As a jumping off point for today’s discussion, I want to use a question I received in the comments section of a previous post. The post was about changing our perspective in dog training to reflect the fact that dogs are dogs, and they do what comes naturally to them unless we give them a meaningful reason not to – you can read it here if you like.
As an example of this, I mentioned that my 8-year-old competition dog Remy, who is titled in AKC obedience, rally, agility, has his CGC certification and is altogether very nearly perfect, will quite happily steal a sandwich off of an unattended plate if given an opportunity – this is normal dog behavior, and we shouldn’t take it personally.
The following is a question from the comments section of that post, along with my response:
Q: In light of this, what DO you do when the dog takes your sandwich?
A: A very valid question! In my case, I avoid this problem by not leaving my sandwiches unattended – I live alone and am always very aware of where the dogs are and what they are doing, so this is a very easy solution for me. If, once in a blue moon, I happen to forget and Remy gets an unapproved snack from the coffee table, I chalk it up to my own inattentiveness and get on with my day. No harm, no foul.
Now, there could certainly be cases where this wouldn’t be an acceptable solution. If I had young children in the house, or if Remy were a working or service dog, or regularly spent time in places where he would be tempted with unattended food, then I would need to train him to leave it alone unless given permission to take it. This can absolutely be done; if I were training it, the process would involve setting up situations where there appeared to be unattended food available (but not truly accessible to the dog, to prevent accidental self-rewarding!) and building a strong reward history for choosing to ignore food in the environment. Over time, you can increase the difficulty of these training exercises until a dog will happily ignore a steak on the floor in front of him – but this takes a lot of time and effort, and I have other things I prefer to work on instead.
So for me, the easiest option is to just keep my sandwiches out of reach. In dog training, as with so many things in life, you have to pick your battles.
I thought this was a great question, so thanks to reader Venus for posting it! I’m glad to be able to discuss it in more depth here, since it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding that many owners have about how to train their dogs – namely, a focus on responding to “bad” or unwanted behavior. What DO you do when the dog jumps on people? Or won’t come when called? Or bites a visitor?
When people ask this question, I find that they are usually expecting to be told the correct way to punish the dog for his transgression – a leash pop, a shock collar correction, a scruff shake, a firm “no!” Or perhaps a citronella collar or a squirt bottle, a can of pennies or even a time out.
After all, bad behavior needs to be punished – right? How else will they learn?
The answer might surprise you.
The truth is, punishment for bad behavior plays almost no role in modern dog training. Dogs learn primarily through repetition and reward – they do what works for them, and have a tendency to stick with whatever behavioral strategy they’re used to as long as it’s successful. If the strategy of jumping on the counter yields a tasty leftover hamburger, it’s highly likely that your dog will repeat this behavior again in the future.
Can they also learn to avoid certain behavior strategies through the use of punishment? Yes, this is certainly possible… but with some important caveats.
Dogs live very much “in the moment” – they don’t have the ability to think ahead about possible future consequences for their actions, the way that humans do. If your dog sees an unattended hamburger and gets an opportunity to grab it, the immediate reward of eating the hamburger far outweighs any scolding he might receive after the fact. Punishing the dog in this situation may make us feel better, and your dog will likely act fearful and slink away – but if the goal is to effect meaningful change in his behavior the next time this situation presents itself, you have accomplished nothing at all.
Your dog will still grab the hamburger, every single time. You can bet on it.
So, then – how to punish effectively? It’s quite difficult, as it turns out, and it often comes with a host of behavioral side effects that we don’t want. For punishment to be effective, it must happen consistently every single time the unwanted behavior begins – immediately, with no delay at all. You also run the risk that your dog will associate the punishment with other things that are present when it happens, which can sometimes cause unexpected problems down the line.
For a dramatic example of how this can have far-reaching consequences, see the story of Heidi the German shepherd and her invisible fence in my post on single event learning – you can find it here.
And, perhaps most importantly – punishment does no good at all if your dog is also getting a reward of some kind for the same behavior. Environmental rewards can be incredibly powerful! Think about the rush of endorphins that comes from jumping up in excitement to be petted by a visitor, or bolting after a rabbit off-leash, or snatching something delicious from the trash can. Most problem behaviors are quite self-rewarding – so by the time you realize it’s happening and try to give a correction, it’s too late. Scolding after the fact is pointless, and only serves to confuse the dog and damage your relationship.
So if punishment is ineffective and fraught with side effects, what are we to do? Just let the dog jump all over guests, bolt after rabbits, and grab hamburgers whenever he wants?
