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Outwit Your Dogs if You Want Better Behavior

by Robin MacFarlane

Dogs are motivated similarly to us and just like us, they will participate in behavior deemed socially unacceptable if it is rewarding for them.

Our dogs are not much different than us in that they do things in order to gain things they want. Their desire to gain food, entertainment, and relief from discomfort or stressors motivates their behavior.

Dogs may sit because they know we will then put the food bowl on the ground. They will drop the ball if they know we won't keep but it but rather will throw it again for them. They will come when called if they hear the leashes coming out of the closet and they believe it means going for a walk.

By the same token, they will chase the cat because it's fun making him scramble through the living room. They will rummage through the garbage because there is fantastic, yummy stuff in there, and they will keep barking at the mailman every day because it always results in the same thing: getting him to leave!

Dogs are motivated similarly to us and just like us, they will participate in behavior deemed socially unacceptable if it is rewarding for them.

If we want to improve our dog's manners, we have to figure out how to motivate them to continue to do the good behaviors we want, or how to motivate them to quit the undesirable behaviors we are frustrated by.

Using rewards to continue motivating good behaviors is fairly intuitive for us. We all know we can use treats, toys, and verbal or physical praise to reward things like learning a Down/Stay. We understand that our dogs are far more likely to come when called if they believe something good like a walk, a cookie, or a ball toss is going to happen rather than something "bad" like a bath or going into the kennel.

Where we tend to struggle is in trying to stop those self-reinforcing behaviors like chasing the cat or barking at the mailman. Despite our best efforts to yell, scream, and raise a fuss (which our dogs basically interpret as cheerleading them on to greater victory!), the behaviors persist.

To solve these types of problems we have to be smarter than our dogs.

And we have to be faster. Being faster than a dog means being prepared for what is about to occur so you can take action proactively, rather than reactively.

Being smarter and faster amounts to developing the ability to outwit your dog. You have to put some brainpower into creating effective solutions. There is no way of fixing these issues in the heat of the moment. It takes both planning and preparation.

Let's take a look at the nuisance problem of barking at the mailman. First off it is a very predicable behavior. It has built into a habit for the dog because the same thing happens 6 days a week, at the same time each day and the outcome is always the same: the mailman leaves the premises.

Being predictable makes a problem easier to solve because it means we can prepare for it.

In order to change the barking behavior we can either change the habits of the dog just preceding the mailman's arrival, or we can change the outcome of the mailman showing up.

There are several options here. We can reward the dog for going to another area of the house or yard when the mailman shows up. We can teach the dog to Down/Stay in response to the sight and sound of the mail truck arriving.

We could employ the assistance of the mailman and instead of him leaving immediately have him toss the ball or deliver a treat to change the dog's perception of "stranger danger" yielding the territorial response.

We can use a mild aversive to interrupt the barking and teach the dog that vocalization isn't tolerated.

A solid training approach can combines elements of all the above and I'm sure there are other options as well. The main thing is, we need to put some thought into a solution rather than just reacting with frustration in the moment. That rarely solves any problem.

Next time you are facing a problem behavior with your dog, think strategy and outwit.

-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.

Robin's Obedience DVD

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