It is tempting for us to interpret our dog’s behavior using human values. We may get angry because we think our dog is misbehaving out of meanness, spite, or vengeance. We may get sad or frustrated because we interpret bad behavior as a rejection of our love.
However, dogs do not think like us, and they have different social rituals and instincts. As a result, bad dog behavior commonly arises due to miscommunication and misunderstanding between human and dog.
The best way I have found to help stop my dog’s bad behavior is to learn how to “see” and “speak” dog. The more I observe and try to understand where my dog is coming from, the more effective I am at teaching him how to get along well with the people and animals around him.
Step 1 – Identify the source of the bad dog behavior
To do this, we must stay objective and focused, even though we may not always like the answers that we find. It helps to find a professional dog trainer or a dog expert at this stage.
A dog trainer has no emotional stake in the situation and has more experience with reading dogs.
This allows him to more quickly and accurately identify the problem source. Bad behaviors commonly get intensified when owners misdiagnose a problem, and subsequently try to address it in the wrong way.
Here are some important questions I ask while trouble-shooting my dog’s undesirable behaviors.
What triggers the behavior?
Is it large dogs, small dogs, dogs with long hair, dogs with floppy ears, or all of the above?
Is it just dogs, or is it also cats, squirrels, children, old people, people wearing weird hats, people carrying umbrellas, bicycles, skate boards, or something else?
Why is my dog showing this behavior?
Is it due to fear of dogs, dislike of people, excitement, or dominance? I listen to my dog by carefully observing his body posture, and what causes changes in that body posture.
A fearful dog will try to make himself look small, and shrink away into a corner, or behind objects and other barriers. His tail or head may be down, and he may be showing signs of stress. In contrast, a dominant dog will usually have ears erect, tail up, chest out, and a forward looking posture.
It can be difficult to read a dog because the change in body language may be slight (twitch of the mouth, sway of the tail), and brief.
Some dogs may switch body language quickly, and others may ramp up to dog aggression before we can react.
Step 2 – Retrain the bad dog behavior
a) Do not reward bad behavior.
Some behaviors develop because we inadvertently reward our dogs for them.
For example, when a dog jumps on us, we usually push him back with our arms and hands. This rewards the jumping behavior by giving the dog what he wants, i.e. our attention and a fun game of arm wrestling.
Similarly, we may give our dog more attention when he barks, whines, or vocalizes. This rewards the vocalization, thereby making the dog more likely to repeat those behaviors.
When my dog is showing undesirable behaviors, I either redirect him, ignore him, or put him on a time-out (i.e., temporarily withdraw his freedom).
b) Stay calm and in control during bad dog behavior.
When dealing with a bad dog situation, it is difficult but necessary to stay calm and in control.
Dogs can easily sense our inner energy through scent and sound. When we get angry, frustrated, or otherwise unbalanced, our dog will detect that, and become even more frantic. The only way to calm him down, is to stay calm and in control of the situation ourselves.
c) Redirect the bad dog behavior.
When a dog does something bad, we want to communicate to him that this behavior is undesired by us. I use a consistent no-mark such as No or Ack-ack. However, do not make the mistake of just stopping there.
We should always try to follow up the no-mark with a positive behavior.
For example, after saying No,
- I ask my dog for a Sit or Spin,
- I encourage him to play with a toy, or
- I tell him to go to his bed.
Which redirection we use will depend on the temperament of the dog, what the dog knows, and the situation at hand.
I mark (Yes) and reward my dog well with treats and praise when he stops his bad behavior, and redirects onto the new activity. If we are consistent with our redirection and rewards, our dog will learn to perform the positive behavior on his own because it gets him good results.
For redirection to work, we must stop our dog before he escalates his bad behavior.
If we let him escalate his behavior, he may get too frantic or excited to listen to us. Once in this state, it is best to remove him from the problem stimulus. Sometimes, a stimulus may be so strong that a dog escalates very quickly, and it may not be possible to redirect him onto something else.
In these situations, I find that it is best to first practice controlled desensitization exercises with my dog.
Instead of dog desensitization, some trainers may use flooding. With flooding, we expose the dog to large doses of the bad stimulus, and force him to endure it until he stops being frantic or afraid.
Flooding is a common technique used by Cesar Millan, in his Dog Whisperer program.
The advantage of flooding is that it can bring faster results. The danger of flooding, is that it can cause a dog to totally break down and become even more psychologically damaged than before.
Imagine locking a claustrophobic patient in a small room with his psychiatrist until he snaps out of it. Either he gets better really quickly, or he totally snaps. It is best NOT to use flooding techniques because it can be risky and dangerous.
Desensitize our dog to a stimulus, by first exposing him to very low levels of the stimulus, under supervision.
For example. if my dog is aggressive toward other dogs, I can start desensitizing him with a very calm dog, that is not moving (e.g. in a Sit position), that is not focused on my dog (no eye-contact), and from a far enough distance. If my dog is reactive to the sound of thunder, I can start desensitizing him with a very low volume recording of thunder.
I only practice desensitization exercises in a quiet area, where I am in control of the environment.
- I start with a low level stimulus that my dog is able to tolerate, i.e. he is able to stay calm and listen. For example, I may position him some distance away from the “other dog” stimulus, in order to weaken it.
- I get his attention by calling his name, then reward him for giving me his attention and for staying calm. I can also ask him for other simple commands such as Sit, Touch, or Watch.
- Once I am comfortable with this, I very slightly increase the strength of the stimulus. For example, I may move one step toward the other dog.
- Then, I stop and get my dog’s attention again.
If my dog starts to react, then I have moved forward too quickly. I move back a few steps and restart the exercise.
I keep sessions short and rewarding so that my dog will begin to build confidence with each successful session, and learn to associate positive rewards with the previously bad stimulus.
e) Set our dog up for success.
Remember to always set our dog up for success and keep him from repeating bad behaviors.
I properly manage my dog so that he is not constantly exposed to stressful stimulus that cause him to act badly. The more he practices the undesirable behavior, the harder it will be to stop that behavior.
I craft my retraining process to suit the temperament of my dog. In general, I focus on one or two bad behaviors at a time, so that neither me or my dog will become overwhelmed.
Step 3 – Prevent future bad dog behavior
One of the best ways to prevent future bad behavior, is to provide our dog with many interesting, sanctioned activities and toys.
Many dogs resort to undesirable behaviors because they are bored. If we do not provide acceptable activities for our dogs, they are left to devise their own activities, which rarely appeal to our human sensibilities.
A dog who is well-exercised, both mentally and physically, is happy to just lie around and turn over for belly-rubs. A dog who is cooped up all day, with no company, and no activity, will be very frustrated and destructive. He may chew up our house, bark, charge the fence, escape, or perform a variety act from the “bad dog greatest hits album”.
This will end up costing us a lot of time, money, and emotional stress.
If we are busy during the day, consider dog daycare or dog walking. This gives our dog something interesting to do, and helps him brush up on his social skills with a variety of people and dogs. The rewards we receive will more than outweigh the costs, because instead of coming home to a chewed up house, we will be greeted by a tired and happy dog that just wants to rest beside us.