How to Redirect Your Dog’s Problem Behaviors | Pupford
October 17th, 2023
Filed under Training
As a professional dog trainer and fellow pup parent, I understand that addressing and understanding your dog’s “problem behaviors” can be a challenging journey for many pup parents.
Rather than resorting to punishment or aversive training tactics, in this blog post, I will help you better understand these behaviors and learn how to redirect and replace these behaviors using positive reinforcement training methods.
By the end, you’ll have the tools and knowledge to create a better relationship with your pup!
Here's what we cover:
- What is Positive Reinforcement?
- Understanding Common Problem Behaviors
- How to Redirect and Replace Problem Behaviors
WHAT IS POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT DOG TRAINING
Before we get into the bulk of things, let’s talk about positive reinforcement training. The term positive reinforcement comes from the four quadrants of operant conditioning. These 4 quadrants are the basis for behavior modification and training - learn more about!
Think of ‘Positive’ as adding (+) something and ‘Reinforcement’ as something good like a treat or praise. This means positive reinforcement is the process of adding something good to increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.
For example, if you got a free candy bar every time you went to a certain grocery store, you would be more likely to shop at that grocery store compared to others.
We can apply this to problem behaviors by redirecting and reinforcing an alternate behavior. By using these training methods we can avoid inflicting fear or pain on our dogs and potentially jeoparding our relationship with them.
UNDERSTANDING COMMON PROBLEM BEHAVIORS IN DOGS
“Problem behaviors” are typically behaviors that are a nuisance, disruptive, or create a safety risk.
Some examples include barking, digging, chewing, jumping, etc.
Do you know what is one thing most problem behaviors have in common? They are a natural behavior for our dogs and they serve a purpose for them.
By better understanding these behaviors we can effectively address and redirect them.
COMMON PROBLEM BEHAVIORS
- Barking: Excessive barking can be triggered by various factors, such as boredom, fear, territorial instincts, or a desire for attention. It's crucial to pinpoint the root cause to effectively redirect this behavior.
- Digging: Some dogs are genetically predisposed to dig and others may just find it to be a form of mental enrichment. But they aren’t doing it just because you happened to plant fresh flowers.
- Jumping: Dogs may jump on guests because they are excited to say hi and in the past this has been a way to get attention. However, this can create safety hazards, especially if your dog is a large breed.
- Chewing: Your dog may chew on your shoes because chewing is a naturally soothing behavior for them and they haven’t been provided enough or outlets for chewing. And who can resist a good smelly shoe, right?
IDENTIFYING ROOT CAUSES FOR OUR DOGS
As I mentioned previously, these behaviors serve a purpose for our dogs. To truly understand why they perform these behaviors, we need to understand that purpose and any underlying root causes. Keep in mind that every dog is unique, and their behaviors may be influenced by a variety of factors.
- Breed and Genetics: Certain breeds have specific traits and genes that make them more likely to perform certain behaviors. Understanding your dog’s breed type and genetics is very helpful when addressing problem behaviors. Interested in learning more about how breed affects behavior?
- Environmental Factors: Dogs often perform certain behaviors based on the circumstances in the environment around them. For example, maybe your dog just started digging in the yard because you have a rodent problem, or maybe they bark at the fence because that is the route the neighborhood kids take on their home from school.
- Learning History: Behaviors that have previously been reinforced, their socialization at an early age, and their other previous experiences may affect your dogs' behavior today. For example, they may have received attention for jumping when they were a small puppy, and now that they are a full-grown large dog, they don’t understand why they still can’t jump for attention.
- Physical Health: If your dog is suddenly behaving differently than usual, it may be time for a vet visit. A change in behavior can be due to underlying medical conditions.
- Lack of Mental Enrichment: Arguably the most common cause of problem behaviors, is the lack of opportunities for mental enrichment and problem-solving. Dogs who are bored or unfulfilled will resort to finding inappropriate ways to alleviate that boredom.
HOW TO REDIRECT AND REPLACE PROBLEM BEHAVIORS
Now that we understand why problem behaviors occur, let’s talk about how to redirect and replace them.
