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When your pet is doing something that you don’t like, remember, he/she is not behaving to purposefully annoy you. The behavior simply works to get your pet something of value. In the case of sweet Sassy, she has a tendency to bark at and paw people who are in the kitchen and ignoring her, whether they are sitting at the center island, working at the counter, talking to each other or on the phone, or something else. And, while she is pretty loveable, her family definitely was not appreciating her attention seeking behaviors.

To solve it, they had tried just ignoring her or giving her something else to do, but they were not having success curbing her barking and pawing. If we take a look at what was happening, it gives us a better idea of why Sassy was pretty persistent.

When they’d give her something else to do AFTER she had already started attention seeking, they were actually reinforcing Sassy’s behaviors. Remember that consequences drive behavior. If barking and pawing got her attention, a toy, or an opportunity to play, she has a lot of motivation to want to do that when she is getting ignored in the kitchen.

Additionally, just trying to ignore a behavior often is not effective for numerous reasons. When reinforcement is withdrawn from a behavior that has a history of reinforcement, the animal will increase the intensity of the behavior before it weakens (called extinction burst) and it is pretty difficult to continue to ignore barking and pawing, even jumping on you. Eventually the likely scenario is that the person will do something to reinforce the stronger version of the behavior, thus teaching the learner that escalated attention seeking behaviors work. Also, when a behavior is ‘sometimes’ reinforced and sometimes not, that intermittency creates gamblers and gambling is pretty addicting. Behind many problem behaviors is some sort of intermittent schedule of reinforcement. The other problem with trying to ignore a behavior (not in this case, but in others) is that reinforcement doesn’t always come from people. Maybe the dog gets a lot of sensory and mental stimulation, and physical activity, from chewing on that sofa.

While they hadn’t tried any other punishment strategies, there are many potential negative ramifications with going down that path. Among them, punishment doesn’t help the pet to get its needs met, it can create apathy or aggression or avoidance behaviors, it most definitely does not foster a love for learning, and the animal can come to associate the giver of the punishment with that aversive.

So what did we do with Sassy to curb her annoying kitchen behaviors?

One thing we did was teach her what they’d rather her do instead. Laying on a bed in the corner of their kitchen was an acceptable alternative so we set out to teach Sassy that her bed is a comfortable, pretty awesome place to hang out. We did that through lots and lots of repetitions of reinforcing laying on her bed with treats. Then we began working on Sassy staying on her bed while people walked around, opened the refrigerator, talked, and even sat down in the chair that was a major trigger for her barking. This teaching will need to continue with increased distractions and duration.

Additionally, Sassy’s human mother experimented with different chew toys and learned a Himalayan chew would keep the little girl busy for a fairly long time. Not only that, Sassy would take her chew into another room. In anticipation that Sassy would begin her barking/pawing behavior, the chew could be given to Sassy in advance so as to prevent practice of attention seeking. Spending time on her Himalayan chew in another room is an incompatible behavior and data told us Sassy values doing that.

We also worked on teaching Sassy to lay down and relax in her crate, which is another option as a place for Sassy to be when they are in their kitchen, even giving Sassy her chew toy while in the crate.

There is still a lot of work to be done with Sassy but so far she is choosing to go to her bed often now on her own because it has such a history of a positive place to be. And her barking/pawing has been reduced.

My challenge to you is this – if you are frustrated with your pet’s behavior, take a step back, and come up with a plan that reinforces an alternative way for your pet to get its needs met. You will both be happier for it.

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A beautiful thing happens when you teach in the most positive ways, with your priority being to create a lesson that will encourage your student to want to stay in the game and that will help your student to get what you are teaching. Your student will not only be able to learn what you are teaching, your student will be a better listener and YOU will be inspired to want to teach more. It is a win-win!

What are three strategies that can help you accomplish this?

Teach in an environment where you have no or minimum competing reinforcers, working up to greater distractions as your pet will continue to focus and do the behavior you are teaching.

Break the behavior down into small enough pieces so that you have plenty of opportunities to reinforce your dog for behavior approximations leading up to the final goal.

