You Can Change Behaviors You Don’t Want
“This dog barks all the time! He’s driving me nuts but it’s just who he is.”
“My dog dashes out the front door every time it opens. She’s done this all her life so she’s not going to change now.”
“Both of my dogs steal food off the kitchen counter. Yesterday they got a roast beef sandwich I was going to have for lunch. But they are (fill in breed) and these dogs always steal food.”
I don’t know how or where the thought processes originated that a dog’s behavior can’t be changed, but it’s too bad that so many dog owners believe it. Believe it or not, you do have the ability to make changes in your dog’s behavior. Some breeds and some individual dogs are more prone to certain behaviors, but that doesn’t mean that behavior can’t be changed. After all, this is your dog, your home and your life with your dog.
Many problem behaviors are the result of boredom. A bored dog left alone in the house may pace the house looking for something to do. A full kitchen trash can will catch his attention, and in a few seconds trash will be all over the kitchen floor. The bored dog in the backyard may begin barking non-stop, not because anything is wrong, but because he’s bored. But you can do something about your dog’s boredom.
Training can help as it challenges the dog’s brain. Obedience training, trick training or training for a canine sport (scenting games, agility, flyball, stock dog work or any number of other sports) all require you and your dog to work together as he learns new things. As he learns, he thinks, concentrates and uses his brain. This carries over into his daily life and he’ll be less apt to get into trouble as he’s processing all this new information.
Exercise is also a great way to help relieve boredom. You’ve heard the adage, ‘A tired dog is a good dog.’ Obviously nothing is quite that easy, but if your dog is well exercised every day, he’s going to be less apt to prowl your house or yard looking for trouble.
Environmental enrichment is also a great way to relieve boredom. Rotating toys so he has different ones every few days and hiding toys or treats in a variety of places are great fun for your dog. Varying dabs of essential oils in several places is also fun. His breakfast can be given to him in a food dispensing toy so he has to work for it. Every dog has his own point at which he gets bored and goes looking for trouble. Each dog, too, has his own level of self control; that point when he gives in to temptation. All of these affect his ability to resist temptation.
Prevent the Behavior
To help your dog be good and to avoid the temptation of the behavior you dislike, prevent those behaviors from happening as much as possible. Empty the kitchen trash can before your dog is left home alone with free run of the house. Better yet, don’t let him have free run of the house if he’s prone to getting into trouble. Make sure he doesn’t have access to the cat’s litter box if he likes to raid it.
When you prevent these behaviors from occurring, then he doesn’t get a chance to practice them and as we know, practice makes perfect. Worse yet, repeating a behavior over and overturns it into a habit. It’s much easier to change a behavior before it turns into an automatic habit.
Preventing behaviors may require some thought as to how to do it. Depending on the behavior to be changed, you may need to limit your dog’s freedom in the house or even crate him when he’s left home alone. You may need to change some of your behaviors, habits or routines and that’s hard too. After all, we do things the way we do them because they work for us. Changing them to help our dog is a good reason to make a change but it might still be tough.
Teach an Alternative Action
Behaviors are easier to change if we have something else to do that takes its place. Psychologists who help people change habits call this a ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ system. ‘Stop’ the behavior that is unwanted and replace it with a ‘Go’ behavior. ‘Stop’ eating when you’re full and ‘Go’ for a walk instead of continuing to eat. ‘Stop’ smoking and ‘Go’ chew on gum instead. The ‘Go’ action becomes an alternative action replacing the behavior you don’t want to continue.
This can work for your dog, too, except he’s not doing this alone; you’re helping him. When you teach your dog to sit and stay at the front door, then he won’t dash out the door every time it’s opened. When he learns to sit and stay at the gate, he won’t dash out the gate. If he learns to sit for petting, he won’t feel the need to jump on people. Alternative actions provide guidance by teaching your dog what to do, help the dog develop self control and provide a reward for performing them.
When You Need More Help
If you work on changing your dog’s unwanted actions for a while and feel like nothing is being accomplished, talk to a dog trainer for some help. A trainer can fine tune your efforts or give you some advice as to where your communication with your dog is breaking down. Sometimes just another set of eyes is all that’s needed.