Consequence Drives Behaviour

Leonberger puppyI have just been to the most stunning puppy. A four-month-old Leonberger called Amra.

What was troubling the couple was their large puppy’s painful biting and pawing, particularly directed at the lady when she comes home. The gentleman initially referred to this as ‘dominance challenge’.

It’s easy to explain behaviour where the dog seems to be controlling us as ‘dominance’. This is now an outdated, unhelpful notion that leads to a confrontational training approach which, with a spirited dog, can eventually make for defiance – even aggression.

This beautiful dog fortunately has a lovely gentle nature and merely gets too excited. He then can’t control himself. He’s just a puppy being a puppy, but being the size he is makes biting and pawing, something he’s quite persistent with, painful.

What is behind the behaviour isn’t dominance – the puppy wanting to become Alpha – but that certain behaviours bring him the most reinforcement. When he gets a bit rough he can bank on getting rewarded in terms of attention of some sort. A confident dog and kindly treated dog isn’t at all upset by being told NO. The word may stop him in his tracks, but does it teach him anything positive?

Amra’s ‘silly’ times can be anticipated. They can pre-empt the puppy wildness with various occupations that keep him busy including hunting and chewing.

With each thing they want to change (and there are very few), we can analyse just what happens immediately afterwards – realising that it’s the rewarding consequence that is driving a behaviour to repeatedly occur. Sometimes what that consequence actually is needs searching for.

Here is an example. When the lady comes home from work (the gentleman works from home), Amra gets very excited indeed. The manner of her arrival and their greeting helps to trigger a mad and rough half hour. The pup will grab her leg. What happens now is that the gentleman calls him away and then distracts him – maybe plays with him. The dog’s reward could be that he indirectly gets quality reaction from the man.

I suggest, if they’ve not successfully managed the situation by setting things up differently in advance, that  the gentleman experiments with simply walking out of the room and shutting the door as soon as the dog grabs the lady (and that she wears tough jeans for a week or two)! If that doesn’t work, what Amra is ‘getting out of it’ needs to be re-examined as will the things that lead up to it.

I always love going to a puppy that has been to some formal old-fashioned type of training based on ‘commands’ and ‘control’ and to introduce both people and dog to the notion of using Yes instead of No – constantly reinforcing desired behaviour and having the puppy wanting to please rather than simply being expected to comply.

This same principal applies to when walking Amra on lead. They already have him walking around the house and garden beside them off lead, but once the lead goes on he’s pulling down the road. It’s so easy to have a puppy walking nicely if one has appropriate, comfortable equipment and a different mind-set.

Because Amra will grow to be so large, from the start they have been doing everything they can to make sure he grows up to be a gentle and well-mannered adult dog.

Leonberger Born to be King

leonberger Leo wearing muzzle and standing over the other dogHere is Leonberger Leo, making sure even larger Irish Wolfhound Pluto knows his place – beneath him!

Leo is another example of people who chose the bravest and pushiest puppy in the litter now finding him hard work. At two years of age he has grown into his early promise – a very kingly dog, making use of all the doggy dominance tricks. As with a King, it’s unwise for someone to approach or touch him uninvited, particularly if they lean over him.  He has bitten non-family members a couple of times, and together with the much more docile Pluto, he is kept well out of the way when people come to their house. When in doubt, he is muzzled.

First Pluto joined us and when he had calmed down, Leo was brought in on lead, muzzled just in case. I myself wasn’t worried as I knew with the signals I give out, not taking any notice of him and avoiding eye contact in particular, that I would not be bitten, but it helped the family not to be tense which is key. The lady dropped the lead. Very soon both dogs were lying down and the family relaxed.

I am sure that Leo would make an excellent leader of a pack of wild dogs, but in the human environment it is an impossible task for him. He simply cannot do the job. Just imagine yourself being employed to do life-or-death job where you had no freedom nor the required tools to fulfill the role. The kingly role Leo has been born into, subsequently reinforced by humans, involves protecting his pack, being in charge of all resources including food, areas like doorways, people and Pluto, leading when out and decision-making.  Poor Leo is thwarted on all counts. Imagine his frustration. It is actually surprising his behaviour isn’t a lot worse.

They have tried choke chain and the ‘police dog training’ type of approach and it’s simply not worked. It is neither appropriate nor possible for a dog looked after mainly by a slightly built lady and her two teenage daughters. Having just the man of the family treating Leo in this fashion can make the dog respect the others even less. Moreover, it is not the human equivalent to the way a stable dog leader would behave towards other dogs.

This is going to be hard work. In essence, Leo has to be kindly and patiently deposed, his crown removed, so that over time he is relieved of the burden of responsibility. He will then become more tolerant of being touched, wanting less to do such things as kill passing cars and chase off joggers. He will stop his pacing, cease his bouts of destruction, humping and weeing on poor Pluto and so on, and RELAX!

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.