Ignoring Unwanted Behavior

My dad's dog, Harley, has a behavior that drives me nuts. He likes to scratch on the door and/or bark when he wants to be let in. He is so large and powerful that the last door he did this to was knocked off alignment and he destroys screens with one swipe of the paw.

Unfortunately Harley has been reinforced for 13 years by being let in when he does this because no one likes a barking dog nor a dog that destroys screens. However, this has taught smart Harley that doing this behavior gets him what he wants. Seeing as I am home most of the day spending time with my kids in the room that has the sliding glass door where he likes to stand, Harley does this quite a bit.

At first, I was taking my Dad's lead and telling him to "go lie-down" meanwhile gesticulating his lie-down hand signal. This was not working. I progressed with frustration to yelling "No!" and I thought I was getting results. All other adults in the household did the same thing. We were consistent in the corrections, so I believed our lack of fast response time in changing his behavior was due to 13 years of him being reinforced. That is until one day I finally remembered that I am a dog trainer and my dad is not! What would I do if this were a client's dog? I would tell the client to ignore their dog and not give him any attention because negative attention is still attention. So I conducted an experiment.

I looked at the digital clock in the room when he began his barking scratching game again and verbally corrected him each and every time. It took him 5 minutes before he left, which he only left for about 20 seconds before he started another round of annoying behavior at the door! Again and again I noted how long it took and how long he left for and the results were very even. Then about the 5th round I did something different, I ignored him. I refused to make eye contact with him and you know what? He left after 1.5 minutes! And he left for 25 minutes before coming back! The next few days I noticed ignoring made him leave quickly and made him not come back for a while.

The next part of fixing the behavior was to make sure he was only allowed inside when he wasn't being obnoxious at the door. For the most part, everyone followed that rule easily, until my husband had a few mishaps and let him in over the weekend and few times because he either forgot about re-training him or he just felt bad for him because all Harley really wants is to go lie on his couch.

His love for his couch is so strong that Harley doesn't find being outside very rewarding in itself. He doesn't want to chase critters or lay in the sun or do any of the things Lucy enjoys outside. I am sure his aching bones hurt and getting up and down from the ground or even a dog bed is difficult for him. It is actually easier for him to navigate up and off the couch because of his size. I wish I could make the outdoors more rewarding for him, it would make fixing this behavior issue easier. I can't really re-direct him to do a command incompatible with scratching on the door because he can't get into any positions easily in his old age. Sit is near impossible, I don't think he could manage a back-up and I wouldn't ask him to down on the brick outside the door.

It is very very difficult to ignore a behavior you don't like. It is human nature to want to fix things right away and be proactive. It is hard to not give in sometimes as well and make excuses that he is old, he just wants his couch etc. BUT he needs to be outside sometimes when there are guests over or my baby is on the floor and he is underfoot, or when he needs to potty and eat and get some sunshine.

I've only been working on this with him for about a week and already I am seeing great results. Great results with a 13 year old dog that hasn't been training in a very very long time! Also, I am not using treats or any sort of instant reward. His delayed reward is getting to come in when he is a good boy. A puppy with minimum prior experience of being rewarded for an annoying behavior would probably come along a lot faster. So next time you are faced with a problem like barking or scratching or jumping or anything that requires you to do something for the dog to get what he wants, just try ignoring the behavior. Keep a log and you may be surprised that you are getting results when you didn't think you were.

While writing this Harley came and scratched the office door from outside, I didn't look at him and he went away! After one scratch!

Update: It has been over a year since I wrote this post and guess what? Harley doesn't do this behavior AT ALL anymore. Nope, he doesn't scratch or bark at the door. He does his business outside then goes and finds a spot on the grass to lay until he is called in. If it is cold or bad weather, he will potty, then come to the door and simply stand patiently to be let in. Yes, I fixed this issue by simply ignoring and rewarding the behavior I wanted by letting him in. No treats and no punishment. How long did it take, a few months. Keep in mind, this dog had been reinforced for his whole entire life for doing this behavior. A few months is nothing!