I had an interesting conversation with a client yesterday. She was frustrated with her adolescent dog's behavior. He just keeps counter-surfing, jumping on people, and pulling on the leash when she walks him. She indicated that he "knows what he's supposed to do," and that he's "just so defiant." You know me, I'm not a big fan of labels like stubborn, defiant, willful, etc. For some reason, folks always think of those things as negative. Maybe I'm just sensitive to it because my lovely daughter was also described as "stubborn, defiant, and willful" as a child, and I know she turned out terrific! But I digress.
I asked this client what type of consequences she had established for her dog when he did these things. For example, did he get redirected when he jumped on people? Or were people actually encouraging the behavior by repeatedly telling him "off!," grabbing his feet and shoving him away, or even letting him do it and rewarding him for it by petting him? Well, turns out that her dog has been getting mixed signals. Her husband pats his chest for the dog to jump up on him and her teenage son likes to grab the dog's feet when he jumps up. Hmm. Sounds like that dog isn't defiant so much as he's smart! He's learned that jumping up gets him attention in some fashion, so there is clearly no motivation to change his behavior as far as he's concerned. And the counter surfing? Well, yes, they'd been telling the dog to get down off the counter when they caught him up there, BUT they were still leaving food out on those counters unattended. And they expected him not to try to get those goodies when they were out of the room? That's crazy! This dog has been able to reinforce himself with his counter surfing more times than you can imagine. As far as the leash pulling situation goes, she'd basically been shortening her leash and attaching it to a prong collar as a means to keep him from pulling, but of course he still was, and gasping for air to boot. So, where were the well-defined, easy-to-understand consequences for this dog to get him to WANT to stop jumping up, counter surfing, and pulling on the leash? Or to use my client's word: How could she get him to be more compliant?
Dogs actually like rules and structure. If you don't show them those boundaries and the consequences for pushing them, they have no reason to change their behavior. Dogs who jump up should be on leash for all greetings. That's a consequence. Standing on the leash to prevent them from jumping up. That's a consequence. Putting them in another room if they can't stay in their place when guests arrive and get settled. That time out is a consequence and all of these consequences are things dogs will understand and respond to. Counter surfing dogs have no business in the kitchen unsupervised. They should only be in there when you can have them practicing a sit or down in place away from food prep areas (and the added bonus consequence of getting moved further away if they don't stay in their place). When you can't supervise that stay in place because you need to leave the room, take the dog with you or shut them out of the kitchen. No more free access is a consequence they can understand. Now, leash pulling. We've talked about this many times. Shortening the leash just triggers dogs to pull because they've got so much tension in the leash, they are trying to create breathing room. And attaching a short leash to a pinch collar means your dog is just going to be triggered to pull and gasp and hate walking with you. Instead, try a head halter, no-pull harness, or martingale collar, attached to a 6-8 foot leash. When your dog pulls, stop walking. That's a consequence they can understand; if they pull you, then the walk stops. Bring them back to you, have them sit or stand at your side, and start walking again. Encourage them to sniff, look around, etc., basically behaviors that run counter to pulling. Give them enough leash to comfortably sniff. If they try to pull you to the next sniffing area, JUST STOP WALKING. You can stand on the leash and ignore them. Basically, a public time out until they notice you've stopped walking and talking to them. When they make eye contact with you, bring them back to your side, ask for a sit, and try again. Yes, this makes for a slow and tedious walk at first, but if you use treats to lure your dog along, it really isn't that bad, and it beats being dragged down the street.
So, now my client knows what consequences her dog will understand in order to be "compliant and not defiant." I still don't think of him as defiant though; I see him as a pretty typical adolescent dog who has been given way too much freedom and inconsistent reinforcement to know what he should be doing. As my grandmother used to say, you get more flies with honey than vinegar. Break out the treats and the praise (and take those things away when needed!) as these are consequences dogs (and kids for that matter) understand.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.