Life is one constant experiment for your dog. They are learning all the time. Certainly, as a puppy, the world is brand new and they’re constantly exploring and trying new behaviors all of the time but even our senior dogs are figuring out new behaviors that get them something they want. They’re pretty opportunistic – if there is something in it for them then they’ll do it again. How fun is that?
dog and cat toy
Of course, they oftentimes learn behaviors that we don’t always appreciate. Our middle dog Foster lived with us for about five years and then one day discovered that the kitchen trash can was full of wonderful treasures. We didn’t open the door for him or even (consciously) show him the trash. One day he must have accidentally figured out how to open the door and the fun began. This experiment worked for him!
Another common behavior issue is jumping up to greet people. Jumping up gets your dog closer to people they like and typically earns them a lot of attention from us. Most of us are very guilty of pushing them off, saying “down” or “off” and giving them even more attention. That’s why your dog is jumping up. They did a behavior to get your attention. Have you ever seen them just jump up for no reason? You’ve just become an Accidental Trainer.
The Accidental Dog Trainer
Jumping UpMost of us are unaware that we’re constantly training our dogs. They do a behavior, they get something they like and they do it again. Pretty simple concept but it can be challenging sometimes to figure out our role in the process especially if it’s a behavior we don’t like.
We need to sit back and figure out a few things.
What’s the behavior my dog is doing that I’d like to change?
When do they do it? Where does it most often occur?
What are they getting out of it?
What would you like them to be doing?
The hardest question to answer is the third question – what are they getting out of it? This is where the Accidental Trainer comes into play. Could our behavior be reinforcing to the dog? Are they just looking for more attention from us? This is often the case. If it’s happening then they’re definitely getting some kind of reward, guaranteed!
The other oftentimes challenging question is really defining what we would like them to be doing. Just be really specific with what you want. It will be easier to train and reinforce.
So if we know that our dogs continue doing behaviors they get rewarded for what happens to the behaviors they do that don’t get rewarded? They’ll simply go away – remember our dogs have a pretty simple equation – they’ll do a behavior that gets them something they like. If there’s nothing in it for them then they’ll try something else.
Dog with Leashes
Another important point to remember is be consistent! You need to be very clear with everyone your dog meets, including family members and visitors alike, that you would like to reward your dog for a specific behavior and ignore the behavior you want to go away. If you’re dog is continually reinforced by someone else despite your best efforts it will dramatically slow down your training.
So if your dog has developed a behavior you don’t like there’s a couple of things you can do. First, in the short term you can eliminate the opportunity for your dog to be able to do the behavior. We call this management. For example, we baby-proofed the kitchen cabinet so the trash is no longer accessible to Foster. The second, more long term option, is to train an alternate behavior. Perhaps rewarding them for sitting when they’re greeting people instead of jumping up. If you’re consistent with rewarding them for sitting and ignoring their jumping you’ll be well on your way to having a polite canine companion in your home.