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Why Does My Dog Do That?

by on November 21, 2012

Why does my dog do that?

Does your dog bark when you’re on the phone, paw or jump at you to get your attention? Do you describe your dog as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or stubborn because she won’t stop barking, jumping or pawing when you tell her or push her away? Do you wonder why your dog does what she does?

Your dog does what she does because there’s no consequence to discourage her behavior and she’s rewarded for what she’s doing. Dogs do what they do to gain reward and/or avoid negative consequences. If your dog steals and enjoys a delicious warm cookie from the stove top, you can bet she’s going back for seconds. She was rewarded for her behavior with a cookie and there weren’t any immediate consequences to discourage her from stealing again. On the other hand, if your dog attempted to steal a very hot cookie from a very hot stove and burned her mouth and paw in the process, she would drop the cookie and avoid the stove. Rewards encourage behavior and negative consequences discourage behavior. You can eliminate annoying attention getting behaviors by encouraging the behavior you want with rewards and discouraging the irritating behaviors you don’t want with negative consequences.

Don’t Reward Attention Getting Behaviors.

Barking, jumping, pawing, nipping, and licking to name a few attention getting behaviors are annoying at the least and injurious at the most. Attention getting behaviors can be difficult to eliminate because the behaviors are often unintentionally rewarded. For example, if your dog is barking when you are on the phone and you repeatedly stop talking to tell him “quiet” without ever enforcing that he stops barking before you resume your phone conversation, you are rewarding your dog with your attention.

If your dog jumps, nips, licks, or paws at you and you push him away with your hands, he is rewarded by your touch. In your mind, the push away seems negative; in your dog’s world, being touched with a push is rewarding.

Do Reward Good Behavior.

Replace annoying attention getting behaviors with good behaviors by teaching your dog some basic commands that encourage proper behavior. When you teach your dog to obey your basic commands you are setting clear boundaries for how you want your dog to behave. When you tell your dog to sit, and enforce that he sits, he isn’t jumping on you. Your dog can’t perform two opposing behaviors at the same time. Teaching and enforcing behavior boundaries through a balance of reward and consequence is good leadership and clearly communicates to your dog the behaviors you do and don’t want from him. To get your dog to sit instead of jumping, enforce and reward sitting, and use a consequence to deter jumping up. Good leadership rewards the behaviors you want and discourages the annoying attention getting behaviors you don’t want like barking, jumping, and pawing with negative consequences.

Training Good Behavior

Training any behavior requires that you have your student’s undivided attention. If your dog isn’t looking at you when you give him a command to do something, he isn’t listening to you; and if he isn’t listening to you, he isn’t going to follow your command. If you say your dog’s name and he doesn’t look you in the eye, you are just wasting your breath when you give him a command. Turn the tables on your dog and use annoying attention getting behaviors to get his attention and eye contact. Say his name repeatedly as you paw, tap, or poke him on the head until he looks at you. When he looks at you, stop annoying him and praise. Attention getting behaviors can work for you too!  Once you teach your dog to give you his undivided attention, you can teach him good behaviors to replace his annoying behaviors. For example, when your dog paws, tell him “down.” If your dog is laying down, he won’t be able to paw you effectively. If your dog doesn’t go down on command, enforce the command with his collar to place him in a down, then praise. If he pops up again, tell him down again and place him down again. Good leaders consistently and persistently enforce their commands. Getting your dog to obey your first command without having to physically place him down may take 15-20 repetitions or more. The good news is, by the time you get the down on the first command, your dog will decide pawing wasn’t worth the attention he received by having to obey all those downs!

Consequences to Discourage Bad Behavior.

Sometimes the consequence must precede your command for an alternate good behavior. For example, if your dog jumps or paws at you when you come in the door, tell her “off,” and discourage her behavior with the consequence of STOMPING HIGH and STRAIGHT toward her to get her out of your space. Your dog will quickly move out of your way for fear of being bowled over or stepped on. Don’t stop stomping toward her until she moves away from you. Don’t go around your dog. The employee moves out of the CEO’s path in the corporate hallway. Your dog needs to move out of your space before the stomping stops. You can stomp longer than your dog can dance on her back feet when she is jumping up. If she lays down in your path, switch to shuffling your feet quickly toward her until she moves. When she moves out of your way, give her an alternate good behavior such as “sit.” Always praise when you get the response you want.

When your dog barks, tell him “quiet.” If he isn’t quiet, squirt him, rapid-fire style, with plain cold water, aiming for his eyes. Plain water will not hurt your dog’s eyes. I know what you’re thinking, ‘he’s a water dog and likes water!’ Ever notice they love to swim but hate to get a bath or walk on wet grass. They love water but hate when it comes rapid-fire in their eyes. If your dog tries to drink it, keep squirting until he has to swallow. When he swallows, he has to stop barking and you can give a little verbal praise. You can squirt longer than he can go without swallowing! If he doesn’t stop barking ramp up your consequence. Add shaking a can filled with rocks or fit your dog with a citronella bark collar to ramp up your consequence. Your consequence must be strong enough to cancel the reward your dog gets from behaving the way he does.

