Just Ignore The Bad Behavior

“Just ignore the bad behavior” is something that is often told to people dealing with problem behaviors like jumping and barking. This phrase, while it has merit, is overly simplistic and not entirely true.

Ignoring, or more technically speaking, not rewarding, an unwanted behavior is certainly a piece of the puzzle but it is not the whole picture. When we talk about “ignoring” behavior to make it go away, we are actually talking about quite a few different pieces of training that work together to extinguish that behavior. In order for “ignoring” a behavior to be effective it must be practiced with creating an alternative behavior, management (preventing the behavior from being practiced), and in some instances using negative punishment.

Ignoring a behavior is really all about not reinforcing the behavior. What we have to remember is that we do not decide what is reinforcing to our dogs–what we may think is punishment is still actually reinforcing. Yelling at Fido when he is barking, while you may think it’s punishment because you are scolding the dog, is actually reinforcing to the dog because he got what he wanted–attention (and you joined in on the fun by barking back). Even negative attention is attention and is reinforcing to the dog. Sure, Fido would rather be snuggled and loved on but giving the dog eye contact and yelling, “OFF! Bad dog!” is still attention.

The dog cannot get anything for the behavior–no attention (even eye contact), no response, no access to things. If the dog gets some reward out of the bad behavior, it will continue to happen because the dog learns that X behavior pays out. If you ignore the behavior for a while and then give in, you are teaching the dog to do the behavior for longer and longer–so it’s important to not give in and be strict with not rewarding that behavior. In some instances we may use negative punishment to help the behavior becoming extinct. Negative punishment just means we REMOVE something they want as a response to the unwanted behavior–jumping on a person may mean the person leaves or the dog is removed. We don’t always need to use negative punishment but it’s certainly an option and a piece of the puzzle.

A few weeks back, I wrote about how skills that are not practiced will fade, well we want to use that to our advantage in these situations. Any behavior that is practiced or rehearsed will becomes stronger so we want to make sure the unwanted behaviors are not practiced. This part of the equation means handlers must manage situations that they put their dogs in to prevent the dog rehearsing the undesirable behavior. We are certainly not perfect but if you are reasonably certain that if your dog is off-leash and a guest comes over that he will jump, it’s best that you have your dog leashed, crated, or set up in a way where he cannot jump on the guest. It only takes ONE time for a guest to go, “Oh I don’t mind if he jumps” while petting the dog for jumping up to go back to square one with training. Basically, until you are relatively sure of success, you want to use leashes, tethers, gates, and crates to prevent the dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior. This is the area that pet guardians seem to have the most trouble committing to when they are working with their dogs–it’s hard to tell strangers they can’t pet your dog because you don’t want him jumping, it’s hard to have to use a baby gate when people visit, but having a month or two of management (give or take) is totally worth a lifetime of a well behaved dog.

Last, but certainly not least, we have to teach dogs an alternative way to get what they want. If you figure out what the goal of the unwanted behavior is, you can teach the dog a new behavior that gets the same results. Demand barking, for example, is a way for dogs to get your attention–eventually you will give in give the dog some sort of attention, even if it is just eye contact. If, however, you teach your dogs that laying down will get them that same attention, they will start choosing that behavior instead of the barking if you are following the previous steps. Ultimately they are going to get what they want, but we can shape which behaviors get that reward as a way to extinguish unwanted behavior. It’s about creating a new pathway to the same reward–a detour around the unwanted behavior that still gets the dog to what it wants.

Ignoring the behavior is a piece of the puzzle but it’s not the only tool we have to extinguish an unwanted behavior.

1 Comment
  1. Ignoring bad behaviour doesn’t work when that behaviour is barking out the window or fence fighting with other dogs. My dog doesn’t need anything from me to get rewarded in those scenarios and ignoring almost encourages it. There are many instances that require a lot of management and interuption. How how I wish it were as simple as ignoring!

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