Monday, November 24, 2014

Teacher's Pet Training - Changing Unwanted Behavior

by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA

The cold temperatures and snow are here early this year (nooooo!), and along with them comes a very unwanted canine behavior at my household – poopsicle eating.  Pepper the Pomeranian mix has the lovely habit of snacking on other dogs’ frozen poo (luckily she only tends to do this with frozen deposits, so I get a seasonal reprieve).  As I witnessed this behavior in the yard today, it started me thinking on all the ways we can influence our dogs’ behavior.  I’m going to run through some of the options for this particular behavior, but really, you can ask yourself some of the same questions with any undesirable behavior:

1.       Is there potentially a medical concern?  While there are many debates on the causes of coprophagia (eating of stool), some involving dietary deficiencies, Pepper seems to be in very good health otherwise.

2.       Can I live with this behavior?  Yes.  She does not eat poo to the point of making herself sick, so occasional snacking is really not doing any harm, although I do find it unpleasant.  I would like the behavior to stop, but if it doesn’t, life will still go on.

3.       Can I manage the environment to prevent it from happening?  Yes.  I could immediately pick up after the other dogs (she is especially fond of husky poo).  However, I am unlikely to comply fully with this strategy, especially when it is very cold outside.

4.       Can I remove the reinforcement?  I could use one of several food additives on the market designed to make the husky stool taste bad (ridiculous as it sounds it must currently taste good to Pepper). 

5.       Can I reinforce an incompatible behavior?  Yes, Pepper does have a “leave it” cue, as well as a good recall, so as long as I am supervising, I can reward her for staying away from it (and I can supervise from inside the house, making my compliance better in the cold).  I could also give her better things to do outside, like chasing snowballs or searching for bits of dog food.

For this particular behavior, I will likely combine a bit from each strategy.  I will try to pick up the yard as often as I can, and failing that, I will supervise Pepper when she is out, and use her “leave it” cue or her recall to reinforce her for resisting the poopsicles.  One thing I will try not to do is yell her name in an irritated manner.  It’s a bad habit of mine (despite warning all my students in training classes about it), and while it may work to get her to stop eating the poo, it may also make her more likely to avoid me when I am calling her name to get her attention.  It also doesn’t give her any direction as to what to do next.  Instead, I can use a “leave it” cue, which tells her that she will be rewarded for backing away from the snack. 

Do you have a problem behavior you’re trying to eliminate?  Excellent resources for thinking through your options include “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor, and “The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog” by Terry Ryan.
Happy Training!