Just like bored children acting out to get attention, dogs can sometimes act inappropriately in order to get our undivided attention. While it is tempting to use a firm “No!” to address this poor behavior, you may find that you’re still frustrated in your attempts to control your dog, or are still correcting behaviors multiple times a day (sometimes without even thinking about it!). If that’s the case in your household, you may be ready to try something different.
The next time you encounter a persistent problem behavior, take a step back and observe the entire situation. Are there environmental cues like light, sound, smell consistently present when the behavior is noticed? Does the behavior happen at a certain time of day? Are there other people or animals around at the time? Does your reaction to the behavior reward the dog with attention, positive or negative?
After observation, consider how you might distract your dog from the unwanted behavior, or remove the stimuli which cause it in the first place. Removing the stimulus will often remove the behavior. If that isn’t enough, try what psychologists call behavior extinction.
Extinction takes some practice, but provides long-term effects. It works by removing the reward from unwanted behaviors. Although dogs may understand your firm “No,” it is unlikely that a bored or anxious animal will stop the behavior if it provides attention they so greatly desire. Instead, poor behavior (not dangerous behavior, only “problem” or “annoying” behaviors) are consistently and systematically ignored, while good behaviors (even behaviors as simple as sitting, standing still, or staying calm and quiet in the face of a formerly exciting stimulus) are rewarded with food, love, or toys – whatever your dog loves most in the world! After only one or two weeks, many behaviors can be significantly improved.