Reinforcing Good Behavior in Your Dog

Every pet owner would love it if their dog behaved well all the time – or at least most of the time. But teaching your dog to stop barking incessantly, jumping on to things and people, or darting out the door the moment it’s opened – and practically dragging you with her – is easier said than done. I know some pet owners who after using treats, threats, and praise to no avail have learned to accept the fact that their dogs may never change.

Taking Back Control

What they may not understand is that reinforcing good behavior in your canine involves more than simply dispensing treats and praise from time to time. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts you need to observe before you can turn your sometimes adorable and sometimes annoying furry friend into a model pet.

In this article, we shall show you how to take back control of your dog, by teaching him how to behave appropriately through positive reinforcement.

In a 3 part series, we shall look at specific kinds of behavior you may want to put a stop to, and how to go about it using positive reinforcement. These are:

  • How to control your dog’s barking
  • How to stop him biting
  • How to correct resource guarding

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How do you positively reinforce good behavior?

If there are three things that dogs care about, it’s food, playtime and affection (or praise). Positive reinforcement training works by rewarding a dog with praise and treats whenever she does something right. Rewarding your dog motivates her to repeat the same behavior and that’s what makes positive reinforcement such an effective tool.

But there are a number of things you must do and others you must avoid to ensure that you remain in control, and don’t end up becoming a treat dispensing machine.

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The do’s

Get your timing right

For positive reinforcement to work, you must give your dog the reward immediately, otherwise, she may not appreciate the connection between the reward and the action you’re trying to reinforce. For example, if you’re crate training your pup, you should treat her immediately after she obeys your command to come to her crate.

You may want to use a clicker to let your pet know exactly when she’s doing what you want. This removes any ambiguity from your communication during training.

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Keep your commands short

Avoid long and complicated sentences as they will only confuse your dog. Dog commands should be short and to the point. For example, words like “sit”, “fetch”, “here”, “down” are single word commands that are easy for your dog to understand and take you little time to say. Once she executes the command, you can give her a treat or a pat.

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Be consistent with your rewards

You should be clear about which behavior you encourage and which behavior is strictly forbidden. For example, if you don’t like your dog jumping on people, you can’t show her affection when she jumps on you upon arriving home from work; she’ll end up confusing your behavior for approval.

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The don’ts

Don’t use different commands to say the same thing

Anyone who has regular contact with the dog should use the same set of commands. When different people use different commands it only leaves your dog mixed up. You may write the commands down and share with other family members to make the training process smoother.

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Don’t overuse treats

At first, it may be necessary to treat your dog when reinforcing good behavior. However, over time you should reduce your dependence on treats and learn to wean your dog off of them. The way to do this is by gradually replacing treats with affection and praise. Eventually, your pet will learn that good behavior makes you happy and she will be behaving well just to please you.

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Don’t shy away from correcting bad behavior

“No” is a powerful word that can help shape your dog to behave well. Don’t be afraid to use it. Some dog owners fear to correct their dog or saying no when certain behavior gets out of hand. Setting aside time to correct your dog is the best way to confront bad behavior, and this should be differentiated from positive reinforcement.

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How to control your dog’s barking

Dogs bark when they’re trying to tell us something. They bark when they want you to let them out or let them in; to warn you when a stranger enters your front yard and as a greeting to people and other animals. Sometimes dogs bark for no good reason.

Excessive barking or barking at the wrong time can become a source of discomfort not just for you but for your neighbors as well; so if you don’t want to become the talking point in your neighborhood, you will want to bring your dog’s barking under control.

Sometimes you can unintentionally encourage excessive barking by repeatedly giving in to this attention seeking ploy by your dog. When you teach your dog that barking will get her anything she wants, she soon starts using such behavior to get things like food, toys or a walk in the park. That’s why it’s necessary to train your dog to stop barking whenever you command her to and get her to adopt other means to draw your attention, like sitting down when she wants something from you.

Of course, you should be aware that there are breeds that naturally bark more than others, so teaching them to be quiet on cue can be harder. At any rate, you don’t want to stop your dog from barking, particularly if she’s doing so to warn you of imminent danger. What’s important is to teach your dog to bark for the right reasons and to be quiet when requested.

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Why do dogs bark?

Attention seeking

Your dog may bark because they want you to feed them, to go outside or to gain a reward like a toy or play time.

