This is one of the fundamental concepts of learning in dogs, other animals and even humans, and it is through repeatedly carrying out these rewarding behaviours that habits are formed. So, to prevent occasional problem behaviours becoming regular problem habits, there is no time like the present to change them.
'Jumping up, chewing, barking, growling, biting, not coming when called and pulling on lead are some of the most common problems people have with their dogs'
Sadly, by the time many people decide to work on these problems, they are already well-established habits, which means changing them takes a lot of time and work. To prevent all this effort, it is important to act quickly and not fall into the trap of assuming a dog will grow out of these behaviours. It isn’t a phase, it is the dog learning what works. Many behaviour problems actually begin to display themselves when dogs are just a few weeks old. Dogs that growl around food or toys, for example, often learn this with their litter mates by competing for food and discovering that if they push the other pups out of the way they will get more food. As their confidence grows through repeated practice, this can turn into displays of growling and biting toward anyone that approaches their food bowl or toys. People often take food or toys away from their dogs when they growl, but this just teaches the dog to be even more wary around people. Instead of taking food or toys away, we need to teach the dog that nice things happen when people approach.
It is recommended that owners with dogs displaying aggression contact a qualified clinical animal behaviourist for help, such as members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, an ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist or an Animal Behaviour and Training Council Clinical Animal Behaviourist.
'Chewing is normal puppy behaviour, and they learn from a young age what they like to chew'
So, if the dog finds that the only nice things to chew are table legs, cushions or shoes, then that is what they will chew. Again, the moment the dog chews anything they shouldn't, it’s important to act immediately to teach the dog to chew something more appropriate. A rubber hollow Kong toy filled with food is ideal for most dogs, while giving the dog a variety of appropriate chew items is the best way to teach the dog an enjoyable outlet for this natural behaviour.
Dogs don't back come when called because there are more rewarding things to do, such as playing with other dogs or chasing sheep. So the first time your dog does not come when called, is the time to start teaching your dog that coming when called brings the rewards your dog loves, such as attention, toys or food.
Pulling on lead allows dogs to get to the park quicker than walking slowly, so why wouldn’t the dog pull? If you don't want your dog to pull, it’s necessary to teach them that it is more pleasurable to walk beside you, at your slower pace. Take a handful of tasty food like chicken or hot-dog sausage and hold it beside your leg, so the dog eats while walking beside you. There is a lot of practice needed to form this habit and the best time to start is the first moment you notice your dog is pulling ahead of you.
Jumping up, barking, growling and biting can be caused by a dog wanting attention, play, or proximity to someone or another dog. If the dog gets that interaction, then it will learn rapidly that these behaviours bring rewards. So again, it is important to teach dogs from a young age that these behaviours won’t work, as attention, play and proximity to other dogs or people only happens if your dog first sits quietly.
Barking, growling and biting are also used to make dogs, people or other things go away; and often it works! In these situations, the dog is anxious or fearful and so it is important it is taught to like these situations. Shouting, sudden noise, pain or a dogfight for example can cause this fear and anxiety. But more commonly the underlying cause is inadequate socialisation and habituation to novelty before the dog is around 12 weeks of age.
'So if you have a puppy, there is no time like the present to provide socialisation and habituation so your puppy can learn to love everything they experience today and throughout their lives in the world around them'
Graham Tompson, Technical Editor of Trail Magazine is also a fully qualified pet behaviour counsellor.