Many dog owners have an easy time training their dog for basic behaviors using motivational methods- rewarding with treats, toys, praise, etc.
When you can positively motivate your dog, training is fun and teaching your dog new things is pretty straightforward. But what happens when you want your dog to STOP doing something? It is easy to get lost in the conflicting advice and frustration when it comes to behavior that you dislike and want to get rid of.
Depending on who you ask, what they had for breakfast and where the moon cycle is- you can get any number of different answers for getting rid of problem behaviors in dogs and puppies. Some common 'solutions' are specific to certain behaviors, while some people have a go-to solution for every possible issue. The problem with a lot of the advice that gets passed around regarding stopping problem behavior in dogs is that:
A) even if the advice starts off as sound and reliable, it is a lot like playing the 'telephone' game when it is passed from person to person
B) each dog is an individual, just as you and I, and will learn and react differently
C) a lot of the advice that is passed around is based on false, out-dated information about canine behavior
The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any problem behavior.
Where to begin?
Regardless of the matter at hand- there has to be a starting point to getting rid of it. I hope these S.T.O.P. guidelines for addressing problem behavior help you find it!
Start today! Whether starting, for you, entails admitting you have a problem on your hands, looking up resources, taking your dog for a vet check, talking to a trainer, or setting up a management plan- get to it! The longer a behavior is rehearsed, the stronger it becomes; practice makes perfect. Figure out your step one and go!
Take notes. While this may seem tedious, it will be really helpful when you start to address the problem with a training plan- and if you a hire a trainer, they will be grateful for the information! You can begin with identifying the behavior in the most basic way; for example, instead of "my dog pulls on leash because he wants to greet other dogs, sniff all of the things and pee on trees and I think it got this way because one time when he found a hot dog just out of reach and ate it before I could get it away from him and my friend-of-a-friend said it means he is dominant..." you could simply condense it to "my dog pulls on leash."
Next, figure out what is rewarding the behavior; why is it continuing or getting stronger? For the aforementioned puller, examples of reinforcement would be:
- Greeting other dogs
- Sniffing all of the things
- Peeing on trees
- Hot dogs/finding yummies
You may also want to keep track of surrounding details such as: if it happens at a certain time of day, only in the presence of certain people/dogs/objects, after eating or drinking, only on leash/only off leash, etc. The details that will be helpful depend on the behavior at hand so anything that you think might be relevant can end up being very helpful. If you are completely baffled- too much info is better than too little.
Options - consider them. They are there; don't give up if your first few attempts aren't entirely successful. Don't necessarily take the first suggestion or remedy you hear as gospel, either. Consider the source. Your best bet when getting help with your dog's problem behavior is to contact a trainer in your area- even between trainers with similar styles you will find different approaches to the same issue. Ask the trainer(s) you contact if they have multiple approaches to your dog's specific problem behavior. Good trainers are more than willing to work with you and problem-solve if what they have done in similar situations does not appear to be working with your dog; or they may even refer you to a colleague that has more experience with the problem at hand. This is not to say that you should jump from trainer to trainer; when you find a trainer you are comfortable with and who is willing to work with you and your dog as individuals, stick with them.
That being said, if the trainer's automatic response is to use a training tool of pain or discomfort, please look elsewhere, for their training "toolbox" is severely limited. The first option should not be one of fear, pain or intimidation. Do not skimp on finding something/someone you are comfortable with and don't let frustration get the better of you. If you have tried do-it-yourself advice to no avail, hire a trainer. If you have hired a trainer and they did not help you, shop more carefully- but still seek help. There is no single answer.
Planning is important (as is patience!) Bad habits are hard to break, especially with weeks, months and sometimes even years of practice and consistent reinforcement! Be patient- look for and acknowledge small accomplishments and build off of them. You may even want to take progress notes to compare with the ones you took before you started training. You may be surprised at the things you don't notice day-to-day that become apparent when reflecting on how things started.
Planning ahead entails management, structure, and knowing what to do if things go wrong. Planning can be time-consuming and often involves adjustments through trial-and-error (especially when you have other people, dogs, and other species sharing your household)- hiring a trainer will make this task a bit less daunting. Having a plan is not is not a step that can be skipped- it will help you keep your head and avoid frustration, which will lead to quicker training and continued success.
Additional words of advice
Now that you've got those four things in your head when you start to get upset or overwhelmed by your dog's behavior, consider just two more things:
1. You cannot train a non-behavior. We don't teach your dog to not jump; we teach them to sit when greeting. We don't teach them to not bark at the doorbell; we teach them to settle when they hear it instead. Figure out what behavior you DO want your dog to do in place of the one you dislike. You will have better immediate and long-term success if you replace the unwanted behavior with one you can accept.
2. I cannot stress enough the value of a good trainer to help you sort it all out and get started. This is our job. We have likely seen it before. We are there to answer your questions, bounce ideas off of and answer your panic-button phone calls and e-mails when you are at the end of your rope.
When you find yourself fed up with your dog's behavior - a good course of action is to S.T.O.P. - Start today, take notes, remember that you have options and plan ahead. Some issues will be less intensive than others in treatment- others will take extensive training to overcome, due to many possible contributing factors. Regardless of the problem you are facing, S.T.O.P. and get your plan together before reacting based on frustration or fear- it is all behavior, after all.