In my last blog I talked about developing habits in your dog at a very early age so that eventually, specific bad behaviors don’t even occur to your dog. Let’s look at an example.

I spent the past week with a friend and her 10-month-old Spaniel at a mutual friend’s house. As the humans sat around the dinner table enjoying each other’s company the puppy would run and play with the other dogs and occasionally visit with us. 

On one occasion, he came for a visit and put his feet up on the edge of the table. That is not allowed. He can visit with his feet on the floor or he can play with the other dogs or he can rest somewhere or pretty much do as he wishes but…no feet on the table. His handler told him from her place at the table (uh uh! Get off!) and…he ignored it. Someone closer to the puppy pushed his feet off the edge and that was the end of it.

He was cued to remove his feet. He didn’t do so. His handler has an expectation that feet don’t go on tables. He ignored a verbal cue and another person at the table enforced it physically.

The next time he put his feet up on the edge of the table (he did try), he was instantly told to remove them and…he did! That was the last time the issue came up for the rest of the week. He remained free in the house, visiting and having a fantastic week – a win-win! With a few more repetitions in a variety of places, he will soon understand – he can do what he wants around the table – hang out with people, run with the other dogs, etc. but he cannot put his feet up. Soon it will not occur to him to try.

Here’s another example with the same puppy where his failure to respond to a verbal cue to “stop” had to be backed up with management so that he can develop a better habit in the future:

A few times a day we would take a walk with the puppy running loose with us. On the second day he discovered wild (non-poisonous) mushrooms. His interest in those mushrooms exceeded the value of his handler’s combined recall cue, cookies and verbal interrupter. He was leashed for the remainder of the walk.

On our next walk, he wore a mesh “head cover” to prevent the development of an undesirable habit and he was allowed freedom again. He will wear that head cover until he has developed a better habit of ignoring mushrooms.

In this case, managing the undesirable behavior is a good option since the combination of an alternative (recall) and a mild punisher (verbal “stop” cue) did not end the problem behavior. The puppy will learn to leave the mushrooms alone while he continues to get exercise, and the handler can enjoy her walk.

These are both perfectly reasonable approaches to stopping minor issues from developing into bad habits when the handler wants something to stop, such as feet on the table or eating questionable items on a walk, but when there is either no clear alternative to train or no particular interest in doing so at that time.

Educational note: I look forward to seeing some of you in my online Engagement class starting tomorrow!  If you’d like to enroll, check out the FDSA schedule for October!