What is Behavior Change?



We hear a lot and I talk a lot about behavior change in dog training. What, though, does that term mean? Specifically, what does it mean in real life — in your life with your dog?

Most of my clients are very focused on what we might call behavior stop. And that’s understandable. They want their dog to stop barking, stop biting, stop jumping up on countertops, stop chewing on their stuff. Stop everything, now.

When faced with the plea to “make it stop,” I and many of my training colleagues will ask: “what would you like to see your dog do instead?” Excuse the 90’s music reference, but “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” (Closing Time by Semisonic 1998). In other words, whether we intend it or not, whenever a behavior stops another one starts up in its place. What would you like your dog to do instead? That’s behavior change.

From your dog’s point of view there is no bad behavior versus good behavior. They aren’t working from some Disney fantasy moral compass. Their choices for activity (i.e. their behavior choices) are steered by the compass of effectiveness. Does this activity pay off? Does this activity get me something (e.g. food off the countertop)? Does this activity help me avoid something (e.g. going in my crate)? There is no right or wrong. There is only does it work or doesn’t it.

We can decide that our dog’s behavior is wrong or bad if we want to. But, changing unwanted behavior needs to go a step beyond just stop it. Our plan needs to stay focused on what we want our dog to do instead. We know he’s getting something (or avoiding something) when he misbehaves. So, can we make our dog a better deal?

Maybe some examples would help. If our dog puts his paws on the countertops to steal food while we are cooking, could we make him a better deal? Could we teach him how to earn food on his mat on the floor instead? It takes less energy and the outcome is basically the same. That’s exactly what one of my clients did in this video.

Or how about this? Make my dog stop barking at me. Hmm. Let’s try teaching the dog to bark quietly. Perhaps we could even make it a trick. Good deal. Granted we are just teaching a variation on the bark, but it’s still behavior change. (Turn on your volume for this one)

Make my puppy stop biting everyone’s hands and arms. We could teach a lot of things to replace this unwanted behavior. I like to get ahead of the biting and teach appropriate play with toys (note: I didn’t say give him a toy when he bites. Get ahead of that bite). Hand targeting is also a good option. But watch how this client used mat work to solve the problem. Now, there’s a good deal!

Behavior change is about teaching new behavior to replace the old. We get to decide which one is wrong (the old unwanted activity) and which one is right (the new one we are teaching). That’s on us. From the dog’s point of view it’s super simple. Does the new behavior pay better than the old behavior? Can you make us a good deal here?

What about ignoring the unwanted behavior (e.g. barking at me doesn’t pay off for me anymore)? Some trainers advise clients to do just that. I understand why, and I also understand that is a slower more frustrating way to train. It leaves the dog guessing for a new behavior alternative, often making an equally undesirable choice. So, let’s teach him something new and specific instead – something better. And and at the same time, let’s help our dog forget the old behavior choice ever existed in the first place. It’s okay to block his access to countertops, unwanted chew items, or scenarios you know will make him bark. Set him up (and yourself) to succeed as he learns his new and better behavior choices.

I bet you already have a list of stuff you want your dog to stop doing. Now, let me ask you that trainer’s question again. What do you want him to do instead? Give it some thought. Jot it down if you want. And, let’s get to training.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas. He specializes in behavior change with families whose dogs have bitten or otherwise behaved in an offensive manner.