Unintentionally Rewarding Bad Behavior in Your Dog

You finally have your dog all trained. He no longer jumps up on people when they come over and he knows not to sleep on the bed. He’ll even shake a paw and speak for a treat. And although he is a bit of a whiner, you’ve even trained him to stop doing that. All you have to do is give him a treat and he’ll stop whining, even if only for a few hours.
But here’s the thing: you haven’t trained your dog to stop whining when he gets a treat, your dog has actually trained you to give him a treat when he whines! It’s almost a case of what came first, the chicken or the egg. Your wonderfully smart dog knows that if he whines, he will receive a treat. What you have actually done is rewarded bad behavior unintentionally.

When training your dog, positive reinforcement is the key. You reward the behavior you are seeking and ignore the unwanted behavior to condition your dog to act as you want him to. But sometimes in our day to day living with our dogs, we can end up rewarding behaviors unintentionally.

I have three dogs, and when we are going to be gone for long periods of time, they have their own playroom that they hang out in. This is also great for rainy days. When they come in from outside, they know to go right into their “house” and this eliminates mud all through the house. During a family member’s illness my husband and I were gone for long periods of time and my father would come over to let the dogs out during the day. Within a couple of weeks we noticed a strange pattern: the dogs would come in, loop once through our living room, and then head to their house. Baffled by this new behavior, I decided to ask my father about it.

Turns out that they had developed what my father referred to as “their routine”. Testing the boundaries as dogs will do, they got into the habit of running through the living room when my Dad brought them back in. And my father decided to start giving them treats once they were in their house for being such good dogs outside. The end result? My father had unintentionally rewarded them for their new bad behavior. In their minds, they associated the reward of the treats with romping through the house, not being good outside.

There are a few simple tricks to avoiding unintentional training of your dog that can save you a lot of headaches, and in my case, a huge carpet cleaning bill.

  • Hand out treats with care.

If you use a treat based reward system when training your dog, then you have to always be conscious when handing out treats during non training times. Your dog most likely associates the treats with training, so if you give a favorite treat after a certain behavior, be it running through the house, pawing you or even something small like throwing a toy up in the air, you may be promoting that behavior unintentionally. Also, during training always be aware that for dogs there is a connection between their last action and the reward. If your dog doesn’t jump up on the couch, but then jumps all over you when you praise him and give him his treat, he is going to think he is being rewarded for the jumping.

  • Make sure everyone in your dog’s life is on the same page.

Obviously we didn’t fill in my father enough on the dog’s routine. If someone else is going to be looking after your dogs for you, make sure they know where you stand on giving out treats, being allowed up on the furniture, etc. A well meaning friend taking care of your pooch for the week end could end up training your dog without even realizing it.

  • Don’t fall into the chicken or the egg trap.

Make sure you are aware of whether you are rewarding a good behavior or being trained by your dog. While you might think you’ve kicked that whining habit with treats, what’s really happening is you’re rewarding bad behavior. Try ignoring the whining and as soon as it’s stopped, then give the treat. Same goes with a barking dog or a dog that jumps up on people. If you give them a treat or a toy to stop that behavior right away, they know if they jump up on your mother in law, yummies await!

  • Make the treat giving part of the training.

There really is no sense in rewarding your pup for not jumping up on guests by letting him greedily snatch the treat out of your hand! Every time a treat is given, make sure it is taken nicely. And don’t give out a treat every single time that your dog does the desired behavior. It’s great that you’ve trained your dog to shake a paw on command, not so great that lifting his paw and setting it on your lap is his new way of begging.

Unknowingly rewarding bad dog behavior is easy to do, and usually happens with the best intentions. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. Following the steps above will help eliminate the unintentional training and improve your relationship with your dog.

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