Common Mistakes when Modifying Behavior, Part 1

So your dog has some behavior issues. Who doesn’t, really? Nobody’s perfect. But, you’ve decided this one is severe enough to work on, and KUDOS to you! We always recommend working with a credentialed professional – one who uses reward-based training, science, and effective, humane methods like systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning (like us!), but that’s not always completely necessary.

There are some mistakes that we, as and trainer and behaviorist duo, see hinder progress all the time. We started a list to help you avoid some common pitfalls when attempting to modify your dog’s behavior by yourself:

  1. Confusing consequence and association. This stems from either not understanding how dogs think and learn, or not prioritizing the right things. Dogs learn by consequence (how something works for them) and association (how something makes them feel – safe or unsafe, good or bad). While it’s important to teach a dog some manners and impulse control, trying to make them sit, be quiet, lay down, leave it, etc. while they’re really upset is a nonstarter.First, it’s not going to work. If somebody tried to get you to have a rational conversation while you were having a panic attack in a room full of spiders, for example, how well do you think you’d respond?Second, it’s missing the point. If a dog doesn’t feel safe about something and is therefore aggressive, reactive or fearful towards it, trying to get them to change their behavior is not what we should be focusing on. We should be focusing on changing their emotion. For example, when you see a stranger/dog/vacuum cleaner/skateboard, good things happen! When it goes away, no more fun. More about this in a later post.
  2. Behavior is information. This is another big one, folks. So, we’ll say it again: BEHAVIOR IS INFORMATION. Behavior tells us how a dog feels about something, and is therefore a reflection of their emotion. Aggression is usually fear. Fear is fear. Jumping is usually excitement, destruction and barking is often boredom or a lack of exercise and mental stimulation, door dashing and escape attempts are often separation anxiety – you get the idea. Failing to realize this can lead to a lot of unnecessary heartache and a serious lack of progress.
  3. Not keeping the dog below threshold. Oh boy. So much easier said than done, and of course so vitally important that it’ll make or break any behavior modification plan’s success. “Threshold” is the point of no return for your dog. You know what we’re talking about: the point where they’re having an out of body experience, you can’t reason with them, they won’t eat, they won’t listen – they’re gone. There is no point in trying to work with your dog when they’re in this state, and the more they feel this way, the worse their behavior is going to get.Your dog needs to stay below Threshold at all times – either far away from the scary thing or not dealing with it at all. We know what you’re thinking: how in the world am I going to make THAT happen? If your dog is reactive towards other dogs, that means no walks in the neighborhood anymore where they will get too close. If they’re afraid of strangers, that means no company over or your dog is put up in another room before they arrive (and you should think about taking our Stranger Fear Class!). Sounds impossible, right? Not as impossible as it’ll be to convince them these things aren’t so scary when they keep hitting Threshold all the time, we promise!
  4. Not working in a “neutral” territory. Say the only time you try to offer your dog treats and positive experiences is when UPS drops off a package, when your 6’ 5” brother comes over for dinner, during the Fourth of July fireworks display or when the dog across the street is lunging and barking at you on a walk. Not only will you have a hard time keeping enough of a distance in those situations, but you won’t be able to convince your dog to take treats and relax – they’ll be way too busy “rehearsing” their behavior to listen. And practice makes perfect!Instead, take them into a neutral territory with lots and lots of space and work with them there. Or, play recordings of fireworks at a super low level starting in December. You’ll be amazed how much easier it will be to keep them below Threshold. What’s more, if that’s the only interaction they get with the scary thing, you’ll see the intensity of their behavior issues start to melt away.
  5. Expecting behavior changes quickly (or at all, if points 1-4 aren’t understood and put into action). We don’t know who said it, but it’s one of our favorite quotes: “Training is simple, but it sure isn’t easy”. Amen! Behavior changes are slow, and they take a lot of management, diligence and hard work. If you expect changes to happen overnight – especially deep-rooted, well-rehearsed emotionally-based issues – it’s time to reevaluate. It’s normal to have plateaus and regressions, and it’s normal for things to take time. As long as you’re setting your dog up for success, keeping them below Threshold and working consistently, you should start to see steady progress. If you’re not, contact us for some help!

One comment on “Common Mistakes when Modifying Behavior, Part 1

  1. Juli M Morgenstern on

    Great information. My dog lives above threshold, and I am not good at #5…I want her better now! So when is part 2?

    Reply

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