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  • Writer's pictureKari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, CPCN

Dog Training: Top 10 Tips to Modify Your Dog's Behavior

Top 10 Solutions to a Better Behaved Dog

At some point, every dog owner faces a behavioral challenge with their dog, and most often, a few simple modifications to training can make all the difference.  Here are some easy solutions to some common behavior problems that I see on a daily basis with my clients.  And when training, always think of working with your dog from this perspective: Instead of trying to teach your dog NOT to do something, teach him what you want him TO DO instead.  It’s easy!

Barking: Dogs typically bark because they are trying to get your attention, are anxious, or are bored.  If you try and simply ‘fix’ the barking, it may potentially get worse (using a squirt bottle or shock collar). The key is to focus on what’s causing the behavior and decrease the anxiety and boredom or change your behavior so you don’t inadvertently reward the barking.  For instance, if your puppy is barking at you for attention, and you clamp his mouth shut and say “Quiet” you are giving your dog attention, even though it’s negative. Plus, you are going to make your puppy more frustrated by clamping his mouth shut, and he will want to bark at you more out of frustration. And you could make your puppy afraid of you and your hands. The best thing to do in this instance is to get up and walk away. Teach your puppy that barking makes you go away, and quiet makes you come back. You may have to leave the room entirely, and do it 5 thousand times, but it will work eventually.  Ignore the barking, and it will stop being rewarding for her, and she’ll stop doing it. To help the anxiety and boredom causing your dog’s barking, make sure he is getting plenty of mental and physical exercise. Start feeding his meals frozen in a Kong with dry and wet food so it takes him much longer to eat.

Counter Surfing: Many puppies quickly learn that jumping on the counter yields great rewards. At my house, with my Great Danes, I quickly learned to keep everything off the counter and it is well known in the giant breed community to keep everything in the microwave out of reach! If your puppy continually gets something yummy off the counter, she will keep jumping on the counter.  I recommend taking everything off the counter for 1 month, and start putting her dry food or treats under the toe kick.  When she comes in the kitchen, the reward will be on the floor, and soon she will only look on the floor because that is where she ‘gets paid’.  You are rewarding her for staying on the floor, and not looking on the counter.

Pulling: Many dogs come in to rescue with a history of pulling, and they have no clue how to walk without feeling pressure on their neck… I believe many dogs think they are supposed to have a tight leash. The first thing I recommend is purchasing a good front-clip harness.  I like the Freedom No-Pull Harness (email me for a discount code) or the TTouch Harmony Harness. Both have a front and back ring, and you can use the two-clip leash, or just two leashes acting as one.  It is phenomenal how much behavior change you can get by just switching to a different ‘pressure’ on the body.  To train loose-leash walking the secret is to make yourself exciting- you can’t be boring or your dog will ignore you.  Cut up some hot dogs or some Happy Howie’s meat roll and start by asking your dog for a “sit”, then walk.  Take 6 steps and stop, say “Sit” (lure your dog into a sit by moving your treat hand up over his head so she looks up… his back end will move down to the ground).  When he sits, treat and praise. Then walk 6 more steps, then sit.  Treat and praise.  When he begins to pay attention to you because you have the reward, start changing directions and say “With Me”.  Walk, turn away from your dog while gently guiding the leash in your direction, then treat and praise while you’re still moving.  Keep changing directions and rewarding, and soon you’ll be the most exciting thing ever.  If he starts putting pressure on the leash, change directions or stop and ask for a “sit”.  The key is to make not pulling much more exciting than pulling.  Most importantly, don’t use leash jerks to punish pulling, as you could severely injure his neck or back.

Potty Training: Potty training can be tricky if you don’t have the timing down.  And it is imperative that confinement of some sort is used so your puppy (or adult rescue dog) can learn to hold her bladder or bowels.  Also, Freetime (time outside of confinement) must be earned by going potty outside.  Crates are a great way to train, but you can also use an ex-pen, a children’s small play yard, or mudroom/bathroom.  Start with an hour of confinement, then outside to potty.  You must take your puppy out in to the yard, set him down on the ground, and say “Go Potty”.  Walk around with him, and encourage sniffing.  Give him 3-5 minutes to go potty. If he potties, praise and treat, and give him Freetime in the house to play.  If he doesn’t go, put him back in his crate to continue ‘holding it’.  Then try again in 15 minutes.  After Freetime, put him back in his crate to continue holding it.    The schedule looks like this: Crate, Potty, Freetime, Crate, Potty, Freetime Crate; OR Crate, No Potty, Crate, Potty, Freetime Crate.  Click here for a more in-depth description.

Puppy Mouthing: It is extremely important to have lots of toys and bones available to give your puppy when she gets excited and starts biting. Soft toys aren’t the best idea as it will encourage her to chew things up.  My favorite are the Kong toys, and I use them as food bowls to feed my dogs out of.  I mix dry puppy food with some wet canned puppy food with a little water, and freeze it in the Kong Classic.  If your puppy is chewing/sucking on the Kong to eat, the attention is away from your hands and pants.  It can also be very calming.  If your puppy starts to bite at your skin, immediately put a toy or bone in her mouth. Do not play rough with your puppy or encourage biting in any way.  Most importantly, take your puppy to a positive-reinforcement puppy class where he can play with other puppies.  Adult dogs are too forgiving with puppies, so the best way to teach bite inhibition is puppy play.