Of course not! This is where management comes in 🙂
Management means that if we know that our dog likes to jump on people, we put him in another room to keep him away from guests as they enter the house. It means keeping him on-leash in distracting environments if he doesn’t have a foolproof recall. And it means keeping the coffee table clear of any human food that your dog might want to snatch, or using a baby gate or other barrier to keep him out of the kitchen when you’re making dinner.
When we become preoccupied with how we should punish misbehavior, we are missing the point. We are humans, with big brains and the ability to plan ahead. Good training means that we need to anticipate problems before they happen, and make sure that our dog doesn’t get a chance to reward himself for doing things we don’t like.
Seems obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how often these basic things are overlooked.
Management isn’t flashy or sexy, it’s true – definitely not the fun part of dog training! But without it, all the fancy training techniques in the world won’t make any difference. It’s no exaggeration to say that good management is an absolutely critical part of a successful training plan – in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the single most important factor in making long-term behavior changes.
So, let’s get into a bit more detail about exactly what this means.
When we talk about management for a particular training issue, we are referring to everything that happens to your dog in between training sessions – we want to limit his opportunities to practice the unwanted behavior. Remember that most problem behaviors are self-rewarding, so the more often your dog does them, the more firmly entrenched they become.
Let’s say that you have an excitable, friendly dog who loves to jump on people – a very common problem! A training plan for this issue might involve teaching your dog to sit politely for greetings. You start by asking him to sit while someone walks by at a distance, then reward with a treat when he’s successful. Over time, as long as things are going well, you can have your helper get closer and closer until eventually she can approach, say hello, and pet your dog while he happily holds his sit.
This is a great plan – but remember, training is only half the battle! You can work diligently on this in your weekly training class, but if your dog is still jumping all over every visitor that comes through the door when you’re at home, you will never make any significant progress.
Now, I know that you can’t spend 30 minutes training your dog every time you have a visitor – life happens! So when your guest is standing on the doorstep, waiting patiently to be let in, and your dog is throwing himself against the window in a frenzy of over-the-top excitement, do yourself a favor and remove him from the situation before you open the door. Grab a treat and put him in another room with the door closed, or behind a baby gate. Let your guest into the house, and give her a chance to get settled.
Once things have calmed down, you have two options.
First, if you want to use the visit as a training opportunity and your guest is willing to help out, you can go get your dog and bring him out to say hello on a leash. Ask him to sit, reward with a treat, and practice having your friend approach. If your dog gets up, just ask her to step back and wait while you get him sitting again. Once he calms down enough to hold his sit, she can pet him and say hello.
Or, if it’s not a good time for training, just leave your dog in the other room until the visit is over. Really. It’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with avoidance at all – practice good habits when you can, and avoid the situation when you can’t. This is what good training is all about, in a nutshell.
Finally, there’s one last question I want to address. Is it ever okay to use management as a long-term plan? That is, can you choose to manage a behavior problem by avoiding the situation every time it arises, rather than attempting to train it away?
In a word: absolutely!
This brings us back around to our original question, about my dog Remy’s propensity for stealing unattended leftovers. As I stated in my response – I could certainly put together a training plan to address this problem, if I wanted to. But it would take a lot more time and effort than I really want to spend, for something that can be easily managed in my home by putting my plate away when I’m finished eating. So, that’s what I choose to do.
Some other situations where long-term management might be preferred over training include the following:
- Food aggression between dogs in the same household. While it’s technically possible to train a dog with food guarding issues to be comfortable eating side by side with another dog, it’s much easier to simply feed them in separate rooms or in their crates.
- Loose-leash walking with a determined puller. This is a skill that can taught to any dog with time and patience, but some owners prefer to simply manage the problem by walking their dog in a head halter or front clip harness. As long as the dog is comfortable wearing the halter or harness, this can be a perfectly reasonable long-term solution.
- Counter-surfing issues with a large dog. There are certainly ways of addressing this problem through training (such as teaching a “settle” behavior on a mat, along with a strong default “leave it” behavior for unattended food), but in many cases, it may be simpler to use a baby gate to keep the dog out of the kitchen while you’re making dinner.
- Barking at things outside the window. You can train your dog not to do this if you are willing to spend a fair amount of time on the project (see last week’s post on treating leash reactivity for a video example of how you might accomplish this – the process is the same) and indeed, some owners may choose to put in the effort to train quieter behavior when people walk past. Or, if you prefer, you could simply close the blinds at high-traffic times.
You may be able to think of some issues with your own dog that are easier to manage than to try and train away – this is perfectly reasonable! Many owners feel guilty for “avoiding the problem” rather than tackling it head on, but every situation is different. If management is working for you and your dog, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to it as a long-term plan.
Just remember to plan ahead, be proactive, and keep your sandwiches out of reach 🙂