Breaking Bad Habits in Dogs

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This is the first blog in a series of four that we will be posting each week in January for Train Your Dog Month.  Read through to see what other behaviors Adopt & Shop trainer and pet safety coordinator Jessica J. will be covering!

No dog is born perfect, and they certainly do not arrive in our homes naturally knowing how to co-exist with us in a human world. Therefore, as pet parents, it is up to us to teach our dogs what is expected of them and to guide them into making good choices.

girl hugging alaskan malamute dog

When I first adopted my dog Cindy, an Alaskan Malamute, she was already 6 years old and came with a laundry list of behavior problems; habits that she had picked up throughout her life and her time on the street.  My dog’s behavior issues included problems like food aggression, aggression towards dogs, a high predatory chase drive, fear of men, fear of children, and she was severely under-socialized.  It took me two years to correct all of her issues, and now she works with me doing outreach events to teach children how to properly greet dogs.  She also visits patients in hospitals, assists me during training classes, and lives happily now with seven cats (!).  If my dog can overcome her bad habits, then any dog can!

Here are my favorite tips for breaking YOUR dog’s bad habits:

Providing Leadership

A dog without effective leadership is like a toddler who is lost in the mall.  There are so many lights and sounds and strangers, and mom is nowhere to be found.  They have no way of communicating with anyone around them or making sense of everything they see and hear, so they can do one of two things: they can either stand in the middle of the mall and scream and throw a temper tantrum, or they can go hide somewhere and cry. The same goes for your dog; without guidance and trust, your dog can either move towards the aggressive side of the spectrum, or the fearful side.  Now, imagine a police officer approaches the lost toddler and takes him by the hand and says “It’s okay, I’ve got you.  Let’s go find your mom.” Now the world is less scary because there is someone here now who understands what is going on who can make sense of the world for them.  You must step up and be your dog’s police officer, their leader, their mom or dad.  Just as a child needs guidance to learn about the world they live in, so does your dog.  When your dog can put their trust in you to protect them and show them what is expected of them, they will begin to let go of their anxiety and enjoy life.

woman walking pack of dogs

Freedom is Earned

If you would not leave your toddler alone for the day in your home, then you shouldn’t leave your dog unsupervised either, at least not until they have learned the rules of the house and are following them reliably.  If you are not supervising your dog when they are inside your house, then you lose out on the opportunity to correct them when they are getting into trouble, as well as the opportunity to reward them when they are doing something right.  Set your dog up for success by limiting their freedom.  Instead of leaving your dog alone with yummy (and dangerous!) power cords to chew on, an entire house to turn into their personal toilet, and furniture to destroy, eliminate free roaming around the house until your dog has earned your trust.  There is a saying at my house, and that is “freedom is earned, and it is earned through reliable behaviors.”  This means that when I cannot physically be there to supervise my dog, then she should be moved to a location where she cannot get into any trouble, such as a crate, a playpen, or a puppy-proofed small room.  When I return home, I keep my dog limited to only the room that I am in so I can supervise what she is doing.  If I move to another room, I call my dog to come with me.  I use baby gates and close doors to limit her freedom so she cannot wander into other rooms without me.  After several weeks of giving my dog access to only one room, if there have not been any incidences then I slowly expand her territory to one additional room every few weeks.  If any incidences do occur, I subtract one room until they earn it back again.

puppy training advice

Consistency

Everyone in your home needs to be on board with your dog’s house rules.  If the dog is not allowed on the couch, then no one should be sneaking her on the couch when you are not home.  If the dog is not allowed to eat scraps from the dinner table, then the dog should be put away during dinnertime to eliminate the temptation.  If your rules lack consistent reinforcement, then your dog will become confused and the training will not stick.

