Most bad habits start off seemingly benign. Your dog whimpers and you ask him if he wants to go for a walk. Your dog barks and you ask him "what's wrong?" Your dog lifts his paw on you to ask for a pet .. so you pet him. Some people even encourage it: they want their puppy to paw at the door when he wants to go outside. It's hard to imagine that these behaviors could become problematic down the road.
The Problem Snowballs
The problem starts to build when you are on the phone, or watching a movie, eating dinner or sleeping in. The behavior is the same, but the context has changed. Your dog whimpers, barks, paws at your leg or at the door - but you're busy - so you ignore him. He doesn't get what he's accustomed to getting, so he persists. The whining becomes louder, the barking becomes more demanding, the pawing becomes more insistent. Rinse and repeat over several months and the intensity of the problem behavior can reach Himalayan proportions. As a dog trainer I see many dogs throw fits of frustration; barking for 5, 10, 15 minutes straight or leaving long red welts down the owners leg from incessant pawing. This does not make for a happy dog or a happy owner.
All you really want is to relax and watch a movie, eat your dinner in peace, get some extra sleep or finish your phone call without the sound of your dog's bark echoing through the house. What do you do? Most people attempt one of three scenarios: Scenario 1: Appeasement. The owner finds something, anything, to appease their dog's demands Scenario 2: Verbal Reprimands. The owner yells "no!" or "quiet!" or pushes their dog away. Scenario 3: Physical Punishment. The owner attempts to punish the behavior by using "time outs," shaker cans, citronella sprays, water spray bottles, and correction collars - and both the dog and owner suffer from the unintended side-effects.
Scenario #1: Appeasement - reinforces your dog's demanding behavior.
Scenario #2: Verbal reprimands - amplifies your dog's frustration and reinforces your dog's demanding behavior (negative attention is still attention).
Scenario #3: Punishment - your dog develops a callous to the punishment, your relationship suffers and the problem worsens or manifests into other more serious behavioral issues.
Tip # 1: Create a Schedule
Don't wait for your dog to "tell you" that he has to go potty, or that he wants to play a game. Anticipate your dog's day to day needs and initiate these interactions. Wake him up from a nap to go for a walk, provide pre-planned potty breaks throughout the day, surprise him with a fun game of tug when he's relaxing on his dog bed. Not only does this reinforce calm behavior, but it shows him that he never has to become pushy, because all of his mental and physical needs are routinely satiated. Be pre-emptive. If your three month old puppy cries at 3am every morning because she has to go potty, then set an alarm for a 2am potty trip. If you have a high energy dog that gets boisterous every night at 7pm, then schedule a train and play session for 5pm. If you know that your dog routinely barks for attention every time you're on the phone, then provide a bully stick, stuffed kong or other high value chew before the phone call or the barking ever begins. Leading your dog through a healthy routine is the secret to raising a dog that knows when to play and when to settle. You and your dog will become more in-tune with one and other and everyone wins.
Tip # 2: Train Your Dog With Positive Reinforcement
The great thing about positive reinforcement training is that it teaches dogs to be calm and patient in order to get things that they love most: food, walks, attention, playtime. It strengthens trust and communication, and is the foundation of a healthy relationship. With good training technique you can use positive reinforcement methods to train a high level of impulse control. Click here for training videos that demonstrate impulse control exercises. Training dogs to offer a calm sit and a calm down will provide a polite alternative to the "temper tantrums" that a dog might traditionally default to when he or she becomes frustrated.
How Do I Respond When My Dog Does Become Demanding?
Be patient, and remember that your dog probably has a strong reinforcement history for those demanding behaviors and they will not disappear over night. The best thing to do is to provide an LRS "least reinforcing scenario." When your dog offers the undesired behavior, wait for 3 seconds of calm, and then provide your dog an easy opportunity for reinforcement. Ask your dog for a behavior that you know will come relatively easy to him, and then reinforce. You are reinforcing the absence of the undesired behavior. Piggyback on those few seconds of calm by providing a food toy, or high value chew to keep your dog occupied. This will not necessarily teach your dog not to demand attention, but it will manage the behavior so that he doesn't have the opportunity to practice being pushy. The tips provided above will help to over-ride demanding behavior. For serious cases, enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, and create and implement a behavior modification plan.
It is easier to prevent undesired behavior, with that in mind, puppies should be enrolled in positive reinforcement training classes or private lessons at an early age and owner's should consciously create a healthy routine that satiates their puppy's individual mental and physical needs.
This article was written by Alyssa Lapinel, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant. She is the founder and head trainer of Legends Dog Training, based in San Diego, California. She offers private lessons, group classes and skype training programs. Go to www.legendsdogtraining.com for more information about training services.