If you read the blog from last week, you know about Jack. This week, we are going to visit the second part of the treatment plan for our normal but overly rambunctious puppy. This week we are covering structure and boundaries.

As you may recall, Jack is a thief. He steals for the attention and also for the fun of chewing on something different than his toys. His owners are going to work very hard on enriching his environment to alleviate his drive to chew on their things. Now, they have to teach him that stealing is not the best way to get attention.

There are always multiple ways to address a problem. One way is to try to correct the problem and the other way is to show the animal how to get what they want and hope they choose this path. We are going to use the latter.

Imagine if you are lost in a maze of tunnels. Each time you choose the wrong tunnel, your mom pops out of a window and yells in your face. You certainly wouldn’t choose that tunnel again. However, you don’t have any better idea how to navigate the maze. Oh sure, eventually you will go down the right route by process of elimination, but by that time you are exhausted and haven’t learned anything. That is how we often interact with our dogs.

"Jack, no!"

"Jack, off!"

"Jack, down!"

"Jack @#*!!!!!"

Now, Jack knows how to get negative attention from his owners, but he doesn’t know how to get their attention in a positive way. Because he is so "bad" that he doesn’t get a lot of positive attention, he will not only take the negative attention, he will seek it out. Negative attention is better than nothing.

Imagine yourself back in that maze. Each time you go down the wrong tunnel your mom pops out and gives you a verbal lashing, but then, magically, a door opens to the right tunnel — the way out! You take it and waiting for you on the other side is your mother with that pie that she used to make for you when you were a child.

Which maze would you rather be in? The second one, of course. Dogs are no different. That is where structure and boundaries come in. They help to tell the dog how to get attention from the owner so that the negative behavior is no longer reinforced. They also keep the dog out of situations where he doesn’t belong, keeping the trouble down to a minimum.

Jack’s owners were instructed to do the following:

  1. Ask Jack to sit for every interaction with them. This means every interaction, every pet, every kiss, every, every, everything. Now, Jack knows exactly how to get attention from his parents. Soon, he will be sitting when he wants attention instead of stealing.
  2. Teach Jack to go to his own bed and reward him for that behavior. This gives him an alternate place to be instead of getting into trouble.
  3. Use a crate whenever you need a break from Jack, overnight, and when you are not home.
  4. Use baby gates and closed doors to keep Jack out of rooms where he doesn’t belong so that stealing is down to a minimum.
  5. Do not let Jack up on the furniture or the bed. Puppies who are on the furniture don’t have any greater likelihood of exhibiting negative behaviors — yes that is right — you are not a bad parent if your pup cuddles with you on the couch. However, Jack launches himself onto the owner’s laps, then onto the back of the couch, then onto the floor. This kid needs some boundaries, so furniture privileges have been revoked indefinitely.
  6. Push things back on the counters so that he can’t steal.
  7. Pick up your stuff. My house is a mess so I get how hard it is to pick up, but you can’t expect a puppy to be born with the knowledge of what is appropriate to chew on and what is not. For the time being, Jack’s owners have to keep a clean house so that Jack has fewer things to steal.

Next week, we are going to visit the final steps: reinforcing positive behaviors and ignoring negative behaviors.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Sitting waiting by nrtphotos / via Flickr