My youngest dog, Clint, is a three-year-old Sheltie.
He’s a perfect dog in almost every way. Friendly and sweet, never meets a stranger. He loves to run agility and strut his stuff in the show ring, and is also a fantastic cuddle buddy for rainy days on the couch.
However – he does have one unfortunate habit that I want to talk about today.
Like many dogs, Clint is fascinated by the sight of other animals on the TV screen. My living room television is positioned fairly low, resting on a TV stand against the wall, which affords him an excellent view of whatever I’m watching.
At first, it was cute. He would perk up when a pet food commercial came on, or if I happened to be watching something on Animal Planet – ears forward, eyes wide, intently focused.
But as time went on, his habit gradually became less of an amusing quirk and more of a serious problem. Instead of staring quietly from the couch, he began leaping onto the floor, barking and spinning in wild excitement whenever another dog or cat appeared. This progressed to jumping at the screen, and eventually to hurling himself at the TV stand with enough force to jostle connecting cables and knock the television askew.
Like every other dog owner in the world, my initial approach to this problem was to yell “Hey, hey! KNOCK IT OFF!” whenever Clint launched himself across the living room. This was effective at stopping the behavior in the moment – but predictably, made no difference whatsoever in his inclination to do the same thing next time.
(If nothing else, I hope one takeaway from this post is that those of us who train dogs for a living are still normal humans first! So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always handle your own dog’s behavior issues like a pro. More often than not, we don’t either.)
This continued as a worsening problem for several months. Clint became hyper alert to the telltale sounds of a dog on TV – anything from barking or whining, to the jingle of tags on a collar. He even learned to recognize the music from commercials that featured animals, and would come running from other parts of the house when he heard one start. I became equally adept at changing the channel or quickly muting the sound at the slightest hint of a dog, in an effort to avoid setting him off.
Things finally reached a breaking point one afternoon (so to speak!), when he leapt from the couch and hit the TV stand with enough force to knock the shelf holding the cable box loose from its attachments, bringing the whole thing crashing down onto the floor.
Fortunately, everyone was okay and no permanent damage was done. But I resolved that day, as I probably should have done several months prior, to stop yelling ineffectually at my dog and actually fix the problem.
My plan was extraordinarily simple.
I loaded a small Tupperware container with treats, and kept it on the end table next to my usual spot on the couch. Whenever a dog or cat appeared on the TV screen and Clint began to perk up, I called his name and rattled the container. He’s extremely food-motivated, which was helpful – he quickly caught on that TV animals meant there were treats available, and was happy to come and collect his prize instead of flinging himself at the television.
I was consistent with my new strategy, and he soon began to look at me automatically when he saw an animal on the screen. I rewarded this generously! In less than a week, he was running to me for his treat without any prompting whenever a dog or cat appeared.
Now, I can maintain this new behavior easily by giving him a bite of whatever I happen to be snacking on at the moment – a piece of popcorn, half of a pretzel, etc. Sometimes I don’t have anything handy, but that’s okay. At this point, his trained response is solid enough that I don’t need to reward with food every time. It’s been several weeks since he last tried to charge the TV, and both of us are happy.
Problem solved, in a few short days.
So what’s the moral of the story? A good, proactive training strategy is always (ALWAYS!) going to be much more effective at changing your dog’s behavior than reacting with frustration in the moment.
This means you need to come up with a game plan ahead of time, and be consistent. Your plan doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated, in most cases – it can be as simple as rattling a treat box to interrupt the unwanted behavior, and rewarding your dog for doing something different.
Just decide what you’re going to do, and then do it. Yelling at your dog, or correcting him “after the fact” doesn’t count! If you’re not sure how to address the behavior that’s bothering you, ask for help – find a good reward-based trainer in your area, and see what they suggest. Chances are, there’s a fairly simple solution that you can implement right away.
Stop complaining, and start training. You and your dog will both be much happier.