How to Avoid Reinforcing Unwanted Dog Behaviors

ome of the most common complaints from dog owners relate to unwanted dog behaviors. Unwanted usually means socially unacceptable, or what we would consider destructive, noisy, aggressive, dirty, or socially disruptive.

You may wonder whether or not a behavior is normal, and how it can be changed, curbed, or stopped. The question of normality begs an answer on the dog’s behalf.

Behavior is evolutionary

Our canine companions have evolved from gray wolves to their unique sub-species of canid, from our emergence into civilization as the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, through to the modern age. For ten thousand years or more, dogs have coexisted and coevolved with us. Essentially, they domesticated themselves as much as we domesticated them, and their behaviors are a direct result of this genetic evolution.

Domestication imposed an implicit social contract between dogs and humans. As with all social contracts, there are expectations, unspoken rules and penalties for transgressions.

About a century ago domestication imposed a different form of cohabitation to dogs. Until then, dogs were still allowed to be dogs. What had always been considered normal dog behavior suddenly became unacceptable in modern-day living. We’ve changed the long-standing social contract between dogs and humans.

Are we expecting too much from our canine friends? To answer that question, we must first understand the types of dog behaviors, and consider a few basic dog psychology concepts.

3 types of dog behaviors

Dog behaviors are either instinctive, learned, or pathological.

Instinctive, or drive-related behaviors

Instinctive behaviors, such as chasing prey, scavenging for food, or territorial defense don’t need to be taught to a dog. They’re part of a drive repertoire that’s evolutionary, genetically inherited, and by nature self-rewarding.

Some breeds have developed specific drives and behaviors for work purposes. The Springer Spaniel retrieves, the German Shepherd guards, and Bloodhounds track smells. Don’t be surprised if your Fox terrier starts digging up your garden frenetically, or if your Border Collie starts herding your kids as if they were sheep. It's selective breeding at play.

Other instinctive or drive-related behaviors are possession (food, toys), stealing food, territorial marking, eating feces. These behaviors are evolutionary. Dogs are by nature scavengers and have been used to live in loose social groups with competitive territorial rules (notably different from the family-oriented wolf pack). Dogs also tend to replicate what they see their mother doing in the nest as puppies (eating feces is a way to clean the nest for a nursing mother, and to keep it free from parasites; a behavior also observed in wolves). They might be unwanted behaviors to us, but to a dog they're natural.

Learned and reinforced dog behaviors

Learning is a process that is as much a consequence of a dog's natural cognitive abilities as it is the result of repetition and interaction with humans. With domestication, dogs have evolved and thrived over thousands of years by developing the learning skills needed to communicate with us.

Learned behaviors are shaped by way of a learning process that trainers call operant conditioning. Simply explained, it means that a dog learns through repetitive trial and error that certain behaviors can either have positive, or negative consequences. When a consequence is good, the behavior is learned and is more likely to reoccur; when a consequence is bad, the behavior is more likely to cease.

As anyone with kids has noticed, operant conditioning also works well for humans.

What is learned can be unlearned

A learned behavior can be unlearned through training, no matter how long it has been going on. If a dog learns by cause and effect that a behavior has now become the source of negative or unrewarding consequences, and if an alternative rewarding behavior is offered, the previous one will stop. That’s how operant conditioning works, and it’s it good news because training can help rehabilitate unwanted behaviors.

The other thing to understand is that behaviors are learned when they are encouraged and reinforced by dog owners—sometimes inadvertently—and they can quickly become self-rewarding for the dog. Examples are plentiful. Begging for food, jumping on people to greet them (mouthing), barking (at the postman, or to get attention), pulling on the leash, not coming when called. All these behaviors are caused by the owner failing to understand basic dog psychology, or failing to identify the cause and effect at play. Reinforced behaviors can be modified by proper training of both dog and owner.

Pathological dog behaviors

A behavior is considered pathological if it demonstrates that something abnormal is going on with a dog, either physically (medical condition) or psychologically (stress, anxiety or fear). Some pathological behaviors are genetic and are the result of selective breeding over several generations of dogs. Others are caused by stressful environmental factors. These behaviors fall into 4 main categories:

  1. Destructive: chewing furniture or personal clothing items, or soiling the house
  2. ‍Disruptive: howling and whining, or constant barking
  3. ‍Obsessive: compulsive scratching, digging or chewing, hyperactivity, apathy
  4. ‍Aggressive: growling, food possession, human or dog aggression

Pathological behaviors, especially aggressive ones, can have serious consequences. They must be taken seriously and addressed by an experienced professional.

