Dealing with unwanted behaviour

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jul 6, 2015, 08.51 PM IST

In a recent video making the rounds on the internet, a boisterous Dane is nipping at his guardian. When my clients came to me with a similar problem, I did a simple exercise with them, trying to understand what was causing this behaviour and how to fix it. The solution is actually quite generic and applicable to most undesirable behaviour – barking, nipping, jumping etc. To understand the solution, we first need to understand the cause of the problem.

Dogs behave this way either because they are over stimulated or because they are seeking attention. We often make the critical mistake of giving attention to the dog and getting agitated ourselves. That’s counter-productive because it adds to the dog’s agitation, worsening the problem. Now that we understand that, let’s look at the solution. For simplicity, remember it as the 4Rs – Remove, Redirect, Reward, Repeat.
Remove: First, do not enable the dog’s behaviour. The best way to do this is to unceremoniously leave the room and give yourself a time-out of 10 – 30 seconds, depending on the dog. Attention-seeking dogs get a strong message immediately, you don’t even need to yell or reprimand them. 
Redirect: Since a dog’s adrenaline levels are quite high during such times, it’s important to give him/her something to do. Else the dog might redirect his/her energy resulting in destructive behaviour such as barking or peeing. After the 30-second break, give the dog something to chew on (preferably bones) or do a treat search. It is a simple exercise of scattering tasty treats (paneer/chicken) on the floor or lawn and allow the dog to search for it.
Reward: Rewards come much later, perhaps on another day when the dog is not so agitated, comes and politely asks for attention. Be sharp enough to notice that and give due attention.
Repeat: Note down what worked and keep the winning formula ready to repeat when necessary. Note down the time it took for the dog to calm down. Note down the redirection activity that worked best for your dog. Note down how your dog asks politely for attention. Be observant about these things. It’s important to observe your own actions and that of your dog.
However, there are some caveats to keep in mind. This method will fail, if you don’t go all the way and do all 4Rs religiously. Be mindful of these pitfalls: Remove yourself completely from the situation. Saying “No” defeats the purpose. It constitutes negative attention. To an attention-seeking dog, it is still gratifying. Walk away in complete silence.
Chew toys rarely work as redirection objects. If you cannot give bones it is going to be difficult. You could try flavoured green coconuts and ropes (cotton/jute/coir). Get creative with how you’ll flavour it and have fresh ones ready at all times. Old objects are just as boring to dogs as old TV shows episodes are to us. How many times can you watch the same episode?
Rewards are easy to miss. We are great at noticing when a dog is naughty but not so great at noticing when a dog is being good. Be observant and make sure you have told your dog what behaviour gets him rewards.
Be rigorous in observing and documenting your working formula. You will need to fine tune it to make it work for you. Finetuning requires that you are sure about what you are doing, what’s working and what’s not. That’s how you can consistently repeat the right formula and improve on it.

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