A Behavior Change Guide
Dogs, like humans, display many different behaviors based on underlying emotions, and it is our job as owners to provide guidance by reinforcing positive behaviors and discouraging unwanted ones.
Your dog displays behavior Y when it encounters stimulus X.
Dog + X (squirrel)= Y (chasing the squirrel while ignoring commands)
This behavior could be a conscious choice, an instinctual impulse, or an ingrained habit. Regardless, you, the owner, need to decide if it’s a response you would generally like to see more of (sitting when told) or less of (pulling on leash). Either way, a timely consequence is necessary.
Why does timing matter?
A dog must link its undesired behavior with the positive or negative emotional experience of receiving or anticipating a consequence. The timelier the results, the more likely the dog is to successfully link behavior and consequence, which minimizes confusion and superstition.
What types of consequences do I use?
Effective consequences consist of two types:
- Valuable rewards that attract the dog and reinforce the behavior over time
- Respected penalties that immediately interrupt the behavior and diminish it over time
Common forms of rewards are praise, play, affection, and food. The value of any of these must exceed the dog’s preference for whatever else it’s interested in at any given moment – if the reward falls short, they offer no reinforcement value at all. You know your reward is sufficient if it fully attracts the dogs attention.
Penalties work in the same way. They must be sufficiently costly to interrupt the behavior. Each dog is different, so the intensity, context and conditions can vary dramatically dog to dog.
Some examples of penalties include: ignoring, moving the desired object away, saying no, a two-finger rib poke, a foot touch, space claiming, a loud sound, a hissing sound, leash pop, remote collar vibration or stimulation.
The particulars of providing fair, yet effective, penalties can be one of the more challenging parts of training, which is where an experienced professional can be invaluable. Fortunately, in most cases, the most accessible forms of penalties work wonders due to their novelty.
Pro Tip: Every Dog is Different so understanding your dog’s personality, along with trial and error, are important to determine what is the best consequence (negative or positive) for your dog.
What if my dog is “sad” after receiving a penalty or consequence?
People have noticed that penalties sometimes reduce enthusiasm, and may even cause apprehension in a dog. When enthusiasm and over-excitement are the source of unwanted behavior, as it often is, the temporary loss of boisterousness is a necessary part of shaping the desired behavior. The enthusiasm hasn’t been extinguished permanently, it’s just dormant, waiting to be redirected into the healthy replacement behavior. Ultimately, we’re doing our dog a service by teaching them sociable behavior that will give them access to sustainable, long-term fulfillment.
An apprehensive or fearful response is quite rare with the Chill Out Dog Training method. Occasionally, when it does happen, it’s because the dog was so dependent on its old behavior to relieve, or mask, it’s underlying anxiety that when we take that behavior off the menu, we’re then left with the underlying negative emotion.
Emotions, including negative ones, while unpleasant, exist to serve us. For example, anxiety’s function is to reduce impulsiveness and increase reflection and forethought. It is in this apprehensive state when dogs are seeking information. Lucky for them, we can easily provide guidance! (More on guidance later).
This degree of caution is a short-term stage in the process of correcting a dog’s behavior, and ultimately giving them a better life. When it arises, we must embrace the journey through the landscape of anxiety to make it to the peaks of confidence. If we fail to see it as a purposeful and temporary stage, we’re then left with the original problem, a confused dog, and a mountain of unrealized potential.
The behavior has stopped, now what?
Now that we’ve halted the undesirable old behavior, it’s time we start replacing it with the desired new behavior.
Without a replacement behavior, your dog may regress to old habits or become more withdrawn because it won’t know how to properly act OR if it should act at all.
Lessen All Distracting Stimuli
At this stage we attempt to lessen all distracting stimuli in the environment. This rarely means we want to eliminate all the distractions completely. In fact, stimuli’s subtle presence may be the exact thing that’s needed to help neutralize their effect, but we do want the level turned down so that the degree is manageable. Typically, this level setting is managed by increasing the distance between the stimuli and the dog.
Cue or Command
Once the distance is such that the dog can maintain a majority of its focus on the handler, we then provide a cue, or command that is intended to prompt a simple behavior, such as “sit” or “look at me.”
We then encourage ANY genuine effort in the right direction and reward the completion of the desired behavior.
The cue we provide may create some confusion at this stage. This should be anticipated since the cue is unfamiliar, so this is where we offer the dog our guidance.
Guidance, guidance counselor? What do you mean?
There are several ways to guide a dog, and the form it takes is dependent on the behavior we’re looking for.
Some examples of guidance are:
- lightly pulling the leash in the direction you’d like the dog to move
- applying light pressure with the hands to encourage a change in body position
- using a treat to lure the dog
- even repeating the command.
Many times, these forms of guidance will be combined. The guidance principle is just like the penalty principle, offering just enough help to be effective, no more or no less. Often, a small amount of guidance is needed to get the dog over the first hurdle, and then momentum and encouragement will take them the rest of the way. Again, once the dog has produced the desired behavior, even with guidance, it’s time to reinforce it with a reward. With practice, the new behavior will soon overwrite the old, and a new, healthy, alternative behavior will emerge.
Any behaviorist or trainer that has successfully changed a behavior with dogs, and even humans, has followed the steps in this behavior change guide. This really works! It doesn’t mean that all behaviors are easily corrected; some are deeply rooted, others have compounding factors, and there are those that challenge our creativity to apply the process. If this was always easy and fun, and you just needed a big bag of treats and a peppy voice, I doubt there’d be any truly misbehaved or shut down dogs out there. If there’s any way out at all, and THERE IS 99.9% of the time, this method will produce it.
Good luck with your training, reach out for help if you need it, and I hope you find this process as rewarding as I do.
Chill Out Dog Training offers private, at-home/in-field lessons & is prepared for both new dog owners and challenging behavioral issues.