Dixie jumps all over the company as they come into the house. Jax counter-surfs. Sadie bit the neighbor kid. And Bruno growls at people who approach when he has a chew toy.
We might be tempted to describe these as "bad behaviors".
After all, they make us feel very bad. The people living with these dogs might feel anxious, afraid, embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, frustrated, or angry.
They want the behavior to STOP, and understandably so. The dog's behaviors are causing the human to experience a lot of stress, and it's likely the dog is experiencing a lot of stress as well.
Dogs and humans are similar in this way: the more stress we feel the more likely we are to respond emotionally rather than logically.
And that's okay. We are only human. Our dogs will forgive us.
Likewise, we can be empathetic and understanding when our dogs are having a hard time, and leading with their emotional brain.
Let's think logically for a moment, and set up a plan.
That's what this post is about -
How do we change behavior?
Let's start with what we know:
- The more a behavior is practiced, the more ingrained it becomes.
Ex: It's much easier to quit smoking after your first cigarette rather than kick a 10 year habit (though both are absolutely possible!)
- The more a dog is exposed to a thing in a negative way the stronger that association becomes.
Ex: Every time you go to the dentist you experience stress and pain. Even though the dentist is nice, you dread going more and more with each visit.
Let's set up an example dog:
Penny lunges and barks at other dogs she sees on walks. She typically practices this several times a day on her walks, creating quite a habit. The behavior starts to be automatic!
Penny is telling the other dogs to get away from her. Because ultimately they do go away, this behavior is reinforced. It's working.
Finally, Penny is getting lots of practice seeing other dogs and feeling fearful about them. Each time she does it's a very stressful event for her - she has to resort to barking and lunging. It takes days for her stress hormones to level back out. This is not making her feel better about dogs - she is not going to "get used to" them. In fact, quite the opposite.
So let's do away with terms like "good" and "bad". Behavior is information. It makes us feel good or bad, it can have good or bad consequences in our lives, but to best help your dog consider their behavior as a clue for you. Penny's behavior is telling us that this situation makes her feel bad and she needs our help.
So. How do we help?
Our first step to changing this behavior and helping Penny is management.
Management asks -
How do we prevent occurrences of this behavior from happening?
If applicable, how do we prevent negative associations from accumulating?
For Penny, management asks how do I prevent Penny from being closer to dogs than she is comfortable with?
I might just need to go the other way when we see a dog, or cross the street. Or I might change my regular route, or the time of day I'm walking. For some dogs it might be best to drive to a church or cemetery rather than use my neighborhood. I might even stop walks all together.
If your dog is stressed on the walk (and you are probably also stressed on the walk) then who is it benefitting? Most adult dogs are not physically tired by walks - it's the mental enrichment that really benefits them. So we can totally stop the walks, and provide other forms of mental enrichment and physical exercise until the dog is ready to enjoy them!
I'll know my management is working not only because I don't see repetitions of the behavior, but also because my dog is more relaxed.
How can you tell if your dog is as relaxed as we would like?
I'm glad you asked! There are so many ways we can take a temperature check and see where our dog's stress levels are. It's important to check in multiple ways, and really get to know your dog, because every dog will respond to stress a bit differently.
- Digestion. Is your dog still taking food normally? Taking food harder than usual, spitting out the food, or turning it down can all be signs that a dog is too stressed to eat.
- Behavior. Is your dog displaying displacement behaviors (behaviors performed out of context). Common examples include itching, licking, or sniffing!
- Processing. Are they able to respond to known cues? To their name? Can they find food you toss into the grass for them or do they sniff right over it like it isn't even there? If not their thinking brain isn't fully engaged.
- Play. Can your dog play with you?
*An important note. Stress here refers to arousal or escalation. Stress can come from excitement. If your dog is TOO excited you'll run into very similar issues.
You'll know your management is working when your dog is more relaxed, and practice of the unwanted behaviors is regularly prevented.
Perhaps in our example I've started taking Penny to a nearby church parking lot on a long line so she can sniff and explore. Unlike in the neighborhood where she was often stiff and on high-alert, I notice that her body has softened and she's now sniffing the ground and exploring. She responds when I say her name and takes her treats without hesitation.
Okay, now that management is in place we've prevented the behavior from getting worse and reduced Penny's stress. Nice work.
Have I ruled out an underlying medical condition or underlying pain? Tell your vet about new behaviors!
Are they getting enough physical exercise, or too much?
Does my dog have opportunities to make choices? To experience freedom? Is their communication regularly heard and respected?
Dogs are social creatures - is my dog getting enough of the social connection they need?
Is my dog getting enough sleep? Remember that puppies need 18-20 hours of sleep, and adult dogs need around 14.