Know What Behaviors You Are Rewarding

Often, owners reinforce bad behaviors without realizing it. To a dog, any form of touching them, talking to them, giving them eye contact, or giving them praise, treats and attention are all considered rewards. Therefore, if your dog is barking and lunging at another dog and you pick them up and pet them to calm them down, you have just reinforced their bad behavior. If your dog is outside barking and you shout at them to knock it off, you have just joined in the conversation and praised them for barking! So be sure to pay attention to what behaviors you are rewarding, because to a dog any attention is better than no attention, right?

dog jumping up

Rewarding Good Behaviors

There is an old saying in dog training, “Ignore the behaviors you don’t want, and reward the ones that you do.”  If your dog is too high energy and you want them to be calmer, give them praise, rewards and attention when they are laying calmly at your feet.  If your dog jumps all over you when you walk through the door and you ignore it, praise your dog when all four paws are back on the ground.  Dogs are very smart and they will not waste valuable energy continuing to do behaviors that earn them nothing, so use this knowledge to your advantage and reward the behaviors you want your dog to keep doing.

Correcting Bad Behaviors

Dogs live in the moment, so bad behaviors need to be corrected within 1-2 seconds of the behavior in order to understand that what they did was bad.  So in the event I catch my dog doing something bad, for example, getting into the trash can, I can firmly say “AH-AH!” to interrupt the behavior.  Once the behavior has been interrupted, I can then praise them for stopping what they were doing.

you're not a bad dog cartoon

Above all else, remember to be patient with your dog.  They need love and understanding while they are learning how to be the dog you want them to be.  Every dog needs a little work in the beginning, but I promise that if you take the time to work with your dog, you WILL reap the benefits of all of your hard work for the rest of your life, ten-fold!  I never gave up on my dog Cindy, even when she was at her worst, and now I couldn’t possibly imagine my life without her!

So now that we have learned how to break bad behaviors in dogs, be sure to check back each week in January for tips on how to end some common bad habits such as Leash Pulling, Jumping and Excessive Barking!  Let’s start the New Year off with your dog on the right paw!

What common “bad” dog behaviors would you like to know more about? Leave a comment below!

103 Responses

  1. jackie says:

    I have 2 dogs (6 yrs old – lab mix and pit mix). when small children are present, they are fixated and annoying; I restrain them, scared they may bite or nip the child. We don’t have guests come over with small children anymore because of this behavior.

  2. Annabelle Wilkie says:

    I have a gorgeous adopted 3 yr retreiver. He’s good in every way and has been well looked after with previous owners.
    My problem is once let of his lead ( l live on the South Downs) he goes of into the woods etc which is fine except he will
    not come on recall. I have tried the long leash recall which he responds to straight away but as soon as he is free he goes…
    However he does come back in his own time ( sometimes 30 mins or more ) he also is not that interested in treats whether it is liver cake/ roast beef/ cheese etc. I often have other dogs with me who do not run of and he gets on well with them and
    plays but once his nose is activated nothing keeps him by my side. I walk an hour or more twice a day in this glorious country side but at present I’m reluctant to let him go in case he gets lost. Please help. Thank you.

  3. Janet McDonald says:

    We live in a farm & Molly is our 15 mo. Great Pyreanese/Boxer who used to play with her litter mates, then a smaller dog on the farm who has since passed away. Now Molly who chases our farm cats ( pawing their hindquarters injuring them not out of aggression but trying to play), she tries to play with our 2 ten lb Pomeranians but she attempts to put her paw on their back & would break it with just her sheer weight! Last summer we had all our ducks, chickens & 3 yr old turkey free roaming & all of a sudden… She had taken our turkey into the woods & killed her… We didn’t see it but heard the turkey screach… We were shocked & so grieved. She also would run back & forth along the fence line & harass our goat & pigs. I love her but don’t know what to do with her! Can you provide suggestions? We would like to get another dog that becomes closer her size so they are playmates but afraid she will teach the new dog all the bad habits she has! We don’t really know how to handle a big dog. She belonged to my grandson who moved off the farm with my daughter & they can’t have Molly.

