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Are You Reinforcing The Wrong Behavior With Your Dog?

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A dog owner friend approached me for advice to modify her dog’s behavior.  She moved into a townhome two months ago after living in a much larger house for several years.  Her six year old Labrador/Chow Mix Finn only knew the large house and it’s big fenced yard prior to the move. Finn adjusted well to the move, with one exception.

He peed in the spot she indicated was ok. Finn refused to defecate unless he went to a large field a good distance away from her townhome.  He was used to having a large fenced yard to run in and do his potty chores and hadn’t figured out circumstances had changed.

As it turns out, Finn’s guardian was reinforcing the wrong behavior with him.

Dogs Need Consistency To Learn

Finn gets regular walks since the move, but his owner takes him to the large field so he will go potty there and not in the house.  Therein lies the problem!  By reinforcing the wrong behavior with Finn he believes the field is his new yard, rather than teaching him the new boundaries.

I advised her to continue taking Finn for walks. When he heads toward the field, rather than allowing him to go there, steer him to the location you want him to go.  Being consistent with this “rerouting”, and positively reinforcing behavior when he goes potty in the new spot will eventually teach him the new boundary.

How To Begin Modifying The Wrong Behavior

If there is one specific spot you want to designate, find a way to mark it off with a small fence or rocks. Consistently take your dog there when it’s time to go potty.  Wait a few minutes, and if he doesn’t go, head back inside. After 10-15 minutes, take him back out to the same spot and keep trying until he goes potty.

When he does go, reward him with treat, pet, or a “good dog”, whichever he responses to the best. Failing to take charge and show him what you want as the new behavior will not help to change it. Instead, the dog will see it as confirmation he’s the boss and is doing the right thing.

Adjusting to a new routine and new home takes time. Every pet is different as far as the amount of time it takes for him to feel comfortable.  Dogs look to us for guidance, they want to please their people. If we don’t let them know we need something to change they will continue as they always have.

Can you think of an instance where you reinforced the wrong behavior with your dog? Leave us a comment, we’d love to hear from you!