I’m often asked about “fixing” canine behaviors. Before we can begin to discuss
solutions, I have to assess whether it's a basic problem behavior or more
serious behavioral problem. Each set of circumstances requires different
approaches to effective solutions. And either way, changing behavior is not a
Dogs are opportunists, and “problem behaviors” are those that are rewarding for the dog but annoying or inconvenient for their people. Barking, chewing, digging, counter-surfing, bolting through doors, jumping on people, pulling on the leash – all are natural canine behaviors that have been reinforced (albeit unintentionally).
There are multiple ways to address problem behaviors. Two effective ones are Prevention & Redirection:
Prevention ~ The more a dog practices a behavior the more ingrained it will become, so being proactive and preventing the behavior is the best bet. Simply make changes in the environment that set the dog up for success. Got a counter-surfer or garbage-diver? Don’t leave tempting treats on the table or available in garbage containers. Dog barks at the neighbor kids? Bring him in when they’re out.
Redirection ~ If your dog is practicing an undesirable behavior, ask yourself what you’d rather have him do. Instead of knawing on a shoe, give him an appropriate chew toy. If he barks and charges the door when the doorbell rings, teach an incompatible behavior, such as finding a special toy and going to his crate.
When working through problem behaviors I focus on being proactive and finding desirable alternatives to the unwanted behavior. Identifying the dog’s motivation or payoff from the behavior can also help determine the best course of action.
Behavioral problems can be described as the dog’s automatic emotional response to certain triggers. Separation anxiety, resource guarding, reactivity towards or avoidance of dogs, people, other animals or objects on or off leash – are a few common behavioral problems that need addressed with a counter-conditioning behavior modification program.
When working with behavioral problems, I first make sure the dog is in good health and getting the proper amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Sometimes the solution lies in a combination of medication and behavior modification. Basic training – especially learning impulse control – can also help address many problem behaviors and behavioral problems.
Before you begin a behavior modification program, make sure you are working with a professional who understands the process of behavior modification and you trust (ask me - I know a few!). Always research and meet the trainer before committing to their program. Because behavioral problems are more complex, here are some additional resources that might provide greater insight:
- Control Unleashed: http://controlunleashed.net/
- AVSAB Position Statements: http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=80&Itemid=366
- I'll Be Home Soon: http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/product/dog-separation-anxiety
Ask the Trainer: Renee Jetter, ABCTC, CPCT
Professional dog trainer; co-owner of Canine Craze Performance Center in Urbandale – an 18,000 sq-ft. dog training, daycare, boarding and events facility. Animal Behavior College, 2006 graduate.
Expertise: puppy development; positive reinforcement training; obedience; competition; agility; tricks; freestyle; scent detection; canine good citizen/therapy dog testing; Paws & Effect volunteer service dog trainer.