Every dog is different when it comes to the value of reward and consequence, so the consequence may have to be different for each dog. For example, rapid-fire water squirts may not phase Tsunami, but shake a can of pebbles and the noise rocks his world and he stops barking. Find the consequence that works for your dog by starting at the bottom (a simple harsh sounding word i.e.,“stop”) and work your way up gradually to a consequence that squelches the behavior. In the dog world, a correction starts off with a growl and if the behavior doesn’t stop, the dog ramps up the correction with a bite or whatever it takes to stop the behavior.

Reward the behaviors you want and make a consequence for the behaviors you don’t want.

If you don’t assertively, persistently, and consistently set and enforce your boundaries on how you want your dog to behave, you are sending out the wrong message to your dog and he will behave as he chooses.

No Boundaries equals Bad Behavior.

Ian and Carrie only rewarded good behavior and ignored bad behavior. Ian and Carrie thought disciplining Wesley for misbehaviors was “being mean.” Accordingly, unwanted behaviors like pawing and jumping up were ignored and the good behaviors like sitting, which rarely emerged, were rewarded. When Wesley jumped at them for attention, Carrie and Ian would hold a treat in the air and tell Wesley to “sit.” When Wesley jumped higher for the treat, Ian and Carrie were instructed to ignore the bad behavior and simply turn away and ignore him. Wesley, not one to be ignored, jumped up more frantically to get the treat and attention, nipping and tearing at Ian and Carrie’s clothes. Wesley’s bad behavior was impossible to ignore so jumping up and tearing at their clothes got their attention as he intended.

Wesley, a 30-pound fur ball, also launched at visitors when they came through the door with the intent to flatten them. Carrie and Ian followed a program on the internet which instructed them to tell Wesley “sit” when the doorbell rang. If he didn’t sit on command, they were not to open the door until he sat. If Wesley did sit, but moved as the door opened, they were directed to immediately close the door and wait for him to sit again. I amusingly visualized the couple’s guest fast asleep outside the door, waiting, as Wesley danced and gyrated at the door between a sit and a half launch every time someone placed their hand on the doorknob. Wesley did not have good leadership. Instead, Wesley had control of the door. Dog training methods that lack firm leadership are not healthy models of training in a complicated world where there is a low tolerance for unruly dogs.

Carrie and Ian felt lonely without visitors and learned how to provide Wesley with good leadership and clear boundaries using a collar, leash, and a hand full of treats. Wesley was taught to sit on the first command and if Wesley didn’t sit on command, instead of ignoring him, Carrie or Ian used the collar and leash to place him in a sit and prevent his jumping. If Wesley jumped up from the sit, Carrie and Ian just held the leash at Wesley’s sit level so that he received a bump from the collar when he left the sit. Following the bump, Wesley was physically placed back into a sit, and given verbal praise when he was sitting. After several repetitions of receiving a bump and being physically placed in a sit, Wesley sat on the first command and was rewarded profusely with verbal praise and treats. Jumping was discouraged with the collar and leash, and sitting was rewarded. Wesley enjoyed the rewards more than the consequences, and although, he occasionally reverted to jumping, Carrie and Ian consistently and persistently enforced their boundary about jumping not being appropriate behavior, and Wesley’s jumping became less and less frequent.

Be Persistent and Consistent.

If you are not persistent with enforcing your commands and allow your dog to ignore you, he will develop “learned resistance” commonly labeled “stubborn.” Susan was absolutely positive that when I met Magellan, her Portuguese Water Dog, I would agree that he was the most stubborn dog in the world. To demonstrate, Susan told Magellan, “sit,” as she gave him a big hand signal for added effect. Magellan’s expression never changed as he stared straight ahead into space daydreaming. Susan yelled a second command, “Magellan SIT!”  This time Magellan looked up at her confirming he wasn’t deaf but without any more interest in executing the sit than during the first command. Susan went for a third try. This time I was sure she could be heard three states over when she yelled “Sit.” Magellan never moved a sit muscle. Susan turned to me and said, “You see, isn’t he the most stubborn dog you have ever seen? He knows I want him to sit and he is just being stubborn.” Magellan wasn’t stubborn, he was suffering from learned resistance. Magellan had tuned Susan out, and even if he was listening there was no reason to respond to Susan’s command because she never enforced her commands until after she screamed at him for the forth time, “MAGELLAN SIT.” By the fourth command she was so angry that Magellan ignored her, she would physically take him by his choke collar and make him sit. As a result, when Magellan heard Susan turn up the volume, he knew he had better sit on that forth command or start running. Most dog owners habitually give multiple commands without realizing they are repeating themselves and teaching their dog that they don’t have to obey the first command. I used to ask Susan how many dogs she had on the end of her lead because I always heard her give 3 to 4 commands. One dog should equal one command. If you always give three or more commands for every behavior, why would you expect your dog to come on the first command when you call him back from running out the door into the street. Once your dog understands you are going to consistently and persistently enforce your first command, your dog will obey your first command. After Susan learned to be consistent and persistent about enforcing her first command, Magellan learned to obey her and earned his Utility Title.

You can replace annoying attention getting behaviors by rewarding the behaviors you want and discouraging the behaviors you don’t want with appropriate consequences. Good leadership teaches a dog how to behave and consistently enforces the behavior boundaries so there isn’t any confusion about how to earn rewards and avoid consequences.

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