behavior modification training

Behavior Modification Training: Overview

If you have a dog with behavior issues, you know the challenges of trying to get a dog to comply with training commands. Behavior modification training can help you get control of your dog, and help him live his best life.

Working to correct a dog’s behavior issues takes time and patience. Your dog may be nervous or lack confidence; that could look like fearful posturing. Or, your dog may be aggressively friendly. This can look like an overly playful dog who loves to jump on everyone he meets. Or forcefully getting into other dogs’ spaces. These, and other behavior issues, can be remedied with the right training tools and lots of guidance and structure for your dog.

What is behavior modification?

Behavior modification is the process of correcting problematic behaviors. Dogs often develop bad behaviors when they don’t have enough structure and supervision. A dog who counter-surfs is usually looking for things to eat, play with, or chew on. A bored dog can make a big mess in a home. He’ll be getting into the trash, tearing up carpets, or chewing on the furniture. A dog with separation anxiety can tear up the house too, and can be very noisy when left alone. These behaviors – and others – can be curbed with some behavior modification training.

Behavior modification training works
Image credit: Raven Knighte

Most common behavior issues:

  • General hyperactivity; Jumping up on people and counters
  • Leash reactivity – Pulling/lunging/barking while on leash
  • Chasing squirrels and birds, easily distracted
  • Barrier frustration (barking at things/people on the other side of a fence or at the door)
  • Resource guarding – blocking access to a favorite toy, a food/water bowl, or coming in between you and another person or pet
  • Separation anxiety – coming between you and another person, destructive behavior that only happens when you leave the room or house. Or nuisance barking and whining when the dog is crated. Some dogs may resort to self-harm by chewing on their tails or paws.
  • Fearful behavior – this can look like resource guarding or separation anxiety
  • Flight risk/roaming (running away, getting out of a yard)
  • Actual aggression

Dogs with behavior issues can be challenging

When you have a dog with behavior issues, it can be frustrating. Going for a nice walk can quickly turn into a variety of negative behaviors from your dog, causing you to struggle to keep him under control. Nobody has fun on the walk then – not your dog, and certainly not you.

And while it can be embarrassing to keep telling your dog “no” and trying to get him to heel at your command and not go running off into the road or the woods, the last thing you should worry about is what other people are thinking about how you are handling your dog. If you are actively working to control your dog so that he, you, and everyone around you, is safe then that’s all that matters. As long as you’re not resorting to abusive tactics or being too disruptive by yelling and screaming at your dog, it’s nobody’s business but your own.

How can I tell if it’s real aggression?

A dog that is actually aggressive will give off clear signals. His posture and vocalizations are the most obvious signs that the dog is being aggressive at that moment, regardless of the cause. It may be that the dog is defending its territory, or asserting its own dominance. It may be in physical pain, or it may be ill. Regardless, if you see a dog like this roaming around, it’s best to call your local animal control or law enforcement. Don’t attempt to engage an aggressive, unfamiliar, roaming dog.

behavior midification aggression chart
Image attribution: spiritdogtraining.com, Steffispirit, CC BY-SA 4.0 under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

If you own an aggressive dog, or your dog has a bite history, there are tools and training methods available to help you avoid any more issues. But an aggressive dog is going to require much more time and more intensive training. In this case, I would recommend hiring a trainer who specializes in aggression and behavior modification, rather than trying to tackle the problem yourself. Continuing to follow up with the trainer and following through with training and the trainer’s recommendations are most crucial to the dog’s safety, and you and your family’s safety as well.

However, if you don’t have the time or financial resources to devote to working on this problem with your dog, then the best solution is to find a rescue or another owner that has documented and verifiable experience with rehabilitating aggressive dogs. The worst-case scenario is that the dog might have to be put down, but that should be an absolute last resort.

When aggression is a symptom

behavior modification aggression

When aggressive behaviors suddenly happen with a usually well-tempered and balanced dog, it can signal something wrong. It could mean that your dog is ill, or suffering from possible head trauma. Or it could be a symptom of some sort of neurological injury or disease, or seizures. If your dog is suddenly displaying unexplained aggression, have him checked by a vet.

How do I know if behavior modification is working?

When your dog is starting to offer some new behaviors automatically, that’s how you know it’s starting to work. But an automatic behavior isn’t necessarily what you should be training for. It just means that your dog expects a treat. So when that starts to hapen, it’s time to slowly phase out the treats, and offer praise instead.

When you’re doing any kind of training, it’s helpful to remember that you and your dog will only get back as much as you put into it. Staying calm, taking deep breaths, and slowing it down a bit will help you stay patient with your dog. Behavior modification training isn’t an overnight cure-all for bad behavior. Rather, it’s a process that works over time, and hundreds of repetitions of behavior.

My own dogs have some behavior issues too

Behavior modification training
These are two of my own dogs. Image credit: Raven Knighte

My three dogs are all rescues. I adopted two females from a local rescue near me almost two years ago. They were both abandoned. One was left behind when her owner was evicted. The other was neglected and left alone in a home without food or water, for possibly days, before managing to get out a window. Our third dog was literally dumped in my yard in the middle of the night – he’s a 9-month old puppy. He was underfed, and slightly dehydrated – and very scared at the time. He’s been with us for three weeks now, and adjusting well. He’ll be reaching social and physical maturity soon, so that’s when the really challenging work will begin.

Generally, we use the “nothing in life is free” training approach with our dogs. They work for everything – their daily food, their occasional treats, and their playtime. We also do targeted training for each individual dog, based on their behavioral needs. One of our girls is at the intermediate level, the other one is getting behavior modification training. The puppy is getting a mix of basic training and behavior modification training.

We don’t have solid blocks of two or three hours a day for focused training sessions. So progress is slower than if we were able to work with a trainer every day doing prolonged training sessions. But when we take a step back and look at their behavior today, compared to what it was when we got them, we can see just how much progress they’ve made.

You get as much as you give

Image credit: Niki Kingery

The more time and effort you put in to working with your dog on on a daily basis, the faster you will see results. And it’s helpful to utilize training tools to help you communicate clearly with your dog. Having said that, if you don’t have a block of three or four hours a day to work with your dog, make it a lifestyle.

Of course, there’s always the option of working with a trainer to give you a framework to support your own training efforts. Or sending your dog to a board-and-train kennel to work with trainers there. However, when you work with trainers, it’s crucial that you continue to keep up with the training program. Follow up with the trainers, and continue to hold your dog accountable. You’ll be on your way to better behavior management, and a less stressful life for your dog.

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