There’s a tool in the kit of most force-free trainers that deserves more attention than it gets. In terms of training, I’m talking about interruption. Indulge me in an over-simplification; pet behavior falls into 2 categories: behaviors we like (or at least tolerate), and behaviors we don’t like / won’t tolerate. The more skillful the trainer, the better they become at rewarding (reinforcing) desirable behaviors, and preventing undesirable behaviors from being rewarded (reinforced). It’s that concept of prevention that has so much to offer.
You noticed I didn’t mention punishment for unwanted behaviors, right? Sure, using aversive consequences might put the brakes on a puppy chewing your shoes or a rambunctious adolescent surfing the counter for that last bite of sandwich. But positive punishment (imposing something painful or scary) causes more problems than it solves in the long run (more about that next time).
Ideally, the goal is to prevent mistakes before they happen with careful management (crates, scheduling, baby gates, tethers, closed doors, dog-walkers / day care). The easiest problem to solve is the one than never gets a chance to happen. All the while you’re directing your dog toward enjoyable activities that are safe and cause no damage to your home. Eventually, however, mistakes happen as our furry friends’ energy / curiosity leads them into forbidden activities. When you come into the den to find Fido tearing apart the sofa cushion, annoyed as you may be you’ll do far better by simply interrupting the mistake as efficiently and calmly as possible.
The goal here is to limit both the danger to your pet and/or damage to your home, AND limit the reward your pet experiences from doing it. Let’s not kid ourselves, tearing up that sofa cushion was satisfying, and Fido has no idea that it was part of an expensive furniture set. He was bored, maybe teething, and needed an outlet. In that moment, you’re in damage control. Rather than making things worse by causing your dog to be afraid of you, simply interrupt the behavior with some distraction – maybe a tug of war rope or squeaky toy, and redirect him to playing with that.
Yes – destructive behavior can be frustrating and expensive. The best response is to consider how to raise your game with confinement and exercise to prevent it happening again, and teach your dog gently how to enjoy chew toys that are okay for him to gnaw and tear apart.
So when a problem behavior gets ahead of you, remember to interrupt and redirect. You’ll limit the damage without denting your relationship with your best friend.
Bob Ryder, CSAT, PMCT-4, CPDT-KA