I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that if your dog is doing something that you don’t like, you may well have trained him to do it. Without even realizing it, you may have taught him that his annoying behavior pays big dividends and he should keep it up. How did you teach him to bark at you, to paw at you, to put his paws onto the countertop, to pull on his leash, or to wake you up at the crack of dawn? By rewarding the behavior. You may protest that you never told him “good dog,” nor did you feed him a treat when he engaged in the behavior you don’t like. And I believe you. But life rewards, things in the world that your dog likes, can be just as powerful, if not more so, than rewards we deliberately give our dogs when we are aware we are training them.
Of course, that is also the good news. If you can identify what life reward you have given your dog in response to his annoying behavior, you are well on your way to turning things around. And you’ll be more aware of the pattern in the future, so you won’t be as likely to teach your dog to be annoying.
Here are some common behaviors people ask me to help them fix, listed along with the powerful rewards they have unwittingly given their dogs for engaging in them:
Annoying behavior Reward given by person
pawing social interaction (touch, speaking, eye contact)
waking the person early getting up and taking the dog outside
pulling on leash with tension in leash, moving in the direction of the scent or temptation
‘demand’ barking at person playing with dog, getting dog’s dinner, letting dog out/in, social interaction
whining in crate speaking to dog, taking dog out, giving dog a toy
puppy biting at your hands giving dog a toy
There are lots of ways to fix each of these in relatively short order, but my main point here is to spare you having to go down that road to begin with. As I told someone today at our appointment: consequences drive behavior. The client, without realizing it, had taught their dog to bark in the car. “What do you do when he barks?” I asked. “I roll the window down, because he really likes to feel the wind on his face as we drive down the road.”
You may be chuckling, but we’ve all done it. Next time your dog does something annoying, pause to consider whether you inadvertently may have been rewarding that annoying behavior.