Over the years of working with people and their pets, one of the top questions we’re asked is “Why won’t my dog just behave?” Everyone has a different reason for asking this. They vary from frustration with their energetic dog, to having just adopted their first dog, to believing if their dog truly loved them they would listen to them.
What does a well behaved dog do? The usual answers run along the lines of “Not barking/jumping/digging” or “I don’t know, they’re just good!” We often receive either vague answers or an answer that focuses only on what a behaved dog DOESN’T do.
The trouble is, if we ourselves do not know what a well-behaved dog looks like, how can we expect our dog to know? In addition to this, there is no single standard to what make a well behaved dog. Each person has their own vision of what that means. The list varies from not barking, destroying property, or jumping on people. For others it is staying in the places they’re allowed to be and out of the places they’re not. Each of these is a great example of a well behaved dog, but varies significantly from the other definitions. The good news is, once we decide what we are looking for, it can be achieved with clear communication and consistency with our dogs.
So keeping this in mind, let’s try to describe what a well behaved dog looks like to us. Once we solidify the idea in our head, we need to break it down into behaviors we can ask our dogs to do, and concentrate on reinforcing those behaviors. Let’s say that we do not want our dog to bark at us for food or attention. Great! Now let’s decide what we want them to do for attention or food instead of barking. Sit and look at us? Lay down? Rolodex through all the tricks they know? We just need to pick one and start rewarding that behavior. From now on, each time they lay down we’re going to toss them a treat or pet them for three seconds and move along with our day. It doesn’t have to be an excessive amount of reinforcement or take our entire free time. We just need to show them that they’re doing something we like. Remember, what is reinforced is repeated. The more that laying down works to get our attention the more they offer it! It can take a bit of practice to get into the habit of reinforcing them for being calm and quiet rather than just saying in our head “Oh thank goodness, they’re quiet!” and working quietly around them hoping they’ll stay quiet.
One bit of advice you’ll often hear trainers say is, “Every interaction is a training, whether we mean it to be or not.” The majority of training tends to happen in our day to day lives and not during set training times. Buddy loves to beg at our chair? How many times did we give in and feed him? Spot nudges our elbow while we type? How often do we pet or talk to her afterwards? Whoops! We were reinforcing, and these behaviors were repeating.
Okay, now all this happiness is great, but it seems like a lot of work. Will I have to go pet my dog or toss a treat every time they lay down for the rest of their life? No, while teaching a dog what behaviors we’re looking for can feel like a lot of work, once it becomes the dog’s habit to offer a down for food or attention we won’t have to reward as often. We also won’t have to remind ourselves to do it, as it will become a habit for us as well. We are not only training our dogs, we’re training ourselves.