Five Steps to Stopping Unwanted Behavior
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
What to do, and what not to do, when your dog does things you don’t like.
Most of the time, when dogs do something we don’t want them to do (such as stealing our socks or jumping on our elderly aunt), the first thing out of our mouths is “NO!” We’ve all done it. But you may have had a dog trainer or two tell you not to use the word “no.” Why not? Shouldn’t you correct your dog if he makes a mistake?
First off, in most cases, simply saying “no” (even if you say it loudly) doesn’t work. (If saying “no” did work, I’m quite sure my phone would stop ringing and I’d be out of a job.) In addition, when we use intimidation to stop our dogs from doing a behavior we don’t like, we may damage our relationship with our dog. Lastly, saying no provides no direction to your dog; it does nothing to tell your dog what she should do instead.
So if saying “no” isn’t the answer, how do we stop unwanted behavior? Here is a formula that you can apply to almost any unwanted behavior for great results:
1. Start with liberal doses of management.
“Management” is dog trainer lingo for prevention. It means making sure your dog doesn’t have the opportunity to “practice” the behavior you’d like to stop. Whether that behavior is chewing your shoes, jumping on your kids, or barking as your neighbor’s dog walks by your house, the goal is to figure out a way to stop your dog from doing it until you can teach her what she should do instead.
This may entail getting creative – or at least putting your shoes in the closet. Use baby gates, crates, window blocks, and leashes. If you have a puppy, you may need to keep a toy in your hand when you pet your pup to keep her from mouthing. If your dog habitually barks at things she sees out the window, you may need to apply a visual block so she can’t see outside. If your dog jumps on visitors to your house, you may need to put up a baby gate so your pup can’t charge up to people when they come in the door. You get the idea. Once management is in place, you can move on to step two.
2. Remove reinforcement.
There is always a reason a dog does something that we don’t want her to do. It may be an expression of normal dog behavior and we need to provide other outlets for that behavior. The dog may be anxious and exhibits the behavior to alleviate anxiety. Dogs practice some behaviors we don’t like because they are fun (such as jumping on us), but sometimes these behaviors are an expression of frustration or fear (such as barking or tearing up the carpet).
Try to figure out why your dog does the behavior. Does jumping on you get your attention? Does getting into the garbage alleviate boredom? Will racing around the house with a sponge entice you to play the keep-away game? Does pulling on the leash mean the dog gets to drag you to and make you wait at the source of an interesting odor? Before you can effectively stop an unwanted behavior, you have to be able identify what is reinforcing the behavior and either remove that reinforcement or meet the dog’s need in another way.
3. Teach the dog what you want her to do instead.
Remember, saying no fails to tell your dog what to do instead. Teaching your dog what to do instead of (fill in your behavior issue here) is a major factor in successfully solving that problem behavior. For most of us, this is a huge change in our thought process.
Instead of jumping up, I would like my dog to greet people calmly with all four paws on the ground.
Instead of begging for food when we sit down to eat, I would like my dog to go settle on her bed.
Instead of barking out the window, I would like my dog to come and tell me if there is something to worry about outside.
Instead of lunging toward dog friends, I would like my dog to sit while I snap off the leash before play.
Instead of pulling on the leash when we walk down the street, I would like my dog to walk next to me.
Instead of running off into the woods, I would like my dog to stay within 30 feet of me on off-leash jaunts.
When we come up with something our dog can do instead of the undesirable behavior, we have identified an achievable goal. And from there we can lay out a training plan to meet that goal!
4. Use a positive interrupter.
Don’t we ever get to say “no” to our dogs? Setting limits and having boundaries (both physical and behavioral) are important in life, as well as with our dogs. It is okay to stop your dog from doing something that is unsafe or even just annoying. The key here is how you stop her. Clear and consistent feedback can be effective.
For example, if you can see that your dog is considering jumping on the couch and you’d rather she didn’t, you can calmly and consistently interrupt the behavior and redirect her to her own bed.
