The ABCs of Behavior OR How to Adjust Difficult to Adjust Behaviors
While recording a recent podcast (Your Family Dog) my co-host, Julie Fudge Smith, and I wandered in our conversation to those behaviors that are difficult to modify. You know what I mean, those behaviors that you have worked on and worked on with your dog (or kids or co-workers) that just seem impervious to modification. The specific behavior we chose to discuss was jumping up. I am going to pick on doodles because, well, that’s the group I see it in most often… and the most clearly… but stick with me, I don’t think it’s a doodle problem… I think it’s a people problem.
I often see families or talk to families who have “tried everything” to get their dog to stop jumping up (or any other variety of behaviors). Now I can make a completely clear argument that they haven’t “tried everything” but that’s not here or there… they THINK and FEEL that they have. They’ve done the things that helpful people and trainers have told them to do… tell the dog to sit, turn their back, they tell their dog no, etc. Some have even resorted to punishmentto try to get the dog to stop jumping and yet, the jumping up is still happening. The handler is generally frustrated. And likely, so is the dog.
Behaviors serve a purpose. Their purpose is to get more of what a learner wants and less of what the learner doesn’t want. The purpose of jumping up can be to get attention, even negative attention… but it can also be to get people to leave a dog alone, to slow down the human’s approach. This happens in people too…. If someone is grouchy and unapproachable, well, people are less likely to approach. If a dog is uncomfortable with greetings, for any number of reasons, they may choose jumping up as a way to keep people from overwhelming them… because most of us don’t enjoy being jumped on. One of the reasons I think I see this in doodles is because, well, they look like muppets… And they are often approached in a very intense way… squealing, running, immediate hugging and petting. I often see that these dogs are overwhelmed by those approaches. The signs can include, but are not limited to jumping up, turning away, whining, screaming, barking, jumping, pulling on leash, lip licking, yawning, looking away, shifting their weight backward, tail tucks, paw raises, etc.
Often, when I try to point this out to families, they argue my perspective away. No, no… it’s a Doodle (or insert other breed here) and they are friendly, HE LOVES people. And he can absolutely LOVE people AND be overwhelmed by intense approaches by strangers and non-strangers. I like people, I still don’t want you to come up and touch me and squeal in my face… it’s rude and overwhelming.
What’s the solution if your dog has a persistent behavior you don’t like? Well, take a step back and analyze…
If you change the antecedent (what happens just before the behavior) you will change the behavior. So, for the example of jumping up…. Let’s say we STOP THE HUMAN from approaching unless the dog is settled and relaxed. Just WAIT. When the dog settles, quietly approach, if the dog starts to get excited, stop, back up and stay away until the dog settles again. Repeat… until you can be close enough to be jumped on but the dog is NOT jumping. Don’t talk to the dog or touch the dog yet… just wait. As the dog stays relaxed try quietly talking… if the dog gets excited move away before the jumping up. Slowly work toward a “handshake” greeting… not animated squealing and petting and kissing… just a nice quiet hello. Maybe a nice rub to the dog’s shoulder.
My experience is that when I can get a family to rethink the cause and effect of greetings and make adjustments, miraculously the jumping up goes away… because the dog’s needs are met… people approach more appropriately, and the dog doesn’t have to fend off an over-excited greeting by the humans.
What are some behaviors you face that have proven difficult to adjust?
Start with clearly defining the behavior you are trying to change. Next, think in terms of what happened just before the behavior (this may be the dog’s behavior but it may be environmental or human behavior as well). Think in terms of the consequence – how does the behavior “work” for the dog? Think in terms of what changes from the dog’s perspective… it should help you to see how the behavior works.What would you like the dog to do instead of the behavior he or she is offering? How can you adjust the antecedent to get the behavior you want the dog to offer(and still give the dog the consequence he or she craves)? It can be complicated. Feel free to reach out if you have questions. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tina M. Spring
Tina M. Spring is the owner of Sit Happens Dog Training & Behavior, LLC in Athens, GA. She is the creator of the Hounds for the Holidays program to help prepare dogs for the stress of the holiday season and prevent dog bites. She is also the author of 90 Days to the Perfect Puppy which is available as an online course.