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Accidental Behavior Chains, Part 2: How Do We Fix Them? – Dr. Jen’s Dog Blog

Last time, we talked about behavior chains – what they are, how they work, and why it’s so easy to accidentally train your dog to do something you don’t want.

We had some great discussion in the comments section of that post, and several readers asked for some additional information about how to apply this concept on a practical level.  Namely, if we’ve inadvertently trained a behavior chain that includes unwanted “links” like jumping on visitors or pulling on the leash, how do we fix it?

This is a valid question, and the answer isn’t always obvious!  So if you’ve been wondering what a real-life solution to some of these problems would actually look like, never fear – that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

In my previous post, I gave four specific examples of nuisance behaviors that often become chained together with behaviors that we DO want, and are subsequently rewarded.  Today, I’m going to address each of these examples in turn, with a more specific explanation of how I might work with a client’s dog (or my own dog, if needed!) to fix them.

Remember that to successfully get rid of the problem behavior, it can’t be included as part of the chain – so we have to be proactive, and reward what we want before the bad stuff has a chance to happen.  We also need to find ways to prevent our dog from practicing the unwanted behavior when we’re not in training mode, so I’ll give some management suggestions for each situation as well.

I hope this helps to clarify things a bit!

Counter surfing

For this scenario, let’s say we have a dog who predictably jumps up on the kitchen counter to check for anything tasty as soon as he enters the kitchen.  We don’t want to consistently prompt him to get down, then reward – as this gives us the dreaded behavior chain we want to avoid.

So, what to do?

From a training standpoint, we have a few options:

Option 1.  Dog enters kitchen -> immediately praise and toss a reward on the floor.  Essentially, we’re trying to catch him before he has a chance to do anything wrong, and reward for “four on the floor.”  After a few repetitions, he’ll start to look expectantly for his treat when he comes into the kitchen, rather than cruising the countertops for self-serve options.

Option 2.  Mat training.  This means teaching the dog to go to a specific spot in the kitchen and stay there, such as a yoga mat or dog bed.  Reward for staying on his spot – first frequently, then gradually spacing out the treats as he gets better at staying put.  This gives him a specific task to focus on during meal prep, or other times when he might be inclined to help himself to an unattended snack.

Option 3.  Train a default “leave it” behavior for food in the environment, then generalize this to include stuff on kitchen counters.  This means starting with something easy, like plain kibble in your closed fist, and rewarding the dog for choosing to back up or look away.  From there, you can systematically work up to more exciting food, in different places (in someone else’s hand, on the ground, on the coffee table, etc.)

With practice, your dog can learn to check in with you automatically when he comes across something he wants, rather than simply snatching it.

What if we’re busy making dinner and don’t have time to train?  No problem!  This is where management comes in.

Use a baby gate to block the dog’s access to the kitchen, or give him a Kong stuffed with peanut butter to keep him busy.  You could also put him in his crate until you’re finished, if needed.  These are all easy ways to keep him from jumping on the counters when you’re not in a position to work on training.

Jumping on people

So, what if you have a friendly dog who gets excited and jumps on people during greetings?

I tend to approach this a bit differently depending on whether it’s happening with visitors in the house, or with people you meet on walks – but the general idea is the same.  We want to prevent the dog from jumping in the first place, set him up to make good choices, and reward the behavior we want as soon as it happens.

As above, we have a few different training options to choose from.

For visitors to the house:

Option 1.  Keep a bag of tasty dog treats just outside the door.  Instruct visitors to grab a handful of treats, and drop them on the floor for the dog as soon as they step inside.  Then calmly walk away and sit down while the dog is busy eating.  This is a great way of getting the dog’s focus off the new person as they come through the door, and can be a very easy and effective strategy for dealing with unwanted jumping.

Option 2.  Alternatively, the dog can be taught to automatically go to a mat or dog bed and lay down as soon as he hears the doorbell.  We can then reward calm behavior on the mat as visitors enter and sit down, and release the dog to say hello calmly once everyone is settled and he seems more relaxed.

For greeting people on walks:

Option 1.  In our basic obedience classes at my clinic, we teach a polite “sit for greetings” behavior for owners to use when they’re out walking.  We start by teaching the dog (on-leash) to sit beside the owner, and stay while a person walks past.  At first, our helper walks by at a distance without acknowledging the dog at all.  Dog is rewarded with praise and a treat for staying put.

From there, we gradually work up to closer distances, and finally interaction from the helper – eye contact, a friendly “hello, pup!”, a quick pat as they walk by, etc. until the dog can confidently hold his stay for a normal greeting.

