Frustrated and angry – we all feel it at some point when living with dogs. There is something annoying that our dog does, over and over, and despite our nagging and no-ing, the dog seems to not give two whits about this behavioral thing that is bogging us down, and continues to happily perform “the behavior”.
I’ll give a specific example that is a widespread problem: counter-surfing. The dog is a serial food thief and is driving you out of your mind. The crate door opens for AM potty time, the dog is released and although we know that dog is going to make like a targeted missile to the nearest elevated smooth-topped surface to see what he can see, we’re lazy and “this time” don’t bother to leash him and walk him out so he’s carefully monitored, or else make sure all things-to-be-grabbed are not in reach.
And the dog grabs and practically swallows whole the muffin you were anxiously looking forward to eating with your coffee before you rushed out to deal with the office crazies for another long, drudge-of-a-day at work. And we curse the dog under our breath and drag him off the counter, and begrudgingly take him outside to go potty and then get his morning meal ready, all the while thinking, “that &*$&^@%^@($%*&! dog”.
And this happens, at some point in time, Every.Single.Day.
Let’s switch focus for a moment…What do we do when we want a behavior repeated? We reward it. Behavior happens, food reward delivered. Our dog sits, we like that – reward. The dog waits at the door – that’s nice too, reward. We practice our recalls day in and day out and pile high the payments when our dog happily comes to us. When we want behavior repeated, we reward it all the time. And it repeats. This makes us happy, the dog is doing what we like. But here’s the thing – the dog doesn’t get that we “like” some random behavior. He’s only doing it because he’s learned there is a predictable payment happening for that behavior.
Guess what? When the dog counter surfs or “insert-any-annoying-‘bad’-behavior-we-hate”, he doesn’t get that we don’t like that, or that it is “bad”. He is doing it because there is some reward happening for him all – or even just some of – the time.
Sometimes it helps to take the emotion out of our dealings with our dog. It’s hard, but you can do it – just stop, breathe, and think about things from your dog’s perspective. How is sitting everytime you ask – because it’s been highly reinforced – any different, from the dog’s perspective, from jumping on the counter because 9 out of 10 times there is something there that he finds really worth his while. In the dog’s brain, which is equivalent to that of a 3 year old human child, there is no difference between the two behaviors. Both are being performed because both of them are providing reinforcement.
Dogs do not have the ability to grasp concepts like “right and wrong, good and bad”. They only do what works for them from the standpoint of either getting something intrinsically desirable or avoiding something intrinsically aversive. Humans are the ones that ascribe meaning to random behaviors and dogs don’t have the ability to make moral or ethical judgements.
When you can step out of yourself and your annoyance and avoid an emotional reaction to an unwanted behavior, you can start to clearly analyze what is going on and formulate a plan to fix it. For that counter-surfing dog, the simplest fix is: remove all possibility for reinforcement for the behavior. That would mean management in the form of careful supervision, crating, gating, and leashing. As well as keeping all tempting tidbits out of the dog’s reach – for now at least.
And this is where we should step in with a plan to make sure all alternative behaviors are highly reinforced. Lots of positive reinforcement for “four on the floor” when around elevated, flat surfaces. Teach your dog to be all Zen and ignore tempting items that are in reach. Making sure that dog has zero chance for ANY reward for ANY counter surfing nonsense. Let him put his paws up there and see there’s nothing to see. Reward like crazy anytime that dog notices something on the counter, catches a whiff with his nose, side-eyes that fresh baked tray of muffins, but keeps his paws on the floor. And build a strong history of reinforcement for anything that is NOT counter surfing when counter surfing is even a tiny option. Then just make sure that the management is hardcore and from here on out there is not one time that dog has access to anything on any counter. Not at least until he’s proven he’s reliable and will ignore such tempting treats.
See, dogs don’t know the difference between “good and bad” behaviors. They just do what works for them. If we can observe behavior without emotion, and see it in a clinical sense, we avoid these ideas that creep into our heads like, “the dog is spiteful, he’s being a jerk, he’s stupid, he’s just trying to piss me off, I really can’t stand this dog sometimes”. We can see a training opportunity instead of an annoying event that we are upset about and may feel defeated over. It really does all just come down to “what’s in it for the dog”. He’s only doing what makes sense for him. It’s up to us to provide learning opportunities that set the dog up to make choices we deem appropriate, so that those choices can be rewarded. And in the mean time, prevention is key.