In recent weeks, we have talked a lot about how dogs learn and the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in building trust. But what happens when we have a problem behavior that, despite our best efforts, will not go away?

First, we have to understand what is going on from the dog’s perspective. One of the big lessons I had to learn when we first started to take in numerous fosters was that dogs learn whether you are teaching them or not.  They learn by the exact same methods as we use when employing positive reinforcement techniques.  But what exactly does this mean?

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean.  This came up yesterday while I was on our daily bike ride with Sully, who by the way, is now faster than an 18-speed bike in the lowest gear with me pedalling as fast as physically possible.

In order to make the ride safe and healthy for my boy, I make sure that I let him dictate when we go fast, when we slow down, and set the general pace for both.  To accomplish this with minimal strain on me, I make use of the higher gears of the bike when needed.  img_6406

So this is what used to happened when we were preparing to sprint, I have always said “ready……set………GO” and Sully is off like a banshee on the word “go”.   But now, because keeping up with him requires me to drop the bike into the low gears, as soon as he hears the “click” of the gear shift, he takes off!

Fortunately, he listens well and learns very quickly, so a “not yet” is enough to slow him down and keep my butt on the bike!

The lesson here is a very important one to learn.  It is, perhaps, even more, important to realize the implications for behavior issues that we have all dealt with at one time or another.

Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has worked with dogs has had a friend, acquaintance, or complete stranger ask them a question that went something like this…

“My dog Muffy just can’t learn to pee outside, she always goes in the house?” or

“Why does my Brutus always chew on my shoes as soon as I leave the house?” or

“why does [dog’s name] always do [unwanted behavior] even when I teach him to do it right?”

Barring some physical or mental issue, which does happen, but very rarely, the answer is always “you taught him/her that behavior, either directly or indirectly”.  Put another way, the behavior is being reinforced, whether the owner knows it or not, by the environment(or owner).

Just like Sully learned to associate the “click” of the gears with an activity he loves, if a dog associates an activity(whatever it may be) with a positive outcome, then that behavior will become more and more prevalent.

So the first step when trying to fix a problematic behavior, and the advice I always give those that ask is to look at things  through your dog’s eyes.  What is reinforcing the behavior that you want to stop?

With that simple question we can figure out what is going on “behind the scenes” and formulate a plan to reinforce the behavior we want, instead of the one we don’t.

Have you ever dealt with a situation where your dog learned something on his/her own? If so, we would love to hear about it in the comments!

21 replies on “What are you teaching your dog?”

  1. This was extremely interesting for me and how dogs learn. Not only from voice commands but subtle sounds going on around them.

  2. I like taking my cocker spaniel Rusty out sometimes through our back porch. He’s always so eager to rush down the stairs, so when he does, I make a “snick” sound with my mouth out of frustration (I want to be sure my landlord hasn’t left any gates open first.) Whenever he hears that sound, he automatically slows down and looks back. He’s learned that the “snick” is my upset sound, so he responds to it. I was so HAPPY and still am whenever he does that, haha

    1. Isn’t it funny how they learn our sounds and mannerisms? All my dogs will respond to non-talking cues much quicker than spoken ones

  3. So true – we adopt Shih Tzu’s and while they are super duper stubborn, we’ve had to learn to train ourselves first so that we can help them learn in the way that’s the best for all of us!

  4. Fabulous article Paul. Loved it and so true. We are constantly teaching our dogs, whether we mean to or not. For example, my dogs have my husband wrapped around their paws. They know they don’t get away with anything with me, so they go to him. They love cheese of course, so now all they have to hear is my husband touching the pack in the fridge, and they’re at his feet, and yes he reinforces that behaviour by giving them some. I’ve have tried to explain how he has created that behaviour, but after years I am about to admit defeat. Training my dogs has been a snap compared to my hubby.

  5. Funny enough but yes, Taffy has learned all sorts of things on her own, just by the routines at our house, but mostly I pretty much teach mom stuff. Love Dolly

  6. Yoda learned all the tricks from watching Bean. Sometimes that means he’s also learned from her how to manipulate us.

  7. Oh gosh yes. My 4 month old Aussie puppy is still learning potty training. He is great overnight and while we are away as he is kept in his crate. But he still has issues with peeing in the house in between potty breaks. He is 4 months so he should be able to hold his pee pee for 4 hours, right? Well. Last night, for example, we were carving pumpkins and all 5 of the dogs were sitting or lying under the kitchen table watching us. They had just been out on a potty break about 30 min earlier so I wasnt too worried. Then out of nowhere, a lake of pee appears and Chappie, the pup, is trying to hide. So, I tell him no, put him out, and of course he doesnt go. So we come back inside. He couldnt possibly have more pee in his system right? Wrong! He walks over and pees again right in front of all of us. I would be lying if I said I didnt raise my voice and get upset. And usher him back outside for a while. He does this about every other day. I know he is on the brink of being trained and I want to let him out into the house with the rest of the dogs but…for now he stays gated in the kitchen. Sometimes I think he pees to get attention! Thoughts?

  8. Thanks for the great post, Layla is really good at listening to me but she does have a stubborn side to her sometimes, she is only off leash in the dog park and there she is really good plus when she wants to go home she tells me by lying in the middle of the pathway facing the exit glaring at me BOL,

  9. Mr. N has brains. We went to the pet store and he saw another dog doing a sit pretty and getting a treat and he immediately went over and imitated that dog. He didn’t know that trick before!

  10. Ruby, our dog, has learned many things from the cats, who were here first. Sometimes I think she thinks they are the boss of the house. LOL

  11. You bring up a really important point, when dogs do something we don’t like, they have their reasons for doing it. Sometimes by carefully monitoring our behavior, we can see if we are inadvertenally reinforcing that behavior.

  12. Dog training is somethng you need to commit to. It seems very easy to teach a dog the wrong things by accident doesn’t it? I loved your example story, Sully is keyed up to expect things but is learning ‘not yet’ and you don’t get towed down the road LOL!!

    Locating anything you may have accidentally done to put the wrong behavious in place means you need to be self-aware. Gosh dogs are tricky – huh?

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