Changing Behaviour – The Process

By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs

One of the busiest parts of my job is helping people work on their dog’s troublesome behavioural issues. Unfortunately, not everyone will ultimately be successful in making some permanent changes in their dog’s behaviour. Why is that? Well – the main reason often boils down to an inability to commit to the entire process – which may be very lengthy. A lesser reason can be finances – the budget for getting help from a trainer simply may not be able to stretch far enough for long enough. I thought it might be helpful to explore what goes into working on solving behavioural issues so owners may have a better idea what’s involved.

First, Be Proactive! We are constantly encouraging people to attend classes with their dogs – puppy classes, classes that focus on adolescent development, group classes for dogs of all ages – all using force-free methods. The more appropriate work you do with your dog early in your relationship, the fewer problems you are likely to have later on. ALL of our classes, even the “just for fun” ones, are geared toward preventing the behaviour problems we see every day.

We’ve heard all the reasons why people don’t want to take classes: I have another dog in the house; I took a puppy class with my last dog; I go to do the dog park for socializing; I’ve had dogs all my life; my dog is too old to change; I can’t afford it after paying for my dog (yes – we’ve heard this more than once!). Just take a class – or better yet two classes! I promise the right class won’t be a waste of your time or money – it’s an investment into your dog’s future. Getting appropriate information and building good skills early prevents more expense and possibly heartbreak later on.

How It Works.

Whether the behaviour you want to change is serious or just annoying, the process to change it remains pretty much the same. There are basically 3 parts to the training process: (1) management, (2) changing the dog’s response to the “trigger”; and (3) building a new behaviour.

1.Management – It’s Critical.

The more an animal practices something, the better they get at it – us included. “Practice makes perfect” applies just as much to bad behaviour as it does to good behaviour. In order to be most successful in changing your dog’s behaviour, he must have little or no chance to practice the unwanted behaviour during the entire process. This can be very difficult to manage depending on the behaviour. If you have a dog who is reactive to other dogs, how do you walk him every day?

There are many tools and techniques that can help with management for different behaviour issues. It is critical to make sure that the tool you are using isn’t going to make your problem worse. Don’t choose something that is punitive and will cause your dog to become more fearful – like a shock collar (e-collar), prong collar or choke collar, electric fencing, etc. For example, if you have a dog who is reactive on leash, focus on tools that help you, as neutrally as possible, control your dog’s movement like a no-pull harness that uses leash placement and directing your dog’s momentum to help you. The Sensation harness and Freedom harness are two good choices to investigate. For dogs who are reactive to visual stimuli, there’s a really interesting product called a Thunder Cap (available on that fits over your dog’s head and attaches to his collar. The Thunder Cap has an opaque section over your dog’s eyes so that he can see to walk and not bump into things but he cannot clearly see squirrels, dogs passing by, cars, skateboards, etc. It’s surprisingly effective and particularly useful for dogs who bark at things when they’re travelling in the car as the visual stimuli isn’t also coupled with the sound of their trigger.

Make sure your management tools are secure. Consider attaching your leash to both your collar and harness for extra security, and ensure that all pieces of equipment fit properly and can’t be escaped from.

2.Change How Your Dog Feels.
The first “working” part of the process, is changing how your dog feels about what he’s reacting to. More often than not, behaviour issues are the result of fear, and a lack of confidence (plus often a lack of impulse control – especially in very young dogs). The goal is to help your dog overcome his fear and build his confidence. Once again, the technique you use is important as it must help change your dog’s emotion from fear to tolerance, curiosity and hopefully pleasure and happy anticipation. Punitive methods and tools that are available in abundance may temporarily suppress the behaviour (prevent your dog from reacting), but they absolutely will not change how your dog feels about the trigger. Therefore, it’s not a long-term solution and it’s not helping your dog at all – it just might make things look better on the outside.

There are many techniques used in force-free training to help dogs change their emotional response to their triggers. Not every dog responds the same to everything so it’s nice to have many options to choose from. Generally, the basic goal of each technique is to pair something the dogs really wants and highly values with the appearance of the trigger – so the “thing” begins to predict something fantastic. The fantastic thing could be food, toys, play, human attention or even the release of tension and stress. Each dog learns at a different rate, so the time this takes varies widely from dog to dog – but it will work. If you were afraid of spiders but someone started to give you $100 each time you spotted one – pretty soon, you’d be hoping to see spiders everywhere and begin to feel much better about them!

The trick is to make sure that you are always working at a threshold level that is manageable for your dog. He needs to be able to think and respond to direction as opposed to be in full-on reaction mode. In other words, distance from the trigger (or the level of the trigger if it was a sound) is critical to your success – not too close – err on the side of caution. I generally use a Clicker or a verbal marker, so if the dog I’m working with can respond to the sound of the Clicker or marker by turning to me for his reinforcement, then I’m at a good working distance.

The process of changing your dog’s emotional state can be time consuming but it’s important. It’s not good enough to suppress behaviour by forcing your dog to quit reacting to something – sooner or later that emotion has to come out and the reaction isn’t going to get better over time. We need to work toward making your dog feel that it’s no longer necessary to respond negatively.

Most of the expense of working with a trainer comes during this part of the process. The techniques themselves are not complicated or difficult but it’s important that a good, professional trainer can frequently see and monitor your progress and make sure that you’re reading your dog’s responses properly. Sometimes it may be necessary to change techniques “on the fly” and only a well-trained professional knows when that needs to happen and how to do it.

2a.Create a Confident Dog.
Part of changing how your dog feels is also about building their confidence, which I consider to be an important part of this same process. The positive techniques you use will help build confidence, but there are also other things that you can do while not actively “working” that will help build confidence in other ways. Giving your dog mentally stimulating activities are really helpful to the overall process. Suggestions: feeding his meals from kongs, making use of puzzle toys, teaching him tricks, taking part in activities like scenting games or interactive games like fetch and tug. All of these activities are confidence building and will help keep your dog in a good mental space. It adds to your overall success and keeps the process fun.

3.Build a New Behaviour or Repair an Old Behaviour.
Usually, once you start to see some success, you also need to teach some new behaviours or perhaps “repair” some previously known behaviours. What behaviour would you like your dog to do instead of the unwanted one? If you have a dog who jumps up on people, maybe sitting beside you while you chat to someone is a good choice – but, can your dog “Sit” in that situation?

An important part of training is helping your dog generalize his skills to different situations. Take a simple behaviour like “Sit” for example. If you have a dog that jumps up on people, you need to teach him that someone stopping in front of you can also be a cue to “Sit”; or that when he hears that cue to “Sit”, he is able to do it anywhere and everywhere he may be – on leash or off leash. We hear all the time “my dog knows how to sit” – but more often than not even very simple skills like “Sit” are not taught to this extent.

In summary:
Obviously, each individual case is different and there are often other things that we teach dog owners that are too numerous to be covered in the scope of this general article. However, you get the idea – the process can be time consuming but necessary in order to address problem behaviours. It’s important to get some help from skilled professionals using appropriate, force-free methods. Don’t wait too long to get the process started – generally the longer the problem behaviour is practiced, the longer it takes to solve. Perhaps, the best piece of advice – be proactive! Do everything you can to give your dog a solid education from the start and prevent having to go down this path.