Dogs Trust

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How to stop bad behaviour

Why do dogs behave badly?

Puppies are not born knowing which behaviours are okay from our point of view, and which are not, so although we might not always like the way our dogs are behaving they can’t misbehave deliberately, and doing things just to spite us is just not possible for dogs!

Barking at people walking past the window, digging up the garden, eating food rubbish out of the bin, running off with and chewing our slippers or going to the toilet in the house are all examples of behaviours we might not be happy about, and yet these actions – barking, digging, scavenging, chewing, toileting - are all normal dog behaviours!

It’s important that we help them to learn when we’re happy for them to do certain things, and when we’re not, otherwise they have no way of knowing what we expect from them!

A dog in a cardboard box Take chasing for instance, so that they get to enjoy this natural behaviour and not become frustrated because they can’t, we can teach our dogs that it’s okay to enjoy chasing a toy, all safely under our control, but teach them not run off chasing after joggers or motorbikes and to stay close to us instead when needed.

Unlike children, we can’t necessarily teach dogs to understand the risks involved with chasing things like traffic, but we can teach them a much safer alternative and make it so rewarding for them that they’ll always choose that instead, and it will become their routine behaviour through practice!

Dogs aren’t born understanding what is good or bad behaviour, they only know whether behaving a certain way works out well for them and results in something great happening, or not! If a certain action makes them feel good then they’re likely to behave that way again, but if it doesn’t work out so well for them they’re unlikely to bother doing it again. So it’s up to us to teach our dogs what to do to get a good outcome, making sure we always reward the behaviours that we want them to do again!

How to prevent bad behaviour from the beginning

Puppies need to meet a range of different people during their ‘socialisation period’ (between about 3 and 12 weeks of age) so they accept contact with people as a normal and positive part of life.

They also need to learn about all the different things that people do when handling dogs - like being handled all over, picked up, their feet being handled and cleaned, ears examined, coat groomed, and nails cut.

They also need to learn about people coming in and out of the house, or coming to put post through the door then heading off again! It’s also important for pups to learn that sometimes people are great fun and play, but at other times they do boring things like watch TV and don’t necessarily want a puppy in their face!

The aim of a structured socialisation programme is to give puppies the best chance of coping well with the various types of people, circumstances in which they appear, and ways in which they interact with dogs. To make sure they see people as consistently positive, the introduction of new experiences needs to be gradual and controlled. It is also important that puppies are not already anxious or fearful when they interact with people, as this will increase the risk that they will associate contact with these negative feelings.

Two puppies running together  

Preparation

  • Plan in advance how you will ensure that your puppy can experience different types of people. The more the better, but should include at least one person of each gender, someone above retirement age and children. Meeting at least one older child (> 8 years), and also a baby or toddler is ideal, as these are very different experiences for a puppy! For safety, children should only have contact with puppies under supervision. Where access to young children is not possible, it helps if they can hear recordings of children playing and babies crying using good quality recordings.
  • Prepare in advance any items which will help broaden your puppy’s experience of people. For example, having a brightly coloured and rustling jacket (like those worn by postmen or delivery people), a motorcycle helmet, a cap, a back-pack, a pushchair, a zimmer frame and an umbrella available will mean that you can introduce all these things positively.
  • Make sure your puppy is somewhere where they feel safe and relaxed when meeting people or new things.
  • Have toys and food treats available before starting sessions.
  • Check that you are familiar with behavioural signs of fear and anxiety, so you can tell when your puppy has had too much.

Socialisation to different types of people

  • Puppies should be familiar and confident with you and immediate family members before you start to introduce new people. If your puppy seems worried, for example by cowering, moving away, trembling, or pulling back on contact, give them extra time. Where a puppy is worried contact with people should be quiet and calm. Crouching or sitting a short distance away from the puppy and encouraging them to approach is good, because you can be sure you are not forcing too much contact. Positive approach should be rewarded with food treats. Build up to gentle stroking on the chest area: avoid putting the hand directly towards the puppy’s head as this may feel threatening for them. With increased confidence, the puppy can be gradually stroked on the shoulder, back, flanks and head.
  • Once your puppy confidently approaches and interact with all family members, you can start introducing new people. Evaluate how he or she reacts to each new person, and adjust the programme if you see signs of anxiety.
  • When your puppy is confident with several new people, you can start thinking about introducing them in different circumstances. For example, coming and going through a threshold (e.g. door in a household), and meeting people when they are in an outside garden or run.
  • The socialisation programme can then be expanded to include contact with children where possible. Older children can interact with puppies, but should be helped to understand how to handle and play with puppies before the interaction begins. It can be better to get children to start by doing some simple training exercises that the puppy already knows (e.g. sit), rather than handling straight away. Contact with children should be supervised at all times to prevent any inadvertent negative experiences for either. Where younger children or babies are introduced to puppies, they should be held by their parents.
  • You can use ‘props’ to help introduce your puppy to the different types of things that people wear and do. For example asking visitors to interact with the puppies wearing a florescent jacket, motorcycle helmet or backpack makes for interesting dinner parties! These experiences will help puppies to learn that all these variations of how people appear are a normal part of life.

