Canine Bad Habits: Prevention vs. Fix It

Some folks are proactive; others are reactive.  The proactive types among us take steps to increase the likelihood of smooth sailing.  Reactive individuals tend to wait until something happens that requires a solution.  This thinking absolutely applies to puppies and young dogs. 

Setting up your dog’s environment and managing his behaviors in constructive ways go far in preventing future behavior problems and plain old bad habits.  Prevention means that the dog finds as few opportunities to practice undesirable behaviors as possible.  Established behavior patterns are more difficult and time-consuming to change.  Any underlying fear or anxiety issues only add to the project.  Recognizing your dog’s temperament traits and observing aspects of his emerging personality are key components of a proactive training and prevention program.  Here are scenarios worth prevention efforts.

Barking and/or Growling at People/Dogs

Barking and growling are “keep your distance” and frustration behaviors.  Many people interpret it as the dog protecting his owner.  Usually, it’s a case of the dog protecting himself:  he’s fearful of the approaching person or dog.  The most harmful strategy is to encourage the continued approach of the “scary” person.  The dog is likely to either emotionally shut down (freeze fear response) or escalate his “keep away message”.

The best prevention plan begins the moment an owner observes the mildest fear signals in her dog.  Fear signals include avoidance or hesitation to approach someone/something.  Freezing is a fear signal.  The dog looks calm, when in fact; she is shut down and totally overwhelmed.  Displacement behaviors, such as lip licking, yawning, and self-grooming, signal emotional discomfort.  These behaviors occur out of context.  (There is no food present, the dog is awake, and you feel itchy, now?)

A proactive owner recognizes these behaviors for what they are.  Because his owner understands the “why” behind the dog’s behaviors, a counter conditioning/remedial socialization program can begin.   Inadvertent reinforcement of barking/growling is also recognized and can cease.

Overzealous Response to the Doorbell

Puppies as young as 3-4 months of age can learn to “sit and wait” while answering the door with their owners.  (This is also a great training exercise to prevent the dangerous habit of “door dashing”: running mindlessly out of any opening door.)

Daily life is loaded with rituals for us – and for our dogs.  Anyone entering or exiting a dog’s environment is a moment worthy of excitement.  Left to behave like a dog, barking and jumping can ensue, but are preventable.  Train in behaviors that are incompatible with barking and jumping before these become established patterns.  Have a homecoming plan to prevent jumping on family members, too.

Boredom and Attention-Seeking Behaviors

High on this list are barking, chewing, and stealing objects.  Prevention includes a plan to regularly play with your dog and provide other environmental enrichment and mental stimulation activities.  Be very aware of which behaviors you are reinforcing.  Engaging with your dog when he barks at you is gratifying to him – even if you are scowling.  Object stealing can turn into a fun game for your dog.  Boredom is a significant stressor for dogs.  Learn how to find a balance between keeping your dog constructively occupied and encouraging physical and mental “quiet” time.  Obedience cues form the basis of a “learn to earn” lifestyle, which is an effective way to offset boredom and prevent undesirable attention-seeking strategies.

Resource Guarding

Observing early signals that your dog is a guarder can prevent escalation.  Resource guarding is a potentially dangerous behavior.  Bites can happen.  It’s the more insecure individuals who tend to guard.  Teach your puppy that there is no threat to relinquishing a valued object.  To the contrary, she is rewarded for it.  Ask her to “trade” her chewy for a bite of a special treat.  Watch for subtle signals, such as really fast food consumption or body stiffening at a human’s approach to food, toys, objects, or locations.  When guarding behaviors escalate, there is a decreased likelihood of eliminating them. They must be managed. When adopting an adolescent or adult dog, ask the rescue/shelter what guarding signals they have observed. 

Counter Shopping/Table Circling

Any dog who spends time in the kitchen eventually becomes curious about what is “up there”.  Prevention is strongly recommended, as it is very difficult to change once the dog enjoys a counter bonanza.  (For a dog, a bonanza could equal a slice of Wonder Bread.) 

Prevention begins by managing his alone time in the kitchen.  When no one is in the kitchen, your dog is either crated or with you.  Showing interest in the counter is met with a prompt “ahah” and re-direction onto another activity.  When you are prepping meals, the dog should be crated or hanging out with another family member.  When no gratification ever happens with a behavior, the dog has no purpose in doing it.   

Dogs can learn to “go to your place (in the kitchen), down, and stay”.  This is a progressive training exercise that prevents counter shopping as well as table circling behaviors.  Make sure that ALL family members refrain from giving the dog hand-outs from the table or counter.  Random reinforcement increases behaviors.


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC