Troubleshooting “Bad” Behavior

The first thing to consider when you are trying to stop bad behavior in your dog is why the dog is doing what she is doing.  Dogs do what works.  If a dog is rewarded for doing something, she will probably do it again.  It may be obvious what the reward is with a behavior such as counter surfing (the dog gets your sandwich), or harder to detect with a behavior that is self-rewarding, such as some forms of barking.  Food, attention, getting to go outside, getting to sniff or chase something, and an inherent good feeling are all examples of things your dog may find rewarding.  Dogs are not spiteful.  They do not do things because they are angry.  They do not understand the concept of money.  They do not put the same value you do on your brand new leather sofa, $200 pair of shoes, or $2000 carpet. 

Once you’ve figured out why your dog is doing the particular thing you don't like, the next step is to decide on a plan for how to stop it.  A good plan of action has three parts – management, teaching an alternate behavior, and maintaining the good behavior. 

Management is the first step in creating a plan to deal with inappropriate behavior, and it simply means preventing the behavior as much as possible while you work on training.  For example, if your dog is barking at people walking past your house, prevent her from being able to see out the window by crating her in a room at the back of your house, closing the blinds, or taping a piece of cardboard over the window.  The idea is not to give your dog the chance to practice the bad behavior because “practice makes perfect”.  Every time your dog practices the bad behavior, it becomes more of a habit, and will be harder to change. 

The second step is to choose an alternate behavior you would like your dog to do instead and teach her to do it.  Your dog is much more likely to do what you want if you tell her what you do want her to do, rather than only what you don't want her to do.  For instance, if you don’t like your dog rushing to the door to greet visitors, teach her to stay on a mat in another room, or go to her crate when the doorbell rings.  It is important when choosing an alternate behavior that you find one that the dog cannot physically do while performing the behavior you don’t like.  For instance, “sit” is not an appropriate alternate behavior to “barking” because a dog can sit and bark at the same time. 

The third step is really more of a way of life for you and your dog.  It involves incorporating the new behavior you’ve trained into every day life, and continuing to reward it at least occasionally to keep your dog doing the right thing.  Always remember to praise good behavior and ignore bad behavior as much as possible, and set your dog up to succeed.  Attention can be very rewarding for dogs, even if it is negative attention, so ignoring what you don’t like is better than yelling about it.  If your dog is doing something you cannot ignore because it is dangerous, redirect her to something else that you can reward.  For example, if she steals your shoe and takes it away to chew on it, calmly approach her and offer her an appropriate chew toy, and praise her if she takes it instead.  (And then put your shoe away where she can’t get it.) 

If you follow these steps, and have a little patience, you will be well on your way to solving any problem behavior in your dog!

Important Points to Remember

  • Ask yourself why your dog is doing the thing you don’t like and what the reward is
  • Prevent the behavior as much as you can
  • Teach an alternate behavior that is physically incompatible with the one you don’t like
  • Praise good behavior, ignore bad behavior

For more information on teaching your dog to be better behaved, check out the books below, available from

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