  4. Jhoany says:

    Hi I have a German Shepherd half Siberian husky mix and he’s 7 months anyway he has been very hyper and been behaving bad lately and were taking care of a baby for two weeks. He sniffs and licks the baby but he would have the urge to bite him and when we punish or tell him no he continues. What do I do?

  5. Jill Becker says:

    How can I train my 11/2 years old jack Russell/collie/pug mix to stop destructive chewing when I am gone or sleeping? Why is he doing this behavior?

  6. leona says:

    Hi Max is a 14 month old Jack Russel Mix who barks whenever he catches sight of another dog. When people see Max coming in my complex, they quickly walk the opposite direction. I can’t even enjoy the 40 min. Walks we use to take months ago because of his barking. So no more exercise for Max outdoors except for his potty walks. What can I do?

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Leona: First of all, cutting back on Max’s exercise is the worst thing you can do. Jack Russells are basically big dogs packed into little bodies when it comes to their exercise requirements. They are notoriously energetic with stamina to go all day, so make sure Max has an outlet for his youthful energy. Potty walks will not cut it. To address the barking issue, I would recommend seeking out some obedience classes or private training. You can often find group classes in your community that are affordable – check dog parks or pet supply store event listings, or Facebook groups. If there aren’t any near you or if cost is an issue, check Youtube for training videos and tutorials. In the meantime, do keep Max busy and exercised. Try running with him or biking with him. This will wear him out faster and give him less opportunity to bark at passing dogs. If you aren’t a runner or a biker, find other games to play that engage his body and mind. Do you have stairs in your building? Try playing fetch up and down the stairs. Jack Russells LOVE to chase balls, so anywhere you play ball, do it. If you have a dog park nearby, get a Chuckit and take him there. As long as he is not aggressive towards other dogs, his barking shouldn’t be a big problem. Jack Russells are highly intelligent and highly trainable, so after Max has mastered basic obedience, try teaching him agility or tricks. The best time to work on training is AFTER you have exercised him. But DO exercise him or he will become frustrated, which won’t help his excessive barking and could even develop other unwanted behaviors (like destructive chewing and digging). Good luck!

  7. Josh Y says:

    Guys I just found your blog and it is fantastic. I have a yellow lab named Toby. He is 3 years old he is very well trained and he is very happy. He has access to the outside with the doggie door during the day while I’m at work and I keep him with me in the house when I’m at home. He is a pretty well behaved dog with one exception. Sometimes when I give him commands he becomes defiant and snaps his jaws at the air. It isn’t aggression but it is defiance. He still does the command but for example …if he’s sitting too close and I asked him to back up he will and he’ll sit down if I ask him to back up again because he cheated a little bit he’ll snap his jaws defiantly while he backs up. Sometimes he does it to get attention. If I have friends over and he is not getting attention he will get antsy and start snapping his jaws loudly. I m trying not to reinforce it. I haven’t been able to find anything online to help me with this problem most of them are about puppy chewing or biting. Any comments or suggestions would be appreciated. Regards

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Josh – My German Shepherd does the jaw snap sometimes when he is extremely antsy or excited. I would not characterize it as defiance, but more as a pressure release. It sounds like Toby is really excited when you give him your attention by asking him to perform commands, but he’s looking for (and hoping for) a little more from you. Does Toby get enough daily exercise? You mentioned you have a doggy door, which is great, but a dog does not make a point of exercising himself while you’re at work all day. He’s lying around waiting for his favorite thing in the whole world to reappear – you. And a 3 year old lab is basically a teenager or young adult – he needs LOTS of exercise to stay mentally balanced. So you have to make sure you are either walking him or engaging him in vigorous play for at least 30 minutes a day. If you have a daycare you can take him to, even a few times a week, so much the better. The exercise and interaction with other dogs will do a world of good for a playful, social breed like Toby. If you can’t swing a daycare, try this for a week: every day either play ball with him for 30 minutes, or give him a very brisk walk for 30-45 minutes, or any activity that is going to wear him out to the point you see his tongue flop. Each day after he’s exercised, see if you notice his “gator snapping” decrease. My hunch is that it will. This is actually a very good way to monitor Toby’s need for activity. If his snapping decreases after exercise, you know that next time you see him snap, he is in desperate need of activity. Good luck, and let us know what happens!

