Downeast Dog News

Change is Possible!

Behavior can be Modified… with enough time and effort
By | Feb 15, 2019


“I thought that was just the way he was,” said my client as our fingers were throbbing in pain due to her dog being so “sharky” during a training session. He was crushing our fingers to access the treats she offered. I told her that we really needed to work on this as it directly affected training. She was surprised and said, “I didn’t know I could change that.” “Sandy” had an “ah hah!” moment when she realized that her previous dogs did the same thing. Her epiphany exposed the fact that it was she who had trained this; it wasn’t her dogs’ fault. The good news is that we can teach her dog to take treats gently.

“The dog is only doing what has worked for him in the past over and over again. It was fun, felt good, provided him with relief, and got him something he wanted. Why would we expect him to change and start doing something else when he has already gotten so good at the other behavior?” Debbie Jacobs,

Without a compelling reason to change our behavior (this applies to all species), we won’t change. Take, for example, the addiction to smoking. We know it’s harmful not only to us but to the people around us, but kicking this habit is incredibly challenging. Imagine your dog’s bad habits being ingrained as deeply as an addiction. Without your help, he won’t be able to kick it.

But how? On paper, it’s simple: control the consequence. Consequence drives behavior. This means that it’s not what we say or do beforehand that affects behavior, it’s what happens right afterward. You can tell your kid to clean her room over and over and over, but without a meaningful consequence, you can repeat the request a million times and still not get that clean room.

Back to the sharky dog…. how can we get the message across to Mr. Toothy that we don’t like our hands to be treated as a chew toy? Answer: we need to control access to the treat. No tooth contact = treat is dispensed; tooth contact ≠ no treat. Zip it! There is no verbal cue necessary - focus only on the consequence. This requires us to be in control of the treat. I like to hide it between my fingers so it’s not immediately accessible - the pup has to make a choice as to how he is going to get it. We grant him the treat for his “soft mouth.” We need to start our puppies out right away with this game, so they don’t grow up to become yet more sharks in the waters like Mr. Toothy and his predecessors.

For Mr. Toothy, this strategy didn’t work. He continued to be too rough, indicating he wasn’t getting it (why? because the habit was too ingrained despite his youthful 2.5 years). There are many other options for helping teach a soft mouth, and I chose my "Skewer Technique" as Plan B. This technique was inspired many years ago by my horse as I observed him eating raspberries directly from their thorny bush. Even with those giant lips of his, Diablo was able to very precisely pick the berries without getting pricked.

NOTE: the intent isn’t to harm your dog; it’s just to help him understand that he has to think about how to take a treat. Be very careful with this technique if you decide to try it!

Secure a small, soft treat on the end of a long, metal skewer (a regular or meat fork will work, too). Hold it about halfway up the length and offer it to your dog perpendicular to his mouth so that in case he dives for it it won’t aim for his throat. You should see that he starts to hesitate a tiny bit by the 2nd or 3rd time. You can then adjust the angle of the skewer. Gradually slide your hand towards the end of the skewer until you are holding the treat, but only progress if your dog continues to be careful.

Mr. Toothy took to this strategy beautifully, and it was fun to see the transformation from “grab it” to “delicately grasp it”. It will take hundreds of successful repetitions and close to zero repeats of toothiness for him to start to more habitually be gentle.

Sorry, if you are wondering how to get your kid to clean her room, I don’t have any magic answers except to focus on the consequence. Be kind.