Training
January 10, 2023

Behavioral Dog Training for Bad Habits

Behavior modification based dog training focuses on changing how a dog feels and their changes their reactions to a situation. It can be a great tool to manage a dog's behavior and help them feel more comfortable in a variety of circumstances.

Black and white dog with a red leash looking a pet parent

What is Behavior Modification Dog Training?

Often, behavior modification is focused on changing how a dog feels. A dog might be excited or afraid, and those emotions may result in barking or lunging at dogs while on a walk. You can use behavior modification techniques to help a dog feel more calm or relaxed around other dogs. This will decrease or eliminate the barking/lunging.

Another example could be a dog who is nervous and hides when guests arrive. You can do activities to help the dog feel more confident, have skills for approaching strangers (if appropriate), and help the dog learn to look towards his pet parent for guidance. When this dog is not afraid of guests, he may enjoy spending time around new people. 

Typical dog training is focused on teaching skills like sit, down, stay, and come. While these skills are helpful, the lack of these skills is not the primary challenge in the above examples. A dog might be able to do a sit-stay near a stranger and still feel afraid. 

Common (and Trainable) Bad Habits

Barking

Barking is a normal dog behavior. Pet parents ask why dogs bark and there’s not a simple answer. Dogs can use barking in communication with each other or as part of expressing emotions like frustration, fear, or excitement. There are times you need to address barking because it isn’t socially acceptable. At other times, you need to address the barking because you don’t want a dog to experience the frustration, excitement, or fear that is the underlying cause of that barking.

A behavior modification plan may involve avoiding situations a dog can’t handle, teaching him other behaviors that may be more applicable in those situations, and giving structured exposure to the triggers. 

Leash Pulling

Imagine dogs playing in an off-leash dog park. They are running around, stopping to sniff, and darting in different directions. They are not lined up and steadily walking side-by-side in slow laps around the park. 

Walking next to a person is not natural for dogs. The position at our side is not natural, our speed is not a good match for most dogs, and dogs usually want to investigate the world. We also can easily accidentally reward a dog for pulling by going with him when he pulls towards a good smell, a person, a dog, or a fun piece of litter. Those two elements combined can make polite walking a challenge. 

You can use training activities to teach dogs to walk calmly at your side. You also have to be sure you meet the dog's needs for higher-intensity activity and time to sniff around. A training plan will usually involve teaching a dog how to move with you, when to take sniff breaks, and teaching a dog that being at your side will result in the walk continuing.

Biting

Dogs may bite for different reasons. Some dogs may bite with the intent to harm. This might happen if the dog feels threatened. Sometimes, bites may occur incidentally as a dog moves to take a toy and misjudges the location.

When dogs have a bite history, you have to take additional safety precautions and make plans to account for the safety risk if you misjudge an environment. Training is often focused on changing how a dog feels so that he does not feel threatened in a previously challenging environment. Consult a reputable professional for assistance. 

Many puppy owners want to know how to get a puppy to stop biting. Puppies explore the world with their mouths. Puppy biting/mouthing can be painful, but is about social interaction and play. While there are more nuances, one starting point is to provide other ways to meet this need, such as through tug toys and social play with toys. Note that some puppies may bite out of fear or discomfort. 

Digging

This is another example of a normal dog behavior. Dogs dig for many reasons, including creating a cooler temperature place to lie down, searching for rodents/pests in the ground, or just the fun of tearing up roots or sod. In the house, you might see a dog dig at the couch or dog bed before he rests, or dig to bury a special toy in the couch cushions.

Resolving inappropriate digging may involve finding out a dog’s motivation for digging and finding other ways to meet those needs.

Chewing

While chewing is more common in younger dogs, dogs of all ages may be interested in chewing. This can be a problem if dogs are interested in your belongings or are chewing items that are unsafe for them. 

A training plan for chewing might involve preventing access to the tempting items, providing appropriate items for a dog to chew, and creating other behaviors in the presence of the item. This may vary depending on the individual dog and the type of item.

What Happens During Behavioral Dog Training

Formats for training will vary depending on the type of professional you are working with. Often, an initial consult will have time dedicated to taking a complete history of your dog, gathering information about how the behavior has changed over time, what is practical with your home and schedule, and outlining a plan.

There will be day to day environmental changes to make to your dog’s environment. Most plans involve short training sessions to be done throughout the week. These sessions are often only a few minutes long, and might focus on skill training (stay, walking, relax) to help with communication and guiding a dog. The sessions may be focused on controlled exposure to a previously challenging environment. 

Often, changes are made to the plan. This might be multiple small changes in a week, or small changes every week. The changes might be because something is going well and the dog is ready for the next level, or changes might be made because something isn’t a good fit for the dog and it is believed that another approach might be more successful.

While one-on-one training is most common for behavior modification, you may be able to find a group class focused on behavior modification on a specific topic. This can have the advantage of providing additional distractions and the support of others with a similar experience, but comes with the disadvantage of being less personalized to your dog.