Before you blame your dog for annoying behaviors such as excessive barking, unruliness on the leash or bolting in the other direction when you call her, first consider that there are reasons your dog behaves the way she does — and some of those reasons have to do with you and the other humans in her life.
You’re not entirely responsible for how your canine acts. Factors like genetics, early environment and inadvertent learning through experiences outside of your control all contribute to her behavior, but human-related factors greatly impact a dog’s actions.
Whether we realize it, our dogs are learning every moment. Learning to behave occurs mostly outside of structured training sessions. Canines at all ages and stages can learn new behaviors through training, but most behaviors are shaped in regular, everyday moments. Even canines who have not had a single training session have been trained — albeit inadvertently — by people through day-to-day interactions and experiences. Human-directed factors, like a canine’s daily environment and routine, work together to either set up a dog for success or make her more likely to display undesirable behavior.
There are numerous things people do to stress out their dogs, usually without even realizing it. Beyond that, how you interact with your dog and the training you provide either work for you and your canine or against you.
Here are the top three human behaviors that exacerbate a lack of manners and hinder desired change.
Human behavior 1: Focusing on eliminating behavior rather than rewarding what you want
Punishment-based interactions tend to be harmful to your relationship with your dog and ineffectual for breaking unwanted habits. Punishment is rarely done right. It’s usually doled out too late and is too broad for the animal to pinpoint what she did wrong. Dogs also become accustomed to the punishment — such as a spray from a bottle or jerk on a leash — so it must increase in frequency or intensity over time to have any effect. In addition, it risks the dog making negative associations with the punisher and objects or people they are punished around. With punishment, a behavior may be temporarily stifled, but without the dog learning what to do instead. The behavior will typically come back or be replaced with another, equally irksome behavior.
Rubbing a dog’s nose in an accident she had in the home only makes the dog averse to humans; it teaches the dog nothing. The dog does not associate the punishment with the behavior or she might learn that voiding in general is bad. The dog may become conflicted around people, whom she sees as unpredictable, and start to hide from them when she goes to the bathroom, making the habit of going in the house harder to break. She doesn’t learn to do her business outdoors instead. Punishment tends to escalate negative emotions such as fear and frustration, which contribute to unwanted problems. Thus, when the emotional state is turned more negative, the unwanted behavior, while temporarily inhibited, can escalate.
Punishment has been shown to increase aggression and conflict-related behaviors in dogs. When a dog is punished for growling or barking, she can no longer give a warning signal to show she is uncomfortable . That means the dog remains highly aroused, agitated or fearful, but rather than using her innate warnings, like snarling, a dog may escalate faster into aggression and even a bite.
Parents and grandparents be warned: Children often emulate the actions of adults, even if warned not to. That means that a child will model a parent’s yelling, scolding or physical intimidation of a dog. When a child copies the punishment techniques he witnesses, there is a good chance the dog will react with aggression toward him.
Instead of punishing your dog, use reward-based training with the entire family. It takes refocusing your mind on the good and what you desire to have happen, and rewarding your dog for those behaviors. Rewards can include treats, toys, praise and a favorite activity. Train your dog to do what you want, or reward the desired behavior she already does, while also limiting her ability to make an unwanted choice or get too upset to handle the situation. Allow your dog only into situations she can handle, and in those situations, show your canine what you want and reward her for doing it. Also, look at replacement strategies for channeling natural behavior in dogs. For example, if you have a problem chewer, offer acceptable chewing alternatives such as a stuffed Kong.
Human behavior 2: Lack of consistency and clear expectations
Canines need consistent guidance from the people in their lives regarding the behavior and manners that are expected of them. It’s unfair for the dog to have the rules change from person to person. If something is OK with one person and not another, it becomes very confusing to the dog. For instance, if the man of the house is allowed to hand-wrestle with a dog, but the dog cannot put teeth on other members of the family or play roughly with them, there is trouble to be had. The dog is likely, through practice and reward in the one scenario, to act the same way in others. The more predictable a dog’s life is, with clear boundaries and rewards only for certain behaviors, the better behaved the dog will be.
By the same token, the entire family and those who interact with the dog need to be on the same page with how the dog is treated and trained. The cues or commands for the dog need to be the same among all the people in the home. The dog also needs consistent consequences for her behavior, like a reward for listening. Otherwise, the positive behavior loses strength. In addition, the management of unwanted behaviors, like pulling on the leash and jumping up, need to remain unrewarded by all people by never allowing the dog to move forward on the leash while pulling or never greeting the dog when she’s jumping. If the behavior is rewarded by even one person in the dog’s life, the dog will be resistant to change. The infrequent reward increases persistence in the dog.
Unfortunately, I’ve found people within the same home will use different styles of teaching: one with intimidation-based training and others with rewards. That is extremely confusing to the dog. Expectations, consequences and structure need to be as consistent as possible among everyone in the family.
Human behavior 3: Expecting too much of your dog without doing your part to help her
Just as a child needs schooling from preschool to high school and college, dogs also need increasing levels of training and practice to be prepared for what is expected of them. A dog needs training that progressively gets her skilled enough, through practice, to handle higher-level expectations, like responding to “Come!” in high- distraction environments. A dog may respond when the situation is low-key and minimally distracting, but in a high-intensity situation, the dog is less likely to obey. Training needs to progress to the level of what the person requires. That means preparing the dog through success at easier levels and gradually training to a more demanding level.
Unfortunately, when a dog has practiced a behavior for a while, people often give up and feel they’ve tried it all. Many times, though, the owner just needs to change small variables. As a clicker trainer, I’ve encountered people who say they already tried the clicker and it didn’t work. When I delved into what they were doing, though, their mechanics of using the clicker and rewards were off. After they relearned how to use the clicker, the problem fixed itself. Even for complex behavior problems, working with a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian in conjunction with a positive reinforcement trainer can turn a dog’s life around, but it takes time. If a dog has just learned “leave it” with food in the hand, for instance, she cannot be expected to leave unattended chicken on the kitchen counter without further training.
Most of all, be patient with your dog. It can take nine to 12 weeks — or longer — to break a habit, even with consistent work. It’s not a quick fix, but through clear boundaries and expectations, your canine will be on her way to good behavior, largely through your dedicated guidance.
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