What you need to know to fix behavior problems

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All dogs have behaviors and skills to help them successfully navigate the world. They all learn what tools nature supplied them with to get what they need in life. At Good Dog Training we say, D.D.W.W, Dogs Do What Works, meaning essentially if a behavior has a reinforcing consequence, it will be repeated. Any offered instinctual behavior which results in interaction, exploration, food, play, petting or anything the dog regards as a reinforcing this behavior will be offered again.  It is our responsibility to provide for and educate our dogs. To be successful teaching a dog to understand you language and cues, you must go through the process of building trust and communication commonly referred to as “training the dog”. Building clear communication requires patience. The process of creating commands and teaching a dog something new relies on four steps: Acquisition (learning a new skill), Repetitions (doing it over and over), Fluency (can perform 8 or 10 times asked) and Generalization (practicing it in new places with new distractions).

How do we teach cues and commands?

  • Lure- Use the reward to manipulate your dog’s body into a position (for sit, tease a treat in front of his nose then raise the treat slowly up over his head and wait for his rear end touch the ground. Have your “reward word” such as “YES” ready to say when you give him the reward). This is the quickest way to teach multiple behaviors at once. Timing is important, try to reward quickly right after the desired behavior to make sure he connects the behavior and the reward.
  • Signal– Transitioning from a lure to a similar motions or gesture the dog will associate with that behavior. If you used food over the head to teach SIT, an open palm slowly moving upward is a good signal transition, whereas, you may use a pointed finger or flat downward palm toward the ground when teaching your dog “down”. Spoken language becomes associated with your signal and eventually becomes the cue to perform the behavior.
  • Capture– Simply put means waiting for your dog to perform a behavior and reinforcing it instantaneously after it occurs. If your dog runs up to you from distance say “good come here” and reward with touch or other reinforcement. Consider capturing and naming the behavior of being quiet. Instead of saying “no bark” when your dog barks say “good quiet” when he stops or before he starts to bark.
  • Placement- This is the least effective but sometimes necessary for the dog to make the connection between language and behavior. You gently help a dog into a position like applying pressure on his rear to help him sit. Understand that you are doing all the work so your dog doesn’t learn but it may help him into position so you can build the association. You will only use placement from time to time and then he must learn to perform the behavior with his own muscles. Most of the time you push on your dog they will push back in the opposite direction. This is not going to help you build the desired behavior quickly. Patience and shaping behaviors will help us avoid placement.

Give the dog time to process requests and commands, don’t repeat commands or the dog will learn “sit,sit,sit,SIT!” rather than SIT. Use clear and simple to understand phrases. Try to praise the behavior by saying “GOOD DOWN” rather than “Good Girl”. Short successful sessions will help you move forward quickly. Provide focused training sessions multiple times a day even if it is only for 5-10 minutes at a time.

Keeping the dog motivated and making training sessions enjoyable for both teacher and student is the key! Positive reinforcement will produce better results than punishing behaviors when they occur but be aware that quality motivators and schedule of reinforcement are the most common place you might get stuck. When you start training you are working on fixed reinforcement schedules so that your dog will work for the reward every time, then you must transition to a variable schedule of reinforcement (meaning reward every 3rd or 5th time), and finally to a differential system of reinforcement. This basically means your reinforcement schedule to the dog is seemingly random but amazing when it happens.

Avoid labeling the dog or the behavior. If we internalize behavior to our dog we can’t hope to influence it. If I say the dog is “crazy” when people come over to our house well then there is nothing I can do for that dog but, if I describe what the behavior I am calling “crazy” looks like: “The dog runs to the door, barks and jumps up on people when they come in”, now I can do something about it. Behavior is conditional and we have an awful lot of influence over conditions of the dog’s environment. First I need to understand that if I change some of the conditions I can work on “teaching” behaviors that I WANT my dog to perform rather than focusing on the behavior I DON’T WANT. I may need to shape partial behaviors to get the whole desired behavior. For instance I might teach my dog to go to his bed and wait while I open the door and eventually associate it with people coming over. Then my end result might be, someone comes to the door, dog runs to his bed, person enters, I tell the dog to come and sit to say hello. This behavior might earn my same dog who was labeled “crazy” to be labeled “well behaved”.

All behavior has 3 parts. Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence.

A-      Antecedent– this is what happens prior to the behavior that becomes the cue for that behavior (a condition of the dog’s environment).

B-       Behavior– performed after the antecedent and is based on a history of consequences or an instinctual response that is automatic to our dog.

C-       Consequence– happens immediately after the behavior and can give feedback or purpose to the behavior.

Now you know your ABC’s. There is no such thing as “problem behaviors” just problematic situations. Every behavior has a purpose to our dog. If we don’t desire that behavior we are in luck because we can influence 2/3 of every behavioral outcome (The A and/or the C). We do this in our approach to training by deciding to provide punishers or to provide reinforcement as the consequence. Or we chose to manipulate the environment to change the arrangement of my dog’s choices. Providing positive reinforcement is the least intrusive and most effective path to getting predictable and desired behaviors.

Key Questions for replacing undesired behaviors with desired behaviors: Functional assessment.

  1. What does the undesired behavior look like (without using labels)?
  2. What conditions exist when the dog performs this behavior?
  3. What does the dog get out of performing the behavior (normally-most frequent consequence)?
  4. Are there conditions when the animal does not perform this behavior?
  5. What behavior would you like the animal to do instead?

You cannot change undesired behaviors until you focus on what you would like your dog to do rather than labeling the behavior he chose as a problem. If we cannot influence or change the antecedent or the consequence we cannot change the behavior. Once you understand the ABC’s of behavior, you can move towards building a history of desired behaviors based on positive reinforcement. This not only means the desired behavior will occur more frequently but you will also build a relationship based on this history of shared reinforcement together.

The path you take in your approach to changing the behavior WILL impact your relationship with your dog. For instance if you decide to teach your dog to walk past other dogs on leash using positive reinforcement your dog will be brave about passing dogs and actively look to you when they appear. If you chose to add a aversive consequence like a choke chain you might stop the dog from going over to the dog but you can also change how he feels about the leash, other dogs and your relationship if unpleasant consequences happens every time you see dogs on your walk. Also you will need to always have that threat of the unpleasant consequence for the desired behavior to be offered. Think about every behavior your dog offers that your react to with scolding or some sort of punishment. Could you change either what happens before the behavior or the consequence so that you are no longer reacting and giving more feedback to the undesired behavior?

Letting your dog make choices as part of your training approach is the key to motivated dogs and having an empowered animal. If we constantly train our dogs to do what we want them to do without considering their needs and desires we can create frustrated dogs. When dogs have some control over their ability to earn rewards they are experiencing the least intrusive form of training and tend to have higher quality of life overall. Dogs are interactive and are not meant to be still. They love being engaged in activity, using training techniques that let them be an active participant in the earning of desired consequences will bond you and your dog for life.

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