CINCINNATI - The other day I was observing a dog and his caregiver. She was sitting on a bench talking on her cellphone with her dog on a leash by her side.
As I watched, I saw what I notice a lot: Some of the time the woman was engrossed in her conversation and the dog lay quietly at her feet. When something caught the dog’s attention, first his head lifted, then his muscles would tense, then he would sit, then fidget back and forth, and then whine and look. This occasionally escalated to barking. That's when the woman’s attention shifted from her phone conversation to her dog.
“Stop that. Be quiet,” she said, and then repeated. “Lay down, lay down!”
When the dog did so, the woman simply went back to her conversation. This pattern kept repeating. Was this a case of her dog being bad or obstinate?
Not at all.
It is important to remember that animals do what works for them. Behaviors are tools to get results. It is up to us as their owners, caregivers and educators to teach them what we would like for them to do with clarity and valued outcomes--in a variety of situations.
There were several things that were really clear to me here in the scenario I've described. Can you spot them?
The woman was distracted and missed those "teaching moments" when her dog was doing what she wanted. When the dog was laying quietly by her feet she ignored him. He got no feedback from her that he was doing the right thing.
Because the pet owner was distracted, she missed body language and behavior that occurred before he eventually stood up and began barking.
If she had noticed her dog’s head lifting as the first in a chain of other escalating behaviors, she could have given her dog reinforcement for that behavior to teach her dog that laying down and noticing the environment was a good thing. Remember, the value of the reinforcement should be equal to or greater than the reinforcement the animal would get from the unwanted behavior.
If attention from her was among that dog’s desired results, then he learned the way to get that is to stand up and bark at distractions when his owner is sitting on a bench and ignoring him. He learned that because the only time his behavior was immediately followed by her attention was when he stood up and barked.
The very obvious overall observation is that the woman I observed had not spent time teaching her dog to relax in a at her feet in diverse environments with varying levels of distraction. This is called "proofing" a behavior and you begin teaching in an environment without distractions, adding difficulty as the animal can succeed.
My challenge to you is this: If your dog is doing something you do not like, instead of blaming your dog, ask yourself what you could do differently to set him up for success.
About Lisa Desatnik
Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. Check out her blog and website. You can also connect with her via the So Much PETential Facebook Page, and follow her on Twitter and Google+.