By GAIL FISHER
July 20. 2018 2:32PM
Every once in a while a dog owner will call us with a seemingly simple behavior issue. Then when we meet the client and dog and get into a more detailed history and description of the dog’s behavior, it will turn out that there’s a much more serious issue – a MUCH more serious issue.
Years ago I got a call from a potential client who was seeking help with a begging problem. “This will be a piece of cake,” I thought. While begging behavior can be annoying, it is relatively easy to eliminate if the owner is committed to it. We made an appointment for the initial consultation, and as we were about to end the call, the person asked one final question: “When my dog bites me, should I see a doctor?”
Because she hadn’t mentioned this far-worse behavior previously, I asked if they had another dog.
“No … just one.”
“But you’re calling about a begging problem?” I tried to clarify.
“Yes. He begs, and if we don’t feed him, he bites us.”
In an attempt to stop their dog from begging, they had inadvertently trained him to bite. Here’s how:
As often happens, when they first adopted him, they didn’t see any harm in giving the cute little puppy a bit of food from the table. As time went on, the puppy grew bigger and less adorable. At some point, the family decided, that’s it! No more feeding the dog from the table. So they ignored the dog’s relatively mild begging. But the dog was used to being fed, and when he was ignored without having been taught any alternative behavior, he simply reminded them he was there. He nosed an arm, or rested his head softly on someone’s knee as if to say, “Did you forget you want to give me that chicken skin?” This reminder was usually good for a treat. After all, he’s so sweet.
Soon the family tired of his annoying behavior and resolved once again to stop feeding him from the table. Again, they tried ignoring the dog. Still having not received any training for an alternative behavior, the dog tried what had worked in the past. He tried the nose nudge without success. “Hmmm. .. they must not have noticed me.” So he pawed someone’s arm. No luck. Paw again. No luck again. Paw harder. Ouch! Stop that! Nudge, nudge, paw. The behavior is so insistent and persistent that just to get him away from the table, one of them throws a treat a few feet away. Or getting tired of being pawed, someone gives in and feeds him just to make him stop.
Can you see where this is going? Each time the family decided not to feed the dog from the table, the dog became more insistent – ultimately getting fed. Quite simply, the dog was rewarded for trying harder, and try he did. It started with a small nip, then harder nipping, and ultimately the phone call for help, defining the problem as “begging” rather than “biting.”
Sometimes an owner doesn’t immediately recognize exactly what is reinforcing a behavior. In an online course I’m taking about behavior, the presenter refers to it as “WTF: What’s The Function?” What is the result of the dog’s behavior? What does the dog get out of it?
With this family, it’s quite easy to see that the function of each level of the dog’s persistence – starting with a slight nudge, escalating to pawing, then further to mouthing, nipping and then to biting – was rewarded with food!
Each escalation of the dog’s behavior was also an escalation of the dog’s persistence. There are several approaches to eliminating annoying behavior. One is to simply ignore it. No matter what the dog does, pay no attention. Ultimately the dog will give up. This can work if the behavior is of relatively short duration, the behavior doesn’t hurt (or bother the neighbors) and the family is absolutely and unquestionably committed to not giving in. It is unlikely to work, however, if the dog’s persistence has been randomly rewarded, as with my client’s dog.
Another and often more effective solution is to train the dog to offer and perform an incompatible behavior – a behavior that, if the dog is doing it, he cannot be engaging in the undesirable behavior. For example, if the dog is lying on a blanket chewing a bone while you eat dinner, he’s not able to paw your arm or nip you. Trying to eliminate problem behavior with a weak resolve leads to teaching the persistence. For most of us, persistence is definitely not something we want our dogs to learn. Far better is to give the dog a different job to do – teach and reinforce good behaviors to replace the bad.
Gail Fisher, author of “The Thinking Dog” and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email email@example.com or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You’ll find past columns on her website.