  8. jessica says:

    we have a new hound mix puppy, he is now 3 months old. for the most part he listens very well except when he gets outside in the backyard. we have a fenced in yard, therefore when he has to go outside to go to the bathroom (he knows to go to the door and bark) and we let him out and watch him. however, majority of the time now when he goes out, he has been digging holes, pulling huge chunks of grass out of the yard. he is not listening when we say “NO!”, clap, etc. and when we attempt to go towards him to redirect his behavior, he runs around the backyard like it is a game to be bad. i need help trying to figure out how to correct this behavior.

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Jessica: Puppies need LOTS of exercise and it sounds like yours is not getting enough. When dogs don’t get enough exercise, they find ways to amuse themselves. Digging, chewing, and excessive barking are all hallmarks of a dog in need of some vigorous exercise. Your puppy is giving you strong clues as well – trying to engage you in play when you’re attempting to redirect his behavior is his way of saying, “I’m bored! Play with me!” Just having a fenced yard for them to go to is not enough. Dogs do not take responsibility for exercising themselves. You need to be proactive and make sure your puppy gets at least an hour of exercise every day in the form of a brisk walk, or play in the backyard such as fetch or chase. When your puppy has burnt off a sufficient amount of steam, he will be much calmer and less destructive to your yard. It’s great your puppy is giving you these cues – it’s a good way to gauge whether or not he’s getting the exercise he needs.

  9. SamM says:

    I have a 2 year old rescue Redbone Coonhound, Trucker, (adopted about 2 months ago) who has recently left his honeymoon phase. A little background on him might be needed, he was found in the woods in NC and is afraid of pretty much every “grown human”. This being said from the moment I met him a corny as it sounds we had a connection, he chose to trust me when he trusted no one else. I admit it when I say I am a “horrible pack leader” (I have never owned a dog before) but I want to learn to be better and I am trying, we are enrolling in “training” where he lays under a chair in the corner for an hour every week. Now on to my problem, when I brought Trucker home because he was sure of his new space he hid, he would collect all his toys and hide those too, he wouldn’t go outside to the backyard without me following him less than a foot away. Now he has become hyperactive, he pushes open the screen door to let himself into the backyard, he steals shoes to chew them up, he put his feet on the dining room table, he tries to puppy play with me (play bow, then want to be mouthy or tries to wrestle), he chases and barks at the cat. He has learned a ton of commands since his adoptions such as Sit, Wait/Go, Down, Crawl, Up, Paw, and Crate. He goes on a walk or to the dog park every day to help burn some energy. I am at a loss as to what else to do or how to combat these bad behaviors since they will NEVER occur in the presence of a stranger. Any help or suggestions?

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Sam: Here’s what our trainer says:

      I would first begin with more exercise. Not just walks, but also teaching him tricks at home. Hounds love to use their nose, so playing a “Find It” type game with him would help to drain his mental energy. Begin with the toy in front of him. Each time he touches it with his nose or grabs it in his mouth, tell him YES! and give a reward. Start to hide the toy right in front of him under a box or a blanket. When he noses under and gets the toy, tell him YES and give a reward. Once he is getting the hang of it, you can hide the toy in more difficult spots and have him find it for you.

      The other important aspect to think about is that the dog park is not usually the type of exercise you are looking for. It is a much more social experience that can tire a dog out in the same way that going to a party and talking to people for an hour can be exhausting. Giving him more walks, running with him or hiking with him would be a more beneficial way to drain his energy.

