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Teaching An Incompatible Behavior

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Aspen has been taught to stay near his food bowl; this is incompatible with stealing food from his partner.

Remember that training is about creating behavior – not stopping it. Telling a dog to keep his feet off of you isn’t the same thing as manding, although in both cases the dog’s feet are indeed off of you. Teaching the dog that if he comes and sits in front of you he will indeed have your attention, and that he will be rewarded for doing so, builds relationship.

Keeping the dog’s feet off asks for an absence of behavior; that is a difficult concept for a dog. It is much more useful to the dog to ask for a behavior (action) that can be rewarded. It isn’t possible for a dog to sit and jump on you; sit is an incompatible behavior to jumping because it isn’t physically possible to do both at the same time.

Teaching a dog to keep his feet off of you is damage control because you are trying to change a learned behavior. It is much easier to prevent the behavior from being learned in the first place. In most cases, this means teaching a dog a different action instead before the behavior you don’t want can be learned. Most of the ways that I can think of that a dog gets in trouble involve a dog who is moving.

It is inevitable that my puppies would someday put their feet on me if I hadn’t taught them a different way of communicating with me first. It is likely that at some point a young dog will be springy around livestock. If you have taught your young dog incompatible behaviors to that you are ready! You can redirect your dog easily, reward him, and life goes on. Not only did nothing go wrong you also cultivated your relationship with your dog.

There are two behaviors I teach my adolescent dogs that work well in this circumstance: Touch and Look.

I teach my dogs that if I cue for touch and hold my hand out as a target the dog is to put his nose on my palm. My favorite way to use this cue so far is this: It is impossible for my dog to have his nose in my palm AND chase sheep! How simple! Rather than ask for an absence of behavior – don’t chase the sheep – I say “touch” and put my hand out. The dog re-directs his attention to me as he touches my hand with his nose, is rewarded for this, and the bouncy moment has passed, probably. If not, we do it again. How simple.

Another behavior I teach my dogs is “look.” That simply means “stop what you are doing and look into my eyes.” Click! Treat! I have interrupted the undesirable behavior and rewarded for one I would like to see more of, such as my dog giving me his attention. This is so easy. It isn’t punitive; it is positive and joyful for both the dog and the owner. When the dog comes to me for his treat or praise he is no longer chasing the sheep.

It is easy to shake the confidence of a young dog. Asking for behaviors like this, and then rewarding for them, reinforces the confidence of the dog, in addition to building my relationship with him. Confident dogs are less reactive. Bouncy behaviors are often a product of a new situation, such as bringing sheep into a new pasture; a reactive dog is harder to handle.

Let your creative mind run wild! There are so many behaviors that can be asked of a dog that can be rewarded that make it impossible to do undesirable behaviors at the same time.

Create behavior. Create opportunities to reward your dogs rather than trying to shut down behaviors.

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