Make sure you are using what your pet finds of value as your reinforcers.

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If you are someone who finds it helpful to create annual New Year’s Resolutions, I have some suggestions for you as it relates to dog training and your relationship with your pet. Below is my updated 2019 list of resolutions to give you some ideas.

I will stop labeling my dog.
Calling your dog dumb, stubborn, bad, or jealous will not help you to solve the behavior issue and may actually prevent you from getting to the root of the cause.

I will stop blaming my dog when he/she does something that I do not like.
Always remember, your pet is behaving for a reason. Instead of blaming your pet, stop and ask yourself,  “What was the consequence of value to my pet in making that choice and what could I have done differently to have made that choice less valuable for my pet, or to have not set that behavior up to occur in the first place?,” and “What behavior would I have liked for my pet to do instead to fulfill his/her need and how can I make the WANTED behavior MORE valuable?” … then teach him/her that behavior.

I will pay attention to the behaviors my dog does that I want to see more of and make those behavior choices more valuable by offering positive reinforcement immediately upon seeing them.
Remember, behaviors with reinforcements histories will continue and even strengthen in the future.

I will teach my dog new, and even novel behaviors.
Training new behaviors helps you to improve your own teaching skills, is mental and physical enrichment for your dog, strengthens your relationship with your pet, and is fun to show people.

I will give my dog plenty of appropriate outlets to exercise his body and mind, and I will include myself in some of those choices – even incorporate practicing learned behaviors in our activity.
Not only is this a great relationship builder, it is a great way to incorporate positive reinforcement-based teaching (and learning), enhance socialization skills, build stronger bodies, and improve quality of life,

I will incorporate training into my everyday life.
Remember – on every minute of every day that we are alive we are learning by the consequences of our behavior. Be aware of that with your dog. Pair behaviors you want to see with consequences your dog values; and be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing behaviors you do not like.

I will find the joy in sharing my life with my pet.
More than likely your pet has added to your own quality of life in many ways. Practice feeling gratitude for what you have brought to each other’s lives.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and educational new year!

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Sometimes behavior can be perplexing. Fears can seem like they arise out of the blue, but there is always a reason for behavior. It may take some digging to determine what that reason is, but there is always a reason.

One beautiful recent afternoon, I was outside with my client and his dog, Oliver, working on leash skills. The lesson had been going great. Oliver had loose body muscles and a relaxed tail, while easily following next to his handler. That all changed when it was time to come in and we got within a few feet of the front door. Suddenly, Oliver began pulling backwards. He averted eye contacted and licked his lips. He moved away from the door and to the grass where he laid down.

This is a dog who has walked in and out that front door many times, and many days, without hesitancy. What was different about that day and that moment? Why was Oliver suddenly displaying calming signals and avoidance behaviors when he approached? Was this a case of some strange, irrational fear?

Not at all.  There absolutely was a reason.

Instead of pulling him inside against his will – which would not have changed his emotional response to the door and could have potentially caused long term fall out – we moved to the side of the house toward the garage. Oliver got up and walked with us with a loose body, so we entered the house that way and then went to figuring out what had happened.

Once inside, Oliver followed me through the kitchen and toward the hallway leading to the front door. As I got near to a new, still packaged, mattress leaning against the wall, Oliver immediately backed up.

Ah…and so the mattress, something new, different and strange, in Oliver’s familiar entranceway had caused him to show those fear-elicited behaviors.

After figuring this out, then the plan was fairly simple (for this situation anyway). At a distance where Oliver could stand without showing those behaviors, I tossed a high value treat in the opposite direction as the mattress (a double reinforcer of distance from the aversive stimulus and a high value treat). Oliver came forward a few steps more and I repeated the process. We continued this as he moved closer and closer. Quickly he was able to walk right up to it with me, and I then walked away from it with him and gave him a treat. It did not take long before Oliver was able to walk next to me with loose muscles, all the way past the mattress and then we walked back. Then did numerous repetitions to build his history of positive associations with being near the foreign object.

