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Ask A Dog Trainer: How Do I Fix A Pushy Dog? (Hint: You May Be Reinforcing The Behavior!)

Do you have a pushy pup problem? Don’t worry, you are not alone! Pushy dogs quickly become a nuisance, and some even end up in the shelter because of their bad behavior. However, there is no reason why you can’t reform your pushy dog and live happily ever after.

Image source: @MickBakerrooster via Flickr
Image source: @MickBakerrooster via Flickr

Why Do Dogs Become Pushy In The First Place?

Dogs are opportunists, meaning they are going to do what works for them. That’s why once your dog has gotten food from the table once, they are suddenly at the table every time you eat. It worked once, it might work again.

Many dogs learn pushy behaviors because we inadvertently reinforce them, which makes the behavior stronger. For example, your dog jumps up on you as a tiny puppy and you pick him up or pet him. Soon, you have a 100-pound monster leaping at you as you try and enter your house.  Or, a guest sneaks a scrap of food to your dog at the table and now your dog is begging at every meal.

Image source: @ConnieMa via Flickr
Image source: @ConnieMa via Flickr

Other pushy behaviors include:

  • Thrusting toys at you until you play with them
  • Pawing at you for attention
  • Barking at you for attention, play, etc.

The good news is that since these behaviors are all conditioned, we can un-condition them in favor of more acceptable ones.

(Note: not everyone may find these “pushy” behaviors a nuisance and that’s fine! I like my dogs to jump on me because they are small and it makes petting and picking up easier. I also don’t mind my one pup who will follow me around with a toy planted in the back of my knee because he wants to play. This is personal preference! This article is written for those who, for whatever reason, do not want their dog(s) acting this way, and that’s okay too!)

Quit Reinforcing What You Don’t Want

First and foremost, you need to stop reinforcing these behaviors. Again, dogs “go to the place of most reinforcement” or they do what works, so if you keep reinforcing them they are going to not only keep up the bad behavior, but it will get stronger. So, for the previous listed behaviors:

Begging – do not feed your dog at the table, couch, kitchen, anywhere they currently beg. No more scraps! If you want to give them a bite of your rice, put it in his dish later.

Jumping up – do not pet your dog. You also do not want to yell no or push down on your dog. Why? Because negative attention is still attention on your dog’s mind. Instead, completely ignore it – it’s best to turn your back, fold your arms up so your dog can’t grab them, and look away from him until he stops jumping up.

Do NOT do this:

Image source: @MrTinDC via Flickr
Image source: @MrTinDC via Flickr

Do THIS instead:

Sit2Greet 1 IgnoringDogImage

Thrusting toys at you – do not play with him when he is sticking his toy in your face. Instead, get up and walk away, ignore him, take the toy and put it away.

Pawing – ignore it! Walk away, don’t look at your dog, and don’t give him any attention!

Demand barking – like the others, ignore it! Do not give your dog whatever it is he wants – food, to go out or in, to play, attention, etc., when he barks at you for it!

Do not be surprised if your dog tries harder at first when you ignore him. Behaviorists call this an “extinction burst.” Basically, what it means is that before a behavior goes away, it gets worse.

Think of it like this: your dog has always gotten you to play with him when he barked once or twice. All of a sudden it’s not working. Most dogs don’t think “they must not want me to bark anymore.” Instead, they think “I must need to bark louder or more, maybe she can’t hear me.” So, they try harder before they try stopping the behavior. So hang in there!

Reinforce What You Want

In each of these scenarios, there is something your dog could do that would be “better.” For example. Instead of barking when he wants to play, he could bring you the toy and sit. In fact, a sit is a great alternative for all of these behaviors!

Offering a “sit”

Since dogs repeat behaviors that get reinforced, start by just rewarding your dog for offering sits (without a cue). An easy way to do this is take his meal and wait for him to sit, give him a piece or two of his kibble. You can toss one of them to get him up. Wait for him to sit again, give him a piece of kibble. You can practice 10 or 20 sits and then give him the rest of his meal. It takes maybe a minute, and if you feed your dog twice, that’s 40 sits a day! That’s a lot of reinforcement!

Then, wait him out when he does a bad behavior. If he stops barking, reward him. If he stops barking and offers that sit – jackpot (several treats!). Your dog will quickly figure out that sitting gets him what he wants! This works for thrusting toys, pawing, and jumping up as well!

Image source: @RycanCarr via Flickr
Image source: @RycanCarr via Flickr

Begging

Begging is a bit different because you do not want to give your dog any rewards while eating, even if it’s dog food, because that is what is causing the bad behavior – getting food while you are eating!

 Image source: @normanack via Flickr
Image source: @normanack via Flickr

So there are a couple things you can do:

  • Put your dog on a tie down (like a leash) away from the table. This is so he can’t charge you and try to get your food. If he offers appropriate behavior, sitting or lying quietly for example, you can toss a piece of kibble (an auto trainer is great for this too!). Eventually, your dog will learn to relax in that spot while you eat, and you will not need the tie down.  This works best if your dog already has a “mat” or “bed” behavior where they are used to settling.
  • Feed your dog in his kennel at the same time as you. This is “managing” the behavior because it’s not allowing him to practice the bad but not teaching him to do anything else instead. It’s great for when you have guests over or don’t have time to train.

Final Tips

Don’t forget to exercise your dog! Dogs that are getting plenty of exercise tend to be less “naughty” because they don’t have pent up energy for, say, jumping on you. In addition, you have given them the attention they crave, so they are less likely to bark at you or shove toys in your face.

Obedience classes can help your dog learn manners in all sorts of settings and are a great tool, so make sure you take one! If you are having particular difficulty with jumping up, check out my online class on teaching your dog to sit for greetings. This course allows you to work at your own pace on your schedule, so it’s perfect for busy lives. Above all, remember not to reinforce those pushy pups!

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Written by Kristina Lotz

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