Is my dog eating well and regularly?
If my dog's basic needs are not being met we will continue to see unwanted behaviors occur, and our dog's well-being will suffer. Every dog will have different needs so work with the dog in front of you!
It's also important to consider where your dog is developmentally, and how that figures into the equation. Many developmentally related factors can affect behavior quite a bit!
This leads us to our next step -
Why is this behavior occurring?
First up, just a reminder - Dominance Theory is bad science. Your dog is not trying to dominate you, that is not why they're jumping on the company or even growling when you approach their prized chew. We decided in this example that Penny is lunging and barking at other dogs to make them go away. The underlying emotion here is fear or anxiety.
Another dog might show similar behavior because they are frustrated or excited, but the body language, kind of bark, and the signals leading up to it will be a bit different.
Back to Penny. She might be unsure of what the dogs will do if they get too close, she might have had a bad past experience, she might worry a dog will jump on her and cause her pain. Here, the lunging and barking are distance increasing behaviors. Their purpose is to make the dog go away. Our goal is to 1) help Penny be more comfortable at a closer distance with the other dogs, and 2) to teach her what to do instead of barking and lunging if she is worried. In other words, we need to teach Penny coping skills, and helping her feel more secure around other dogs.
To do this I have to first make sure my dog is in a space they can learn. A place where the brain is engaged with processing, learning, memory (prefrontal cortex) instead of emotion and survival (limbic system).
Remember, we don't learn, think, or react well over a certain level of stress, and neither do our dogs.
So my job is to manage exposure to that trigger while we train new behaviors and change emotions, just like I do on our regular outings. If Penny is too close, the other dog is too excitable, or there are too many other stressors weighing on Penny, she won't be able to learn well.
For Penny, we might start with a helper dog a football field away and help to change her emotional response to the dog using counterconditioning and desensitization.
Counterconditioning means we change how the dog feels about the thing they currently feel negatively about. Desensitization means exposing the dog to that trigger in a way that they are aware but not stressed by it.
Then come the coping skills. When my dog feels safe, I can also teach alternative behaviors. This often happens right alongside changing my dog's emotional response, but the point is that if the dog isn't in a physiological headspace to learn, they won't be able to properly...ah, learn...the new skills.
So stress levels and well-being come first and foremost.
It's important to note that if your dog's behavior is driven by excitement you won't need to change their emotional response, but all the rest still applies.
But then - what do I want my dog to do instead. Ask this of yourself every time you want your dog to STOP what they're doing.
If you have to think about this, that's okay. Most people just know they want the behavior to stop, but haven't asked what they want the behavior to look like instead. When considering what you want your dog to do instead, consider their needs. If they need to move their body, asking for a sit might be really difficult, but asking them to target your hand might be just what they need.
I might teach Penny to check in with me when she sees a dog, or to turn and go the other direction. Of course, again, being able to do this is dependent on her feeling safe!
All the while, we're managing the environment so Penny is successful, and ensuring she has plenty of choice and autonomy (which is key for well being) and that all of those choices are wins.
If Penny gets too close and starts barking and lunging I have had a management failure. My dog is in a position that they are not prepared to handle in a way I find desirable. This is not my dog's fault, and punishing them for being a dog is not helpful.
I am not going to punish or correct her for saying "I'M SCARED STAY BACK".
I also would not punish or correct her for saying "HELLO FRIEND OMG HOLD ON I'M TRYING REALLY HARD TO GET OVER THERE"
Punishment activates the survival part of the brain. That limbic system. It makes it harder for her to learn and to think. It erodes our trust in one another. It doesn't tell Penny what to do instead. It increases anxiety and can even cause learned helplessness (which is awful in humans and dogs, and needs to be an entirely separate blog post). It can INCREASE aggression, as Penny is likely to associate my correction with the other dog.
To quote Dr. Ian Dunbar
"To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need: A thorough understanding of canine behavior. A thorough understanding of learning theory. Impeccable timing. And if you have those three things, you don't need a shock collar."
Dr. Dunbar was was referring to shock collars specifically, but this applies to any situations in which the plan is to decrease a behavior by making the consequence aversive to the dog. It doesn't matter what the intentions are. The learner decides what is punishing to them, and how punishing it is. And unless the consequence is significantly punishing to them, it will not decrease the behavior in the long term. Using significantly punishing consequences to change behavior results in anxiety, learned helplessness, aggression, and aversion to things we don't always mean to cause aversion towards (like ourselves).
So there you have it, friends. That's how we modify behavior. Much of the time, and especially when emotions like fear or anxiety are involved, it pays to find a professional to help you along. You can read more about how to find a trainer or behavior consultant here. I am always happy to help, or to refer you to someone else who can. Until then, take good care of you!