From “Stop it!” to “Good Pup!” – Problem Solving With Alternative Behaviors

By Jennifer Summerfield, DVM

Hey there, gang.  Today, it’s time for another installment of “problem solving at Dr. Jen’s house.”

(For another example of this, see my previous post about my dog Clint, and his habit of launching himself at the TV.  Still doing great with that, by the way!)

Note that today’s post is not going to be especially profound or poetic.  It may not change your life.  Sometimes dog training *can* be profound and poetic, but sometimes it’s just finding a user-friendly way to solve a problem.  Today’s topic falls into the latter category.

So.  My problem child, Gatsby, has always been a bit annoying to manage around mealtimes.

My dogs are all fed separately, because they get excited about their dinner, and all three have a tendency to resource-guard when it comes to food.  I avoid problems with this by feeding each dog in a separate area – Gatsby in the kitchen, Clint in his crate in the living room, and Remy in the hallway outside the bathroom.

(FYI – that’s my first tip, about managing mealtimes with multiple dogs.  Give everyone their own space to eat in peace.)

The first part of the problem is this:  Gatsby wolfs down his food, and always finishes first.  At that point, if left to his own devices, he runs up to the gate in the kitchen doorway and barks and spins for the entire time that Remy and Clint are still eating.  It’s obnoxious.  I don’t appreciate it, and neither do they.

An abbreviated example of this behavior:

He will stop if I hold onto his collar, or if I stand at the gate and talk calmly to him until the other dogs are finished.  So those are solutions – but not great ones, because I would prefer to be able to do other things during this time.

Part 2 of the problem, is that he gets snarky towards his brothers once I release them through the gate, because there was recently FOOD present (OMG!), and that makes him a little crazy.  So he charges at them, runs around them, and barks loudly in their faces as we all head to the back door for their bathroom break.

Which is also obnoxious and annoying, for everyone involved.

******

So a few months ago, I decided to do something different.

I have a mat in my kitchen, in front of the sink.  To solve Problem Part 1, I taught Gatsby to go to the mat and lie down when he was finished eating, and rewarded this with treats.  For the first few days, I gave frequent rewards (every few seconds) for staying put, and reminded him to lie back down if he started to get up.

(A little labor-intensive, yes – but no worse than what I was doing before.)

And, presto!  Within a week, he was going straight to his mat and hitting the dirt as soon as his bowl was clean.  I was able to space out the rewards for him fairly quickly, once he had the general idea – so now, I’m free to putter around the kitchen, load the dishwasher, check the mail, etc. in blissful silence while Remy and Clint are finishing up.

Gatsby is perfectly happy with this solution, too, since it means a few extra snacks for him!  So it’s really a win-win for everyone.

Problem Part 2 seemed a bit more challenging, at first… but I had a hunch.

Gats has always loved to carry things outside, especially when he’s excited – shoes, blankets, dog beds, etc.  And right after dinner, he’s VERY excited!  He also likes toys.  I thought that perhaps I could use that to my advantage.

So one evening, I stuck a stuffed squeaky toy in my pocket as I went to move the gate.  When Gatsby ran through to start his barking routine, I tossed the toy for him – and lo and behold!  He ran over to it, happily picked it up, and carried it outside without harassing his brothers at all.

Now, our after-dinner routine looks like this:

We’ve been doing this for several months now, and mealtimes go off without a hitch.  A success story for the ages!  Or at least, a minor (but practical) improvement in my daily life.  Which is frequently what dog training is all about.

******

So, why did this plan work?

Both of these strategies are simple, easy interventions that work well for lots of different behavior issues – so I also use them fairly frequently with my clients.

Mat training (or “stationing,” more generally – which might mean having your dog hop up onto a platform and stay there, or go to his dog bed, or anyplace else you choose) is a really handy way to address a LOT of unwanted behavior issues that tend to happen at a particular time, or in a particular context.

So if your dog is doing something you don’t like after he finishes eating (like Gatsby!), or when you’re putting on your shoes to leave the house, or when guests come in, or in any other situation that comes up a lot in your home – try picking a station for him, and teaching him to go there and stay put.

What about the toy?

Interestingly, many dogs have a need to grab something with their mouths when they get overly excited, frustrated, or just generally “worked up.”  That’s why a lot of times, you’ll see behaviors like jumping and grabbing at clothing, grabbing and pulling at the leash (on walks), or biting and mouthing at human hands in frustrated or excited dogs.

For some of these dogs, giving them something else to do with their mouth (basically, something they’re ALLOWED to grab) is almost like magic – it gives them an outlet for all that excitement and energy, helps them calm down, and keeps their mouth busy so they can’t bark, or bite, or grab your clothes.

Does it work in every single case?  No.  But if you have a dog who gets wound up and can’t control himself sometimes, it’s definitely worth a try!

So – just a couple of easy things you might consider, if you have an over-excited “problem pup” yourself. 😊

***This article was written by Jennifer Summerfield, DVM and originally posted October 28, 2019 on Dr. Jen’s Dog Blog. 

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