Pathological behaviors can be addressed by training and lifestyle changes, and should never be ignored or blamed on the dog.

Some of these issues may have underlying medical causes, so a veterinarian should always be consulted for a differential diagnosis.

Most commonly, dogs with pathological behaviors are either stressed, depressed, anxious, or fearful. Such behaviors may be found in adult dogs that have been rescued from shelters, especially if they suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder as a result of abusive treatment. Pathological behaviors can also be due to lack of exercise, boredom, or acute separation anxiety.

The habit of jumping to greet people must be countered - Dog Learner
The habit of jumping to greet people must be prevented

Dog behavior modification strategies

Now that we understand where behaviors come from, and what category they fall under, let’s see what can be done to manage, curb, or modify them.

When it comes to instinctive or drive-related behaviors where training is mostly ineffective, the best strategy is management. Management means prevention, not punishment.

Managing unwanted dog behaviors

You won’t stop a Fox terrier from digging up your manicured garden, but you can prevent the problem from happening in the first place by creating a safe enclosed space that the dog has all to himself, and where he is free to indulge without adverse consequences.

Management means respecting the dog’s instinctual drives and giving some leeway to allow certain natural behaviors within contained limits. It also means prevention. You don’t let a dog with a high prey drive run free at the dog park. A long 30-foot leash is good prevention.

If you're the unfortunate owner of a dog that eats feces, forget the speculative and ineffective advice that the problem may be nutrition-related (there is no scientific evidence of that), and don't waste your money on products; the best action is prevention. Cleanup fresh poop in the garden immediately, keep your dog on a leash, and avoid letting him roam unsupervised. You won't stop the behavior but you can make it more manageable.

Dogs are by nature opportunistic scavengers, more so than wolves who hunt for their food. Domestication has encouraged scavenging for ten thousand years. At home, prevent counter-surfing by using a baby gate or a crate when you’re cooking, and keep food away from kitchen tops. Treats should be limited to training rewards. If you have a greedy dog, avoid free-feeding and keep meals to set times and to a specific feeding spot, ensuring the dog is calm when he is fed. Food begging should not be encouraged.

Behavior modification training

If you need help from a professional trainer, make a video of the behaviors when they occur, and a mental note of the context in which they happen in order to communicate them to the trainer.

Don't underestimate the importance of leash training with large breeds. If a 120 lbs adult Rottweiler has a strong protective drive and an owner who lacks leadership and leash skills, he will not stop pulling and lunging aggressively at other dogs when on walks simply by being given treats. Some dogs are not food-motivated and positive-only training based on rewards has its limits.

Don’t attempt to solve pathological behaviors by yourself. Make sure you consult an experienced professional if the behavior has serious consequences. Remember that veterinarians are not trained behaviorists. You should consult your vet to ensure that your dog has no medical condition, and ask to be referred to a local dog trainer or behaviorist who has experience in dealing with the specific issues that you're facing.

The 4 Cs of dog training

Whether you attempt to train your dog yourself or hire a trainer, there are 4 rules that you must always remember for the training to be effective.

Calmness, Clarity, Consistency, Context

CALMNESS means that whatever you attempt with your dog, you have to remain composed, no matter how frustrated you get. Shouting and getting agitated make you lose credibility with your dog, and is highly unproductive. Leaders remain calm.

CLARITY means that a command has no possible ambiguity for the dog, and that your timing in rewarding or correcting is perfectly coordinated to avoid confusion in the dog’s mind about cause and effect. Use few simple words, and learn to use marker training to tell the dog he has performed as expected (clickers work well).

CONSISTENCY is the mother of all training techniques. It’s common sense. Think of what works with your kids, if you say no seven times and yes three times what will happen?

CONTEXT is everything. Because dogs can’t communicate verbally, they're experts at reading cues from the environment and from our facial expressions and body language. Dogs learn by association, and the context in which something happens is as important as what is being taught. Where, how and when you train your dog matters.

