Saturday, September 10, 2022

Understanding Behaviors

Before we dive into addressing challenging behaviors we have to step back and look at what is happening before during and after the behavior happens.  This is often referred to as the ABC's in the dog training world.

Antecedent - This is what happens before our dog does the behavior.  Sometimes this is referred to as the trigger or the thing that appears in the environment that provokes our dog to do the behavior.  

Behavior - This is the action our dog does at any given moment.

Consequence - This is what happens, or what the dog's desired outcome is from doing the behavior.

Finding the Antecedent or Trigger

Story time!

You're at the park just chilling, kids are playing in the distance often making lots of noise and running, people are walking on a path nearby, there are even a few kids bouncing a ball...your dog is calmly at your feet just chilling with you.  Then (insert anything normal to us here) comes by and all of a sudden your dog's body language changes and they launch into an episode of the "Wild Child" as you struggle to keep them from behaving like a beast.

The trigger can be anything the dog sees, smells, or hears that changed in the environment.  It might be easy to figure out that trigger because your dog always does this when a dog, a jogger, a loud truck, or whatever moves into our environment.  But sometimes it's hard to figure out what that trigger really is.  We might think that the trigger is men, but watching carefully we see that it is some men and not others so we need to fine tune our observations or maybe get help from someone else to look at the situation to figure out what the trigger is.  

Check out the previous post on What Distracts Your Dog to learn about common triggers.

Understanding Why the Behavior Happens

Understanding the WHY is important for being able to create a realistic training plan to modify the behavior to something that that is more suitable to your lifestyle.  The reason for the behavior always has an emotional component that we need to understand.  The dog may be unsure of something they've never seen before or anxious about something that commonly predicts bad things happen or worse yet they might be totally terrified of that trigger.  It's also possible the dog is struggling with very strong "happy" emotions such as hoping that new dog wants to play or that bicycle brings on hopes of getting to go for a run.  The impulsive behaviors for both negative emotions and positive emotions often look the same until we examine the finer elements of the behavior.  Barking, lunging, pulling towards a distraction can both be caused by negative & positive emotions.  Understanding our dog's emotions can help us in a wide variety of ways!  

Here are a few previous posts that can help you understand your dog's emotions better.

Understanding K-9 Emtions and how emotions can effect your dog's behaviors.
This post explains how our dog's emotions and excitement level effect the behaviors they give us.

Mapping Emotions takes a look at how emotions effect the general mood or overall state your dog is residing in at any given moment using Core Effect Space in simple terms that any dog owner can use to better understand their dog.

For a video that explains this better, check out the FAD Workshop - Day 2

Using the Consequence to Change Behavior

I wish there was a better word then consequence here because that implies that we will punish the dog for doing the behavior and that is not the action we want to take here.  In this situation, consequences are how the environment around the dog is impacted by the dog's behavior.  For example, the dog barks at an approaching person and that person immediately stops, possibly moves backwards or further away altering their path to avoid the dog.  Therefore the dog's bark moved the trigger back away from the dog.  Or a friend comes to visit and your friendly dog starts jumping and spinning and acting like a kangaroo on speed and what happens...your friend starts petting them and loving on them.  

If our dog is responding from a negative emotional state the dog's desire is often to increase the distance so that must be where our training plan starts.  We must move back further away from the trigger where our dog can observe the trigger from a feeling of safety.  There we can begin to build up the desire for increased focus on us, the handler and we can also begin to teach the dog an alternate behavior that is more appropriate in that situation.  This seems to be a common struggle so I will address this part further in the future posts that focus on specific problem behaviors.

If our dog is responding from a positive emotional state, we have to keep distance in mind but we also have to look at reinforcement a bit more heavily.  And by reinforcement, I don't mean feeding our dogs cookies.  Reinforcement on a broader term means what the dog really wants.  If the over-excited dog is wanting to greet a person, the end result is most of attention which is the primary reinforcement in this situation. While we could use cookies in this training, the attention is the end goal for the dog (and often for the people too.)  We will most likely apply some distance between the dog and the person in an attempt to calm down the dog first and once calmer we will train an alternate behavior for the dog to do in order to receive the desired attention.  This part will also be addressed further in future posts on specific problems.

A few key needs for your training plan.

  1. Always start your training session at home and with you!  If your dog acts poorly when they see a cat, you may play cat sounds at home with reinforcement for calm behavior or introduce cat scent articles at home.  No matter what the issue is, there is always steps in the training that can be done at home first!
  2. Use friends and family members to help! In the early stages of changing behavior you need to be able to control the environment and the distraction.  When we use people we know to help us, we can give them instructions before the session so they know what we expect of them.  And we can follow up with additional instructions based on how we are reading our dog in that moment.  It's important that are helpers are able to help set the mood with matching emotions to our desired emotion we want the dog to have.  If we want our dog to be calm, we need to remain calm and so do our helpers.
  3. Chose training environments wisely!  When your ready to move out into real life situations choose locations that allow you to be further away from the trigger when your starting out.  Also consider time of day, choosing a time when you expect some triggers to show up but not a super busy time when the triggers will be one right after another.  You want your dog to calm down and engage with you or the environment between triggers appearing.  Check out this post on choosing training environments.
While working to change behaviors we don't like, it's important to prevent our dog from practicing the behaviors we are trying to change.  That means as owners, we need to manage the environment so that our dogs don't access to the environment where the behavior is most likely to occur.  If the problem is counter surfing, we can block access to the kitchen when there is food on the counter.  If the problem is rushing to the door to greet a person, we can use a barrier to keep dog further away from the door.  For outdoor environments, we need to make sure we are using the right gear to manage our dogs such as a dual clip harness and the appropriate leash size for the environment. 

By practicing unwanted behaviors our dogs are often receiving self reinforcement for that behavior!  The more they find the behavior reinforcing the more challenging it will be to change the behavior because our reinforcement history needs to be greater and longer then the self reinforcement history.  That doesn't mean we can't change behaviors that our dogs have practiced for a long time, it just means we need higher reinforcement and patience as the process takes longer to accomplish.

Since our dog's learn much easier by watching other dogs, it can really help speed up the process if you work in tandem with another dog that can model the behavior you are trying to teach your dog.  Many trainers use demo dogs for this purpose!  Calm, well behaved dogs work as great models for desired behaviors in difficult situations.

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