Stopping Unwanted Behavior

Before we can work on stopping unwanted behavior, we need to do a quick review about understanding animal behavior in general. Take a few minutes to go back and reread the Understanding Animal Behavior Training Tip. The three principals apply. 

Principle #1:  Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated

Principle #2:  There is no such thing as bad behavior to a dog

Principle #3:  Two behaviors cannot occupy the same place at the same time.

By now, you have probably had lots of experience rewarding wanted behavior and have a dog that will do things you ask of him. Because you have rewarded and praised the behavior and the dog has learned that doing those behaviors leads to good things.  Although we like to think we are the most important influence in our dog’s life, not all behavior occurs because we have rewarded it.  Sometimes a behavior is just fun intrinsically.  So, as strange as it might sound, what we believe is rewarding to our dog and what we believe is punishing to the dog are not always the experienced that way by the dog.  In order to extinguish unwanted behavior, we need to try to determine how it is being rewarded or reinforced.  Our dog may be a finicky eater and what we are offering as a treat isn’t perceived as a delicious snack.  We might yell at our dog, plainly shouting to “stop it” and “bad dog,” yet he continues to do the unwanted behavior.  In both cases, what we are doing to get wanted behavior and stop unwanted behavior isn’t having the desired effect.  Sometimes, it takes some reflection about our past experiences and what this particular dog seems to like and respond to before we can work out a plan to stop unwanted behavior. 


The dog goes merrily along doing whatever strikes his fancy, because to the dog, there is no such thing as bad behavior.  Some things are really fun to the dog and are rewarded intrinsically and therefore get repeated.  A great example of this with a Lagotto is their love of digging!  The human probably never taught this behavior to the dog.  It just happened naturally and the dog enjoyed it.  If the digging behavior is in the human’s vegetable garden, the human thinks of the behavior as “bad” while the dog thinks it is fun!  So, first action is to stop the garden digging behavior by taking away the possibility for the unwanted behavior to occur.  An option in this case is putting a fence around the garden as a solution.  Keeping the dog on a leash when in the area of the garden, and stopping the dog from going into the garden could also accomplish it.  It takes about 3 weeks to change a behavior like this, so you need to have lots of patience and work on changing the behavior every day, by taking away the possibility for the digging to occur in the garden and engaging the dog in some acceptable behavior such as a treat search or going on a slow walk will be necessary if there is not going to be a garden fence.  (Both the treat search and slow walk are suggested in the Fun Things to Do With Your Dog Training Tip.)  

Another approach, if the digging is OK in some places, but not in others, like the garden could also work. If digging is acceptable in some other part of the yard, take the dog to that area and encourage the digging.  Some people have purchased a few bags of sand to dump in a corner.  Others bought a wading pool and put something like sand or lightweight balls in the pool for the dog to have in their special digging area. The dogs are encouraged and rewarded for digging the place designated by you and are taken away from the vegetable garden where digging is not OK.  To encourage digging in the spot you desire, take a shovel and dig, with your dog nearby.  He will probably get the idea and come to help.  If not, you can take a favorite toy or something new, and make a big deal about burying it a few inches below ground in the digging spot.  Ask you dog to “Find it.”  Stand near the place were the object was buried and look at it.  If your dog still doesn’t start to dig, start to dig a bit yourself.  Give lots of praise for the digging in this area. Again, the same time frame of 3 weeks of actively offering another behavior other than digging in the garden needs to be pursued. If you look back over this example, you should be able to identify how the 3 Behavior Principles were considered in stopping unwanted behavior.


You have taught your dog to come to you, using the technique described in the “Come” tip.  Some time has passed and it seems like the dog comes only when he wants to do so or is ready for something else at his timetable, not yours.

Again we refer to the three principles.  At this point, it seems like the dog is being rewarded intrinsically and the joy of not coming when called has replaced the trained behavior to come when called.  Whatever you are doing to reinforce the coming when called behavior is not as reinforcing as running free.  Remember that there is no such thing as bad behavior to the dog. It is just being a dog and doing what is the most rewarding/reinforcing.  Go back to the things to keep in mind in the “Come” tip.  Often one or more of these is no longer being done.  Most often the issue lies with the human and not the dog!

We need to rely heavily on the third behavior principle and realize that two behaviors cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  So, now that you have thought about the three behavior principles and how they apply in this case, the next step is to eliminate the possibility for the unwanted behavior to occur.  That means going back to having your dog on a leash for control and going back to teach “Come” all over again.  You need to go through all the steps and be sure that you are using a reinforcing treat that your dog would agree is reinforcing.  When retraining a command, you will be usually able to do it more quickly as there will be what they call “spontaneous recovery” of the prior learning.

If you look back over this example, you should be able to identify how the 3 Training Principles were considered in stopping unwanted behavior.  Another tip when retraining is to have treats in your pocket when you are both inside and outside. I do use my reward maker and touch as well as food for reinforcement, but a bit of cheese or yummy hotdog is always welcome.  Another thing I do is to have a variety of treats in the pocket—yummy, high-value ones as well as his regular kibble or something as innocuous as Cheerios!  The dog never knows what kind of treat it will be!  Also remember, that most of the time, the dog wants to be with you and please you.  Rather than move toward the dog when it is not responding to the “Come” command, try facing away from the dog and slowly walking away.  The dog will often look back to see what you are doing and, equally often, will come running back to be with you. 


