How long does it take to change a dog’s behavior?


“Dogs feel very strongly that they should always go with you in the car, in case the need should arise for them to bark violently at nothing right in your ear.”
Dave Barry

I think that for any habitual behavior there is a long learning curve of change. That’s why there’s that saying about old dogs can’t be taught new tricks. It’s a false saying, but there is some merit in it as the process of changing behavior is compounded by habits of years that have been rewarded – probably by people unintentionally.

Hoping that a behavior will go away is usually just wishful thinking and ends up as long-term management instead of a fix. Or as in the above quote the next line would be the person then yells at the dog like a Laurel and Hardy skit and the next time the same, and the next time the same again or worse the dog starts barking at ‘everything’ right in your ear.

To actually change a behavior, sometimes it seems like forever.

Sometimes the early stages are easy and the later hold-out remnants are hard and so the spiral rewinds.

Sometimes the early changes are “you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me” this is not how things are supposed to be … so difficult. Making you wonder, ‘am I on the right track?’

Let’s take Reggie, the 8-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. He started out all intense and demanding and barking and bouncing.  He has a very piercing, distance carrying, mind shaking bark.

Bark, Bark, bark … “I want that, you do that, give me that…” And who do you think you are putting me in a crate or an outside run, I must be free and next to you and if I’m not everybody is going to hear about it!

Then he came to realize this is an ‘it’s your choice household.’ In other words – if you want the ball, Frisbee, Kong tossed you must be quiet and stationary, but it’s your choice to have it tossed or not tossed I am quite willing to turn away and not play, but I’m also willing to play big time. And if you wish to go outside you must be quiet and seated out-of-the-way of the door, but it’s your choice, you could remain in the house when I go out. And I realize you would like to be released from the crate but release is contingent on quiet and calm and laying down in there, it’s your choice. You of course may bark your head off, dig, push vigorously on every surface with your snout, but that doesn’t get the door, gate, toss open/to happen, ah well. Frustrating.

Yes, he was initially very frustrated at our rules and anxious about the new household and where he might fit in it, but our rules are very consistent and so become easy to understand – terriers are known for their ability to do ‘work arounds’, but not here. And if he seemed fearful of the crate we played crate games and did interval rewards for quiet to make sure he knew what was desired.  And a softer, calmer dog he has become. Actually, he sacks out more than I would have expected. At first it seemed like he never slept, was a wound up dog, let’s go always, anytime – tiring for the human contingent.

But it has been weeks, loud weeks. Sometimes seemingly moving toward calm and comfortable and compliant and sometimes regressing for no clear reason. He’s cute and funny, and a good cuddler though, this is contingent too on performing some easy behavior to get the invite up. It can be hard to remember to have him do something first, but it’s worth it as it adds value to the requested behavior and value to my time limited invitation.

He has some compulsions, but I’m using them as rewards for other behaviors and so the compulsiveness has lessened and become more thoughtful than driven. He likes pushing rocks and pulling grass to a high degree, try to get this interspersed with sit, down, touch and some barking starts, but then the rock remains under my foot and my face turns away and he remembers that barking doesn’t work. Or I just leave and make noise doing something else … a little human manipulation to get my way, whatever works. The changes are worth it.

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