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Stop! Don’t teach Your dog bad habits – Karen Phillips

When bringing home a new puppy one of the exciting things is that you get to start with a clean slate.  Often we begin with all the best intentions teaching our puppies everything the correct way with the goal of ending up with the “perfect”, well behaved dog. This, of course, is easier said than done and often bad habits creep in no matter how well intentioned we are.

The good news is YOU can teach an old dog new tricks! The older your dog gets the more ingrained the bad habits can become and they will be harder to break. However, provided you understand the principles of reinforcement and how a dog learns, it is possible to change things around.  There is a pretty long list of behavioural problems that our dogs’ can develop. For example, nuisance barking, begging, jumping up on people, destroying furniture, stealing and chewing objects, carsickness, toileting in the house, chasing cars, pulling on the leash, not coming back when called and digging. Then there are also behavioural issues such as things like fearfulness, hyperactivity and aggression to other dogs and people.

Before embarking on a solution it is also important to try and medical issues or perhaps an underlying trigger for your dog that needs to be addressed. In order to be successful, I recommend spending some time observing your dog to see what patterns of behaviour are followed prior to the undesirable behaviour so you can make the right decision when coming up with a resolution. In some cases a qualified dog behaviourist will be necessary. They will develop a program designed specifically for your dog.

Before you start on any “needs more training” issues with your dog, you need to establish what is most reinforcing to it.  If you don’t have anything that your dog wants you won’t be very successful. Experiment with different foods to see what your dog responds to best. These are often foods that they don’t normally get. If your dog prefers toys to food then find a special toy that your dog loves and put it aside only to be used only when teaching or training.

One of the very important things to remember when retraining your dog is that if you want to stop a dog from doing something you don’t like, you will always be more successful if you replace the behaviour you don’t want with something you do want. Simply telling your dog off will often not work or the dog will simply wait until you’re not around. Considering it is normally our fault our dogs pick up unwanted behaviours it seems somewhat unfair to punish them for it in any case!

One of my favourite methods of training my dogs is “shaping”.  Shaping is a fantastic fun way of teaching your dog what you want. You simply communicate with your dog by rewarding approximations of the behaviour that you want until you end up with the desired behaviour. The best thing is that you end up with a dog that wants to do something! Next month I’ll talk about how to use shaping at home with your own dog.


Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful border collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her border collies as well as little Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.

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