This process involved systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. Classical counter-conditioning means a conditioned emotional response to an environmental stimulus is changed to an opposite response. For example, a dog’s response of elevated heart rate and escape/avoidance behaviors at the sight of a man in a black hat is replaced with relaxed body muscles while approaching the man after many repetitions of the sight of a man in a black hat is followed by a tasty piece of meat. Systematic desensitization is the gradual exposure to an emotional conditioned stimulus/trigger at a level that does not elicit the fear response.

Had we instead pulled Oliver to and through the doorway against his will, not only would we have missed the opportunity to teach him a different, positive emotional response to a fear-inducing stimulus, his emotional response could have very likely increased in intensity. Even after the mattress was gone, he could continue to show calming signals and avoidance behaviors around the door. He could even begin to generalize it to show those responses to the front porch which leads to the door or the front yard which leads to the porch, other doors, people who come through doors, or more.

The best approach is the most positive and least intrusive approach to changing behavior. And the first step is understanding why that behavior is occurring.

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The other day I had a first appointment with this adorable little girl and her human mom, and Sadie expended a lot of energy during that first half of our appointment moving back and forth between jumping on the sofa cushions next to me and bringing a toy to and pushing it at her mom, barking at us through much of her activity.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of that kind of persistent behavior from a dog, you know, it is not always the easiest of tasks to simply ignore it in hopes that the dog will stop what it is doing and find something else to do instead.

And actually, just ignoring a problem behavior as a stand-alone behavior modification strategy is very difficult to do. One of the reasons is because when a reinforcer that has been maintaining a behavior is suddenly removed, the result is a burst in intensity and emotional behavior known as an extinction burst. If you are able to truly maintain NO reinforcement at all for the behavior, it will ultimately decrease, but what more often happens is that at some point you end up failing to continue ignoring and inadvertently teach your pet that the stronger, super-sized version of the behavior is what works to get consequences of value.

Another factor to consider when it comes to just ignoring a behavior is the fact that the reinforcement for that behavior may not be coming from you.  This is bootleg reinforcement, and when it is occurring, no amount of ignoring on our part will be effective.

And yet another factor is that even if you have successfully extinguished a behavior, you should count on seeing it again. It is called recover. If you can ignore it once it recovers, it will extinguish again more quickly and for longer…until the next recovery, that is.

One more thing to give you thought on this subject. When a learner gets reinforcement for a behavior ‘sometimes’, that learner is actually learning to gamble. Intermittent reinforcement schedules builds extremely strong behaviors.

Let’s circle back to that appointment this week.

What was causing this barking/bringing a toy behavior to occur and what was reinforcing it? Well, for one, my appointment was in the evening when Sadie’s activity is typically at its height (after resting most of her day) and she hadn’t had much exercise before I came. Additionally, her mom had just come home from work and we were focused on our conversation (or trying to). All of these factors were antecedents or setting events for the behavior to occur.

And, when Sadie would bark, jump on the couch or bring a toy to her mom, she got attention and activity.

Those are some pretty good reasons for her to be doing those behaviors, at least from Sadie’s perspective!

What stopped Sadie’s barking?

I began teaching Sadie to lay down next to us with high value treats. Then we made a little game of it. She would lay down, I’d give her treats in position and then send her off to go get a treat that I tossed. Very quickly she began choosing to come and lay down at our feet because that behavior now had a reinforcement history. It worked to get her attention, good food, the opportunity to run to get something, and mental stimulation.

Then, if Sadie, had gone back to barking, jumping on the couch, or pushing a toy at her mom; if we ignored those behaviors, chances are likely she would have tried laying down since she now had a reinforcement history with laying down. AND, when she did lay down, we would reinforce her heavily for that choice. The reality is that Sadie simply had no more need to bark once we began teaching her the value of laying down. She had a new means for getting what she wanted.

This approach is called Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior (she cannot lay down with relaxed muscles at the same time she is jumping on the couch, grabbing a toy, or barking incessantly). DRI or DRA (Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior) combines extinction with reinforcement to change the frequency of a target behavior. With these strategies, the frequency of the problem behavior is decreased while the frequency of the replacement behavior is increased.