Chewing: It is also extremely important to have appropriate chewtoys around your house for your puppy to chew on.  It is a must for you to pick up all your shoes, rugs, magazines, books, etc., off the floor and lower tables as those will inevitably become a puppy target.  Keep two toy baskets with different bones, chewtoys, squeakers, antlers, and bones and rotate them every day.  If your puppy has a ‘new’ toy basket every day the toys will be more interesting.  If she starts chewing a toy in to pieces, immediately take it away. Don’t let her un-stuff as that will teach her that chewing things up is appropriate.  Again, use Kongs or other hard rubber chew toys as treat dispensers, and freeze them so they last longer.  If your puppy isn’t interested, make the ‘stuffing’ more exciting by using canned pumpkin, greek yogurt, baby food, cheese, or hot dogs.

Stay: The biggest recommendation I have for teaching Stay is DO NOT WALK AWAY. Ask your dog for a “Sit”, and then hold your hand up (similar to the sign you would give for ‘Stop’) and say “Stay”. Don’t walk away.  Count to 3 and then say “Free” and lure your dog towards you while taking a step back.  Do this a few times, and if your dog is successful, increase the time to 5 seconds.  Add in distractions.  Once your dog can do a solid 2-minute sit-stay or down-stay, then work on distance by stepping one foot away when you say “Stay”. Increase duration before distance and you’ll be much more successful!

Come: When training a good ‘Come’ or ‘Recall’, the first thing is to find your dog’s motivation, which is typically food, but balls or soft toys work, too. I recommend using a very high value treat that your dog will be excited about… Instead of dry food or treats, use soft, stinky treats. I like to use meat roll or hot dogs.  The key is to walk away from your dog while they walk toward you.  Start by calling your dog when he is 3 feet away from you.  Say “Rufus, Come!” in a happy voice and when your dog looks at you, take 3 steps backwards.  As your dog follows you and walks up to you, treat and praise.  Do not stand still and call your dog- you have to be exciting and create movement- he will think it’s a game, plus dogs always prefer to move in the direction you’re going… hence the reason they run away when you chase them.

Door Dashing: I like to train ‘Wait’ at the door from the beginning. Put your dog on a leash, and walk him up to the door.  Ask for a “Sit”, then say “Wait”.  Count to 2, and then toss the treat behind your dog, away from the door.    Keep tossing the treats away from the door, and behind your dog so your dog starts to always look behind her for the reward, never in the direction of the door.  Once she knows to look behind her, say “Wait” and open the door (remember, she should be on leash).  When she looks behind her, toss the treat away from the door again.  Soon, she will learn that behind her is more exciting than in front of her.  The next step is to tell her to “Wait” and step out the door, while she is still inside the threshold.   Say “Let’s Go” and ask her to come through the door…guide her with the leash if need be. Then toss the treat inside so she goes back inside.  Gradually build up to her always looking behind her for the reward.  You can also add in “Sit Stay” and “Free” for coming over the threshold once she learns “Wait”. Both can be interchanged so she learns she can’t go through the door without you, and without looking behind her.

Crate Anxiety: I recommend always feeding dogs in their crate from day one.  Even if you don’t plan on crating for potty training or to restrict freedom, I always think it’s a good idea to get your dog used to one in case you ever board him, or there is some sort of disaster and your dog needs to be confined/crated.   I also recommend using frozen Kongs, with some wet canned dog food, peanut butter, or greek yogurt and cut up hot dogs or meat roll smeared inside to create a positive association with being in the crate.  If the only time your dog gets a yummy Kong or puzzle toy is in his crate, then he will want to spend much more time in it.  Leave the crate out, with the door open, in your family room and put a comfy blanket or fleece crate pad in it.  Your dog can hang out in there if he wants to, and use it as a safe place to go during storms or when he is excited.  You can also put the treat-filled Kong in the crate and shut the door for a few seconds so your dog is begging to get inside the crate with the Kong… kind of reverse psychology.  Above all, even for potty training as a puppy, always toss a small treat or piece of dry kibble in to the back of the crate as your dog goes in so he is always rewarded for walking in.

If you have a problem with any of the above issues, and need a little more help, don’t hesitate to call a professional.  Spending a bit of money, time, and energy at the beginning can save you lots of heartache later on.  Please find a trainer who uses only positives in training; no shock, choke, or prong collars to ‘correct’ behavior.  There are always inevitable issues that arise with punishment, and you may end up with a worse behavior problem than you started with.   Above all, just have fun with your dog, and find what’s motivating to her.  We all work for a paycheck- none of us work for free, and we certainly don’t enjoy work if we hate our boss or she just yells at us all day.  Use lots of praise and rewards, motivate her to want to listen, and you can teach a dog just about anything!

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