Rehearsal of problematic behavior in dogs is something that you may want to avoid.
Being aware of this phenomenon can help you better understand your canine companion so you can help him modify his undesirable behaviors.
Prevention of rehearsal of problematic behaviors in dogs is therefore an easy-to-implement, yet effective strategy for treating behavioral issues.
As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
What is Rehearsal of Problematic Behavior in Dogs?
Dogs, like children, are likely to perform undesirable behaviors when they do not have the opportunity to practice alternative behaviors.
Just like actors in theaters rehearse for a play, dogs get better and better in performing the undesirable behavior.
The more dogs practice undesirable behaviors, the more these become habit-forming and establish. The longer a dog has practiced an undesirable behavior, the more difficult it becomes to treat.
Preventing rehearsal of problematic behaviors in dogs can therefore do a whole lot to prevent behaviors from putting roots and becoming more and more difficult to eradicate.
A Word About Antecedents
In order to prevent your dog from rehearsing undesirable behaviors it helps to learn more about antecedents.
So what exactly are antecedents? Also known as setting events, antecedents are the stimuli or situations that precede the behavior. In other words, it's what tends to happen right before the undesirable behavior takes place.
In layman terms, antecedents are your dog's "triggers."
An antecedent can therefore be anything that contributes to the behavior, such as the dog noticing tempting food left on a table or digging in the garden upon noticing the fence has remained open.
In these cases, the food left on the table and the garden fence remaining open are the antecedents for the undesirable behaviors of stealing the food and digging in the garden.
Identifying antecedents that trigger an undesirable behavior is therefore paramount so to prevent rehearsal.
A Word About Consequences
All behaviors seem to serve some type of purpose. Dogs don't act out just because they want to drive us nuts, but rather, they act out for a specific reason (consequence).
Identifying that underlying reason can therefore help provide more clarity on what is driving the behavior and allowing it repeat. Consequences therefore entail whatever happens after the undesirable behavior.
Most behaviors are kept alive by some type of reinforcement. The dog performs the undesirable behavior because it leads to something desirable or it gets the dog out of a sticky situation.
Positive reinforcement takes place when something the dog perceives as pleasant happens after the behavior. The dog who jumps on the counter therefore gains access to tasty food, the dog that digs in the garden gets to unearth interesting scents.
Negative reinforcement takes place when something the dog perceives as unpleasant is removed after the behavior. The dog who paws and bites at the harness manages to take the harness off, and the dog who growls at the kids who are chasing him manages to be left alone.
Intrigued? Discover more about the ways dogs learn good and bad behaviors: the 4 quadrants of dog training.
Functional Behavior Assessments
A functional behavioral assessment provides a basis for identifying the antecedent stimuli or situations that evoke the behavior and the consequences that maintain it.
Once the antecedents and consequences have been identified, then ideas for antecedent interventions can be developed.
I always like to tell my clients that if they can fill out this blank, they have control over the behavior. My dog misbehaves when ..........
If you can predict when an undesirable behavior is going to occur, you can take steps from preventing it in the first place, thus, preventing rehearsal of the problematic behavior.
Preventing Rehearsal of Problematic Behaviors in Dogs
To prevent rehearsal of problematic behaviors in dogs, you'll need to implement management, also known as "antecedent control." There are several benefits in implementing antecedent control, let's take a look at several.
1) Antecedent Control Allows Safety
If your dog engages in behaviors of aggressive nature, antecedent control allows a certain margin of safety.
For example, let's say your dog tends to guard your shoes when you leave them on the floor. This can turn dangerous if you or a child happen to not notice that your dog is in possession of the shoe and happen to get too close.
A bite can therefore be easily avoided if only you remember to keep shoes out of your dog's reach. You can therefore make it habit of taking off your shoes at the entrance and putting them in a closet or storing them in a closed room your dog doesn't have access to.
2) Antecedent Control Reduces Stress
This applies to both dogs and owners. If your dog tends to guard food or other items, he'll be often in an anxious state if he is allowed to object-guard.