It is a win-win for everyone!

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I get asked from time to time, “When is the best time to begin training my new puppy?” My answer is always, “the day you bring your puppy home.” I am not talking about obedience training, although definitely what a great time to begin teaching your puppy that certain behaviors like coming to you when called, sitting, and walking on a loose leash are worth doing over and over and over again (because those behaviors get good stuff to happen).

What I mean by training from day one has more do to with the fact your little puppy is like a learning sponge. Every single interaction you have with it, every choice a puppy makes, every behavior a puppy does teaches it whether or not to repeat and strengthen that behavior – or to extinguish or weaken that behavior.

If a behavior works to get a consequence that is valued, then that behavior’s intensity and frequency is likely to increase. Additionally, classical conditioning is also occurring. What occurs after something affects how that learner feels about what occurs before. Plus sights, sounds, and living beings that your puppy has not had (positive) exposure to at a young age, has the very real potential of an increased risk of being scary later on it life. It is therefore absolutely so important that your puppy have a lot to feel good about in his/her world during those first months of life.

When you bring your puppy home, you have the unique opportunity to begin from day one of giving huge value to the behaviors you want to see more while managing your puppy carefully to prevent practice (and building a reinforcement history) of the behaviors you do not want to see. And remember, a puppy will sleep a lot, but in those hours that it is awake, it has a lot of needs to meet including eating, pottying, chewing, and playing. If you do not give your puppy choices that are acceptable to you for fulfilling those needs, it will absolutely have no problem coming up with its own choices – most of which you will not like.

It is a lot of work. I totally get it. Dawson, my now 14-week-old maltipoo puppy, has been very time consuming this past month but so worth it. He is absolutely precious and I love him to pieces. When he waggles his little body upon seeing me, lays down in my lap or by my side for cuddles, or just looks at me with those expressive dark eyes, I melt.  Dawson also came to me with a lot to learn about his world and about how to behave in it – just as every puppy comes into its new home.

These are some of my very first training goals I had with him. I wanted to teach him: that humans are fun; that paying attention to humans (and particularly me) is fun; that a crate is a calming place to rest; that when he hears a clicker or other verbal marker like YES, that it means good things will follow; that settling and enjoying his own company is good; that the choices I want him to make for chewing and exercise are the choices he will mostly like make because I’ve put into place management and a selection of acceptable activities; that his world is safe and fun; that loud noises, cars, and unfamiliar things are ok; that car rides take him to safe and enjoyable places; that touching and grooming him are ok (and can even feel good). I also want him to have positive experiences seeing and interacting with other dogs, and teach him that even around other dogs, that he should sit, pay attention and walk with me. (This is very much a work still in progress!)

In the beginning, Dawson backed away sometimes from people he did not know and so I needed to spend extra time teaching him that people of different sizes and color are good to be near. I realized when I took him for a playdate with another little puppy that he didn’t stop play when the other puppy tried to tell him to take a break, and with a big dog, he exhibited initial conflict with a lot of barking/backing up which has meant careful exposure to dogs has also been important. Dawson also grabbed my arm a lot in play with significant bite pressure so I needed to teach him to moderate the strength of his bite (bite inhibition).

And there are so many other lessons that come up daily. Wow, that’s a big list!

Notice that nowhere on this list have I included obedience behaviors although in those first few weeks, I did incorporate beginning to teach behaviors, especially calm behaviors, into whatever activities I did – and do – with him. Sitting gets me to come through a gate or give him a treat, for example. His sitting and waiting gets him the opportunity to chase a toy I will throw.

Now, as his success grows, we are building on those behaviors in some more structured ways. Please check back and follow me on social media to follow our journey.

Dawson is absolutely a work in progress…and will be the rest of his life, and our relationship. I am not looking for him to be the most obedient dog there is. I just want to teach him the behaviors that will be important to my lifestyle, my home, and my world. I want him to be happy and confident. I want him to see me as a fun, safe, and consistent teacher, mentor and friend. And, I want him to be able to share all his love and joy for life with as many others as possible. Dawson definitely has a gift for that!

