The #1 Question To Ask When Your Dog Is Misbehaving

Training Philosophy

The #1 Question To Ask When Your Dog Is Misbehaving


(Note that the following applies to voluntary behaviors such as jumping up on people, not listening to recalls, ignoring cues – for unwanted behaviors rooted in emotional issues such as anxiety, reactivity etc. a different approach is needed)

I see many different dogs with many different issues. From the overly exuberant 100lb Bulldog mix who can’t walk on leash without dragging his people to the tiny 5lb Poodle who won’t stop begging and barking at the dinner table, the underlying principles of behavior are still the same.

Every time I see a problematic behavior, there is one first question that needs to be explored and answered.

If you can become good at finding and understanding the answer to this question, you will probably be able to solve most of your dog’s behavior problems by yourself, no trainer needed.

Let’s talk about a general dog’s mindset first. Dogs are experience junkies (want to know more about this? Check out Your Dog, the Experience Junkie). They live to explore, be curious, get access to resources and most of all, make themselves happy.
They are completely egocentric. Your dog doesn’t care about making you happy, about making other dogs happy, about being a good boy – his main goal in life is to maximize his own happiness.

Since making himself happy often coincides with being a good boy, it is easy to think that he must have some inherent wish to behave well – but truly, he doesn’t. That becomes clear as soon as the good boy decides to chase the cat, because it is so much more fun than sitting still.

Everything your dog does all day long is geared towards maximizing this happiness and gaining resources and experiences. These can vary: from the obvious ones (food, water, a comfortable place to sleep) to the less obvious ones (sniffing interesting smells, rolling in dead animals).
Some dogs will be more intense and relentless than others in pursuing these goals, but they all pursue them in some way.

Any kind of obedience we see in our dogs ultimately stems from us having been able to show the dog that he will get happiest by doing what we ask. That really is all there is to training: Show and explain to the dog that he will gain happiness by cooperating and working together with us.

When I meet a dog who misbehaves (in whichever way that is), the first question is:

Where does he find his reinforcement?

Again, the dog’s sole goal in life is maximum happiness. If he is exhibiting a behavior we don’t like, it is likely because he can maximize his happiness by doing so.
Somewhere in his mischief he finds access to hidden reinforcement, and we need to find that reinforcement and limit the access.

One of my favorite examples is leash walking. It is often taught by using treats and rewarding the dog when he is not pulling. That is a good idea, the more important question however is how to react when the dog is pulling?

A dog who pulls at the end of his leash is not sad because he doesn’t get a cookie from his owner’s treat bag. He doesn’t really care about the owner’s reinforcement much at all, because there is a way bigger reinforcement in the situation: Getting to walk, sniff, explore.
Moving forward is where the reinforcement lies in leash walking, and this is what needs to be limited in order to explain to the dog how to walk.

Leash popping a dog who pulls is often unsuccessful for this exact reason: Even though the dog gets leash popped, he still gets to keep on going – for many dogs that’s an acceptable deal. They are still experiencing the reinforcement they are after, and are willing to take some discomfort or pain in exchange for getting to move on.

Have a dog who gets distracted in a group training session? Take the reinforcement away. Don’t let him stand and observe the other dogs as long as he wants, hoping that he will eventually redirect to you. If it doesn’t happen within 20 seconds, it is probably not going to happen.

Some dogs are so enamored by other dogs that just standing still and watching them is a huge reinforcement to them. In this case, move 10ft away and see if your dog will train with you. He won’t? Move another 10ft away. See if he can train yet. He won’t? Repeat until you have found a large enough distance to the other dogs that he can focus.

My own dog Kix is a herding bred Border Collie and as a result very motion-sensitive. Staring, barking, running around when there is motion are hugely rewarding activities for her. When she was a little 2 month old puppy I took her to a group training class. She was strangling herself at the end of her leash , barking, foaming spit at her mouth, the motion of the other dogs made her go insane.

I stepped away from the class. I walked down the driveway of the training field. When I had reached my car (300ft from where the class was held), she could finally train with me. So we trained there, and the next time we trained 280ft away, and the next time 260ft away, and eventually we could train next to other moving dogs.

I had no chance to compete with the motion of the other dogs at first – my cookies and toys were laughable options when there was the huge reinforcement of herding the other dogs. So I removed that external reinforcement, and suddenly my toys and treats became valuable and interesting. By slowly re-introducing the external reinforcement while not allowing my dog to enjoy it, I could get the behavior I wanted – focus on me with movement around – which would not have been possible without limiting the access to it.

Have a dog who jumps up at people entering the house incessantly? Yes, giving treats for 4 feet on the floor is a good idea. But even more important: Remove the actual reinforcement. Your dog is excited and he wants pets, attention, play. Yelling “no” or showing away a dog who jumps up actually shows him that the reinforcement lies in jumping up: Jump up and you get a (albeit rough) round of games.

Instead, introduce a calm demeanor and make it clear that jumping results in no access to the people entering. Recruit some friends who will enter and exit your house a bunch of times in a row and who will ignore (or leave) when the dog jumps up, and calmly pet him when he has all feet on the ground.

Whatever the behavior problem is, look at what your dog gets out of it. He is only doing what he is doing because it appears to him that this is the way to maximize happiness. We need to change that perception by taking away reinforcement when he does what we do not want, and giving him access to reinforcement when he does what we want.

Reinforcers are so much more than the cookies in our pocket – to your dog, the whole world is full of them. Examine carefully where he finds what motivates him, and how it drives his behavior.

Happy training!