Ignore your dog’s bad behaviour – yes or no?

Firstly, who says it’s bad behaviour?  Not your dog, he probably loves it, that’s why he’s doing it.

Let’s reword the question.  Ignore unwanted behaviour – yes or no?

Dog owner:  “I don’t like my dog chasing sheep, but my dog trainer told me to ignore unwanted behaviour.”

Is ignoring this behaviour going to make it go away?  No.

Should this unwanted behaviour be ignored?  No, this particular behaviour shouldn’t be ignored, it needs to be addressed.

Is the behaviour going to get worse?  Probably, yes.

Why is this behaviour likely to get worse?  The dog’s reward for chasing the sheep is that he’s enjoying it; the enjoyment is reinforcing the behaviour.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing, or happening more often.

Really, dog trainers should be advising dog owners not to reinforce unwanted behaviour.

So which unwanted behaviours should you ignore?  You need to look at what the dog finds rewarding about the behaviour.  Are you in control of the reward?  You’re not in control of the enjoyment a dog gets while he’s chasing sheep, but you are in control of the attention your dog gets when he jumps up at you, for example.  One of the definitions of ‘ignore’ is to refuse to take notice of or acknowledge, in other words not to give attention.  By giving the dog attention when he jumps up at you you are rewarding the dog and therefore reinforcing the behaviour.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.

Where attention is what your dog finds rewarding and when you are in control of the attention the dog gets, then yes, you can ignore this behaviour.  This should stop the behaviour increasing or happening more often.  It won’t necessarily stop the behaviour though as reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.  

So how can you stop the behaviour?  In addition to ignoring the jumping to stop it increasing, you could reward the dog when he jumps off you and all four paws are on the floor, reinforcing that all four paws should be on the floor.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing.

If you can predict when the unwanted behaviour is likely to happen, you could also replace the unwanted behaviour with a different, more desirable behaviour, one that would make it difficult for the dog to perform the unwanted behaviour.  For example, you if know that your dog jumps up at people when they come to the house, you could ask him to sit when people come to the house and reward him for that, reinforcing that he should be sitting when greeting people.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour increasing, so he’s more likely to sit when greeting people in future.  If he’s sitting then he can’t also be jumping up at people, so the jumping isn’t being reinforced.

You could also train him that a ring on the doorbell means to settle in his bed, as he can’t be jumping all over the guests if he’s chilling on his bed, but that’s a training challenge for another day.

So, what you need to do it stop the reinforcement that the dog is getting from the unwanted behaviour.  Get in touch if you need help.