By Victoria Schade
We all strive to be the best pet parents we can be, but we often accidentally encourage those naughty behaviors that drive us nuts. Sometimes these behaviors develop slowly as your dog matures, while other times, it’s just a single episode where your dog learns that the behavior “works” that sets it in stone.
It’s challenging to stop a behavior with a strong reward history. For example, if your dog has been getting goodies off of your plate every time he whines for months, it could take double the time to “un-train” the behavior as it did for him to start doing it. The following are some of the top pet-parent encouraged problems, along with tips to make them go away forever.
This behavior can creep up on you, because at first, getting jumped on seems sort of cute. A dog that leaps up on you is very clearly demonstrating his unbridled affection for you, and we like to be on the receiving end of all that love. So we nurture it with pats, laughter and encouragement, and our dogs learn that we like it when they hop all over us. Then, something changes — be it a growth spurt from puppy to adult dog, a job change that requires wearing nice clothing every day, an injury, or a new baby in the house — and suddenly, the jumping up is not only a nuisance, it can also be dangerous. But try to tell that to your dog, who loves interacting with you this way!
To curb a dedicated jumper, simply stop acknowledging the behavior (a warning: it’s not as easy as it sounds). Any attention counts, so refrain from even scolding your dog when he leaps on you. Wait for a moment of calm when your dog has four paws on the floor — it might be literally just a moment at first — and interact with him at that point. If he jumps up again, turn your back until he stops, then resume contact. Leash your dog and step on the midpoint of the dog leash if he likes to jump on your guests. That way he can mingle with people without delivering a paw to the gut.
They call them “puppy eyes” for a good reason. It’s hard to resist them when your dog gives you that look that seems to say, “I’m starving to death,” so of course you give in and share whatever is on your plate. Our desire to give our dogs bits of people food comes from a place of love, and while that generosity is kind, the reality is you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of splitting your food with your dog.
Instead of sharing, you can feed your dog their daily meals during your own mealtime. Find a treat-stuffable activity toy or bone that you can fill up with some delicious dehydrated dog food or freeze-dried dog food that will really keep your dog happily occupied during while you eat. If your dog finishes before you do and resorts to begging again, ignore him. (Again, if you have a persistent dog it’s not easy to do!) This behavior, like many of these problem behaviors, will likely go through what’s called an “extinction burst,” which is a temporary increase in the begging behavior before it goes away. It’s a challenging but predictable part of the re-training process, and usually an indicator that you’re almost at the finish line, so don’t give up.
Dogs have places to go and things to pee on, and if your dog is a puller, you’re just an anchor keeping him from the next adventure. Pulling is another “creep up” behavior because we often allow our dogs to pull now and then, not realizing that if we let the pulling continue, we’re going to end up competing with our dogs’ muscle memory. Dogs very quickly learn that “a tight leash means I go forward,” and that feeling of tension around their necks becomes the set point for walking.
The goal is to teach your dog that pulling never works, and a loose dog leash is the way to go. When your dog pulls, stop walking every single time (you really have to pay attention during this exercise). When he circles back to you, or even looks back at you, offer him a reward right next to you, so that he has to come close to get it, and continue walking. Give your dog intermittent dog treats for remaining by your side as you stroll, so that’s he’ll soon understand that walking close to you is the best place to be.
A dog that barks and expects to get what he wants, whether his dinner or a ball that’s rolled under the couch, is a bossy dog. And if you give him what he’s asking for, you’re keeping the pushy behavior alive. Demand barking tends to work because at the heart of it, we just want the noise to stop. The problem is that it teaches your dog that causing a ruckus is more effective than asking politely.
To start the retraining process, instill a “say please” program, where your dog has to sit for everything he wants. Get him to sit before you toss the ball, or put his dog food bowl down, or open the door to the yard. At the same time, teach your dog that barking never works. If you’re prepping his dinner and he “yells” at you to hurry up, put his dog bowl down and walk away. If he barks at you to throw the ball, drop it and do something else. Your dog will soon learn that barking makes you do the opposite of what he wants.
Puppies pass through a predictable nippy stage when they’re teething. This is an uncomfortable rite of passage for puppy parents, but typically ends within a few weeks when the appropriate steps are taken. However, sometimes we allow piranha mouths well past the acceptable expiration date, and end up with an adult dog that thinks it’s okay to communicate with teeth on skin. It might happen because the pet parent has a small dog and thinks it’s fine because the nips don’t hurt. Or maybe it’s because the pet parent is a tough guy and likes to play rough with the dog to get a nippy response. Whatever the case, allowing an adult dog to communicate with his teeth blurs the lines of acceptable behavior.
Although curbing an adult nipper isn’t as easy as tackling it when the dog is young, the way to go about it is exactly the same. Mark the exact moment that your dog’s teeth touch you with a shrill “ouch!” and then walk away for thirty seconds. If your dog mouths you while you’re playing with him, mark the infraction by saying “ouch,” drop the dog toy and walk away. The combination of the “ouch” marker — to let him know when he crossed the line — and the withdrawal of your attention will soon help your dog understand that you don’t want to hang out with a bitey buddy.
Victoria Schade is a certified dog trainer and author.