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Territorial or protective barking

Dogs consider the area surrounding their home as their territory and tend to guard it jealously. Whenever people or other dogs approach this territory, they bark as a warning to keep them off. They usually stand tall, tail held high and ears pricked.

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Fear

Your dog may bark because she’s afraid of another animal, person or object or a noise such as thunder. The typical posture for a dog barking out of fear is holding their ears back with the tail kept low.

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Frustration or boredom

If you confine your dog for too long, deny her playtime with friends or keep her outside too long, she’ll bark to let out her frustration.

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Playfulness

Your dog may bark excitedly when she sees other people or dogs, a sign that she’s greeting them and being playful. During such times her body is relaxed and she’ll usually wag her tail.

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Injury or illness

Your dog may bark because she’s in pain or is suffering from a complication like deafness or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Before you address your dog’s barking problem, it’s advisable to seek the help of a vet who will tell you if your dog barking is caused by illness.

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Separation anxiety

When you leave your dog alone for a longer than normal period, your dog may bark nonstop because of separation anxiety. She may also display other unusual behavior like pacing, being destructive or defecating.

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What to do when your dog barks endlessly

A lot of dog owners can tell why their dog is barking just by listening to the barking style. A dog’s bark, for instance, sounds different when they want to go out compared to when they want to eat. So if you’re trying to control your dog’s barking, it’s important to understand why they’re doing it in the first place.

You can control a dog’s barking by confidently handling the specific situation that’s causing her to bark. Understanding the reason for your dog’s behavior enables you to approach the situation with calmness and confidence and, as a result, your dog is able to take the cue from you. This is how you become the pack leader and teach your dog to trust you.

You should be warned though, there are no quick fixes to inappropriate barking behavior. If your dog has been in the habit of barking excessively for a long time, it may take you a long time to change this trait. Your goal in such a situation should be to gradually reduce the amount of barking to an acceptable level rather than trying to eliminate it altogether.

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Training through positive reinforcement

Apart from teaching your dog commands, positive reinforcement is a good way of instilling good manners in your dog, including when to bark and when to be quiet.

For example, if your dog is in the habit of barking for food or for you to let her out, you can use the following method to calm her down and get her to do what you want.

Always start by getting her to sit before you feed her or let her out the door. No doubt this will take some time to enforce, which is why you need to practice “shaping” to change her behavior. Shaping means drawing behavior from your dog that closely resembles the ideal response you want from her. As her behavior starts changing, you keep demanding more from your dog before she gets the reward.

This is how you do it:

  • Start by using a treat which you give your dog (together with praise) every time she follows your command “quiet”- this is continuous reinforcement
  • Once she has learned to be quiet on cue, it’s time to switch to intermittent reinforcement. During this phase, you start giving less of the treats and more praise for desirable behavior.

For example, you may start by giving her a treat 4 out of 5 times she follows your command, and on the fifth time simply praise her without the treat. Keep reducing the treats until you use only praise to reinforce the behavior.

  • Keep giving her praise every time she does the right thing although you can also tone down the praises once she starts consistently going quiet on cue. A simple “good dog” is enough.
  • Keep your dog guessing on whether she’ll get a treat or not, otherwise, she may catch on that you have a pattern of reinforcement and learn to play act accordingly.
  • Vary the kind of treats you use to break the monotony and keep up the fun. If your dog doesn’t respond particularly well to treats, try using toys and games to keep her interested. You could give her her favorite toy whenever she obeys your command to be quiet, followed by a pat and praise to let her know her behavior pleases you.
  • With time you should be able to stop the unnecessary barking without having to use treats or toys.
  • But be cautious not to withdraw the treats too quickly otherwise there may be little motivation for your dog to comply.

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Avoid yelling

One thing you shouldn’t do is yell at your dog to be quiet. Yelling at her makes you sound as if you’re barking along with her.

While positive reinforcement is a good way of controlling your dog’s barking, you may still require extra measures to rein in her wayward behavior.

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Give your dog an outlet for her energy

A lot of the time your dog may bark uncontrollably because she’s feeling cooped up in her pen or in the house. Dogs are social animals that like being in a pack, so they thrive when they’re allowed to socialize and get enough exercise. Having said that, it’s important that when you go for a walk or out to play, you establish some ground rules for letting your dog out so that she doesn’t think that you’re surrendering to her barking. One of the ways to do this is through the positive reinforcement example I gave previously, where you get her to sit and be quiet before opening the door. The idea is that when you go for a walk, you do it on your terms and not your dog’s. When you play a game of fetch you let your dog know what the limits are – like no running until you tell her “fetch” – and you reward her for following the rules.