Here is how to start redirecting behaviors:
- Management: Modify your environment so your dog is unable to perform these behaviors in the first place. Is your dog an avid shoe chewer? Make sure all your shoes are picked up and kept out of reach. Is your dog known for counter surfing and taking snacks off the counter? Use a baby gate to keep them out of the kitchen.
- Introduce Another Option: When your dog is engaging in an activity they shouldn’t, rather than scolding them, which will not teach them anything - , give them something else they can do instead.
- Consistency: Repetition and consistency are vital to redirecting behaviors. Keep this statement in mind:
Behaviors that are reinforced are repeated.
This applies to both desirable behaviors and “problem behaviors”. Ensure you are managing your dogs' environment so they are unable to perform certain behaviors and heavily reinforcing desirable behaviors with treats and praise.
EXAMPLES ON HOW TO REPLACE PROBLEM BEHAVIORS
Let’s go over some examples and how to replace “problem behaviors”:
Barking: Addressing barking will vary based on why your dog is barking. For this example let’s say your dog barks at the doorbell.
- First, manage the environment. Use blinds or window film so they are unable to see and bark at whoever is at the door.
- Next, teach them a ‘Quiet’ cue or the . Barking is a way dogs communicate, this allows us to acknowledge their attempt to communicate and redirect them to an alternative behavior.
- Finally, replace the behavior and change their emotional response. Instead of the doorbell meaning “I need to bark”, teach them that the doorbell means, ‘I go to my bed and get a treat’.
Digging: I’m sure there are very few of us who want holes in our grass or in the flower beds right? Let’s go over how to address digging.
- First, if you catch your dog in the middle of digging or about to start digging, interrupt them. This could be clapping your hands or walking over and saying “Uh-uh”.
- Next, redirect the behavior. Digging is a natural behavior for dogs, and if you have a breed of dog that is genetically predisposed to digging, it will be very difficult to get them to stop altogether. Instead, give them a place they CAN dig. This could be a kiddie pool filled with dirt, sand, or plastic balls, or a corner of the yard designated just for their digging needs. So if you catch them digging, walk them over and encourage them to dig there instead. You can even use treats and toys to make that stop a more desirable place to dig.
Here is a fun video of how to make your dog a sandbox!
Jumping: As we previously mentioned, dogs who jump typically do so out of excitement and as a way to get attention.
- First, manage the environment. If you know you have guests coming over, put your dog on a leash, behind a baby gate, or in their crate. This will prevent them from being able to run and jump on guests when they walk in the door.
- Once you are ready to have your dog greet them, approach with your dog on a leash. Have your guests ask your dog to sit before they talk to them, pet them, or give them treats. If your dog sits for attention, they will get all the pets and love they want, but if they jump, they have to walk back away from the guests without receiving any attention.
- Practice this consistently in multiple scenarios, even if you’re out on a walk and a stranger asks to pet your dog. Anytime your dog is able to jump and receive attention, it will reinforce that behavior.
- Eventually, you will be able to replace the behavior of jumping for attention with sitting for attention.
Chewing: Dogs chew for various reasons, such as boredom, teething, or anxiety. Here is how to replace the behavior and teach them appropriate ways to fulfill their need to chew.
- First, if you catch your dog chewing on something they shouldn’t be, interrupt them. You can clap your hands or say “Uh-Uh”- remember we want to avoid scolding or saying “No”.
- Next, give them something else they can chew on instead. This teaches them that maybe the sofa isn’t the best thing to chew, but this is.
- Finally, ensure that you are managing their environment. Keep children’s toys and shoes out of reach and keep dogs in their crate or a dog-proof room when they are unsupervised.
Trainer Tip: Swap out your dog's toys every so often. If they have access to the same toys all the time they can get boring, but if you rotate them they can become ‘new’ and fun again!
Now that you understand problem behaviors, why they occur, and how to redirect and replace them; the next time your dog is performing a problem behavior you can think to yourself, “What do I wish they were doing instead?” and teach them that. Happy training!