Saturday, February 6, 2016

Five Bad Behaviors I Reward My Dogs For

Good dog training involves not rewarding unwanted behaviors, right? This is what I thought for years, and when Brisbane and I were doing UKC obedience trials it was what I focused on. Each week we'd attend a practice with half a dozen other handlers. Between exercises, most of the other dogs would sit or lay quietly, casually keeping an eye on their handler. Mine had his nose glued to the ground and at times seemed completely oblivious to my presence. I would ask Brisbane to watch me, to sit or lay down, to stay, to STOP SNIFFING ALREADY! It was a nonstop parade of cues, treats, and then Briz resuming whatever it was he had been doing. I usually ran out of treats before the end of class, and he never got any better.

Sisci is the most spirited cattle dog
Photo by Erin Koski
Ten years later, Sisci and I are taking an agility class. With time and experience on my side, I'm taking the exact opposite approach and rewarding the behaviors I don't want. I've found this works incredibly well, both in group classes and in everyday life. By the end of any given class, Sisci is focused on me, tuning out the environment, and so relaxed she chooses to lay down and rest.

Here are five completely counterintuitive things I reward my dogs for:

1. Barking and growling at people. 

Sisci is unsure about most people, and her first response to someone breaching her comfort zone is to warn them away. Agility class is held inside a fenced field within a larger park, and there are lots of people in sight for her to worry about when she's not zooming through tunnels or sailing over 8" jumps (or sailing over tunnels when she's feeling particularly creative). Instead of asking her to look away from the scary people by asking for her attention, I mark and reward her staring and woofing. A few treats later, she is much more interested in playing this game than angsting about that rogue human on the sidewalk.

2. Freaking out at other dogs. 

As above, the only reason Sisci screams and snaps at other dogs is because she they make her nervous. Instead of asking her to look at me, I mark and reward her fixating on the other dog. Whether it's a passing dog in the park or a super-snappy border collie doing victory laps after a jump sequence, the anxiety-producing situation becomes a cue for cookies and a good reason to focus on me.

3. Pulling on leash. 

Annie tests a no-pull harness
Photo by Erin Koski
Believe it or not, most dogs don't even seem aware that they are pulling on leash. They know they
want to go in a particular direction, and they know you sometimes get annoyed and stop, pull back, yank, or make them change directions. What they don't know is that leash tension is the specific trigger for these behaviors in their human. I like to use a clicker to mark leash tension, and then run backwards so the dog has to zoom back to me for their treat. It's a lot of fun to see a dog have a lightbulb moment when they suddenly realize that pulling is what causes this celebration. Most people think this should result in a dog that pulls like a freight train, but instead it creates a dog that is both acutely aware of leash tension and tuned in to the person on the other end. Once the dog knows how the game works, they understand how to investigate all the wonderful smells without hitting the end of the leash.

4. Pestering the cats. 

Young Brisbane tolerating cat
Actually, I try to mark and reward merely noticing the cats, before the dogs get really interested. Cats are weird, creepy little freaks. They make all sorts of funky noises, they move erratically and seemingly without direction or reason, yet they are clearly recognizable as sentient beings rather than furry jellyfish. We make our dogs live with the pet equivalent of schizophrenic hobos and expect them to mind their manners even when the other guy defies all social conventions. A whole lot of dogs learn to politely tolerate a range of bizarre cat behaviors without ever feeling truly at ease about the whole situation. To help my dogs relax when cats are being cats, I routinely reward them when someone is climbing the drapes, racing from room to room, or hissing in their face At first they get a cookie just for seeing a cat, or hearing cats thunder around the house.

5. Jumping up on people. 

This isn't the same for every dog, but I actually like to see Sisci jump up on people. She's quite leery of strangers, and right now it's only reasonable to expect her to exist in their vicinity. Ignoring them is fine, actual interaction is usually too much pressure. Very occasionally, while I'm casually conversing with someone, Sisci will cautiously stand up and put her front paws on them. This is the least-threatening way she has found to interact with a scary new person, and doesn't cause them to loom over her. So far she has only done this with some of my trainer friends, who totally understand what a big step it is. Brisbane can be an impolite greeter and sometimes wants to clobber people with his feet, but I'm happy to see Sisci attempt any greeting at all. We'll work on polite greeting when it happens more often.


  1. I have quite the reactive pup and I've struggled with whether I should correct for jumping on strangers because at least he's trying to greet rather than barking at them. It's like a pick your battle situation. Though I have seen him jump on someone and try to nip their shirt before so it's a gray area for me... =\

  2. It's definitely a gray area, I try my best to read the situation. If Sisci has been cautiously observing for a while and then ventures to jump up, I will let her greet for a few seconds and then call her away and give her a treat before she gets too overwhelmed. If she wanted to jump up on someone shortly after meeting them without displaying a whole lot of wiggly relaxed behaviors first, I'd assume her intentions were impure. I'm also super careful who I let her even attempt to interact with, so far it's limited to my herding and agility instructors, a handful of coworkers, and a couple of people at my vet's office.