In the two previous examples, we relied on positive reinforcement to have the unwanted behavior end and the wanted behavior to be in place.  In the case of the dog jumping up on other people, you need to continue to examine the Behavior Principles, but the option of taking away the possibility for the unwanted behavior to occur is a bit more complicated.  Regardless of who is being jumped on, the first two Behavior Principles need to be reviewed.  The dog is being reinforced for the jumping and we need to analyze what is going on.  Often the human response to jumping is either, “That’s OK, I don’t mind being jumped on” or the owner yelling and telling the dog to stop.  The first response does nothing to stop the unwanted behavior and the second response is a form of negative punishment (as perceived by the human) but often the dog interprets the yelling as a fun game of “Who can be more frantic?” which results in reinforcing the unwanted behavior rather than stop it. We also want to think about what another behavior is that can take the place of the jumping.  Once we think about what is going on, the first step we take is to take away the possibility of the dog jumping up on others.  When someone is coming near, you need to have the dog on a leash and either keep the dog back from the person or, if there is room, curve away from the person so that the dog is at a comfortable distance and not tempted to jump.  It may be tempting to get the dog to do a behavior like a sit or even harder, sit for a treat from the person!  From the dog’s point of view, this controlled behavior is next to impossible. 

Instead, the behavior you are really after is to have all four paws on the floor.  Ask the person to stand still, not look at the dog and not speak.  You and the dog stop at a point where the dog is not jumping.  Praise the dog for having “4 on the floor.”  Take a few steps closer, if possible, at an arc or curve from the person. Continue to praise for the wanted behavior and go back to the step before if the dog tries to jump.  Don’t expect to have the unwanted jumping stop in the first effort.  This issue will take time, but will work.  Once you have taken worked on the approach and are able to have the dog come near the person without jumping, you are ready to allow contact.  When the dog is close enough for the person to touch him, allow petting as long as the dog’s paws stay on the floor.  If it is a smaller dog, have the person to bend to the side and not directly over the dog. If the dog jumps at any time, ask the person to take a step back, and neither speak to or look at the dog.  When the dog calms down, you can try again or just have the person come in, sit down and carry on while your well-behaved dog is on a leash nearby. Over time, the dog will learn that jumping on people isn’t fun at all anymore and being a dog with all 4 paws on the floor leads to petting, and other forms of attention from the humans nearby.

If the jumping is on you, the situation is changed in that it is impossible to remove the possibility for the dog to jump on you! So, what you have under your control is your response to the jumping.  Do think about when the jumping occurs and what you are doing when your dog jumps on you.  You may inadvertently be reinforcing the dog’s behavior.  If the jumping is mostly when you come home, think about what you that might be encouraging the jumping.  Do you come in and use an excited voice to speak to your dog and give the dog lots of attention?  If so, you will need to change your behavior and make your coming and going much less exciting.  Your goal is to have a dog that doesn’t jump, so you need to be aware of any reinforcing behavior that you are doing that is perceived by the dog as reinforcing.  When the dog jumps, turn your back from the dog, fold your hands at your chest, look away from the dog and say nothing.  This is an example of Positive Punishment. You are taking away your attention that your dog wants until the desired behavior of having paws on the floor happens.  If the dog tries to come in front of you, just turn away. When the dog stops jumping, wait 5 seconds, turn and praise.  The reason for the wait is that we don’t want the pattern to be that the dog jumps, the dog stops jumping and you immediately praise. The chain of events is that the jumping, stopping and praise are all chained together. 


Regardless of the unwanted behavior, the steps to stopping it are the same.  Try to identify the reinforcement that is occurring to have the behavior continue.  Think about whether the unwanted behavior is always unwanted or if it is OK under certain conditions.  If it is OK sometimes, try to come up with a cue or word you can use to let the dog know that it is OK to do the behavior and train for that.  Ask yourself if the unwanted behavior worth extinguishing.  Sometimes we ask our dogs for a behavior for our own reasons and they aren’t necessarily necessary.  For example, having your dog lying down while you prepare his food.  Ask yourself if it would so unacceptable for the dog to stand beside you and watch the preparations for his favorite time of the day?  Remember, there is no such thing as bad behavior to a dog unless you teach it otherwise.  Last, by remembering that 2 behaviors can’t occupy the same place at the same time and work on fun behaviors that you and your dog can do instead!

Darlene Colmar

Lagotto Romagnolo Club of America, Inc.

Image is an unregistered Service Mark and may not be reproduced.
No images or text may be copied without express written consent of LRCA, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 - 2023 Lagotto Romagnolo Club of America. All Rights Reserved.

The Lagotto Romagnolo Club of America Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Your donation is tax
deductible as allowed by law. Click
here for more information.