Training or Management to solve an issue?
One of the recurring themes that I get asked a lot by owners is, “how do I stop my dog……” This sentence can be completed with a range of things, like “eating rubbish from the bin”, “jumping up on everyone they meet”, “chewing my shoes” and so on, and so on.
Some of these things can be cured with some training, but a lot of doggy-based queries can be answered with management as a very quick and easy start, too. What does that mean? Well, control and management means controlling your dog’s environment to prevent them from being rewarded (usually unintentionally by the owner). For most people, control and management will form the first step towards helping to stop the behaviour that the owner doesn’t like, but also, for those people willing to take it further with training in the long-term, to alleviate the issues.
Firstly, let’s look at the ‘management’ side of dog behaviour. An example of a behaviour that often happens when the owner is not present is ‘counter-surfing’. A dog naturally needs to eat and when they find something tasty to eat they are clever and smart for finding it. This is the only way for dogs to survive naturally, by foraging for food. The initial answer to that problem isn’t magic, but does work quickly: remove the food from the counter! You can do this either by putting it in a cupboard or by putting it at the back of the surface so the dog can’t reach it. Alternatively, you can prevent access to the room with the food in. It’s that simple.
Dogs are natural gamblers, but if they keep going up to the surface and are never reinforced with food then they will stop doing it, simply because it becomes boring and takes a lot of effort.
Another management way of dealing with counter-surfing dogs is to answer their stimulation needs. Whether that’s through training, exercise or brain games, a tired dog often doesn’t want to go looking on a kitchen counter because they just want to sleep or recuperate whilst you’re not around.
I often then get the question that follows this, which is, ‘how do I train my dog to stop doing counter-surfing, just in case I do make a mistake and leave the food out?’ That’s when I talk to them about training exercises, such as teaching your dog to stop jumping up. This means four paws need to be on the floor before your dog gets a reward when you’re preparing or handling food. Reward them when they offer up a behaviour like lying on their bed in the kitchen, for example.
Another training exercise is to teach them “leave it” as a command. You can then reinforce this behaviour whenever you get a chance, so that when you’re around them and they try to steal food, you’ve got an instant cue to help!
Now let’s put this into real-life control and management. I always recommend to owners a 3-step process. Here’s what it looks like:
Firstly, to deal with any issue you can think of, you need to establish why the dog is doing the behaviour that you don’t like and what the dog is learning when they do the behaviour. For example, the dog jumps up on you and you push them down and talk to them. When that happens, they get the attention that they wanted in the first place and you inadvertently teach them that by jumping up on people, they get lots of lovely attention. You might think that you’re telling them off, but dogs don’t speak English! They don’t know that the words you’re using are bad and simply think they’re getting your attention.
The next step I take when I talk to owners is to understand what they would like their dog to do instead of the behaviour that they are currently doing. This is how I get the owner to stop focusing on the problem and move to understand how to find a solution. Let’s look at the jumping example I mentioned above.
Most dog owners would like their dog to sit in front of them “politely”. To manage this, don’t give your dog the chance to jump up on people. If possible, keep them on their lead when they’re meeting other people. You can also crate them or put a baby-gate up when people are coming to the house and then only allow guests to give the dog fuss when it is calm and sat nicely.
Finally on the training part comes probably the longest step. You need to figure out how to consistently reward the behaviour or cue that you do want, so that in the future your dog will offer this behaviour consistently. In the example of jumping up, teaching your dog to sit on cue and then consistently rewarding them when they do will make it more likely that they’ll offer a sit to a visitor.
Only greet your dog when they offer you a sit or when you ask for the cue and they give it to you. Really, you want to only give them a cue during the training process and ideally you’ll phase this out as they get better at learning what you want from them.
This is one of the examples where negative punishment comes in. It may sound odd to talk of ‘negative punishment’ when we’re all about positive reinforcement training, but it isn’t as scary as it sounds. The term means to remove something in order to encourage a behaviour. In this example, you’re removing your attention so as to encourage a calm sit. You’ll then positively reinforce the action that you do want when they offer you a calm sit by giving them treats, toys, praise or whatever it is that your dog responds to best.
There are some criticisms to owners using only management and control instead of combining it with training. Yet, as with everything, this does depend on the owner, the dog and the issue. If you’re dealing with a counter-surfer, for example, about the worst thing that might happen is that you lose your lunch from the counter when you disappeared off to the answer the door without shutting the baby gate. Sometimes, therefore, just opting for management might be ok to an owner.