward him for ignoring food on the counter and for keeping all four feet on the floor around food-laden counters and tables.
• How do I stop him from peeing on the carpet?
Rephrase the question to: “How do I teach him to go to the bathroom outside?”
Manage: Prevent him from being rewarded for peeing on the carpet. A full bladder causes discomfort. Urinating relieves that discomfort. Urinating on the carpet is more rewarding for an unhousetrained dog than suffering the discomfort of “holding it” until he can go outside.
Management tools: A: Take the dog outside so frequently that his bladder is never full to the point of discomfort (every hour on the hour, at least at first). B: Keep the dog under close supervision so you can notice when he is acting restless (a sign that he has to eliminate) and take him outside quickly, before he has a chance to pee on the carpet. C: Keep the dog crated (see “Crate Training Made Easy,” WDJ August 2000), penned, or tethered (tether only if you are home – see “Tethered to Success,” WDJ April 2001) if you can’t supervise him closely to prevent him from being rewarded by peeing on the carpet when you’re not paying attention. Keeping his crate – his den, as it were – unsoiled is more rewarding to most dogs than relieving even a moderately full bladder.
Train: Implement a full housetraining program that includes going outside with him regularly and rewarding him with praise and a treat immediately after he goes to the bathroom in the appropriate toilet spot.
• How do I keep her from chewing up my shoes?
Rephrase: “How do I get her to chew on her own things and only her own things?”
Manage: Prevent her from being rewarded for chewing on inappropriate objects. (See “Challenged By a Chewer?”, WDJ March 1998.) Things like shoes, baby toys, and furniture have a nice firm-but-giving texture that feels good (is rewarding) to a dog’s teeth and gums, especially to a puppy or young dog who is teething.
Management tools: A: Pick up non-chew objects when the dog is in the room. B: Remove her from the room when non-chew objects must be left within dog-reach (put her in a crate or pen if necessary). C: Supervise the dog closely and distract her attention from inappropriate objects. D: Tether her in the room with you to prevent her access to non-chew objects. E: Exercise her a lot; tired dogs tend to be well-behaved dogs.
Train: Provide her with irresistible chew-objects and interactive toys such as stuffed Kongs (see “King Kongs,” WDJ October 2000), Buster Cubes, Roll-A-Treat Balls (See “Back to School,” WDJ September 1998), and other safe items. If she is given the opportunity to chew only acceptable items she will eventually develop a strong preference for chewing on these things and your personal possessions will be safe.
• How do I stop him from chasing deer (or cats or bicycles or joggers)?
Rephrase: “How do I teach him to ignore fast-moving objects?” or “How do I teach him to respond when I ask him to stop?”
Manage: Don’t let him have the opportunity to be rewarded for chasing, and don‘t have unrealistic training expectations, that is, don’t expect to be able to train a dog who has a strong prey/chase instinct to “not chase” in the absence of direct supervision. This includes many of the herding breeds, terriers, hounds, and sporting breeds.
Management tools: A: Fences – Solid physical fences of sufficient height are great tools for thwarting chasing behaviors. B: Doors – Keeping him safely confined indoors except when directly supervised can go a long way toward preventing rewards for chasing. C: Leashes and long lines (see “Long Distance Information,” WDJ February 2001) are ideal for preventing chase rewards. (Note: WDJ does not ever recommend tying/chaining a dog as a routine method of outdoor confinement. See “Fit to Be Tied,” WDJ June 1999.) D: Exercise – Tired dogs tend to be well-behaved dogs.
Train: Teach your dog a very reliable recall. Train him to drop to a “Down” at a distance. Teach him a solid “Wait” cue that will pause him in mid-stride, even when he is in chase mode (see “Wait a Bit, Stay a While,” WDJ May 2001).
• How do I stop him from roaming the neighborhood?
Rephrase: “How do I keep him safe at home?”
Manage: Use appropriate physical means to keep him safely confined at home and make sure he never experiences and reaps the rewards of the “joy” of running loose in the neighborhood. I occasionally have potential clients call and ask me how to boundary-train their dogs to stay on their property without a fence.
This is an unrealistic training expectation, and I never accept such a training assignment; I don’t believe it can be done reliably and humanely. For most, if not all dogs, there are stimuli that are strong enough to induce them to break through the shock of an electric fence collar (see “Visible Problems,” WDJ May 1999), to say nothing of a simple boundary-training program.
Management tools: A: Fences – Solid physical fences of sufficient height are great tools for thwarting roaming. B: Doors – Keeping him safely confined indoors except when directly supervised can go a long way towards preventing rewards for roaming. C: Leashes and long lines – Physical restraint tools are ideal for preventing roaming rewards. (Note: WDJ does not ever recommend tying/chaining a dog as a routine method of outdoor confinement.) D: Neutering – Lowering your dog’s testosterone level can be a very effective way of eliminating one very strong reward for roaming (see “A Stitch in Time,” WDJ June 2000). E: Exercise – Tired dogs tend to be well-behaved dogs.
