Breaking Bad Habits

Often, my job consists of providing training on breaking a dog’s bad habits. Usually, these habits or behaviors start from a young age when the dog or puppy is purchased or adopted. The behavior continues because the dog gets something out of the behavior—attention, food, fun, or an outlet for excess energy. For a while, the family either tolerates the behaviors or even unwittingly rewards the behaviors. By the time the family has finally had enough, the bad behavior has become a bad habit.  

Bad Habits 

If a dog does something once, it may be a coincidence; if a dog does the same thing twice, he is starting to form a habit.  Each time the behavior is repeated, the habit becomes more entrenched. Habits are difficult to break–for both humans and canines. It takes humans a full 30 days to break a bad habit, and even then, it is sometimes not broken for good. Breaking a dog’s entrenched bad habit will usually take at least 4 months.  Clearly, the best solution is preventing the bad habit from taking hold!  

Good Rules 

Consistent rules are key to avoiding the formation of bad habits. You should set the rules for your dog’s behavior the day he arrives home. Rules and training ensure that your dog knows what is and is not acceptable. Behaviors that seem harmless or even cute in a puppy can become problematic and even dangerous when they become habits in adolescent or adult dogs. When your puppy is doing something like jumping, mouthing or barking for attention, ask yourself, “Is this going to be acceptable behavior for the rest of his life—even when he is an adult?”  If the answer is “No,” put an end to the behavior immediately; do not allow it to become a habit. Set, and consistently reinforce, rules for acceptable behavior.  

If your dog is already forming or has formed bad habits that you are having trouble breaking, the problem is probably in one of these three areas. 

  1. You are not providing enough exercise. 
  1. You are unwittingly reinforcing the bad behavior. 
  1. You have not spent adequate training time re-creating the situation that prompts the undesirable behavior so that you can teach your dog a replacement behavior. 

Are You Providing Enough Exercise? 

Most often, a misbehaving dog is not getting enough exercise. Stealing the pillows, jumping, and mouthing are all indications that your dog may have excess energy to spend. A walk is not enough for most young dogs.  Dogs need to run and play to expend their physical energy. One of the best ways to ensure that your dog gets enough exercise is to throw a ball for him for him in a sustained play session a few times per day. 

You can also enroll your dog in a “doggie daycare” program to allow him to run and play with other dogs.  I recommend daycare over dog parks because a good daycare staff evaluates each dog for temperament and compatibility. At a good daycare, you can be confident that your dog will get the appropriate amount of exercise while interacting with dogs that have similar energy levels and attitudes.   

When your dog gets enough exercise, he is less likely to seek his own (often destructive) ways to use up his excess energy. 

Are You Rewarding Bad Behavior? 

Another factor that can contribute to bad habits is the way in which you stop the bad behavior. Many owners think they are reinforcing the rules, but they are actually rewarding the dog’s bad behavior and strengthening the bad habit. The way in which you stop a behavior can imply to the dog that the behavior is good or correct. For instance, let’s say your dog grabs a pillow. You want the pillow returned undamaged. You run to the cookie jar, either to bribe your dog to return the pillow or to reward him for returning it.  Either way, your dog just taught you to give him a cookie for stealing a pillow.   

In another common scenario, you have just come inside with your dog.  He has relieved himself and had some playtime in the yard. You sit in your chair and hope your dog will relax as well.  Instead, your dog begins to bark at you.  When he runs to the door, you take him out again, only to find him grabbing his toy and demanding more playtime.  Yes, congratulations. He has trained you to take him outside and play with him on command. 

Two Rules for YOU 

Of course, ignoring your dog’s undesirable behavior just might get your sofa pillows destroyed, so you must respond as soon as the behavior starts. To successfully change your dog’s behavior in the long term, follow these two rules. 

  • Rule # 1:  Always be in a position to correct or control your dog. This means the training collar and leash should always be on your dog until you are confident correction will no longer be necessary.  
  • Rule #2:  Reward your dog for performing obedience, not for giving up disobedience. In other words, after you get the pillow from Fido (or have interrupted some other undesirable behavior) run him through his obedience commands. Have him sit, down, stay and come; THEN you may give him a treat or cookie.  In your dog’s head, he is receiving the cookie for obeying your commands, not for giving back the sofa pillow he shouldn’t have stolen in the first place! 

How to Break the Habit 

Even with exercise and the right rewards, once a dog’s habits are ingrained it will take special, dedicated training to break the habit.   Many bad habits are a dog’s reaction to some stimulus or trigger, such as barking when the doorbell rings, jumping when visitors arrive at the door, or stealing the couch pillows because they are within reach! In addition, if you observe your dog’s actions and body language, you will pick up clues that indicate he is about to react to some trigger. Consequently, you can usually predict when your dog is going to act up. Be on top of the situation. Until your dog is trained, make it impossible, or at least difficult, for him to complete the undesirable behavior.  For example, if your dog jumps on guests in your home, crate him before company arrives. If he is a pillow thief, keep the pillows out of reach. 

However, constant vigilance is only a short-term solution. In the long term you want to break the bad habit. The only way to correct a behavior that has become a habit is to re-create it during training time. You can’t stop everything to train your dog if he starts jumping when you are having a dinner party. You must re-enact the situation when you are not actually entertaining. This gives you the time and opportunity to not only correct the undesirable behavior, but to teach your dog to react to the trigger in a different way.    

Follow this three-step plan for breaking your dog’s bad habit. 

Retraining Plan for Breaking Bad Habits 

  1. Make the behavior difficult to complete.  Until your dog is trained (i.e. you no longer need to correct the behavior) do not give him the opportunity to engage in the behavior unless you are ready to correct and redirect. Otherwise, in the urgency of the moment, you will most likely use shortcuts that stop the behavior temporarily, but may reinforce the habit in the long run.  
  1. Make sure your dog knows there are going to be consequences. Use your training sessions to re-create the trigger and correct the behavior.  For example, if your dog jumps on guests, ask some dog-savvy friends to come by specifically for the purpose of training. Have them “arrive” several times, correcting your dog for jumping each and every time.  

Even when you are not officially training, remember Rule # 1 and keep the training collar and lead on your dog so that you can correct the behavior at any time. For example, if your dog barks at every passerby, you should enlist a friend to re-create “passing by” so you can correct the behavior it triggers. However, you must also be prepared to immediately correct your dog for reacting to a real passerby—and you can’t predict when neighbors will pass by! If you are not prepared to correct your dog immediately each and every time he engages in his bad habit, he will not associate his misbehavior with consistent consequences. 

  1. Teach your dog a new behavior to replace the bad habit.  For example, during your training sessions, tell your dog to sit when “visitors” arrive at the door. If he obeys, reward him for his new and improved response to the trigger of a visitor arriving at your door! However, it is likely that, at first, he will still try to jump. Correct him for jumping; then give him the command for the replacement behavior. Reward him if he performs the replacement behavior; correct him if he does not. With practice, your dog will learn that the replacement behavior gets him a much better outcome than his bad habit behavior! 

Don’t Give Up! 

Training doesn’t end with sit, down, come and heel.  Training must address all aspects of your dog’s behavior—including any existing bad habits.  

Breaking your dog’s bad habit will take time. Just stick to the plan. Your dog will have good days and bad days. Some habits are harder to break than others.  In addition, if dominance is an issue, your dog is going to fight tooth and nail to take or maintain the Alpha position. Do not become discouraged. With consistence and persistence, you can break your dog’s bad habit and replace it with a good one. And the sooner you start on the plan to break the bad habit, the quicker that bad habit will go away.