From begging to pulling on the leash to getting overexcited during play, any dog can develop unwanted behaviors. Here are four common behavior problems and how to solve them – using games.
Does your dog beg for food, jump on visitors, or pull on the leash during walks? Any dog can develop these and other behavioral issues. Even dogs that have demonstrated model behavior for years can begin acting out, due to triggering events like a confusing move, change in routine, or boredom. And if you’ve adopted a shelter or rescue dog, he may have come with challenging behaviors already in place.
Dogs don’t view their behaviors as right or wrong. They act in ways that earn perceived rewards. A dog will continue a behavior if it seems to earn him something “good”. This means you can unintentionally reinforce unwelcome behaviors by your reactions. “A reward can be anything your dog may value: activity, attention, even an exasperated show of interest,” says Sara Swan of Narnia Pet Behavior & Training (www.narniapets.com).
Rewards are best used to positively reshape canine behavior. Of course, if your dog demonstrates deeply resistant or aggressive tendencies, it’s time to contact a professional behaviorist. But annoying, mildly troublesome behaviors can often be corrected with positive, game-like exercises that are fun — and rewarding — for you and your dog. “The golden rule is to consistently reward the behavior you want your dog to exhibit,” says Sara.
Try these 4 training games
1. Behavior: Food-related begging, bolting or bingeing
Food is a prime motivator for dogs — and food-related behaviors often have environmental roots. Puppies may learn to beg or binge because they’re competing with siblings for nourishment. Similarly, while certain dogs have an innate tendency to bolt their food, others may develop over-zealous food responses after spending time in shelter or foster care with multiple animals. Regardless of the behavior’s origins, you can encourage self-control and steady focus in your dog by playing this simple game several times a day.
Game: “Not So Fast”
- You need mini-morsels of different food rewards your dog especially likes (for instance, pieces of turkey or cheese). Your dog should already know the “sit” command.
- Get your dog to sit, and place one tiny treat on the floor several feet away.
- If your dog lunges at the tidbit, conceal it with your toes and ask for another “sit”. Re-train this step repeatedly until your dog remains seated, disregards the treat, and looks at you.
- Once this happens, reward him with a small piece of the second treat along with enthusiastic praise. Repeat this test/reward pattern multiple times.
- Conclude the game by holding your dog in a “sit” and using a fun release word like “chow” that lets him nab the tasty tidbit on the floor.
2. Behavior: On-leash lunging and/or barking
A leash can feel tremendously confining to many dogs, especially if they’re anxious or nervous by nature, since the dog is essentially tethered in place. The stress or excitement can escalate when a leashed dog encounters an approaching pet or person, or even a moving vehicle. You may notice one or more behaviors such as pulling, springing, and/or barking at whatever enters your vicinity. If your dog is displaying outright aggression (snapping, snarling, biting), consult a behavior professional. But short of that, you can help teach your pup more restraint with this game.
Game: “Snack ‘n Stroll”
This positive-association game behaviorally “inoculates” your pup while he’s on the leash.
- When you head out on your daily walks, take along a hidden supply of tiny training treats.
- At random intervals during the walk — especially while you’re both alone — say your dog’s name. When she looks up at you, reward her behavior with a treat.
- A few minutes later, ask your dog to sit. The moment she obeys, praise and reward her again.
- Once your dog has begun focusing her attention toward you on command, start playing the game while approaching various “moving targets” on your walks.
- Your dog will eventually learn to take her attention away from potential stressors, and focus it on you for a yummy incentive.
3. Behavior: Playing too excitedly
Some dogs get so wound up during play that they become rough and destructive as they rebound off furniture, hurtle over coffee tables, and run a ceaseless series of living room laps. This may seem entertaining at first — until something breaks, or your dog or someone else gets injured. Teach your dog limits so he’ll acknowledge your role as leader — even when overexcited. This fun, home-based game expends some of your dog’s exuberant energy, while reinforcing on-command focus.
Game: “Boogie Break”
- Find an open space in your home that’s free of breakable items.
- Choose a time when your dog is relaxed, and begin dancing around enthusiastically until he follows suit.
- Continue for a minute or two — then abruptly stand still. At the same time, ask your dog for a “sit” or “down”. Keep repeating this command.
- The moment he complies, praise lavishly and reward with an extra-tasty treat. Then re-focus your dog on a toy or chew.
- On a different day, start a new dance-off — but always while your dog is in a calm mode to start with.
- Keep initiating isolated dance/command/reward sessions over a period of days or weeks. Gradually, your dog will learn to obey your “sit” or “down” command even during times of high enthusiasm.
4. Behavior: Jumping while greeting people
This common behavior is often triggered by your return home being out, or by the arrival of other favorite humans. You may be just as thrilled to see your dog — but responding excitedly can actually encourage jumping. Over time, certain dogs begin to associate even vacant foyers and entryways with pending excitement.
Game: “See Spot Sit”
- Choose a special “quiet spot” some distance from the door. It can be a rug, bed or blanket within view of the entrance, but at least several feet away.
- Teach your dog to sit at that spot, and consistently praise/reward that behavior.
- Over time, ask him to stay seated in that spot while you stroll a few feet closer to the door. If she gets up, walk her back and request another “sit”. The moment she complies, praise and reward.
- Continue this pattern until you can actually touch the door handle while your dog remains seated.
- Increase the level of difficulty by opening the door. If your dog gets up, repeat the pattern.
- Once she masters this step, have a friend ring the doorbell. Again, repeat the pattern.
- Keep praising and rewarding the “sit” — excitedly and consistently. Your dog will eventually learn to sit on that spot, on command, when someone rings the doorbell or enters your home.
Training doesn’t have to be a chore. Using a game-based approach, it can be a positive, rewarding experience that effectively shapes new behaviors. Consistently rewarding the behavior you want is the game-changing key!