Don’t Ignore an Unwanted Behavior; Be Proactive Instead
Many dog owners feel that the best thing to do is to ignore unwanted behaviors their dogs might demonstrate.
They have learned on TV, or in books, or from dog trainers that the ignored behavior will then lessen and disappear. In some instances this can be a valid training technique. For example, ignoring for a period of time a fearful dog who is showing unwanted behaviors might help the dog more than showering that same dog with excess love and affection. Even though that attention is well meant, it could initially cause more harm than good as it might increase the dog’s anxiety. In most training situations, however, ignoring a behavior is rarely used by itself as the sole training technique but rather with other methods as well.
Ignoring Won’t Change Self-Rewarding Behaviors
Dogs, like most other animals (including humans) will repeat actions that are rewarding to them. This is why we use positive reinforcements (verbal praise, petting, treats, toys, and games) to reward those actions we want our dog to continue doing. When your dog sits and you praise him, pet him, and pop a treat in his mouth, he will be more likely to stop jumping up on you and will instead continue sitting when you greet him.
However, many actions your dog does are self-rewarding; in other words, you aren’t providing a reward but instead the dog receives pleasure from some aspect of the action. If we continue to use the example of the dog jumping up on you, let’s say you turn away from the dog when he jumps up. This, as well as turning one’s back to the dog, is a commonly taught technique. The lack of response from you might inhibit some dogs, but others will try harder to get a response (any response). They will then jump higher, longer, and more vigorously. This could happen because he’s had responses from you in the past or because he’s become over excited by all the jumping up.
Other self rewarded behaviors include raiding the trash can, stealing socks and shoes, counter surfing in the kitchen, chasing the family cat, and playing keep away from you. In all of these situations, ignoring the behavior, by itself, will rarely change it.
Ignoring the Behavior Doesn’t Teach the Dog
I talked to a dog owner recently who has a ten month old Labrador Retriever that has already had four surgeries to remove socks from his intestinal tract. She was frustrated because she understood that she was supposed to ignore her dog’s unwanted behaviors rather than punish it. Her teenage Lab, however, was so infatuated with dirty socks that he didn’t care if she was ignoring him or not.
What she missed, though, is the middle ground in this training equation. There is so much more she can do in between ignoring a behavior or punishing it. I told her to gain the family’s cooperation and pick up dirty socks and put them in the laundry room, closing the door behind them; thereby preventing the dog from getting the socks. She was also instructed to make the dog’s toys more exciting so that he would play with his toys rather than socks. Then, when she felt her training skills and confidence were up to the challenge, she could use a dirty sock (or two or three) to teach her puppy the ‘leave it’ exercise.
Dogs rarely develop a habit for no reason. Something about that action provides the dog with pleasure; whether it’s our attention, it causes pleasure, or it results in an adrenaline rush there is a reason for that action. One of the easiest ways to change that behavior then is to teach the dog an alternative behavior that will provide the same or larger reward.
In the meantime, while she was gaining her family’s cooperation with making socks unavailable and while beginning the dog’s training, I did recommend she ignore any socks the dog grabbed. When she gasped and mentioned all of those surgeries I explained the ignoring the socks didn’t mean she was to take no action; it simply meant she wasn’t to chase the dog, yell at him to drop the socks, or to play tug of war to get the socks back. Instead, she was to go to the dog treat jar, grab a couple of treats and make them obvious. When her food hungry Lab came to her, she was to trade the treat for the sock. Is this rewarding the dog for the sock? Sure, initially. But the other parts of the plan will eventually make this step unneeded. Right now, though, it can help to prevent more surgeries.
Prevent the Action When Possible
Preventing unwanted behaviors should be a big part of any dog training program. Putting the socks in the laundry room, asking the dog to sit before he jumps up, leashing the dog before the front door is opened, and keeping the cat’s litter box in a spot where the dog can’t get to it are all examples of preventing unwanted behaviors.
Dogs do things for a reason, for some kind of a reward, but dogs are also creatures of habit. When a dog repeats an action over and over again sometimes the original reward disappears and the dog is repeating an action just because that’s what he does. Some dogs see the front door open and madly dash through it only to stop a few feet out into the yard. There wasn’t anything out there to cause the excitement, it’s just a habit. A bad one, granted, but a habit.
By preventing unwanted behaviors from occurring, you can then teach alternative behaviors. Teaching your dog to sit and wait at the front door, praising and rewarding her when she does, will prevent door dashing and with repetition, will become the new rewarding habit.
Ignoring Unwanted Actions is Hard
Even in situations where ignoring certain actions could be a viable training technique, it’s hard for many dog owners to do. This is primarily because ignoring an action means completely ignoring it. You can’t watch the dog, change your breathing pattern, or otherwise acknowledge it. That’s very hard to do; especially when we really don’t want the dog to do it. Dogs are perceptive and will notice tiny things we do even when we may not realize we’re doing them.
So rather than thinking your only options are ignoring the action or correcting the dog (which is rarely effective), keep in mind there are many other options in between.