If the dog gets too excited and gets up or jumps, the helper simply backs off until he’s settled and sitting politely again.  No greetings are allowed unless the dog is calm and under control.

Option 2. Teach the dog to “say hello” briefly, and come back to the owner for a reward.  With this technique, your dog learns to voluntarily move away from the person before he gets too excited and starts jumping.

We can train this by starting at a distance from a friendly helper, where the dog is able to notice that someone is there without getting too excited.  Praise and reward the dog each time he looks at the helper – before long, he should start to glance at the helper and then look expectantly back at you for his treat.

From there, reward each “check in” (dog looking at you) with a treat and a step closer to the helper.  The dog learns that if he wants to approach the person, he has to stay calm and look to you first for permission.  When you’re close enough, he should be able to approach for a quick sniff and then return to you for his treat.  Work up to having the helper say hi, pet your dog, etc. – just a second or two at a time at first, always rewarding the dog with a treat for turning back to you.

As with our counter surfing example above, management is important when you’re not actively training – this prevents your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior (jumping up) as part of the overall chain of events whenever they meet someone new.

So how do we do this?

In the house, you can put your dog in a separate room with the door closed, behind a baby gate, or in his crate before opening the door to let visitors in.  On walks, don’t allow greetings until your dog is ready for primetime – cross the street if you see someone coming, or walk at a quieter time of day when you’re less likely to encounter a friendly stranger who wants to say hi.

Loose leash walking

Our problematic behavior chain here is a common one!  The mistake is waiting for your dog to charge forward and hit the end of the leash, before prompting him back to your side and giving a reward.

If you’re like many dog owners, you may not have given much thought to leash training when your pup was young.  After all, what is there to train?  You attach the leash and go for a walk, and the dog will figure out it – right?

The truth is, walking on a loose leash is not a behavior that comes naturally to most dogs.  Unless you have a toy breed like a Yorkie or Chihuahua, chances are good that your dog’s natural pace is quite a bit faster than yours.  This leads to problems when the two of you are connected by the leash, and he has places he wants to go!

So instead of clipping on the leash and hoping for the best, do yourself a favor and invest some time in teaching your dog what you want him to do.  Start indoors, in a relatively boring environment, and reward him generously for staying beside you.

Give a treat with every step at first – then, once he’s happily matching his pace to yours, you can start to thin out your reward schedule a bit.  Give a treat every two steps, then every three, and so on.  Soon, you’ll be able to walk all over the house on a loose leash for an occasional reward.

Then, start the process all over again outside.

Go back to rewarding every step at first, then reduce your treats once things are going well.  If you’re proactive and make sure to reward for walking nicely *before* things go south, your dog should rarely, if ever, have any reason to hit the end of the leash and start to pull.

So what about management, in this case?  Training this skill takes time and patience.  How do you walk your dog and actually get anywhere, in the meantime?

This is easier than you might think!  Just invest in a head halter or “no-pull” harness (my favorites are the Easy Walk Harness or Freedom Harness) to prevent bad habits from forming, until your training is ready for real-life walks in the neighborhood on a regular buckle collar.

Barking for attention

For this particular issue, to be honest, I tend to focus on prevention and management rather than any specific training solutions – although you could certainly use mat training (as discussed above) or a similar long-duration “settle” exercise to help with this, if needed.

In order to solve a problem with attention seeking behavior, you need to be able to predict when it’s likely to happen – if you’re not sure, a few days of careful observation will usually reveal a pattern.  Perhaps your pup starts to bark and whine at you whenever you sit down to watch TV.  Or every evening after dinner.  Or in the middle of the afternoon, before the kids get home from school.

Once you have this figured out, the rest is easy.

Make a point of giving him something else to do just before he would normally start to pester you.  Some good options would include a bully stick to chew on, a puzzle toy with his dinner inside, or a frozen Kong stuffed with peanut butter.  Increasing the amount of exercise and mental stimulation your pup gets every day can also help with this problem – so add an extra walk to your schedule, make time for a daily game of fetch, or sign up for a training class.

If you can arrange things so that he’ll be tired and ready for a nap at his usual “trigger time,” even better.

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The take-home message here?

For every example we’ve discussed, the focus is on *preventing* the unwanted behavior from happening in the first place, rather than responding to it after the fact.  There are lots of ways to do this, and the specifics will look different for every case – but no matter what, that’s the bottom line.

Start from the beginning, set your dog up for success, and reward what you want as soon as it happens.

It’s really as simple as that. 😊