I am not a dog “behavior” trainer; I train dogs for competition dog sports, and I limit my behavior training to within that realm. For example, dogs that stress up, stress down, uncomfortable with the stand for exam, etc; that’s my territory. House manners? Barking at your guests? Not so much – there are better trainers with a richer knowledge base to talk to about stuff like that.
But I do have three dogs, and they are pets that live in my house. That means that, on occasion, I’m going to have to teach them something that falls within the behavior realm so that we can live together peacefully,
Since this conversation is at the top of my mind right now, I’ll describe a behavior challenge that I’m addressing now, just in case it gives someone else an idea for handling a behavior issue in their own home.
Here’s my situation: Lyra eats outside, Brito eats in his pen, and Raika eats in the kitchen. This works well since Lyra and Brito eat quite fast, and Raika needs time to finish her meal in peace.
The problem occurs when Lyra comes back into the house after being outside. She tends to “explode” through the door and rush through the house, eventually ending in the kitchen, to see if there is anything left in Raika’s bowl. This explosion happens a foot from Brito’s pen which, in turn, turns him into a Terrier tiger; he screams at her. This sequence is not attractive to listen to and raises the energy level and overall “edge” in the house. That, in turn, causes Raika to rush at lyra as she comes through the door – ever the fun police – and because Raika is old she really shouldn’t be rushing anywhere or antagonizing anyone. Finally…to complete the circle…being rushed at/body blocked stresses Lyra so she rushes around even faster than she would have otherwise, further antagonizing Brito…
Until now I’ve managed the problem reasonably well. I open the door and let Lyra in, simultaneously reaching for Brito’s pen door. That distracts him from his screaming past the “trigger” moment. If I also hold off letting Brito out of his pen for another minute, then we’re good to go. If Raika is being particularly feisty, I tell her to stay on a carpet nearby before letting Lyra in.
But…there’s a problem. My family doesn’t seem able (or willing) to master the needed chain of events, and order matters.
I could be the only one who lets the dog in, or….find another way that is easier on the non-trainers of the family, which is pretty much everyone except me.
So what to do? I need to stop Brito from screaming when the door opens and also condition Lyra to come in more calmly.
To begin, I have to figure out what happens immediately before the problem behavior and address that. If analogies help you, it’s the same as handling human habits that people want to change. If you want to change your bad habits, you’ll want to figure out what happens immediately before the bad habit takes place, and substitute an alternative behavior to create a new behavior chain that is more functional for you.
Here’s a highly simplified and brief human example: You always eat an unhealthy snack when you watch TV, and you are developing health problems that would benefit from a change in your eating habits (You have some motivation to change.) First, change the environment… avoid unhealthy snacks in the house. Second, create a new chain…substitute another activity at the time you would normally watch TV/eat a snack. Even a short walk around the block might do the trick if the timing is predictable – break the cycle. Or substitute popcorn for your unhealthy snack. Or…. whatever works for you, but remember that whatever you do has to take place before you exercise the problem behavior; afterward is too late (being mad at yourself for eating the unhealthy snack accomplishes relatively little). Finally, appreciate how well you are doing!
Changing dog behavior is the same.
The question is: What do I need to do immediately before opening the door to prevent the combination of Brito screaming in his pen and Lyra rushing through the door that is easy for the rest of my family to implement?
Solution: When Raika is done eating, have the “Human Door Opener” pick up her bowl and bring it as they approach the door to let Lyra in the house. Drop Raika’s empty bowl into Brito’s pen, and let Lyra in. Unclip Brito’s pen at any point you want. Go back to what you were doing.
Brito spends the next 15 seconds licking imaginary food out of the bowl, Lyra has stopped rushing for the kitchen because there’s no bowl to find, and by the time Brito wanders out of his pen 15 seconds later, there’s just nothing to get excited about.
No one has to listen to Brito scream, Raika is not harassing Lyra and Lyra has no motivation to rush through the door. Problem solved.
Obviously, there are other solutions that would’ve worked as well, but this works for our situation.
The interesting thing about behavior is that each situation is unique. Where’s your crate in relation to the door? Where do the dogs eat? What’s the problem? Who are the humans involved?
Take a look at the entire picture, figure out what happens immediately before the problem occurs, and see if you can substitute a new pattern. There are a lot of solutions; pick one so that the problematic habits don’t get worse!
What habit do your dogs have that you would like to change? Can you think of a solution that will work for your family with minimal fuss?