Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA CSAT
I’ll cut right to it. If you make one small change to your dog’s environment it can dramatically change your dog’s behavior. Keep in mind, though, a lot of things make up your dog’s environment. It includes you (you’re an important player) and your behavior. It also includes where your dog is, the time of day, other animals present, sights, sounds, and smells. And, let’s not forget the internal environment. We aren’t talking about your dogs thoughts – we don’t get to know what those are. But we can consider his health, if he’s hungry or not, if he’s in pain, and even the effects of medications. So, let’s get back to the point. If we change just one or two things in our dog’s environment we can greatly affect his behavior. I fact, that’s exactly how training works.
Of course, it cuts both ways. A change in environment can cause unwanted behavior, too. That happens all the time. It often takes just a little bit of detective work for us to answer the question: why is my dog behaving this way? A new person in the home or a home in a new city can lead to some fearful or aggressive dog behavior. A sudden change on a walk can be startling and lead to a dog being anxious near certain houses. Your dog with a stomach aches behaves differently than your dog who is well. Otherwise jolly dogs can be grumpy if their hips hurt. Your puppy might be much more unruly at night than in the morning (some clients call this the witching hour). What if it’s raining? What if there is thunder? The variables are endless and they all matter.
This is why I frequently tell clients that their dog’s behavior is a conversation with the environment. In other words, fear or aggression or unruliness or even goodness aren’t personality traits that live inside the animal. We are used to talking about behavior that way, as if it’s part of who our dog is. The truth, though, is that our dogs are never one thing or the other all the time. They aren’t always terrible. They aren’t always fantastic. They are, however, always engaging with their world – every waking hour. That engagement, how they act, is what we call behavior.
So here’s the deal. Change your dog’s environment (even a little) and you can affect a change in his behavior (sometimes by a lot). But, what do we change and when? It depends. And, depending on how serious the unwanted behavior is, you might want to call in a dog behavior consultant like me to help.
I like to start simple. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, block his access to do it again. Just make a change or two to his environment so that he simply can’t or won’t think to do that unwanted thing anymore (whatever the thing is). In other words, set your dog up to succeed. We get this backwards too often, especially on dog training TV shows. We set the dog up to do the wrong thing so we can “correct” him. Think about that. It’s absurd. Let’s set the dog up to avoid the mistake in the first place, so we can more easily show him what we want him to do instead. There are lots of examples ranging from very mild to very serious. Here are just a few.
- Prevent jumping on guests by having the dog behind a baby gate until he calms down.
- Prevent fights over food between dogs by feeding them separately.
- Prevent repeated episodes of separation anxiety by making sure there’s someone to watch your dog when you’re gone.
- Prevent fence fighting with neighbor dogs by taking the dog out back on leash.
- Prevent bolting out the door by blocking the dog’s access to the door with additional barriers.
- Dog bites when picked up? Temporarily stop picking him up.
- Dog is scared and hyper vigilant on walks? Let’s take a break from walks for a while.
- Dog attacks workmen? Better put the dog in a back room when the plumber comes.
These are just a few examples of how we can manage our dog’s environment and effectively change his behavior as a result. Some trainers mistakenly refer to this as “just management.” I balk at that. Let’s not downplay how important this is. Setting your dog up to be the best version of himself is foundational training. Moreover, it’s a gift – to him, to yourself, and to your family.
We can take this idea further, of course. There are tons of other ways we can creatively change our dog’s environment to influence behavior change. That’s the stuff of training. Right? You are perhaps the most important part of your dog’s world. You’re a very salient part of his environment every day. What if you made just one change in your behavior? How much of a cascading effect would that have? Let’s say you gave your dog a treat (a small pea-sized piece of cooked chicken) every time he came to you. We will assume he likes cooked chicken. Even if you didn’t call him over, every time he shows up you remember and magically a piece of chicken appears. Can you imagine how much attention he’d pay to you? How near to you would he stay? How much would he keep his eyes on you and follow you and walk beside you and come when you do decide to call him?
That’s an exaggerated example of course. But even using food in training sometimes has a huge effect. So does yelling less and setting aside painful trining tools. Something simple like giving your dog more time to rest and more opportunities to sniff can do more for his behavior than you might expect. Learn how to play with your dog – see what happens. Invite him to follow you rather than picking him up. Move a bit more slowly with vet exams and take breaks. Teach him to ask you to be petted – it’s a fun trick. And, sometimes just keep your hands to yourself. Spend a quiet moment with him and be still. Let him lie near you. Watch him breathing. Smile as his eyes grow heavy. Get comfortable. Share the space.
There’s so much doing – for your dog – to your dog – with your dog. I sometimes think there’s just not enough being. Be quiet. Be still. Be here. With him. Right now. That would be a change. Wouldn’t it? I wonder what we’d discover. How good would that be for both of us?
Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX and helps clients around the world who have aggressive and fearful dogs.