trusting paws

by Naomi Heck, M.Ed., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

How to Stop Unwanted Behavior

1. Stop focusing on correcting or punishing bad behavior. Saying “No!” or squirting your dog with water might relieve your frustration but it can maintain or worsen your dog’s bad behavior. Corrections are deceiving. They momentarily suppress unwanted behavior so it seems to have worked. But if your dog does it again, it didn’t work at all! If you correct your dog often, you can diminish his willingness to listen and cooperate.

2. Choose a behavior your dog can do that will replace the unwanted behavior. You can’t train a dog to do nothing. If you suppress an undesirable behavior without teaching an acceptable alternative that satisfies your dog, he will choose another activity that you might not like.

3. Create a large “reinforcement history” for the new behavior you are training. Most undesirable behaviors are self-rewarding. Each time your dog practices a bad behavior, he is building a reinforcement history that makes it highly likely he will do it again. In order for training to work, you must build up a “bank account” of reinforcement for the replacement behavior you are trying to teach. The more “deposits” you make into that account, the stronger that new behavior will become. This takes time and practice. What would you like to see your dog doing a month or 2 from now? It’s your choice.

4. Choose reinforcing items wisely. An effective reinforcing item is something that your dog finds highly desirable and is willing to work for. It can be food, an object or an activity. The value of a reinforcing item can change depending on the situation and what is going on in the environment. Sometimes your dog will happily take treats and sometimes he would prefer to chase a squirrel. If he is afraid, he won’t be able to eat and would rather feel safe. Control your dog’s access to the reinforcing item and you will have a powerful training tool. Quick and frequent delivery is the hallmark of good training. Small delicious treats are the most efficient tool for training. Using healthy treats is not bribing or spoiling if done correctly. Lions and hyenas in zoos are currently taught to cooperate peacefully during blood draws using food to reinforce. Dolphins are trained to find underwater explosives in the open ocean using food, even though they have the choice to swim off and catch their own live fish. What you can teach your dog with positive reinforcement is only limited by your imagination.

5. Let go of outdated beliefs about training and have fun. Good training is a mechanical and mental skill that improves with practice. Be patient and trust the process. Your dog will soon become a willing and cooperative partner. It’s a win-win!

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