What works and what doesn’t

What works will depend on the dog (breed, personality, age, history), on the context, and on the owner (energy, leadership, technique). This is why some behavioral problems cannot be fixed without professional help.

You should also know that most serious behavioral issues cannot be fixed solely with rewards. Don't get hang-up on positive-only or reward-based training. Flexible and balanced forms of training can be more effective without being aversive or compulsive.

With dog training, there is no single one-fit-all solution for any given behavior problem.

Some of the things that do work

  • Prevention and management (see above)
  • Redirecting: offering a rewarding alternative behavior consistently (i.e. sit and reward instead of jumping to greet, or use of a climb bed for dogs that lunge at the door or bark at visitors)
  • Positive reinforcement: rewarding (treats or praise) for desired behaviors
  • Withholding a treat, or an object the dog wants (negative punishment)
  • Leash pressure training (negative reinforcement)
  • Crate training: this is fundamental but it should be done right
  • Using a climb bed
  • Making sure your dog gets plenty of regular exercise, and doesn't get bored or lonely

What should be avoided

  • Saying no, getting agitated and shouting
  • Physical corrections (positive punishment)
  • Giving-in to solicited attention, or giving-in to food begging, barking or whining
  • Ignoring the behavior (your dog is more patient than you)

How dog behaviors are reinforced

Here are a few common examples of mistakes dog owners are not aware of making, and that increase the chance that unwanted behaviors will reoccur.

Leash pulling is very common. While it may not be much of a problem with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel or a Bichon, it’s another matter with a German Shepherd or a Rottweiler. If your energy or size are not compatible with your dog's breed, training is going to be a challenge. See our detailed step by step guide on leash training.

Leash pulling is due to a dog's opposition reflex; the more you pull and resist, the harder the dog will lunge in the opposite direction. To add to the problem, many people make the mistake of buying a back-clipped harness instead of a martingale or a flat collar. Harnesses are designed to make the dog pull. Leash training takes time and requires the right equipment with positive reinforcement and leash pressure techniques.

Jumping on people. Dogs inherit a mouthing habit from early puppyhood when they reach for their mother's mouth to get food that's regurgitated for them. Jumping toward the face is a way to mouth people affectionately, and it can become an instinctive greeting habit.

Grabbing the dog's paws when he jumps on you, hugging, greeting back in excitement, or even pushing the dog away or saying no will only reinforce the behavior. For a dog, any form of attention is better than no attention. To prevent jumping, the best strategy is to ignore the behavior and to redirect it by giving the command to sit (and reward). Visitors should be advised to do the same. An effective technique is also to place a climb bed near the door, and teach the dog to go to his bed when the doorbell rings or visitors come.

Not coming when called. This is a classic. At home you successfully teach your dog to come on command with a food reward, and when at the dog park he never comes back.

First, as we have seen above, context is key. Training is only effective when its application is fluent and generalized to any context, no matter what other competing stimulations are present. The dog park offers stimulations that are far more rewarding to the dog than coming to you, even with a treat. Your treat can't compete with a squirrel to chase, or another dog. A long leash (30ft) should be used outdoors until the training is complete.

Second, if you call your dog to put him on the leash and go home, you create a negative association in your dog's mind (I’m having fun, my owner calls me, I come, and it’s the end of the fun). It is soon learned and discourages the dog from obeying the command. The "come" command should always be followed by something rewarding. Try to think like the dog.

Also, the more you shout at the dog to come back (in an increasingly frustrated or angry high-pitch tone), the less the dog will respond, in anticipation of being scolded or tied up.


The good news for frustrated owners is that the great majority of unwanted behaviors can be unlearned and modified with proper training (and a good dose of patience). You need to be understanding of your dog’s natural instincts and drives, or of any specific breed traits.

If you identify behaviors that fall into the category of the pathological, you should consult your vet or a professional dog behaviorist. The consequences of not addressing a pathological issue can be potentially dangerous for your dog, and for other people.

Be aware that what you are doing could be counterproductive and reinforce bad behaviors. In some cases, you may need to lower your expectations. We need to let dogs be dogs.

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