I always laugh when my business partner Steve Benjamin tells a story about one elderly lady who called a few years ago asking for training assistance. This lady had a toy breed dog, weighing about seven pounds. She identifies toilet paper thievery and roll dissection as her dogâ€™s behavior problem and wants lessons with Steve to correct the problem.
Steve asks, â€œhow tall is your dog?â€ The lady responds, â€œabout ten inches high.â€ Steve then asks, â€œhow high is the handle on your bathroom door.â€ The lady responds, â€œa few feet.â€ Steve tells her, â€œYou have two options. You can either pay me for numerous sessions to come out and train a new behavior, or you can close the bathroom door.â€
Dead silence on the phone. Did she hang up?
No, she remains on the line, speechless and flabbergasted at his suggestion. â€œYou mean I have to remember to close the bathroom door all the time?â€
I had a similar experience at the classroom recently. One of my clients came in looking overwhelmed, unhappy, and frustrated at the beginning of class. Sheâ€™s normally a very upbeat and perky individual, something was wrong.
â€œJulia, whatâ€™s wrong?â€ I asked as she stood next to her beautiful dog Sampson. Julia tells me that her dogs eat twice a day, in the morning and evening. Every single feeding time, her dogs fight over food, resource guarding their meals from the other household dogs. Many owners are devastated by dog-dog resource guarding, despite the fact that the behavior is evolutionarily advantageous; itâ€™s normal dog behavior and the majority of dog-dog resource guarding behaviors are highly ritualized and never involve a physical altercation. The dogs in Juliaâ€™s home were no different, none of the resource guarding incidents involved any sort of physical contact between the dogs, just growling, hackling, and barking.
Remembering the Tao of Steve, I said, â€œJulia, you have two options. We can either set up a number of private lessons to work on the problem; or you can feed the dogs in separate rooms.â€
Dead silence as she looked at me. Steve warned me about this.
Finally, Julia says, â€œweâ€™ll try it.
Two days later, Julia returns to class, a beaming smile on her face and gives me a huge hug. Pleased to her significantly happier than at our last interlude, I laughed. â€œHow are things going at home?â€ Julia tells me there have been no fights since our conversation, and that both she and all the dogs are more relaxed and happy together, the dogs eat at a more leisurely pace instead of inhaling their food; she no longer has to expect at least two fights a day in her house over valuable resources.
TWO (SOMETIMES THREE) OPTIONS
There are two possible solutions to this and other common behavior problems â€“ training and management.
Training should focus on the development of alternative, incompatible behaviors. A dog cannot be begging food from guests or jumping on guests if he is lying on his bed calmly. A dog cannot be barking at the dog walking across the street if he is targeting his nose to your hand with duration. Focus on what you want the dog to do instead of the unwanted behavior and develop a training plan to get you there.
Management is the practice of removing opportunities for an animal to engage in or practice unwanted behaviors. Management does not necessarily teach the dog anything, but often is important for your dogâ€™s safety and to keep him from rehearsing bad behaviors.
Management is closing the bathroom door; it is feeding the dogs in separate rooms. Management is using crates to prevent potty accidents and destructive behaviors; it is using a leash to keep a dog next to you on a walk as opposed to training a dog to heeling and team walking reliability off lead. Management is baby gates and tethers, muzzles for biting dogs, or Calming Caps. Management is keeping your counters clean to prevent counter surfing; it is female dogs in heat isolated from unneutered males.
Behaviors like snatching food from counters or trash cans, dissecting things (including toilet paper, Kongs, sneakers, and raw meat), relief for a full bladder, resource guarding and chasing squirrels on a walk are extremely reinforcing behaviors for dogs; all of these common dog behavior â€œproblemsâ€ have actually been selected for by tens of thousands of years of evolution. Theyâ€™re the things dogs do.
For all of these behaviors, you can train alternative, incompatible behaviors; but the rub with this is it only works if you are there to reinforce the training. You can train your dog to stay away from the counters when you are home, but if there is a steak on the counter and your dog is home alone with access to it all day, his evolutionary bias towards scavenging will likely shine through that training and you will come home to a counter that no longer has any food and a very happy, satiated dog who just got reinforced nicely for his counter surfing behavior.
For many of the behaviors, a combination of management and training is best. For some of them, management is all you need if you are able to do it consistently.
There is a third option in dealing with many â€œunwanted behaviors;â€ redirection. If your dog likes to dig, give him a digging pit or sandbox to play in. If your dog likes to chew or dissect, give him chew toys, Kong toys, etc. If your dog likes to scavenge, set up a kibble hunt in your house/yard or purchase a food dispensing toy. If your dog likes to chase, try some exercise toys or teach him to retrieve! Digging, chewing, nipping, chasing, jumping, dissecting are all natural dog urges â€“ your dog will be happiest if he can engage in these activities safely.
Showing your dog what is expected of him when you are home through training, managing for his safety and success when you are unable to train, and providing a healthy outlet for the natural doggy urges which make him happiest are the keys to a well-behaved dog and a happy household.
Casey Lomonaco is a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Behavior & Training
and proprietress of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training.
Casey has published articles and is the 2009 APDT Dogwise John Fisher essay contest winner.
For more information, visit www.rewardingbehaviors.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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