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Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Controlled lesson crucial to behavior training

April 13. 2018 8:36PM

A few years ago, we conducted a poll on our website asking what behaviors owners disliked the most. The clear winner was "jumping up on people."

My preferred approach to eliminating any unwanted behavior is to train the dog an "incompatible" behavior. For example, a dog cannot stand still with four feet on the floor and jump on people at the same time. Or he can't be jumping on Grandma if he's sitting or lying down. Four-on-the-floor, sit and down are all "incompatible" with jumping on visitors or rushing the door to menace the UPS driver.

Most dog owners think about fixing an undesirable behavior when the dog is actively doing it - and only at that time. We apologize to guests, embarrassed and guilty over the fact that we haven't trained the dog, and resolve to do something about it ... someday. (You're not alone in this! Most of us are guilty of training procrastination with our own dogs - me, too.).

So the first step in eliminating a behavior is to make a commitment to train. This begins with training an incompatible behavior, such as sit or stand still. Train that behavior with positive reinforcement (food treats) to motivate your dog. Training should begin away from the door, at a time when the dog can focus on his behavior. Don't try training this when people are coming in (yet). Avoid saying "Don't jump!" while the dog is in mid-air jumping up on a guest. Rather you're training the dog to remain stationary and gravity-bound in a quiet environment in which the dog can focus on learning.

While your dog is learning the incompatible behavior, it's important to prevent him from "practicing" the behavior you want to replace. Many problem behaviors are resistant to improvement because they have been unintentionally reinforced over time, that is, the dog gets something good out of the "bad" behavior. For example, jumping up gains attention. It often involves physically touching the dog, which is also pleasurable. Attention and stroking, even when trying to get the dog off, reinforces jumping, making it more difficult to eliminate.

While teaching your dog the incompatible (new) behavior, take steps to prevent your dog from engaging in the undesirable (old) behavior with management. Simply put him in another room or crate him before you greet visitors, or have him on leash and physically under your control.

Once your training has progressed to the point that your dog is responding to a cue for your new behavior, practice by the door, continuing to reinforce your dog's good behavior with treats. When he's responding well near the door, set up a training session by asking a friend or family member to be a "guest." Explain to your helper that if your dog jumps up, he or she should immediately turn and leave. With this plan in place, have the helper come in while you work on the new behavior, paying attention to your dog, rewarding him for his good responses.

If or when your dog jumps up, mark the behavior by saying "Uh!" or "nope," with your helper turning and walking away. The marker and consequence lets the dog know that it is his behavior that resulted in the person moving away (no reinforcement). Set this greeting up again, having your helper return, and repeat the consequence if your dog jumps up again. Repeat this action, working on the incompatible behavior until your dog is successfully offering the incompatible behavior when that person comes in (jackpot treats!).

You will need to repeat this with several different people before your dog will understand his responsibility for offering the incompatible behavior whenever someone comes to the door. The whole time you're working to eliminate the unwanted behavior, it is critical to continue managing your dog's access to the door when you're not able to be "in training." With consistency, your dog will soon get the idea.

No matter what behavior you want to eliminate, by setting your dog up to train in a planned, controlled, positive lesson, rather than yelling at him when he's bad, you'll not only have a much more polite dog, you'll have a better relationship, too.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.

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