There are a few things I see in my work with dogs and their people, over and over, that cause the biggest behavior annoyances and bad habits in the home. One specifically is lack of management and it is probably the biggest contributing factor to dog behaviors that humans cannot tolerate and need to stop.
What is management? Arranging the environment and controlling resources in such a way that prevents your dog from practicing unwanted behaviors or learning bad habits.
Hint: resources are anything the dog wants or finds valuable – food, toys, treats, comfy places to sleep, space, freedom, people, etc. Resources should always come “through” the human, and the dog should not have free access to resources until he or she has proven capable of handling the responsibility. Access to certain resources should always be contingent upon appropriate behavior.
Why is management important? The environment is always teaching the dog something. There is always an interaction between your dog and his/her environment that teaches the dog what behaviors work and what behaviors do not. Without monitoring by their humans, the dog generally learns behaviors that we humans tend to find really annoying or downright unacceptable (chewing the wrong things, food thievery, garbage raiding, door dashing, jumping, barking incessantly at everything that passes by the house or yard, the list is endless). Unless humans step in and begin to prevent access to the environment unless the arrangement is such that the dog is learning the right things, all the training in the world will not solve certain issues in the home.
Hint: any behavior a dog rehearses gets more ingrained in that dog’s mind and more likely to be repeated. In order to stop unwanted behaviors, we must first arrange the environment in such a way that the dog does not have the ability to rehearse that behavior. In other words, reinforcement is now not happening. We have put the breaks on allowing that behavior to get further ingrained in that dog’s mind. Then through structured training and management, we can begin to teach NEW behaviors in those situations that used to elicit the OLD behaviors we want to stop. But PREVENTION through MANAGEMENT needs to be the first step.
FREEDOM MUST BE EARNED – management means allowing your dog opportunities to LEARN N’ EARN – learn new appropriate behavior, earn more freedom and access to resources. Don’t just hand your dog for free all these awesome resources you could be using to mold great behavioral choices.
Here’s something we’ve all had a problem with at some point or another – our dogs’ inabilities to greet guests in a polite way. HOW does the MANAGEMENT METHOD deal with this issue? First and foremost, the dog is no longer allowed FREE access to guests or new people – this is accomplished through gating, crating, leashing, and tethering [ see a more detailed explanation of how to curb jumping in this blog post right here –> Jump up, jump up & get down: Getting your dog to quit jumping once and for all. ] Next, scenarios are created that provide LIMITED CHOICES for the dog, and a high likelihood that the dog will at some point CHOOSE a desirable behavior that can then be rewarded (reinforced and hence repeated). The important point here is that the arrangement must be carefully set up to be totally NEUTRAL unless the DESIRED behavior is performed. The non-wordy version: Your dog is set up for success and won’t receive rewards for any behavior except the right one. Take this formula and replicate it anytime you want to get rid of an unwanted behavior and teach a new, appropriate one.
Once your dog is solid in any given situation and totally understands the NEW behavior, you can start allowing little freedoms – maybe now your dog can greet on a leash instead of from behind a gate, then he can greet with just the leash dragging, and then finally he can greet politely when guests come over all on his own with minimal interference by you.
You can’t start in Kindergarten and hop straight through to College-level expectations. Build slowly towards the behavior you want with careful management, good training scenarios, and gradually allowing freedom as your dog succeeds at each step.
Ways to manage your dog:
Crates – I will talk about proper crating and crate training in a future blog. But your dog needs to learn that being crated is just another behavior; he or she should feel comfortable and happy to move in and out of the crate, so that it becomes a safe space for your dog to contentedly hang out in, safely and securely.
Gates – baby gates are great to block off certain areas of the home as well as contain your dog in specific rooms of the house. Most dogs can find a way over, around or through a baby gate so these are not to be depended upon as a 100% failsafe. But just like most things when it comes to living with dogs, your dog must be conditioned to being behind a gate or to respect a gate that is blocking access to an area. Monitoring, redirection, and reinforcement of calm behavior is important when using gates as management tools. They are a “helper” not a babysitter.
Leashes – everyone is familiar with the idea of keeping your dog leashed when out in public so that they stay safe and out of trouble. But consider the possibilities of using a leash in the house as a means of controlling and managing your dog. A leash clipped to your dog’s collar or harness can be a quick way to stop or move your dog without resorting to grabbing a collar, which for some dogs can be seen as threatening or a reason to resist and pull away from you. A leash can also be used as an “umbilical cord” to attach your dog to your waist or belt, etc, so you are hands free, but able to bring your dog with you as you move about the house – hence supervising your dog and having the opportunity to reinforce desirable behavior (like calmly being by your side and waiting for you to finish a task). Like collars, leashes should not be left on your dog when you are not there to directly supervise. Dogs can and will find ways to get hung up, tangled, or strangled if they are dragging around a leash.
Tethering – I love tethering because it brings the dog into the midst of the action (as opposed to crated away somewhere), but in a contained wait. Tethering your dog using a leash to a piece of sturdy furniture, a doorknob, or other sturdy object in your home allows “open air” freedom but with limits. It is a great way to make sure your dog is in your company and seeing what is going on in the home, but managed so you can keep sight of what is going on and look for appropriate behavior to reinforce. Just like I mentioned above, leashes shouldn’t be on your dog unless you are directly there to watch and you should never leave a tethered dog unattended.
Don’t expect your dog to automatically make the right choices. Until you’ve taught him otherwise, dogs will be dogs, and that usually means doing things that humans disapprove of.
One person’s crime of theft, is another dog’s opportunity justly not to be missed. Dogs will take what they can get, that is their scavenging nature.
There is a “free range dog” culture that says, just throw your dog loose in your home and hope for the best; maybe with a little training sprinkled on the side. But the truth is, if you don’t micromanage your dog initially, to reinforce desired behaviors while preventing unwanted ones, you will end up with a little doggy maniac who has made sure to learn every annoying dog-thing possible which will be practiced at every opportunity. Then, on top of the management, you need to make sure you embark on a training journey. And yes, training IS a journey and not necessarily a destination (although there are fun little goal posts met along the way to enjoy and celebrate). My goal is to help give dog parents the information and tools they need to create the sort of relationship and life with their dog that they want – adjusting expectations as needed along the way – and give realistic views on what it takes to really be a present and adequate caregiver, trainer, and best friend to your dog.