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Use a head halter

Is your dog in the habit of barking nonstop at other people or animals for sport? Try using a head halter. This is a humane and painless method of restraining your dog, which works better than a choke chain when reining in your dog. Closing your dog’s mouth with a halter – like The Gentle Leader – moves her head back towards you, forcing her to turn her focus back to you, and away from whatever is distracting her. The halter can guide your dog to sit and remain calm at one go. Because of your dog’s wellbeing, you should only use the halter when you’re able to supervise him.

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Interrupt the barking with a distraction

Throwing something in front of your dog (not at her) when she barks temporarily distracts her and shifts her focus away from whatever is stimulating her to bark. For your interruption to work it has to have an impact that’s big enough to cut through her concentration. It can be something like a set of keys, or a soda can with coins, which lands right in front of her when she least expects it. The trick works best when you also pretend to be surprised so that she thinks the object landed there because of her barking. You can use other tricks like slamming the door or whistling loudly to distract her. The key is to make her believe the loud noise is the result of her nuisance barking and not your actions. A word of caution: before you apply this trick, be sure you understand the reasons your dog is barking, otherwise you may discourage barking when it’s healthy, such as a warning that there’s an intruder outside.

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Have her bring stuff to you

Dogs that love retrieving things will look forward to the opportunity to carry stuff around. And if your dog doesn’t like it, you can always teach her this trait through positive reinforcement. By encouraging your dog to bring objects like toys to you or other family members, you also keep her mouth busy so she can’t bark. Of course, you should withhold the toy whenever your dog reverts to undesirable barking just to reinforce the idea that you don’t like it. You also don’t want her to mistake receiving the toy as a reward for bad behavior!

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Play the barking game

Martin Deeley, writing for Cesar’s Way, suggests training your dog to bark on command using a game.

“To get him to bark initially you can have someone ring your doorbell or you can encourage him to bark by “barking” yourself. Have him on a leash during the exercise so that you can distract and stop the barking with a light pop of the leash.”

He advises that you teach your dog that he must immediately go quiet after barking at the doorbell and take up a position near the door from where he can watch for whoever is at the door and allow them to come in. The best part is you can use this game to give your home a sense of security.

Deeley concludes, “So by teaching the commands – ‘Speak,’ ‘Quiet,’ and ‘Place,’ – you have a dog that is both under control, yet ready to give a warning or even threaten if required.”

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Don’t ignore the barking

While ignoring your dog may work in some situations, such as when you’re crate training a pup, it may backfire in others, like when your dog is left outside. In such situations, you may find that the barking becomes self-rewarding for your dog, especially when she’s continuously receiving stimuli from her surroundings. The best thing to do here is to supervise your dog closely and discourage her from running the fence or barking at people passing by your fence. Use a halter if you have to, to rein in bad behavior.

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Other methods you can use to control your dog’s barking are:

  • Use a bark collar that teaches your dog to stop barking by delivering an unpleasant stimulus. However, the danger with these devices is that your dog becomes “collar-wise” with time, and drops all pretence at good behavior the moment the collar is removed!
  • Relocate the pen or run to a place where your dog can’t see or hear whatever causes her to bark.
  • If your dog is a compulsive barker (she barks repeatedly while spinning or jumping), change the way you confine her; remove the tether if she’s tied, and keep her loose in a fenced off area.
  • Squirt water into her crate if she’s a pup, or lemon into her mouth.

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Get professional help to stop your dog barking

When all else fails, you can consider getting your dog professional help from a certified dog trainer or animal behaviorist. The sessions can take any of the following forms:

  • Group classes, where basic manners and skills like “down” and “sit” commands are taught in group obedience classes
  • Private sessions, where treatment for your dog is tailored to address her specific needs. Issues like separation anxiety and dog handling problems are tackled by a qualified behaviorist
  • Day training or board and train, which is designed for dog owners who have a busy schedule. The trainer comes over to your home during the day, or they may train your dog in their own facility

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Using toys to keep your dog busy

Get your dog a chew toy to keep him busy. Chewing is a good way for your dog to combat boredom and relieve anxiety. Research has shown chewing causes endorphins to be released from your dog’s brain, which leaves her feeling good. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you can also leave her a comfort toy to remind her of you while you’re away at work.

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