      Chewing is often times a stress reliever as well as a way to cope with boredom. Be sure that he has a few different types of chews out at all times (for example, a Himalayan Chew, a Kong toy and a rope toy). When you notice that he is no longer interested in the few that are out, rotate them with other toys. Keep rotating the toys to keep his attention on positive places to chew. If he enjoys chewing on particular items, you can spray them with Bitter Yuck which is safe for pets and most dogs do not enjoy the flavor.

      Good luck!

  10. Valarie Enos says:

    A year ago I we adopted/rescued our 8 year old Chihuahua/Sheltie mix. She immediately attached to me, and soon after to my husband. She’s very well behaved, unless there is people food involved in the setting! She starts going bonkers, running/jumping/flipping, it’s way beyond begging! I’m really afraid she’s going to hurt herself! I’ve owned many dogs through the years, I trained all of them not to beg at very young ages. This BabyGirl is my first older adoption. How do I break her of this erratic begging behavior?

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Valarie: Our trainer says, “The best way to curb bad behavior is ignore the bad and reward the good. As soon as people food comes out and she begins to get excited, do not give her any attention. This means no eye contact, no verbal, and no physical contact. As soon as she relaxes or just stands with all four paws on the ground, she can receive some verbal or treat praise. This will teach her that the calmer she is, the more rewards she gets.” Let us know how she does!

  11. ashley j. says:

    hi i have a 2 and half dog who is a Chihuahua mixed with jack Russell .when he was younger just a baby i taught him to walk beside me run when i run stop wbei stop. he knows when to tell me he needs to go to the bathroom.. hang on nvrmd he used too so now thats problem number too. the second problem is when we moved in with my ex coworker i paid his family extra to take my dog out feed him etc… turns outhey would leave him in his crate all day no food no water and he potted in his crate by the time i noticed
    what was going.on my dog had serious kidney problems so i packed our stuff and we left hes fine and healthy little boy now.. but my second problem is.when i make a command he somewhat listens and does what i tell him and i praise him. but if i give a simple.command…example( lets go outside …) he runs to crate or he acts like he is walking on egg shells to get in his crate i need to break.him out of this he usually is very hyper but hes acting like hes not amd.hes.healthy so hes not.sick.. we did move to a new place.three weeks ago.so im just not sure…please help me…

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Ashley: I’m not sure I understand what the problem is. Is it that he doesn’t respond to you telling him to go outside and runs to the crate instead?

  12. Brandon says:

    I have a 2 and a half year old husky-lab-pit mix named little bear. Hes a good dog and has become very obedient when it comes to; sit, stay, lay down, and so forth, and is also well mannered when it comes to not begging during meal times, or using the bathroom in the house, although he cocks his leg from time to time. My only real concern is that he tends to be very short tempered. when he is told off he growls, or when he is being told off and feels as if he is bring threatened he growls vicious like. He has nipped once or twice but never drawing blood, with a new born on the way in a couple weeks, i’m worried if he is safe to have around the baby. Is there anything i can do? I plan to keep him separated from the new baby, but i also don’t want him to not know the new baby and be jealous when he is near him. Are there any pointers or advice for me, an email back would be greatly appreciated.

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Brandon: Thank you for being proactive in looking for this info. This is one of the most comprehensive articles I’ve read on introducing dogs to a new baby.
      http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/introducing-your-dog-your-new-baby I am a little concerned that you feel your dog is short tempered. The vocalization isn’t what worries me so much (as huskies LOVE to talk!) but the fact that he nips is concerning. Since you have a couple of weeks until the new baby is born, I would seek out a trainer immediately to try to address this issue. Even if you only have a few sessions, the trainer may be able to help you figure out why your dog is nipping and teach you techniques to stop it. I would put the work in on this now so that you have a good understanding and are comfortable handling it once the baby comes. Good luck and please let us know how you do!