Default good behavior!? Really?

One really important aspect of training your dog is building communication. It’s incredibly important to know how to get your dog to do what you’d like and for your dog to learn how to get what he/she needs from you. I did not come hardwired to know that when Rio does a very hard look away, that he’s getting overwhelmed and would like to be removed from the situation. That is a behavior I learned during or training and work together. Rio, on the other hand has learned how to respond when I give him any number of cues.

He’ll sit when he’s asked (except when he’s being a demo dog in class… then he lays down LOL), he’ll down when I ask for it, he’ll go lay on his bed when I ask, he’ll go in his crate, he’ll not chase the cat, and all sorts of fun and exciting behaviors. He’s learned that when I ask him to do something that there will be something in it for him (even just a “good boy”) so I have really great compliance for behaviors.


I don’t want to have to be on top of him every second of his life. I don’t want to have to constantly to be saying, “Go to bed,” “Lay down (ie don’t counter surf),” “Kitchen (which means get out of the kitchen),” etc. It would be a really sad life if it was only ever about listening to me and doing everything that I say and never having freedom to do his own thing. While I want him to get to do his own thing, I also want him to make good choices throughout the day. I want to offer desirable behaviors as a default. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if dogs would just DO the right things without being asked (wouldn’t it be great if KIDS would do the right things without being asked?!)?

So, how does one go about teaching default behaviors? Well, you don’t. You don’t teach anything… you simply reinforce behaviors that you like. When you reinforce a behavior it’s more likely to happen again. I use this principle to start building up desirable behaviors that happen even when I’m not asking for them.

Shayne is a bit of a neb-nose and she would stare out the windows/storm door just waiting for something to bark at. The longer she sat there the more hypervigilant she would become. Sure I could call her away from the windows but I didn’t want to constantly harp on her for that behavior. So I set out to simply reinforce her every time I noticed her looking away or walking away from the window (and eventually noticing when she walked near the window without looking out at all). It took a few weeks but she regularly started to spend less and less time looking out the window and more time hanging out in the new reinforcement zone (about 4ft away from the windows).

Now many of you may be thinking, “but you can’t possibly be there to reward every single time” and you are correct. What science tells us is that when reinforcement becomes random, the behavior actually becomes stronger than if it were a one to one correlation. Which is why jumping, counter surfing, and nuisance barking are all very hard behaviors to remedy because they are quite often randomly rewarded. Rio’s been pretty good about not counter surfing for a while… unfortunately yesterday I was running late and left 1/4 of a roll of Red Barn on the counter. He got rewarded big time for counter surfing after quite a while of nothing–I definitely sabotaged my work on extinguishing that behavior. That random reinforcement makes the behavior much stronger.

We so frequently only give our dog feedback on our dogs’ behavior (reinforcement/punishment) when they are doing something we’d rather them not do. If we took the time during the day to notice when our dogs are doing what we want them to do and reinforce it, the dogs would start choosing (with out being told) to do behaviors that have a history of reinforcement.

So you see Fido laying down calmly while you fix dinner, “good boy” and toss him a reward. You notice your dog think about but ultimately choose NOT to chase the cat, “good girl!” and get a reward. While you are cleaning like a maniac, you notice your dog sleeping nicely on their bed/mat/crate, “good boy!” an give him a reward. You walk in the house after a long day at work and your sometimes jumpy puppy is keeping 4 on the floor without being asked to do so, “good girl!” and give her a reward. Your hypervigilant neb-nose dog walks away from the window, “good girl!” and give a reward. When dogs learn that there is a chance of reinforcement for XX behavior, they start to choose those behaviors over other things in specific situations (so if you reinforce staying out of the kitchen while you cook, it’s more likely to happen when you cook in the future, not necessarily all the time). If you take the time to notice and reward the good things, you end up with really nice default behaviors.

So, I challenge you to find the good in your dog. What does your dog do everyday that are positive behaviors that you don’t request? If your dog is doing something you like or appreciate, reinforcement. Let them know that the behavior they are doing is something that you may reinforce

  1. This is such good advice. Something that I knew in the back of my mind but just wasn’t applying. Pearl sounds similar to Shayne- hypervigilant at the window describes her behavior to a T. I am going to stop trying to call her away from the window every second, especially because she doesn’t listen and it just lets her think she doesn’t have to pay attention to me, and instead try and reward her for spending her time elsewhere.

  2. Great post! (As always!) Even when you know these things it’s good to be reminded. I’m going to make a point this week to look for good behavior to reinforce.

  3. I love this post! Once again you have given me the sound kick in the ass I’ve been needing. While Shiva and I made terrific progress with her door barking problems over the summer, our landlords put in a new door that doesn’t have a window, taking away all training opportunities in that respect. However, this shouldn’t have stopped me from rewarding her whenever she hears a noise outside the door and doesn’t bark, or whenever she walks by the garbage can without knocking it over.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. I hadn’t thought of it that way – I’ll have to try and reinforce some behaviours for Gwynn. One that he does without any kind of training is greeting me calmly at the door. I’ll just need to remember to put some treats in my pocket to reward right away.

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