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Three Steps For Changing Problem Behavior in Pets

Updated on June 28, 2012

Dog jumps on visitors


I received an email from a client whose dog, Missy, often jumps on guests who visit her home. Sharp “no's” didn't seem to be working and she was looking for suggestions on how to stop the annoying habit.

I use a three-step approach to changing problem behavior. The first step begins by using if/then statements, to give the pet a clear understanding of the results of bad behavior. For Missy, I suggested the client begin by telling the dog that company would be arriving shortly, followed by something like “Missy, if you jump on my friend you will be put in time-out.” The time-out used will vary from pet to pet, but a good option is 5-10 minutes in her crate. If she uses the crate for other purposes (for example crating while the owner is at work), then use an alternate room, such as a laundry room or bathroom for time-outs. Time-out spaces should be void of food, toys and companions, but should have light. I recommend setting a timer. The pet should be allowed out only when they are quiet and have stayed in for the “punishment.” When I go to free the animal, I verbally remind them again of the rule, using the same if/then statement. Frequent reminders are important; this is especially true of new pets or young animals.

Avoid using the word “not” or any contraction of it, such as can't, won't, couldn't or wouldn't. Every time we speak to our animals our minds send out accompanying pictures. We don't have to consciously think about doing this, it just happens at the time the thought is birthed. By using if/then statements, we are explicitly showing the animal the consequences of disobedience. The problem with that three letter word “not” is that there is no picture to accurately portray the meaning. We two-leggeds use a circle with a slash crossing through it to depict an absence or void, but that symbol is meaningless to animals. When working with pets of any kind it is wise to eliminate those words entirely from one's vocabulary.

Step two involved telling the owner to follow-up the inf/then statement with her expectation of appropriate behavior. Something like “Missy, I want you to keep all four paws on the floor when my friend walks in” would be very helpful. Pets, like human toddlers, respond much more quickly to suggestions of what they should do, rather than what to “not” do. The inability or difficulty the brain has processing these types of words has long been a fascination of neurolinguists. There are even statistics from insurance companies documenting the number of claims where drivers were traveling along deserted country roads, fully awake and unimpaired, and drove into utility poles. The driver thinks “don't hit the telephone pole” but the brain misses that nasty little “don't” and processes “hit the telephone pole.” By telling Missy the behavior the owner wished her to exhibit, Missy is far more likely to understand clearly and comply.

Step three involves reward. Dogs, cats, horses and other animals enjoy being paid for a job well done just as much as humans. Rewards can be anything from a favorite food treat, a belly rub, ride in the car or five minutes of play with a favorite toy; the key is using a reward that rings Missy's chimes. When first incorporating these steps I find it helpful to offer frequent opportunities for positively rewarding the dog. If Missy is jumping up on every family member that walks in the door, her owner has the chance to “pay” Missy every time she keeps all four paws on the ground when someone enters the house.

This techniques works well with a variety of behavior problems. One of the dogs I rescued had been removed from a puppy mill and suffered from extreme anxiety in addition to physical neglect. Whenever she was left alone in our house she would go and pee on the dog bed. It just so happens that this dog is a Pug; I often joke, “pig, pug, there is only one letter difference” when explaining how food motivated she is. Here are the phrases I used to modify her behavior: “If you pee in my house you are going into your crate. I want you to go outside and pee in the grass. If you have peed in the grass, when I get home I will give you a treat.” She was cured of her soiling habit in less than three weeks. Of course then we had to put her on a diet, but that is a subject for another time!

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