Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: To change a dog's behavior, link it to an undesirable consequence
A reader wrote about an issue the family is having with their 18-month-old neutered male Boston terrier. He's fine in most ways - good with the family and responsive to the basic obedience training they've done with him, but he has one behavior that they've tried unsuccessfully to eliminate.
"He loves to play tug of war," the reader wrote, "and will get excited when you are holding something in your hands (any kind of cloth or blanket item) or when you're putting on or wearing gloves or mittens. He'll jump and try to grab the item and will nip at your hands or body, getting almost aggressive if you try to stop him. He wants to play tug of war, which we won't do, since we don't want to encourage the aggressiveness."
The reader described what the family had tried in order to deal with the issue: "When he was a puppy we'd 'yelp' when he would use his teeth, but that didn't work, and he actually got more aggressive. We tried holding him down (act dominant) if he nipped or growled, but it wasn't effective, and we now know this isn't good.
"We want to give him a time-out, so we recently started putting him in a tall cardboard box as a time-out spot. If he bites too hard during play or does something else that he shouldn't, he goes into the box for a time-out (minute or two) and we ignore him. This has seemed to have some effect. He is noticeably better when playing (he has a little Frisbee that he loves to play fetch with and we allow some gentle tug of war with). If I get the Frisbee away, he waits until I throw it rather than trying to bite my hands like he used to. He still tries to jump and grab anything else we may have in our hands (gloves/towels, bags - you name it), so we're still working on it. We'd still love some advice in how to continue to train him if there are any other helpful techniques you can recommend. He is definitely quite the character and really smart, if we could get past this behavior it would be great!"
This little dog's biting behavior is like a "game" he invented, which is reinforced by the attention he gets - even when it's angry attention.
The most recent consequence they've creating - providing an undesirable consequence (the end of the game and time-out) - removes their attention. The dog is learning that biting behavior "earns" a time-out - an immediate consequence. Such consequences are even more effective when you mark the instant of the undesirable behavior with a neutral sound such as "Uh!" By marking the moment of the "bad" behavior, the dog more quickly associates the result with the behavior: "I nip; I hear 'Uh!'?"; the game ends and I get a time-out.
Some of the previous attempts to end this behavior are common, unsuccessful approaches. "Yelping" when a puppy nips was on the right track, but stopped short of ending the problem. Saying "Ouch!" or another utterance can be extremely effective with a young puppy, but the exclamation has to be followed by an undesirable consequence. If you "yelp," stop playing and turn away (briefly removing attention), the puppy learns the association between his behavior and "end of fun."
The dominant "alpha roll" that the reader mentioned is never an acceptable punishment.
I've written about this ill-advised approach in previous "Dog Track" columns. The result of this action is that a dog feels attacked by the perpetrator and might even bite in self-defense. And as the reader mentioned, it doesn't work anyway, so don't do it.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.