Can Poor Dog Training Be Corrected?

January 18, 2021

Yes! But it is not a fast fix.  It will take work and time.  The dog believes the behavior is appropriate because the human reinforces this behavior with their response, or lack thereof.  Of course, this isn’t anything dog trainers don’t already know.

Often, the most difficult part of fixing bad training is getting the client to understand the error of their ways and getting them to change. Change is never easy, especially when their dog struggles with the early process.  Tough love is a hard pill for dog owners to swallow. Many people are quick to abandon training when things get tough. 

We can’t tell a prospective client that it is their fault the dog behaves as he does, so we must explain this to our client without pointing fingers. To do so, we refer to the work of  B.F. Skinner.

Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning shaped behavior by using a three-term contingency:  stimulus, response and reinforcement*.

ABC’s of behavior modification altered those contingencies to:

Antecedent: the action or circumstance that contributes to the behavior.

Behavior: what the dog does in  response to the antecedent. Basically, the behavior you don’t like.

Consequence:  The action taken in  response to the behavior

We fix poor training techniques by teaching the dog a new behavior that ends bad habits. 

In this article, we are going to use begging as our example:

Antecedent:  Family sits down at the table to eat.

Behavior:  Dog is a nuisance during the meal. Dog barks, paws at people and stands with paws on human legs, maybe even licks the dish in an attempt to steal food.

Consequence:  Family member(s) feed dog from the table.

The first thing your clients must understand is that the dog is not “bad”.  They are simply doing what they were taught and what typically (or eventually) leads to a reward.  Yelling at the dog will only lead to confusion and stress.  In many cases, yelling is the precursor to the reward the dog wants (receiving food from the table). So how do we fix this?

  1.  Work on preventing the issue from continuing. Your client wants the dog to stop begging during human meals. We begin by teaching obedience. 

My first choice for a dog who begs during meals is teaching the dog the place command.  You could also teach a down-implied stay. 

Teaching these commands takes time. You may need an alternative plan until the dog is capable of accomplishing the above goal. 

Here are some temporary solutions:

#1:  Separate the dog from the family during meal time with the use of a crate or a gate. 

Downside:  family deals with excessive barking while the dog is locked away. 

Tip:  Provide an amazing treat that the dog only gets while crated during mealtime to help curb barking.

#2: Feeding the dog during human mealtimes.  In an attempt to keep the dog busy, the dog can have his meal, a frozen, stuffed Kong or an edible bone, to keep the dog away from the table. 

Downside:  The dog may show a lack of interest in his food when human food is available.  They may also return to the table when their food is gone.

Tip: In this case, the dog must understand  and respond appropriately to the ‘leave it’ command.

2. Reinforce the new behavior. While the dog is learning the behavior, (in this case place or down-implied stay), you reward frequently. As the dog’s skill improves, the treats must gradually be weaned.

 The final result is that the dog exhibits the new behavior and in response receives a reward reinforcement. Reward reinforcements do not necessarily have to be food.  It may be leftovers placed in her bowl, going for a walk or playing ball after dinner.  The reward reinforcement is something the dog greatly enjoys. 

A friend of mine has a dog who loves ice cream.  The dog would jump on the counter and lick the ice cream in the container the moment her human turned her back. 

Rather than repeatedly pushing the dog down and yelling (which we know doesn’t work), She taught the dog to sit and wait in the corner of the kitchen while ice cream was being served.  After the container went back in the freezer, she released the dog from command and rewarded her with a spoonful of ice cream.  

If the dog jumped on the counter, she was not rewarded with ice cream that night.  By providing clear instructions to her dog (which took time), the dog knew what was expected of her and what she needed to do to score the ice cream reward.

Now that we have learned the three-step process, let’s use the ABC’s of behavior* to show the result of a properly trained dog who begged during meals:

Antecedent:  Family sits down at the table to eat.

Behavior:  Dog remains in place or in a down-implied stay while family members eat.  Dog remains in command until released.

Consequence:  Dog gets to play tug with owner. An activity the dog greatly enjoys.

This process will work for most annoying behaviors.  To solve more serious issues, the use of counterconditioning and desensitization may be a better option.  As a new dog trainer, the best practice is to pass on cases you are not trained to handle.  No matter how eager you are for new dog training clients,  taking cases you are not properly trained to handle is dangerous for you, your client and the dog. Not to mention, doing so can hurt your credibility and reputation.

We sped through the process in this blog post.  If you would like to learn more about the process, visit ISCDT.com.  ISCDT’s online dog trainer course teaches the steps necessary to create new behaviors in clear and concise steps that helps the dog learn without stress.

ISCDT offers an online dog trainer course that consists of 18 written lessons. Each student has a mentor who guides them through the process. Online students work with dogs while taking this course. Visit ISCDT.com to learn more.

* Citation: 

 Webster, Jerry. “ABC: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/abc-antecedent-behavior-and-consequence-3111263.

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