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It's All Foreign to Them

By Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA CCBC

No one ever said life would be easy for a dog in our human-run world. Our canines view the world as black or white. Unfortunately, humans put their dogs in the "gray zone" due to inconsistency when teaching basic manners. Take jumping, for example. Jumping, a normal behavior in dogs is usually unacceptable to humans, unless, of course, the owner is wearing jeans. Dogs are not fashion conscious. When a dog is placed in the "gray zone," he becomes confused and ignores the demands of his owner. He doesn’t know better unless you teach him what you expect.

Dogs, like humans, learn through experiences. What is rewardable? What is not? What is safe? What is dangerous?

Imagine: You are shipped off to an island where the dominant species speaks a language completely unknown to you. You approach the home where you will live with no idea what is expected of you. Being a friendly American, you walk up to the house and ring the doorbell. The islander opens the door, gives you a dirty look and slams the door in your face. You now knock on the door. Your second guess brought about a different result – you are motioned to come in. On this island, doorbells are only to be rung by the elderly. As you step in, the islander once again becomes angry. You step back out. Shoes are not permitted indoors. Eventually you receive punishment for eating at the table, sleeping in a bed, and listening to music. If you only knew the rules and could interpret what these people were saying, you'd feel a lot better about life right now. The islander obviously thinks you are spiteful and your meek smiles and demure attitude certainly prove how guilty you are.

Think how confused your dog is every day when the message is unclear. Virtually all natural dog behaviors are unacceptable to humans: chewing, using its mouth to play, jumping, grabbing at objects, finding food in a variety of places, urinating whenever and wherever, and defending himself when feeling threatened. How could we ever expect a dog to "know better" if we do not clearly communicate it to him?

People spend too much time focusing on what the dog is doing wrong and ignoring him when he is behaving properly. Praise reinforces good behavior. Let's look at a few common behavior problems and methods to communicate what you want.

Counter Surfing. Rewards are anything your dog will actively work for. They aren't necessarily food treats. Pens, paper, and remotes can be a reward to the dog. If you chase him, now you have reinforced his running away with remote in mouth. No wonder the dog jumps up on the counter and steals things-it gets your attention! Secondly, think about the adrenaline rush you might get when playing the slot machines. Do you get the same rush when putting a quarter into a vending machine? Why not? By leaving food on the counter, you are allowing your dog to play the slots-sometimes he gets nothing; sometimes he gets crumbs; other times he hits the jackpot T-bone steak! No wonder he keeps jumping up. He never knows what he might find. To stop this behavior, you must clear your counters of anything that the dog finds rewardable and be CONSISTENT with it for at least 2­3 weeks. Once the behavior is no longer rewarded, it usually is extinguished. Why bother trying if there is no reward?

Stealing. So many frustrated dog owners comment that their dog only "steals" things HE KNOWS HE SHOULDN'T HAVE. How can a dog possibly know that? What he does know is that certain items found in certain places provoke a wonderful game of chase. Dogs adore this game and quickly learn how to rouse the family to chase him. He picks up an article (not from his toy box since no one pays attention to him when he goes there), shows you he has it, then waits for everyone to get up and RUN, RUN, RUN. What fun for the dog! Instead, encourage him to come to you, reward him for giving the article up, go to your dog's toy box and have a fun game of retrieve instead. Each and every time he goes to HIS toy box you should be there reinforcing this behavior. Drop morsels of treats in the bottom of the box to encourage him to go there.

To guarantee success, you should follow certain rules yourself:

First, each positive performance that the dog gives you MUST receive your feedback and be rewarded (petting, food treat, a walk, ball, tug, etc.-whatever YOUR DOG LIKES).

Second, management is of utmost importance to guarantee success. The house must be dog proofed during the learning process. This might include closing closet doors, cleaning off counters, emptying garbage bags, ignoring all attention barking or putting him in his crate when you cannot watch him.

Third, a well-exercised, mentally stimulated dog is a good dog. Spend lots of time having fun with him. Play his favorite games, take him for a walk or a ride in the car, and most of all, don't waste his brain -- train it!

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