What did you accidentally teach your dog today?

I have a very recent addition to my dog family. His name is Sully. Sully was unexpected. The dog I am currently running in Masters agility is not a dog I own. He’s a wonderful dog and I love having him as my agility partner, but it’s not quite the same as having a dog who lives with you every day to play agility. The other day, Sully wandered through the doors of our training center. I should say Sully blasted through the doors, tipped over the garbage can, cleared everything off the counters and the shelves, and barked like an idiot at all the other dogs. I said, “That’s the dog I want to train in agility.”

Luckily for me, Sully came to class as a foster to one of our clients, which meant he was available. Why on Earth would I want to adopt a dog who has such obvious behavior issues? I immediately saw that Sully suffered from a dual owner issue (not the foster mom, who is fantastic, the original owners). One, chronic under-stimulation–no issue there, I’m looking for an agility dog. Two, inadvertent reinforcement of undesirable behaviors. Here was a dog who was looking for a job. All I needed to do was give him one, and that was just the dog I was searching for.

I have spent the last five days beginning to undo the damage that was done in Sully’s early months and have been shocked and pleased to see how quickly his behavior is changing. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how often owners inadvertently reinforce behaviors they don’t want. In Sully’s case it’s a happy ending because he is now in my home, playing with my other energetic dogs, learning how to work and play games with me, and looking forward to a sparkling agility career. Not all dogs are so lucky. Let’s look a little closer at how Sully’s behavior developed.

I’ve already mentioned that Sully was chronically under-stimulated. This is an important lesson. The first step to a happy relationship with your dog is choosing the best dog for your lifestyle. Sully is an inappropriate choice for the older couple who owned him. They did not have an active lifestyle and did not intend to train him or otherwise give him a job. Sully is a high-drive, energetic dog who wants and needs something to do.

Sully’s mind was going nuts all the time. He looked to his owners for stimulation and didn’t get any. Then he looked elsewhere. He began grabbing things to play with. His owners yelled, chased, and wrestled the items away from him. What did Sully learn from this?

  • Stealing stuff is a great way to get attention when nothing else works.
  • After I steal something a fun game of chase will ensue.
  • Yelling signals the beginning of the game, and is the only interaction I get, so it probably is not a bad thing.
  • When I get caught, the game ends and I will be in trouble.
  • Therefore, steal things and run as fast as I can. Don’t let them catch me.

To retrain Sully, the first step was to teach him there was a way to gain positive attention instead of negative. I started with basic commands, most importantly “come”. When he came he got a treat he loved and tons of praise and petting. Sully is smart and wants a job, so after three times he came with enthusiasm.

After Sully learned “come” I used the following steps to retrain stealing:

  • Remain calm and quiet, do not chase.
  • Call Sully (do not bribe with a treat).
  • Ask for the stolen item, reward with a treat when he gives it up.
  • Replace the stolen item with an appropriate toy.
  • Play together with the appropriate item.

What does Sully learn from this?

  • Stealing things does not result in a game.
  • If I give up the item I will be rewarded, not punished.
  • If I get an appropriate toy, my owner will play with me.

Sully is a quick study, and I have already been able to reintroduce a calm “no” command when he takes something. No yelling or scolding. He no longer bolts as soon as he takes something, though he still does take things on occasion. Hey, it’s only been five days. If he brings me one of his toys, I praise him and play with him. He’s learning positive ways to seek attention. Five days later, here he is, lying on the floor, watching me bake. This would have been impossible the day he came home.

My son and I wanted to play a game of Sequence (the dog version of course), so we decided to challenge Sully a little and play it on the floor, knowing he would want to seek our attention by stealing pieces. We kept our chips in our laps to keep the challenge manageable. Sully’s first reaction was to steal the cards. I was prepared and intercepted, then asked him to lie down (a command he already knew and liked). When he did, I rewarded with a treat. Five minutes later, he was lying on the floor, watching us play, while I treated occasionally. I replaced the undesirable behavior (stealing cards) with a desirable behavior (lying down and watching), and Sully learned a way to interact with us positively.

There are three important aspects to Sully’s retraining: replacing unwanted behaviors with desired behaviors, physical exercise, and mental stimulation. Without all three, retraining would not be successful. Sully’s typical day consists of a couple of hours in his crate while I do my work at the kennel, playtime with the other dogs, work time with me, and sleep time. When I am busy with other things (such as writing this blog), I take the time to reinforce with treats, praise, and petting when he offers positive behaviors such as lying down. He is quickly learning that he will get a more desirable response from me when he offers me a more desirable behavior.

Not all (or even most) people would be successful with Sully. He needs a lot of physical exercise, which he gets from our agility games, playing fetch, and playing with our other dogs. He needs a lot of mental stimulation, which he gets from games, simple commands, and all of the new things I teach him. Replacing an undesirable behavior with a desirable one is not as easy as it sounds, either. It requires consistency, a calm demeanor, and above all really good timing. If I tried to lure Sully to me with a treat every time he stole something, rather than rewarding him for coming to me, the game could easily turn into “steal something to get a treat”. If Sully had managed to steal the cards my son and I were playing with, the training session would have been much less successful. Even now, I break from writing every thirty seconds to reward him for lying on the floor instead of searching for trouble. It’s an investment. It won’t always take this much time. Sully is learning, every time that I reward him, that quiet behavior has benefits, too. Someday, he’ll offer this behavior without the constant need for reinforcement. However, this method would never work without meeting his mental and physical stimulation needs.

The take-away is that any dog can be taught to replace an undesirable behavior with a desirable one. Even the dog who blasted through the doors of your training center, tipped over the garbage can, cleared everything off the counters and the shelves, and barked like an idiot at all the other dogs. AND, every time you interact with (or ignore) your dog, you are teaching them something. What did you accidentally teach your dog today?

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