A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

How You Might Accidentally Be Training Your Dog to Misbehave

What a nerd

You know the worst thing about those annoying dog behavior problems?

In many cases, we, the dogs’ owners, cause them ourselves.

But don’t feel too bad. You see, in addition to being adorable -if occasionally infuriating- dorks, dogs have nearly supernatural powers of observation. They have to, in order to survive in a world designed for mysterious god-like beings with opposable thumbs and credit cards.

Dogs spend every waking hour watching and learning. Figuring out the best way to get what they need.

This is a double edged sword. It makes it easy to teach them to do really cool things, but it also makes it easy to accidentally train them to do things we really hate.

Here’s a handy list of just some of the ways we create bad behavior in our dogs. (and I don’t mean “we” as a polite yet condescending way of saying “you,” BTW. I’ve been guilty of every one of these.)


Letting unwanted behavior get rewarded/reinforced

Time for a walk! You bring out the leash. Sparky loses his mind. Barking, jumping, whining, tearing at the leash and/or you. This crazy behavior is rewarded when you manage to clip the leash to his collar and head out the door. His reaction gets more intense every time, because it’s always reinforced with a walk.

On the walk, Sparky wants to smell all the things, but you can’t walk as fast as he can. So he ends up dragging you down the street. His pulling is rewarded every time he gets to sniff another fragrant fire hydrant or tree.

In dog training, reinforcement is not just about liver treats, head pats, and tennis balls. It’s anything the dog wants in that moment. Like, anything. Make sure Sparky only gets rewarded for behavior you want.


Ignoring the dog until she does something you don’t like

You put Lola out into the backyard. After a few minutes, she gets bored and starts barking at imaginary villains beyond the fence. You stick your head out the door, yelling at her to shut up. Well, well, well. Lola just discovered a surefire way to get you to come outside and relieve her loneliness.
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Lola is in the living room chewing a dog toy. You’re in the kitchen cooking dinner, thinking about work, paying no mind to the dog. Eventually you glance up and notice she has abandoned the toy and is settling in to chew on a video game controller. You drop what you’re doing and chase her around, wrestling the controller out of her mouth. Lola’s learned that dog toys are boring, but game controllers are fun because her human will join in the game.

Dogs are social, and most don’t like being left to their own devices for very long. But that’s exactly what most pet dogs have to do, as their families are busy living their own lives. To a bored dog who spends most of her time alone, even being yelled at for barking is more exciting than being ignored.

So what’s an overworked, multi-tasking human to do? Reward your dog for doing nothing.


Punishing good behavior

You call your dog to you, and he comes running. But once he gets to you, something crappy happens: he gets a bath, he gets locked in his crate so you can go to work, etc. Sparky is learning that he should not come when called, because bad things happen.
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Sparky picks up something he shouldn’t have. You tell him your “drop it” command. He promptly drops it. His “reward” for doing what you told him is having the object taken away, and the fun ends. Do this often enough and Sparky learns to stop listening when told to drop it.

Humans have quite a knack for sabotaging themselves. Perhaps you’ve noticed this. It happens all the time in our dog training efforts. You teach your dog to follow a cue. “Come.” “Drop it.” “Heel.” Whatever. It works, Sparky learns it. Nice! But then you start using the cue for unpleasant things. Things that Sparky considers punishing. So he stops listening to the cue. And voilà – you’ve got yerself what animal behavior nerds call a poisoned cue. This is one of the reasons dogs learn to ignore commands from their humans.


The moral of the story: the trick to preventing and fixing behavior problems is in controlling the reinforcement

It’s all about giving your dog appropriate ways to get what she needs. You know those hyperactive, out-of-control dogs I prattle on about? Often, the reason those dogs got so out of control in the first place is because they learned that that’s what works. “Hyper,” boisterous behavior is the best way to get what they need. Pulling on leash makes their slowpoke owner walk faster. Barking, jumping, and knocking over the toddler gets attention.

Just some food for thought. This little article is not meant to provide all the answers; it’s just to get you thinking about behavior problems in a more productive way. Next time you’re fed up with your dog, ask yourself how you might be reinforcing the behavior you don’t like.

Remember:
  • If you like it, reinforce it.
  • If you don’t like it, don’t let it get reinforced.
  • Try not to punish your dog for doing exactly what you said.

If you’d like more concrete suggestions for solving these problems, check out
How to Solve Practically Any Annoying Dog Behavior Problem