Sometimes when dogs (or human children) do things they’re not supposed to do, it’s cute and funny. (Other times, it is definitely neither of those things.) When that happens, it’s tempting to laugh, smile, or flat-out encourage them to keep doing it. But, of course, this is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do.
And while certain situations are pretty clear-cut examples of rewarding your dog’s bad behavior—like giving them a chew treat to keep them from barking—other times, you may be incentivizing them to act out without even realizing it. Here are some of the ways you may be encouraging your dog to develop less-than-desirable habits, and what to do instead.
How you might be enabling your dog’s bad behavior
Let’s say your dog won’t stop barking. We probably don’t have to tell you that giving them a treat or a toy to get them to quiet down only encourages them to bark more.
But according to Mindy Waite, Ph.D., certified dog behavior consultant for SeniorTailWaggers.com, scolding your dog or giving them other forms of attention also reinforces unwanted behavior—especially when they interpret your reaction as part of play. Giving dogs toys to “distract them” from problem behaviors like jumping is another example.
“During Covid, this was especially problematic for owners who were on Zoom calls all day and were essentially held captive by their barking dogs,” Waite tells Lifehacker. “They couldn’t necessarily ignore the barking while on a call, and so the behavior of barking during Zoom calls got worse over time as owners continued to reinforce the dog in order to stop the barking.”
How to improve your dog behavior (and yours)
In general, your best option is to find out why your dog is engaging in a particular behavior—or, more specifically, what that behavior gets them, Waite says. For example, are they barking because they want attention, or for you to play with them? Or they’re hungry and want food? Or want a toy?
“Any of the above behaviors could be maintained by a variety or combination of reinforcers—food, attention, toys, walks, etc.—and therefore the interventions owners should put in place are not behavior-specific, but instead tailored to the reason their dog is engaging in the problem behavior,” Waite explains.
Once you’ve figured out why your dog is acting like that, the next step is offering them a more polite way to get the reinforcer they want. But don’t just ignore them, Waite says—that can make it worse, because it often makes dogs try even harder to get your attention, or whichever reinforcer they want.
“Perhaps you’re OK with your dog pawing at you for attention instead of mouthing/barking, or perhaps you could train them to bring you a toy for a quick tug game instead of jumping on you,” Waite explains. “Or maybe you’re OK with reinforcing the dog for jumping on you, but only when you’re in the backyard and ready for play.”