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Wow, I could not believe my ears when I arrived at my most recent appointment with these girls and their human dad.

Normally I would hear their resounding barking as I was walking down the driveway. But on this day, I got to the door and rang the doorbell hearing nothing but the sound of distant cars on a nearby street. I wondered if the doorbell was working, so I tried again. There was still silence from inside the house.

I knew my client was home as I had texted him from my car so I slowly and carefully began opening the front door. That’s when I heard Brian call to me, “Come in.” “Did the doorbell work?,” I asked. He assured me it did.

What I saw next was the most wonderful sight. There, through the living room, dining room and in the kitchen were Caddie and Poppy laying with relaxed body muscles on their beds. Brian gave each one a treat as I approached. The two dogs who, at every other visit, greeted me with more barking (Poppy would jump on me while Caddie would bark and move a step away initially) continued to lay their as I walked toward them.  When they did finally get up, they both approached me with loose muscles and took treats with very soft mouths.

THIS was the work of a family who was very committed to solving their issue of the dogs barking incessantly at the doorbell, visitors, and even passers-by.

I thought I’d share some of what we did to get to that point as it is a fairly common issue.

The first step was taking a closer look at the behavior, what environmental factors were influencing the rate and strength of the behavior including the antecedents and consequences, and what strategies could be tried to modify the behavior.

The target behavior was Caddie and Poppy’s high-pitched barking that would begin sometimes even when they could hear or see (through the window) someone approaching, but definitely once the doorbell rang and then continuing to bark when visitors entered the home. Once inside, the two dog’s responses were different. Poppy would wag her tail while bumping or even jumping on guests; while Caddie would bark and move backwards.

So, the immediate antecedents (setting events for the behavior to occur) for the barking to begin was seeing/hearing someone walk to the door and/or the doorbell ringing. A distant antecedent was their access to the front window and door where they reacted by erupting into barking intermittently throughout every day, some more than others. Trigger stacking occurs when numerous stress inducing stimulus occur simultaneously or within a relatively short period of time, and thus collectively decrease an animal’s coping tolerance. This was most definitely happening with these dogs.

Additionally, we know that past consequences of behavior have a lot to do with the future rate of the behavior. If a consequence works to get an animal something of value, then the rate of that behavior will increase. In this case, the sight/sounds of people coming to the door meant different things to each dog. To Caddie, it meant closer proximity to someone with whom she was uncomfortable while to Poppy, it meant closer proximity to someone she did want to meet.

(So Caddie’s barking/backing up behavior also served to give her more distance from the person who just entered the house.)

A multi-tiered approach needed to be put into place to help solve the problem.

  1. Eliminated access to the front windows. When the family was away, the dogs were kept in the kitchen area so that they could not see stimulus outside to react to. This step alone really helped the dogs to relax as they were not experiencing the daily trigger stacking effect from the environment.
  2. Teach them a different response (conditioned emotional response) to hearing the doorbell. For doing this, I recorded the sound of their doorbell on my phone (and sent it to them) and we began practicing playing the sound first a low level, then following that immediately with treat tosses. With lots and lots of practice, slowing raising the volume as the dogs were hearing the sound and, with relaxed muscles, looking for food. The family also practiced this when the dogs did not expect it. Meanwhile, they avoided having people ring their door bell so this could be very controlled.
  3. Just desensitizing them to the sound however was not enough, as the sound was associated with people walking through it. We decided to teach the dogs to go to their beds – which were moved to the kitchen (two rooms away from the door and away from incoming visitors) when the doorbell rang. Going to their beds and relaxing on their beds were then also behaviors that needed to be taught separate from the doorbell before putting them together.
  4. A fourth step would be to then work on teaching the dogs (especially Caddie) a positive association with visitors in the house.

As it turned out, the dogs not having access to the front windows had such a big impact on their mental state that when I approached the kitchen where they were laying in their beds, they got up with relaxed muscles and came to me with no barking. This was especially huge for Caddie who would have barked and backed up.

There is still work to be done but how very proud I am of what they have accomplished. Just huge!

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