top of page

Good habits AND bad habits!

The first rule in re-training an unwanted behavior? 



  • Teach a alternative behavior to replace the unwanted behavior.  What do you want them to do INSTEAD OF the unwanted behavior?  Reward generously.    Keep the reinforcement history strong.

  • Teach an incompatible behavior:  A dog who is sitting is not jumping.  A dog who is coming is not chasing or barking.  A dog who is in the house, is not a problem in the yard.  Reward generously.    Keep the reinforcement history strong.

  • Avoid rehearsal.  Manage the environment so your dog can't practice the unwanted behavior.

  • Take it slow.  Strongly reinforced habits are the hardest to change.  Start at a level where the right choice is so easy the dog can't get it wrong.


A reliable come-when-called can be the best solution to almost any unwanted behavior.


Dog barks in the yard.   Call them!  Reward for coming away from what alarmed them!

Dog chases the kids or cats.  Call them!  A dog who comes cannot continue chasing.

Dog is about to touch something he shouldn't.  Call them.  (If you called too late and they grab it, they will be bringing it to you.  Praise!)




This is the single most important piece of advice that every dog owner needs to remember, and very few take to heart.


Don't wait for him to be in the throes of barking and expect him to come if you haven't spend many hours and thousands of repetitions coming away from 'nothing', then mild distractions, then slightly more difficult distractions, then difficult distractions, then MORE difficult distractions, and whe the dog is reliable at those levels, finally the trigger than is the real problem.


There is a BIG difference between learned behaviors and emotional reactions. 


If fear, defense, alarm, reactivity are the source of the unwanted behavior, this is not a "training issue."  The choice of treatment will focus on classical conditioning and desensitization, not 'obedience' training. 


If emotion is driving the behavior, your job is not to suppress the outward response, but change how the dog feels.  When the dog feels safe, doesn't feel defensive or worried or fearful, the problem behaviors will dissolve.  There is no need to defend yourself if the scary thing is now a positive thing.



Dog is fenced in the front yard and is alarmed by passersby and especially the mail man - rushes the fence, barks, lunges. 


Why does this happen?  Dog is not properly socialized and is fearful of strangers.  Strangers walk by, fearful dog barks, strangers keep going.  Dog's perception is "I bark, scary thing goes away."  Dog becomes more confident in his ability to scare them away with each rehearsal.  The mailman is the most predictable.  He keeps coming back and he comes into the dog's safety zone. 


Step one:  remove the dog from the front yard to eliminate any chance to practice the behavior.  Relieves stress as well.

Step two:  Make a plan to create a positive association - the appearance of the mailman predicts good things.

Step three:  Start away from home territory.  Sit in the park and watch people go by on a distant walking path.  Work at a distance that the dog can remain calm and feel unthreatened.  Praise and reward generously every time a person passes by.  Create trust and calmness.  Work closer only when the dog is completely relaxed and never closer than the dog can easily split his attention between the scary thing and you.


It is so much more difficult to break a bad habit than to create a new one. 


Stay in the yard, don't bolt out the door and come when called can be extremely difficult to re-train if the dog has had fun on excursions, successful in getting out the door or over or under the fence, especially if he's had a great time once he's out.  It can be extremely difficult to rebuild trust and a reliable recall if when he got out the result of being caught was punishment.



This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ -



bottom of page