One of the first things I did after graduating from veterinary school was to learn some survival skills. I took a personal finance and an investment class designed for economics majors. Within the first week, I knew the investment class would provide me with perhaps the most important information of my life, because the instructor, a highly successful investor, promised to tell us the one secret in investing that would make everyone rich. For days he hinted that the secret was coming, and students judiciously came to class knowing that if they didn’t hear it first hand, they would miss out on the most vital piece of information that would cross their ears during their entire undergraduate career. Then, in the third week of classes the time had come.

The professor stated,  “As promised, I’m going to tell you the secret of investing now.” He paused dramatically as silence overtook the room like darkness during a solar eclipse. And then he whispered the advice, “Buy low. Sell high.” The class uttered a collective groan. Hardly a secret, his advice was the obvious plan of action, but it was also a plan few investors actually follow.

The solution to most dog behavior problems is simple

It turns out that the solution to most behavior problems in pets is equally simple and, IF you follow the plan, equally successful. All you need to know is one thing— that animals repeat behaviors that are reinforced. That means that if your puppy or adult pooch behaves badly by, say, barking at you through the sliding glass door when he’s outside and you’re inside, jumping on you when you arrive home from work, or dragging you down the street on walks all you have to do is identify what’s rewarding the unwanted behavior. Then once you identify the reinforcer, remove it and instead reward a more appropriate behavior such as being quiet in the case of the barking bowser, sitting for the exuberant greeter, and walking on a loose leash in the case of the persistent puller.

The reinforcer is usually easy to identify. For instance, if you have a Bowser that barks when you put her in the yard and you usually let her in because the barking is irritating and if her barking stops as soon as she rushes in then by letting her in, you’ve rewarded her for barking. If you want her to be quiet outside, you’ll have to ignore her barking—which means you should probably only put her outside when you know your neighbors are out—and then wait until she’s quiet before you let her in or reward her in some other manner.

Likewise if your dog greets you by jumping and continues jumping on you every day even though you yell at her and push her away, then yelling and pushing away—which are both forms of attention—are actually reinforcing her behavior. You’ll have to stand silently and completely stationary, like a pole or a tree, so the message that you’re ignoring her and being completely non-interactive with her is clear. Wait until she offers a sit on her own and then pet her or praise her—whichever her reaction tells you she wants—but only as long as she remains seated. 

Of course the case of the persistent puller is the same. If your dog drags you down the block on leash, she’s doing so because it gets her there—wherever the end of the leash goes—faster than waiting for you. To change the behavior you’ll have to stop dead in your tracks every time Fido even gets close to reaching the end of the lead. Then walk forward briskly only when she, on her own, steps back towards you so she’s on a loose leash. The key is to make the consequence black and white. Stop abruptly when her front feet get ahead of yours because that means in a second or too she’s going to be at the end of the leash and pulling. Then speed forward immediately when she steps back such that the leash hangs in a loose loop and she looks at you. Better yet, even wait until she sits and looks at you before you walk on.

Notice that, as with the sit for greetings case above, we don’t tell Fido what we want using commands. We let Fido figure out how the world operates on her own.  Dogs care about our actions, not our words. So by focusing on our actions instead of blurting out words for our dog to ignore, we communicate in a manner that makes the message clear.

Train the desired behavior first

In all three cases described above, training will go about a million times faster if you first take a few minutes to train the behavior you do want, such as sit quietly when you want attention or sit and look at me when you want something such as to be petted or to walk forward on leash. That way when the unruly behavior of barking or jumping for attention and pulling on leash to get somewhere faster don’t work, then your pooch will be able to think of an alternate behavior that you might want.

Consistency is the key

This probably all sounds so simple. But there’s some bad news and some good news. Here’s the bad news. First, you have to be extremely consistent or you may make the bad behavior even worse. Now the good news: you’ve probably already been inconsistent so the behavior’s not likely to get worse once you consciously try to make a change.

How can inconsistency make the behavior worse? When animals first learn a behavior it’s easiest for them to learn if they get rewarded every time they perform it. Once they know the behavior well you can strengthen it by putting it on a variable, intermittent schedule of reinforcement where you reward the correct behavior sometimes but not others. This puts an element of gamble into the game. Now Fido knows he’ll get a reward just like you know you’ll get a reward when you play the slot machines in Vegas. He just doesn’t know which time or how long it will take, so now when he doesn’t get his way right away, he tries harder or longer or waits for his next opportunity.  So, for instance, lets say you decide to lock Bowser in the yard and wait his barking out but sometimes you just aren’t patient enough to wait it out, So sometimes after 5-10 minutes you finally let him in. Whereas in the past he may have given up after just several minutes of barking, now he knows that sometimes if he tries harder and barks louder, you’ll eventually let him in. Now if you want to break the cycle, you have to wait for even longer periods of time.

This factor throws a wrench into your training plan but luckily, when you are consistent, you can change many of the behaviors practically over night. Start by getting everyone in the household on the same page, so that you make a concerted effort. Once your plan is in place and you avoid rewarding the bad behavior and only reward the good behavior every single time, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the good behavior becomes Fido’s new habit.


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