Not allowing access to commonly guarded items can therefore prevent putting the dog into the position of having to guard such items and the associated stress of being hypervigilant and constantly worried about losing access to his possession.
At the same time, dog owners can relax too knowing that their dogs aren't constantly guarding things since they don't have access to them. A win-win!
3) Antecedent Control Prevents Rehearsal
Finally, antecedent control prevents rehearsal and its associated learning. Every time your dog gets to practice a behavior, it puts roots and establishes.
On top of that, allowing a dog to rehearse a behavior can trigger some extra unwanted learning to piggy-back along the way.
For instance, if your dog is scared of the sound of the chain saw, at some point he may also come to fear you when you carry it around or he may associate the sound with a particular room.
A fear can therefore spread like wild fire, generalizing to other things courtesy of associative learning (classical conditioning).
On top of this, dogs can also learn at an operant level. For example, if your dog is guarding an object and you back away the moment he growls from a certain distance, your dog may learn to growl at farther and farther distances, causing the resource guarding behavior to worsen over time.
Tools/ Methods to Apply Antecedent Control
There are several tools and methods dog owners can implement to prevent rehearsal of problematic behaviors through antecedent control (management).
Following are several tools that can prevent dogs from being exposed to certain triggers and situations. These tools allow confinement and therefore separation from the anxiety-provoking stimulus or situation.
Please note that some of these tools require some time adjusting to them. For example, a dog who was never crated before may need to learn to feel comfortable in it.
How are these tools used? For example, if your puppy chases cats, you may find the use of a baby gate of extendible pet gate helpful, or if your dog chews up things when left alone, crating him can help keep your dog and your belongings safe.
- Baby gates
- Exercise pens
- Extendible indoor pet gates
- Indoor tethering systems
- Physical privacy fences
- Outdoor kennels
Physical Restraint Tools
These tools allow you some level of control in specific situations. In other words, they allow you to physically prevent your dog from engaging in specific behaviors.
Please note that some of these tools require some time adjusting to them. For example, it may take some time to create positive associations with wearing a muzzle or head halter.
How are these physical restraint tools used? For example, a head halter can help prevent your dog from pulling excessively while he's still undergoing polite leash walking training or a basket muzzle can help prevent your dog from hurting your cat in case your cat walks too closely nearby.
- Head halter
- Basket muzzles (Jafco)
- Short leashes
- Tab leashes
- Double ended leashes
- Long lines
- Drag lines
Not all dog behaviors fall neatly into categories, therefore some will be requiring their own specific tools. Based on your dog's problem behavior, you may need different situational tools. These are just a few examples of some clever inventions.
- Window film (to prevent dogs from barking at outdoor triggers)
- Calming caps (to prevent dogs from barking at stimuli on car rides)
- Chain leashes (to prevent dogs from biting on the leash)
- Plastic mats with spikes (to prevent dogs from accessing couches)
- Trash cans with lids (to discourage raiding the trash can)
What If I Want to Tackle the Issue Directly?
Antecedent control can do a great deal to prevent dogs from misbehaving, so much so, that some dog owners opt to stick to management as an easy fix. However, for those folks who want to go a step head and actively work on the issue, behavior modification is the way to go.
It is important to continue implementing antecedent control though when behavior modification is not implemented and for when you are too busy to actively work on the issue.
Behavior-modification techniques typically used by veterinary behaviorists include, desensitization and counter-conditioning and differential reinforcement.
For example, in a dog who resource guards shoes, dog owners can work on creating positive associations when they approach the dog when in possession of the shoe so that the dog's underlying emotions are shifted from anxiety to happy anticipation. When not working directly on this issue though, shoes should be kept out of reach.
For safety and correct implementation, behavior modification should be carried out along with the help of a professional. A dog trainer using force-free training and behavior modification techniques can be helpful, but for more complicated cases, it may be best consulting with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Severe cases of fear or aggression may benefit from the use of medications, while the lighter forms may benefit from over the counter calming supplements and anxiety-reducing aids.