Train: Teach your dog a very reliable recall. Train him to drop to a “Down” at a distance. Teach him a solid “Wait” cue that will pause him in mid-stride, even when he is in chase mode. And then never leave him outdoors alone, unfenced and unsupervised.
• How do I stop her from barking when she’s outside?
Rephrase: “How do I keep her quiet when she’s outside?”
Manage: Dogs usually become nuisance barkers because they are bored, lonely, overstimulated, or convinced that their job responsibilities include 24-hour sentry duty.
Management tools: A: House confinement – Most dogs who are nuisance barkers spend entirely too much time outdoors, which contributes to boredom, loneliness, overstimulation, and the perception that their job duties include constant sentry duty. B: Crates and pens indoors, if necessary, can help manage the dog’s behavior while indoors. C: Exercise – Tired dogs tend to be well-behaved dogs.
Train: Teach her a positive interrupt – a gentle “Thank you, quiet!” (followed by a reward) – to acknowledge her for notifying you of something you should be aware of, and to let her know that you have everything under control so she can stop barking. Use this judiciously – do not expect it to work for a bored, lonely, overstimulated dog who is kept outside in the backyard all day and/or all night.
• How do I stop him from jumping up to look out the windows?
Rephrase: “How do I teach him to be calm about outside stimuli at the windows?”
Manage: The easiest way to manage this behavior is either to block the dog’s view from the outside stimuli, or to provide him with the means to see out the window without having to jump up on the windowsill.
Management tools: A: Shades or drapes to block the dog’s view of the outside. B: Closed doors that keep him out of the room in question. C: Move the sofa up against the windows so he can look out to his heart’s content without having to jump up on the woodwork. (Of course, this isn’t an option if you are trying to keep him off the furniture, unless you put his own sofa next to the window . . .)
Train: Teach him a positive interrupt and consistently reward him for turning his attention to you when there is something happening outside his window.
• How do I keep him off the furniture?
Rephrase: “How do I teach him to sleep on his own bed?”
Manage: Control the environment to prevent him from being rewarded for getting on the furniture. The sofa is comfortable, so lying on it is its own reward.
Management tools: A: Place boxes or upside-down chairs on the furniture to prevent his access. B: Lift up sofa and chair cushions so there’s no flat surface for him to lie on. C: Close doors to prevent his access to rooms with forbidden furniture in your absence. D: Use crates and pens to prevent his access to forbidden furniture in your absence. E: Provide him with his own very comfortable furniture to lie on.
Train: Consistently reward him for lying on his own very comfortable furniture.
• How do I stop her from getting in the garbage?
Rephrase: “How do I convince her to keep her nose in appropriate places?”
Manage: This is one of those behaviors where management is critically important. You would be wise to never put extremely tempting garbage such as meat scraps, pork chop bones, or turkey carcasses in any garbage can that is easily accessible to your dog, no matter how well-mannered she is.
Management tools: A: Garbage cans with tightly closing lids that seal tempting odors in and curious noses out. B: Cupboards or cabinets (complete with baby-proof latches) that close securely and protect garbage cans from marauding moochers. C: Closed doors to prevent the dog’s access to rooms with raidable garbage cans. D: Exercise – Tired dogs tend to be well-behaved dogs.
Train: You can teach your dog a positive “Off!” or “Leave It!” with garbage cans, and for a dog who is very motivated by garbage, you will still want to use management to prevent him from being rewarded for garbage play in your absence.
Training yourself to manage
We could keep going – this list truly is endless – but you should be getting the idea by now. Any time you’re faced with a behavior challenge, just apply these three simple steps – rephrase, manage, and train – to design your action plan for managing and/or modifying the inappropriate behavior.
My all time favorite was the Peaceable Paws client in Carmel, California, who asked me to teach his Australian Shepherd-mix to stop drinking out of the toilet.
“It would be far easier,” I said, “to teach you (the supposedly more intelligent species) to close the toilet lid or shut the bathroom door, than it would be to train him not to take advantage of a constantly fresh water source. In fact, he’s probably trying to figure out how to train you to stop peeing in his water bowl!” This is one of those cases where it makes much more sense to implement a simple management technique than to expend the energy required to train the desired behavior.
He got the message. When I visited the house for our next appointment, the bathroom door was securely closed.
-by Pat Miller
Pat Miller is a freelance writer, author of The Power of Positive Dog Training (2001, Howell Book House), and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. For information about her book or training classes, click here.