Last week in my discussion of self rewarding behaviors, I brought up the concept of “controlling a behavior”. Part of the reason I love dogs so much is because they are sentient beings. They have brains and they use them all the time! Just like us, they spend lots time using their brains to figure out how to get what they want. Sometimes, what they want and what we want are two different things. Sometimes we can train them to want what we want, sometimes we can’t. Regardless, if a behavior is unwanted or dangerous, it needs to be controlled at the very least. Even if you plan to train it away, you need to control it until the training is solid – as I said before if the dog is allowed to continue the undesired behavior it will be harder to train away.
So, what does it mean to 'Control' a behavior? Simple - don't give your dog the opportunity to do it! Before I go into more detail, I’m going to tell you what it DOESN'T mean: controlling a behavior doesn't mean banishing your dog from the house and keeping them outside all of the time. Dogs are pack animals, if you aren't willing to fully welcome them into your life and home then don't get one. It also doesn't mean keeping them crated or in a separate room all the time. That's just an indoor version of banishing them outdoors. That being said - the crate can be a useful tool, so please don't think I'm against crates. I'm not. I currently crate Comet when I'm out of the house because he's been on a chewing jag.
Now onto appropriate forms of controlling behaviors! None of these are rocket science. In fact, they can keep you from wanting to put your dog on the next rocket to the moon after they dig a hole in your sofa while you’re gone! Zinger is lucky I didn’t have a rocket handy after he dug a large hole in our sofa. Granted it was extenuating circumstances - lightning hit the tree in our yard. He also climbed up the bookshelf to get the box of Barbie’s off the top shelf so he could chew off their legs. He apparently was very freaked out.
Some of the most basic control methods are things we probably should be doing anyway - closing the lid on the toilet seat, putting our shoes away when we take them off, keeping the kitchen counters clear of food and dirty dishes, picking up after ourselves. Dagnabbit our Mothers were right! Damn!
Sometimes you need to make use of physics - dogs, with the exception of Comet (although he doesn't know how to control it) cannot transport themselves through solid objects. In other words - make use of doors, baby gates, and your body.
- Keep your shoes, those magically smelly chew toys, closed up in a closet.
- Litterboxes can be kept in rooms with a cat sized door flap. This works well unless you have a small dog - in that case, you may need to have one of those door flaps with a radio key that hangs on the cat's collar. I've heard of cats training dogs to come stand next to the radio key doggie doors so the cat can sneak outside, but I have yet to hear of a dog training a cat to do the same for access to the kitty litter.
- Keep the dogs inside when the mailman is coming so they don't charge him from the bushes.
- Use your body to prevent access to things. If your older dog likes to steal the puppy’s food, use your body to keep the older dog away from the puppy until the puppy is done eating. If the older dog tries to move around you, move with purpose to keep the older dog away. Use your whole body, standing up straight, not your arms or hands. Patricia McConnell, in her book “The Other End Of The Leash”, calls this a “body block”. The book is fantastic and it should be on everyone’s must read list, just for the body block alone! I’ve used the body block with my dogs on many occasions. I’ve seen dogs use it on each other and on humans! It’s a natural part of their doggie language, which is why it works so well. When my children were babies, I was out for a walk with my border collie, Courtney. As we were walking we ran into a neighbor and stopped to chat. Courtney put herself between the person and the stroller and wouldn’t move. She didn’t make a sound and wasn’t the slightest bit aggressive. She didn’t need to be. She was using her physical presence to keep the person she didn’t know away from the baby.
- Provide lots of appropriate things to chew.
- Keep your dog in the same room as you if you can't trust them to wander the house on their own. You can use doors, gates, or a loose leash attached to your waist. You can use your body to block the doorway when you see the dog try to wander away. He’ll get the message. Be aware of your dog’s mood though. Sometimes dogs need a break especially if your environment is crazy or the human kids are running amok. If a nap is appropriate and you can't trust them alone, then give them some crate time but don't forget about them! Naps can be particularly important for puppies.
Safety – when using physics, always keep safety in mind. Never leash your dog to anything and then leave. If your dog is tied up or leashed you need to be there to supervise. If you are using a gate, you need to make sure it is solid and not jumpable or climbable. Don’t underestimate the acrobatic abilities of your canine! Doors can be chewed, some dogs are very resourceful and can undo latches, catches, and some doorknobs. Know your dog and be honest about what it’s capable of when you’re not home.
Sometimes to control a behavior you might need to be creative. Some examples:
- Zinger had decided that while we weren't home, it was 'okay' to go poo in the basement. He didn't do it when we were home and if we blocked off access to the basement he didn't poo upstairs. I will eventually solve the behavioral mystery of that, but in the mean time I was getting tired of cleaning poo when I got home! So, we installed a 1/2 wall-height door at the top of our basement stairs. The baby gate was too low and was therefore jumpable. A full door would have looked ridiculous. We bought a heavy door at a salvage sale and cut and finished it to the proper height. Not only does it solve the problem it actually looks pretty good!
- When we have the pet sitter come while we are on vacation, I take our 4x4 metal exercise pen and stretch it around the bookshelves in my office. That way the dogs have access to that floor space, but they won't pull the books off the shelves and chew them. Apparently book bindings are a great treat when your people go on vacation without you.
- To keep the dogs off the backs of the sofas we got some of that plastic hall runner with the little rubber nubbies on the bottom. We put it on the sofas with the nubby side up and they are no longer so comfy for whippets to sit on! I know a woman with a toy poodle who uses shower curtains to keep the dog of the sofa.
One of the above ‘creative solutions’ involves something I would call an “aversive”. An aversive is something that makes a dog or person not want to do something again because it wasn’t particularly rewarding. I avoid using aversives whenever possible. To the detriment of both human and dog, they are used far too frequently as a method of dog training. They are used far too frequently in society in general. We find it easier to think of ways to punish and force, rather than coach and reward. If I need an aversive, such as the nubby carpet runner, it’s as mild as possible, can’t possibly cause any accidental harm, and the dog will easily and obviously be able to choose an alternative.
Crating your dog(s) when you're not around to supervise them is also a great way to keep them out of all kinds of trouble! This comes with caveats/guidelines however:
- Make sure the crate is the appropriate size for your dog. At the very least they should be able to stand up and turn around in it. If you have puppies that aren't house trained, the crate can also be too big and sabotage house training. If the puppy pees in one corner and sleeps in the other, it's too big.
- The crate should be comfortable to lay in for several hours. What kind of surfaces does your dog like to sleep on? Pay attention to make sure they are going to be comfortable. My whippets would be miserable if there wasn't something cozy in there for them to lie on. A dog that sneaks into the shower to sleep on the cold porcelain might like a cooler surface.
- Don't leave your dog crated for super long periods of time. Dogs are thinking creatures, they get bored, lonely, cramped, and have to pee too. Be polite.
- If you use an exercise pen instead of a crate make sure it has a top on it that cannot be dislodged. Some of the smallest dogs have escaped exercise pens by jumping or climbing.
Hopefully I’ve given you some brain fodder for helping to control some of your dog’s less desirable tendencies. If not, email me your tricky to control behaviors. I love problem solving! Lets see if we can come up with a solution together!
Courtney, Comet, and Zinger
Here I Am Controlling Their Access
To the Thanksgiving Buffet!