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Brian’s Bite-sized Behavior Bits

A Certified Dog Trainer (IACP-CDT) and member of the International Association of Canine Professionals, Brian Bergford has extensive experience as a Dog Behavior Specialist and is the owner of Altitude Dog Training. He also owns Uptown Dog in Longmont, Colorado, and functions as the Director of Training and Behavior for this center which provides Behavior- and Pack Work-driven daycare and boarding. Brian specializes in Pack Work, People Development, Basic through Advanced Training, and Behavior Modification and Rehabilitation.

June 2015 – You just can’t do both

I have a challenge for you: the next time you need to sit down to write someone a note or a letter, breakdance at the same time. I can hear you right now… What? How is that supposed to work? It’s not supposed to work and that’s the point. There are certain activities that cannot be performed at the same time. In dog training lingo, we call these incompatible behaviours and teach them to our dogs through “differential reinforcement.”

The crux of the concept is that if your dog offers certain behaviours that you find distasteful, one of the best ways to stop them from occurring is to substitute different ones. The classic example is a dog that jumps up to greet people. If you teach her to sit when people approach, she can’t possibly be jumping and sitting at the same time, any more than you can pen a letter while breakdancing. Training her to sit when greeting people is easier said than done, but is doable if you’re willing to put in the necessary work.

If your dog is always underfoot in the kitchen, how about having her do a sit-stay in the living room? If she has a nasty habit of charging people at the front door, simply send her to her bed when the doorbell rings. The mechanics of teaching these behaviours and training for reliability is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are plenty of books out there as well as resources online that can help you if you get stuck. You can also connect with a local trainer to guide you through the process and help with the finer points. The key is to identify things you’d like to change as well as solutions to the problems you’ve been having.

Make a list below of five things your dog does that you really don’t care for.
1. ___________________________
2. ___________________________
3. ___________________________
4. ___________________________
5. ___________________________

You may have listed some behaviours like digging in the backyard, chewing on your shoes, etc. Next to each of those items, write out alternative, and incompatible, behaviours. Knowing what you don’t want your dog to do isn’t enough. It’s a start, but you have to move beyond it. You must know what you do want. Once you have a crystal clear picture of what you want your dog to be doing, you are ready to begin the teaching process.

Whatever incompatible action you are teaching your dog, make sure that when you start out, you teach her away from distractions. The last thing you’d want to do is expect her to learn the new behaviour in the real situation. For example, let’s say your dog counter surfs. You’ve identified keeping all four paws on the floor as your alternative behaviour. You know better than to teach this in the kitchen so you take her to the basement because there are no distractions down there – nothing she’d be tempted to jump up on. Instead, she just hangs out near you. You say “Good girl!” and feed her a treats every so often. Several training sessions later, you are practicing on the main level of the house. You continue encouraging her and feeding treats for four-on-the floor. By the time you’ve done a number of short training sessions and are finally working with her in the kitchen, she’s got momentum for the behaviour and if you continue to reward her periodically, she’ll have new habit that you’re much happier with. You will have made staying on the kitchen floor far more rewarding than jumping up on the counter – problem solved.


Content Copyrighted 2015. Brian Bergford. All Rights Reserved.