Training an Alternative Behavior in Dogs

I talk a lot about training an alternative behavior to replace an asshole one, but what does that really mean and how should you go about it? If it was as easy as just telling your dog to sit every time he was bad, everyone would be a dog trainer. What’s the devil in the details?

The biggest key to training an alternative behavior is to quickly transition from telling your dog to do something to expecting your dog to just do it. After the first few repetitions, depending on how quickly your dog picks things up, they should only be rewarded for offering the correct behavior unprompted. If you have to tell them to sit instead of jump, then you have a dog that only behaves when you’re watching and after misbehaving for awhile. You’ve made improvement, but you haven’t solved the problem. This is why it’s so common to have one main behavior that you expect. If there is a standard response that is likely to get your dog what he wants, that’s what he’s going to do when he’s unsure.

A person walks in a field with four dogs.
I freeze, so jumping doesn’t work for my mother-in-law’s new puppy.

Dr. Sophia Yin likes “Sit to say please,” and I’ve had a lot of success with it. For people with more high-strung or active dogs, alternative behaviors may include running to get a toy or jumping up on a special piece of furniture or bed. These are good choices because they give the dog more of an activity to perform, which provides a bigger outlet for their excess energy. Obviously, those options are less multi-purpose than an automatic sit, but since most of your dog’s time is probably spent at home, they can be worth training. It doesn’t matter what the replacement behavior is, just that your dog can anticipate what you want, and that you consistently “catch” your dog being good and reward him for it.

In her book Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out, trainer Laura VanArendonk Baugh gives detailed instructions and tips for “mat work,” which is a great tool for dogs who need a little more help. You train the alternative behavior of lying down calmly on a small mat, which you can then bring with you for public outings. Because the dog has been reinforced so heavily for lying on the mat at home, it can function as a security item for nervous dogs and a big visual cue for excitable dogs who might forget what they’re supposed to be doing in the heat of the moment. You still have to gradually build the dog up to more difficult situations, but many people find that it’s much easier and quicker than doing the same training without the mat.

If you’re new to trying to “catch” your dog being good, this might be a good time to start wearing a treat pouch around the house, or setting little dishes with treats where they’re quick and easy to reach. The less noise and lead-up to a reward there is, the more clearly your dog can connect them to the correct behavior. You can also use activities, such as walks, as reinforcement. If you “catch” your dogs lying quietly around the house, that is an ideal time to reward them with a walk. If you do that enough times, they’ll begin to believe that laying around causes walks to happen.

A person bends over and gives a dog a treat.
She finally notices sitting works! Treats and attention rain from the sky.

Even if you’re doing everything right, if the original problem behavior is still being rewarded, you’re going to have a lot of trouble extinguishing it. If jumping up on people used to work, the natural response when it suddenly doesn’t work is actually to do it more. This is called an extinction burst, and it’s true of people, too. When the misbehavior works sometimes, this is only intensified and prolonged. Randomly rewarding a behavior is actually the best way to train your dog to do it longer, louder, and more often. A good example of this is one type of nuisance—barking. Initially, you come running the second your dog starts barking. Gradually, it takes more time or intensity to get you to come check out whatever your dog is barking at, and eventually you’ve “trained” your dog to go on barking basically forever. If you can instead start with training a “quiet” command as soon as barking becomes a problem and reward that behavior, you’ll hopefully never create a Noise-Violation-Monster. If you’ve already got one, you basically have to do the process in reverse. Train a “quiet” command, and gradually extend the time it takes to get rewarded for it. This is harder, and more annoying, because for some dogs, barking is it’s own reward.

Understanding a little bit about the psychology of how dogs learn and get “stuck” on a specific behavior is an invaluable way to set yourself up for success. Everyone has their own unique needs for their dog and their home, and learning how training works allows you to better customize a regime to your own specific situation. Training an alternative behavior is a huge part of getting your dog to work with your lifestyle, and with a little finesse, it can be a relatively easy part of training.

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Laura-C

Hopes to someday train her dogs not to be douchebags.

4 thoughts on “Training an Alternative Behavior in Dogs”

  1. My dog had decided that “wopping” us with his paw was a good way to get our attention. This was problematic for us cause he’s a giant basset hound with friggin’ HOOVES at the end of his toes. I decided that when he wopped, we would put him in a sit stay for a minute, and then pay attention to him. We put on our gear, ready for a Battle Royale, kinda like the kids on Supernanny who take 2 hours to serve a 5 minute time-out.

    We had to do it once. He hasn’t wopped since. Jerk.

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