I like to use something called a positive interrupter (PI). There are different types of PIs. The one I find most valuable is a noise or word that means, “Disengage from whatever you are doing and pay attention to me!” It is remarkably easy to teach initially, but it does take a lot of practice to generalize it so that it will work in more difficult situations.
To teach a positive interrupt:
a) Choose a word or noise.
Many people use a kissy noise or tongue click. Some people say “Watch!” or “Look!” Alternatively, you can use a more traditional approach and say “Leave it!” or “No!” The word doesn’t matter; what is important is the way you say it and the meaning you give to the word. The word is simply a cue; it’s not meant to be used to threaten or intimidate the dog. Use it in a clear and cheerful tone, as you would with any cue.
This is extremely important if you choose a word like “No!” as your PI. Most humans frequently use “No!” as a stern command or a threat of punishment, and find it nearly impossible to always say it cheerfully and happily. Try to think of it as just another random cue and say it cheerfully!
b) Say your PI and then immediately give your dog an amazing treat.
This is a time to bring out the big guns: chicken, roast beef, or whatever your dog loves most. Say your PI cheerfully and immediately feed your dog several pieces of roast beef, one right after the other. Repeat this a dozen or so times, or until your dog looks expectantly at you when he hears your PI. You are using classical conditioning to build a conditioned emotional response (CER) to the word. This step will help your dog respond even around really tempting distractions later on.
c) Teach your dog to disengage and look at you.
Cheerfully say your PI when your dog is mildly distracted. If he has developed a CER to the word, he will look back at you expecting the roast beef. At this point, “mark” the moment when he looks back with a signal of some kind, such as the click of a clicker or the word “Yes!” and then give him several pieces of roast beef in a row. Repeat this step until your dog is happily and joyfully orienting to you each time he hears the PI.
d) Practice around distractions.
Start with easy distractions such as a piece of paper or a boring toy. Gradually work with more difficult distractions. For those really tough distractions such as a squirrel running in the trees, you may have to practice at a distance first. Keep reinforcing your dog when he orients back to you until he will do it in most circumstances. At that point, you can begin to use your PI to interrupt your dog when he’s doing something that you would prefer he didn’t do.
Interrupters work in the moment, but they don’t necessarily teach your dog not to do the behavior in the future. An interrupter is a temporary solution. If you consistently follow your interrupter with a cue for an alternative behavior, you are more likely to have long-term success. For example, if your puppy starts to chew on a table leg, you can say your PI and then redirect your pup to chew on a toy instead.
5. Use force-free corrections sparingly.
Yes, there are ways to “correct” a dog without resorting to pain or intimidation.
Timeouts are one example. A timeout removes the opportunity for reinforcement. If your puppy bites your hand in play, you can “mark” the moment the teeth touch your skin with an “ouch” or other noise and stop playing for five to 10 seconds – then resume play. When repeated several times in a play session, the puppy should figure out that his teeth on your skin makes the play stop – bummer! He will try to avoid mouthing you in the future in order to keep the play session going.
Other similar corrective measures include walking away from your dog, putting toys or treats away, or preventing your dog from engaging in an activity he would like to do. This approach can be successful at stopping behaviors that are reinforced by your attention.
That said, however, timeouts require very good timing and must be used consistently. If your dog is not clear about what is stopping the play, for example, he may just get frustrated, and frustration can lead to an increase in unwanted behavior. Use timeout techniques sparingly, if at all.
Customize the Plan
In most situations, the first three steps (putting management into place, removing reinforcement, and teaching an alternative behavior) will work to stop unwanted behaviors. Interrupters may help for behaviors that are more difficult to manage, and timeouts can be used sparingly for behaviors that are being reinforced by you.
Keep in mind that stopping unwanted behaviors doesn’t always follow a linear path. Sometimes you will need to reevaluate and rework your training plans until you find the right formula for you and your dog.
Mardi Richmond is a dog trainer, writer, and the owner of Good Dog Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California.