Canine Case Files: Bosco – Object Stealing

Bosco is an 8-year-old bully breed mix.  There are two young children sharing his space on a regular basis.  This situation can be stressful for any dog whose exposure to children has been limited until it is upon him!  It is no surprise that often Bosco’s behaviors indicate that he is over a threshold level of arousal. 

With so many toys and child items lying about, Bosco likes to investigate – with his mouth, of course.  Toddler size tables provide easy access to snacks, which are not intended for Bosco.  Taking children’s toys and food is impossible to ignore, so responses to these behaviors turned into reinforcements.  Any reinforced behavior sticks. 

Bosco’s best means of obtaining human attention became stealing the children’s toys.  It is time for a change!

 Change the Means to an End

Dogs engage in behaviors because they serve a purpose.  A gratifying goal is achieved.  Bosco’s goal was to obtain human attention and snag a snack here and there.  His people shared his goals, just not the behaviors he used to achieve them.  Everyone needed a plan for when the children were playing in the living room, and Bosco was present. 

It happened that Bosco enjoyed lying on an ottoman along the side of the room.  It afforded him a good view of activity in the room as well as on their street.  And it was comfy.  Why not use a spot he already preferred?  We taught him to go on the ottoman and lie down.  He was happy to do this, and we reinforced this behavior with a bite of food.  This could be cued now because there was an external reinforcement history. 

The next step was to teach him a “keep going behavior”, which was to continue to lie on the ottoman while life went on in the living room.  We used a food reinforcement schedule that worked for Bosco to help him learn that lying on the ottoman achieved his goals of human attention and an occasional snack.  Adjustments in the rate of reinforcement change for this as they do in many other training endeavors.

Provide Alternatives

It is easy to forget that dogs are drawn to the most interesting activity in an environment at a given moment.  We must provide alternative interests.  For Bosco, this meant meals served up in a Kong or other food foraging device.  Alternatives could also include bones and chews offered in a contained area, where the children had no access.  Regular, short playtimes in the yard with one of his people give him fun, anticipated activities.

Cognitive games, such as “find it” and “hide and seek” engaged Bosco in a mentally stimulating way.  These are also good ways to reduce stress from having to navigate the unpredictable qualities of young children. 

Prevent a Restart

Once a behavior pattern is interrupted and replaced with a new one, it must be maintained.  There can be no continued rehearsal of the old pattern.  Dogs can and do forget.  Reinforced behaviors replace those where reinforcement has ceased.  This is how we replace behaviors we do not like with behaviors we do like!

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC