Downeast Dog News

Think Incompatible!

The Story of Two Behaviors that Just Could not Get Along
By | Sep 01, 2018

My client complained about her adolescent dog getting into a jumpy/bitey frenzy where he would spontaneously grab her, bark, jump, scrape her with his toenails, and just plain make her want to do unspeakable things to him. It can be so darned frustrating when your pup, a beloved member of your family, suddenly transforms himself into a violent knife-wielding little monster and turns against you. You just want to fight back!

For adolescent dogs, this behavior is not uncommon, but it doesn’t mean we should subject ourselves to it or allow our dogs to practice it; that would make things much worse in the long-run, not to mention the pain and suffering we’d cause ourselves.

Welcome, Incompatible Behaviors!

An “incompatible behavior” is a behavior that cannot physically be done at the same time as another behavior. As my client’s dog started to demonstrate the very thing she had just been describing, I grabbed a fabric placemat and put it on the floor near him, I didn’t say a word. Within 3 seconds, her dog transmogrified from a fiery, crazed lunatic bent on doing harm to his favorite person, to a quiet, well-behaved dog settled on a mat on the floor next to her.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!!” my client exclaimed. All those evening battles of wills she had endured could have played out so differently had she thought about what behavior her dog could do that would preclude him from continuing to engage in the unwanted one. “Gus” (not his real name), was a pro at settling on a mat, and I knew it. He could not possibly jump and bite while he was lying down. I rewarded him generously for switching gears so adeptly. Good boy! What’s even more interesting is that he seemed grateful for the opportunity. We tend to forget that it’s not fun for the dog to be in that crazed state. Gus, like most dogs, was incapable of making a more suitable choice while he was in full attack mode; he needed someone to help him make a better choice.

A down-stay is incompatible with jumping. They just cannot happen together. They are incompatible behaviors.

When Gus is released from his down, he might very well retake his role as JumpyBiteyMonster. If this were to happen, I would re-present the mat and try to get Gus to stay on it longer, perhaps tether him so that he can settle on the mat but a bit closer, Sometimes switching gears, even for a short time, is all we need in order to keep naughtiness at bay. The settle worked well at that time, but it’s possible it won’t stick in all circumstances; if it doesn’t, confinement is a very good option.

Instead of getting mad or confrontational with your dog, take a step back, assess the situation, and ask yourself, “what do I want my dog do instead?”

Some examples of “Incompatible Behaviors:”

• Jumping vs. standing on a perch (front paws on a stool or similar)

• Biting vs. settled in a crate

• Counter surfing vs. a down-stay

• Getting on the furniture vs. playing scavenger (finding kibble scattered all over the floor)

• Picking up objects along the sidewalk vs. offering eye contact

It’s easy to whine and complain about the behaviors we find frustrating in our dogs, to yell at them, say “no!” or otherwise lament their irksome ways, but these strategies are not productive or healthy for the human-canine bond. It takes time to build the skills that can serve as useful incompatible behaviors, but it’s well worth it! You never know when you might want your dog to do something like... settle on a mat!

"What do I want him to do instead?" and "How can I get him to WANT to do what I want him to do?" is another. Have fun! Do some sleuthing!