Can A Trick Combat Your Troubles?

Happy holiday season! With Thanksgiving and other autumnal holidays having just passed, the warm fuzzies of delicious foods and family time have probably faded and may now be replaced by the more unwelcome cringe-worthy fuzzies of silly arguments, failed recipes, and WHY DID MY DOG DO THAT?!


While I can’t help you with family troubles or cooking disasters, I’d like to try to address preventing some of the naughty things you wish your pup didn’t do when company was over. I’m talking about the jumping, the begging, the up-your-tush-in-the-kitchen. While there is no need for it to be embarrassing, often when our dogs do something that others don’t like or accept, we do indeed feel embarrassed (even if it doesn’t bother us in our everyday lives).


Whenever an unwanted behavior happens, I try to stop and do the following:

  • Observe the environment that caused the behavior
  • Deduce what my dog wants as the reinforcement
  • Assess what needs aren’t being met
  • Decide what I want them to do instead to get that same (or better) reinforcement


By observing the situation, we get a lot of bang for our buck.  We get to see what encouraged the behavior, what other factors were happening, how different reactions from different people affected the outcome, etc. Ultimately, it helps me to decide whether or not my pup has the skillset to do what I’d like him to do in the context of the environment and what is prompting him to do the thing. 


By deducing what the desired reinforcement was for my dog, I can better assess what would be an appropriate reinforcer for an alternative behavior. If my dog is jumping to get attention, I can use attention as the reward for the behavior I want to see. It also just helps me to not be so annoyed with my dog because it lets me shift perspective to his viewpoint. If people were standing around holding plates of yummies and I was sitting like a good girl waiting for them to notice, I might also start barking to make sure they saw me doing my good girl things that get me yummies.


By assessing if the unwanted behavior is a message that there’s an unmet need, I might be able to forgo the detailed training plan meant to “undo” the behavior and instead, just provide the unmet need. If a dog is dashing away from guests when they go to pet him, that pup may need relaxation time in a room without unwanted hands coming toward them. (Here’s a super cute FREE pdf of the enrichment categories to help you assess unmet needs.)


Finally, the sentence that shifts your total approach to training, instead of noting what you don’t want your dog to do, decide what you do want your dog to do. This switches you from feeling helpless to hopeful.


Enter: TRICK TRAINING!!! Fun for you. Fun for them. 

Think of one of the problem behaviors that is lurking in your mind from Thanksgiving (or whatever autumnal holiday you celebrate). Now, think of a behavior that you’d like to see instead. Is there a trick that your dog already knows that can replace the undesired behavior? Is there a trick that your dog doesn’t know that you can teach them? It doesn’t have to be fancy! I’m talking sit, lay, spin, shake, bow, roll, fetch, place, talk, beep beep, anything!


Here’s something that I’m going to try. When we come home, Opie is great. Why? He’s bouncy and goofy, he doesn’t jump on us, is easily directed away from the door, and calms down after a minute or so of scratches. When anyone else comes over, he’s like Benny The Jet Rodriguez putting on his new pair of PF Flyers. Run faster. Jump higher. 


By observing, I decide that it’s the non-household people that make him jump, but it’s not only that. Oftentimes, when people come into our house they are either holding things or they raise their arms in excitement to see both Opie and the kids. Could this be a reason why Opie jumps more? Maybe! So let’s try and put a trick that Opie already knows in place of the jumping. 


Opie can’t jump and take a bow (a trick he already knows) at the same time, so I’m going to use the bow behavior to prevent the jumping behavior. I’ll get some momentum by practicing what he already knows, “Take A Bow”, and then I’ve got to do a cue transfer to *raising hands in the air while saying hiiiii!* (like how my family naturally reacts when they walk into the house). To do this I’ll practice new cue>old cue>behavior>reward and will gradually fade the old verbal cue so it becomes raise hands/hiiiii>bow>treat&pets. After that, I’ll help him generalize it to other people and then to people coming in through the door. 


This is sounding like a pretty good plan to me, but training doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there’s so many things I can’t control. So if I have any doubt that he won’t do it or any reservations about the guests coming in, it’s totally fine (and appropriate) to fall back on my management plan: Opie stays in a bedroom during arrivals until the humans settle down. 

What now?

  • Reflect on any events recently that left you feeling bummed with your training. Is there an alternative behavior you can practice instead? Can you change the environment to make it less likely to occur again?
  • Brush up on your tricks with some short training sessions. It can be nice to have some in your back pocket when you need to help your pup choose a different behavior. 
  • And of course, as always, if you need help figuring out a practical solution that works for you, your pet, and your guests, we’re happy to help! You can schedule a consultation with someone on our team here.


Happy Training!