Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?

First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.

Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.

IMG_9994Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.

Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).

Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.

I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.

What Gets in the Way of Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ve been thinking a lot about why people don’t train their dogs. It’s one of those Holy Grail questions for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants. Why won’t my clients do what I tell them to do? We laid out a great training plan. But they just won’t do what I said.

DSC00639The excuses are as predictable as they are vexing. I didn’t have time. I’ve been so busy. I’m not coordinated enough. I don’t have the right tone of voice. I’m not good enough. Then there are the ones that blame the dog. He’s stubborn. He’s dominant. He won’t do it. He’s too old – too young – too dumb – too distracted. We trainers hear these things – and believe me, we’ve heard them all – and it’s tempting to respond to each one individually in voluminous detail. Of course, in our heads we are much more succinct. No. That’s not true. Stop saying that. Just stop it. Stop.

It’s funny. As I’ve been thinking about this, it’s become very clear that we trainers complain about clients in very much the same tone that clients complain about their dogs. We label our clients. Then we tell stories about them using those labels. You see where I’m going here? It’s exactly what we do with our dogs. Stubborn. Dominant. Distracted. All labels. Each equally useless.

So what’s really going on? Here’s what I think. Those of us who really love training do it because it’s freaking fun – thrilling – a hoot. The process is equal parts suspense (will it work) and joy (of course it will – always does). In other words, our behavior (the act of teaching our dogs) is reinforced. Trainers, professional or hobby enthusiasts, thrive on reinforcement from – wait for it – our dogs. Success. Seeing it work. It’s why we train. It’s what keeps us going.

Side note: dogs learn when they begin to see their actions affect the environment around them. We humans are the best candidates for showing them how that works. Flip side. Trainers learn when we begin to see our actions affecting the environment too – and our dogs fill that bill for us. Who’s training whom? Can’t tell? Good, you’re doing it right.

So what gets in the way of training? New trainers (clients) give up when they haven’t had that first sweet taste of success. It’s like the first episode of a new TV series. If it’s lackluster, you might not keep watching. But if there’s a hook, or even the tiniest bit of a wow moment, you’ll cancel dinner plans and binge watch the whole season. Trainers, even new trainers, depend on reinforcement. Absent the reinforcement, the behavior dies. Training fails.

Now, I’m not blaming your dog for not reinforcing you properly. That’s not how this works. He’s potentially as bored and checked out as you are. What we need here is just a little spark, something to get the conversation started between you two. We need to set the table for that first taste of back-and-forth reinforcement. Some delicious quid pro quo.

Do this: start simple. Just a taste. I intentionally teach hand targeting to all my clients first. (Now you know my secret). It’s the appetizer – the ice breaker – the first reinforcer for the dog and the human. You do this and I do that. Oh my goodness, I did that and you did this. And we’re up and running. Easy peasy.

But hold on, not too fast. Start simple, yes, and build gradually. Set yourself up to succeed every step of the way. Set your dog up to succeed, too. When we rush the process things can falter and we end up starving ourselves of reinforcement. Our dog stops responding and we lose that thrilling feeling of success. We pushed too far too fast. That’s when all those labels and damaging stories we tell about our dogs start creeping back.

Stop it. Just stop.

Dail it back and shake it off. Get yourself tall cool glass of winning. Work on something easy with your dog – maybe a trick that makes you laugh. Taste the success. Show your friends. Make them laugh too. Reinforce the dog’s behavior generously. Move around a bit. Go for a hand target or a sit. Reinforce again. Feel the reinforcement. Then, and only then, are you ready to circle back to the main course of incrementally more challenging tasks. Take it easy on yourself and your dog. Little by little. Sure and steady.

Here’s the bottom line. You can train your dog. And here’s the bottom line to the bottom line. You can learn to love training, too. Okay and here’s something even better. You’re in control. Yes, I’ve had some philosophical thoughts about control in the past, but what I mean is you can set all this up to work for you. For your dog. You can do this.

And when you feel like you can’t – email me – use the subject line “I’m stuck” if you want. I’ll help you clear your head so you can get back up to the buffet for another plate full of reinforcement – rich and delectable success.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX.

Make it Stop

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

More than anything, we humans just want out dogs’ unwanted behavior (i.e. “bad” behavior) to stop. Barking. Make it stop. Biting. Make it stop. Jumping, running, digging, you name it. We want it to stop.

So, how do we make things stop? One way is punishment. Technically speaking, punishment is anything we apply or take away that decreases a behavior. We humans love punishment, because it often has instant results (though, often not very lasting results). See: The Allure of Punishment.

The trouble with punishment is that the standards are quite high if we want to see any long-term effects.

  • We have to punish at a level that is sufficiently crummy for the dog. He either loses some very desirable privilege of gets some level of painful nastiness (and most of us don’t really want to hurt our dog).
  • We have to punish in a timely manner, like the moment the bad behavior occurs. We humans are notoriously bad at timing.
  • We have to punish every occurrence of the bad behavior. Every one. No exceptions.

If we don’t met the three criteria above, then punishment will fail.

Fortunately there is an easier way to end bad behavior without having to jump thorough all the difficult hoops of punishment. We can, without much hassle, teach our dogs what we want him to do. This is a proactive approach to training. What behavior do we want our dog to perform instead of the unwanted (bad) behavior?

There are technical terms for this. One of them is Differential Reinforcement of an Alternate Behavior (DRA). But, I like to simply call it giving our dog a landing spot. Don’t do that. Do this instead.

Here’s more good news. Most alternate behaviors (replacement for the bad stuff) are very easy to teach. It’s simple stuff like stand, sit, and lie down – things our dogs do anyway. I came up with this short list of unwanted behavior and simple solutions to fix them below. It’s a short list but it gives you an idea of how this works.

  • Stop jumping on guests becomes stand with all four paws on the ground. Reinforce with food and petting.
  • Stop biting guests becomes go lie down over there on your bed or mat. Reinforce with food (keeping guests away from the mat or bed is also reinforcing).
  • Stop pulling on leash becomes walk beside me and check in every once in a while with a glance up. Reinforce with food and praise.
  • Stop barking out the front windows of the house becomes come when called and hang out here with me. Reinforce with food, praise, play, etc. (Limiting access to the front windows also helps).

If a behavior problem seems too complicated for you to figure out, certainly bring in a qualified positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant to help you come up with an alternate behavior (or series of alternate behaviors). But, for the most part, this is pretty straight forward. Take your focus off the stuff you don’t want your dog to do Put your mind and your energy into what you want him to do instead.

In other words, teach your dog to do something.

Michael Baugh Teaches dog training in Houston Texas. He specializes in dogs with problem behavior including aggression.