Different types of interaction

  • Pups need to accept that people come and go regularly from the house, and that this is not a cause for either anxiety or excitement. They also need to learn that periods of contact with family members sometimes involves interaction, but sometimes also periods when people are busy doing other things. Plus, accepting all sorts of different contact such as examining their ears, smoothing them all over, reaching over them, stepping over them, drying their feet and grooming them is important to prepare for domestic life.
  • Getting puppies used to people coming and going just needs the help of some friends or neighbours! Ask people to pop by for coffee, but prepare them to always wait for the puppy to be quiet and calm before saying hello. Lots of experiences of people coming and going makes it a less exciting event – and only getting a fuss when they are quiet will help them to learn how to react when visitors come to the house.
  • To ensure that puppies have the right expectations of contact with people, they need to both have periods of fun training and play, but also learn that sometimes people are present but not interacting with them.
  • As part of the interaction with people, make sure that your puppy is handled all over, picked up and cuddled and have their feet and ears examined.
  • Throughout all of these interactions check for signs of fear or anxiety. If you spot these behaviours, stop the handling. At the next session, start with less intense handling, or go back to someone more familiar, to make sure that he or she is completely relaxed before progressing.

How to stop bad behaviour

  1. A trusting relationship is key!

It’s important to build a strong, lasting bond with your dog so that they can trust you to keep them feeling safe and secure and lead them away from dangerous, frightening or over-exciting situations where they might easily become overwhelmed. Having fun with your dog, playing with them, training them and getting them out and about to explore the world around them, as well as settling down for quiet time together too and giving them confidence on their own, will help your bond go from strength to strength. The good news is that Dog School classes teach all these things!

  1. Understand what your dog tells you and how to give them what they need to be happy

Learning exactly what your dog needs to be happy and confident, as well as how to recognise how they are communicating with you and what they need from you at any given moment will enhance your relationship and help your dog to trust you. Our page on dog body language will help you understand your dog’s communication and to respond appropriately to avoid them getting into difficult situations.

  1. Preparation makes perfect - setting things up for success

You can help your dog to behave well by guiding them into being much more likely to make good choices, so they just can’t go wrong in the first place!

Ask yourself “how can I set things up so my dog will behave in the right way?” before you do anything new, then prepare what you need to make sure your dog does well! For example, if you’re visiting friends with your dog this might be very exciting. They might jump up, bark and be unsettled. Planning ahead and taking calm, relaxing things for your dog to do, such as their blanket to lie on with a long-lasting tasty treat or food-stuffed Kong toy, gives them something quiet, rewarding and enjoyable to do that you can be proud of!

  1. Always reward good behaviour

Dogs learn through the consequences of their own actions. If something good happens to them directly in response to their behaviour, they’ll be more likely to behave that way again as it worked out well for them. If things don’t work out well for them, well they probably won’t behave that way again!

We can help them learn that ‘good behaviour makes good things happen’ by always being ready to reward them for being good, or by making the way we’d like them to behave rewarding all by itself! Rewards can be anything that your dog likes, for example being groomed or travelling in the car! It all depends on what your dog enjoys! All dogs are different so they will all find different things rewarding, however most dogs enjoy food, toys and our attention!

  1. Ignore – or interrupt if you can’t – unwanted behaviour

If your dog is behaving in a way you’d prefer they didn’t be careful not to accidentally reward this by giving them attention in any form. If you can, ignore them until they are doing something different that you do like and reward that much better choice. If you can’t ignore them – they might be doing something dangerous or upsetting someone else – then interrupt them calmly and quietly, without too much direct attention, and give them something else to do instead that you are happy about and can then reward so they know this is a much better choice in future.

  1. There’s no need to punish – getting angry never helps!

Dogs Trust Dog School encourage fun, reward based training so that your dog will always enjoy learning, and do not advocate any training which causes pain or fear.

Experts now know that historical training methods which use punishment or pain can lead to a number of behavioural problems. These include confusion and fear (which we now know is the biggest cause of the problems that people seek professional help for) as well as a breakdown in the bond between you and your dog.

Your dog needs you to be someone they can trust to guide them safely through life, so it’s important to emphasise that getting cross or frustrated when they’re getting things wrong is counter-productive. Getting angry can make your dog worried or confused about you, which can potentially lead to problems in the future.

  1. Be clear and consistent

Consistency means always giving your dog clear guidance on how you’d like them to behave and making this good behaviour rewarding for them, so they’ll do it again! Making sure everyone in your household treats your dog in the same way means they won’t become confused! Think carefully about how you would like your dog to behave and make sure you always reward these behaviours. Decide on a rule and be consistent in sticking to it so your dog always knows what to expect.

Learn more about dog training