Inadvertent Training

by Pat Rock

Do you get calls from puppy owners asking how to stop their pup from whining for attention, or licking the refrigerator door, or attacking the broom while they try to sweep the floor? Dogs exhibit these behaviors because their owners have trained them to do so.

The obnoxious dog wasn’t born obnoxious: He was put in circumstances that elicited annoying behavior, and then the behavior was reinforced, again and again, until it became a habit. As breeder-mentors to the people who adopt our puppies, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of inadvertent training.

When the dog is behaving badly, the first step is to identify the trigger of the bad behavior. Sometimes it is necessary to go back and figure out what activity preceded the trigger. Be very careful to avoid presenting the learned cue for the bad behavior, even if it means a lot of short-term inconvenience such as putting the dog away from the sight and sound of vacuuming, dinner preparation, or whatever the trigger may be.

Keep in mind that behaviors which are “hard-wired” into the dog’s brain—those firmly grounded in inter-dog communication or prey acquisition—are nearly impossible to extinguish. Dogs can better understand that another behavior must be substituted for the hard-wired response; for example, a dog can learn that sitting communicates to the human the same adoration and respect that jumping up and licking convey in dog language. So the second step in repairing inadvertent training is to substitute a desired behavior for the unwanted one. Dogs always respond better to Do this instead of that than to Stop that.

Once you have clearly established a substitute behavior, such as going to a special place—for example, a mat—and lying down quietly on command, you can then gradually introduce the triggering stimulus. Don’t be in a hurry or you will undo your progress.

Here is an example of inadvertent training and its repair:

Two older ladies bought a puppy. They called after six months and said the puppy was driving them crazy with barking—and even grabbing and snapping—every time the phone rang. No amount of scolding could stop this behavior, and they were at their wits’ end.

Analysis: The ladies got their puppy in October. They live in Minnesota. All through the puppy’s formative months there was little opportunity for him to play outdoors. What happens whenever the phone rings? Somebody gets up and moves. This was a case of classical Pavlovian conditioning: To the puppy, the phone ringing was the “call to the hunt,” an opportunity to exercise prey acquisition skills and help the owner/pack leader “kill” the phone. (The cord wriggles just like an animal in its death throes.” The more the owners raised their voices and scolded the behavior, the more formidable the “prey” seemed to the dog and the more fun and satisfying the hunt, hence the escalating behavior. By analyzing the source of the unwanted behavior and learning to substitute waiting on a “settle rug” for the reward of an aggression toy—a tug rope or stuffed toy—this dog was totally rehabilitated.

What inadvertent training are you doing?

CREDIT: This article first appeared in the January 2005 AKC Gazette and is reprinted with permission. Although the author is a breeder of English Cocker Spaniels, the advice is appropriate for any breed.