Teach “Incompatible” Behaviors for a Well-Mannered Pup


New puppy parents are often advised to keep a supply of puppy chew toys handy in every room. If the puppy starts to chew on something inappropriate, such as the sofa leg or a shoe, the humans can easily reach for a puppy toy and offer a trade. This is good advice and a good introduction to teaching an “incompatible behavior” to replace an undesired behavior: If the puppy is chewing on her own teething bone, she’s not destroying the furniture.

In my last blog post, The Best Alarm Clocks Ever, I mentioned procedural memory in a description of how and why dogs remind us that it is time to get up, feed them, or even take our medication. Procedural memory is even more significant in the way it affects other routines and behaviors.

Some psychologists say that procedural memories form aspects of character or habits. That means that a behavioral or emotional response to a particular situation could become an automatic or ingrained response. This is a valuable piece of knowledge in educating dogs (or humans). Old habits are hard to break, but understanding where a behavior comes from might mean that you can work to change it — replacing the “bad”  habit with an incompatible good habit. An incompatible behavior is simply any different behavior that cannot be done at the same time as the undesired behavior. Learning the new “routine” will replace the old, undesired one.

A common example is doggy greetings. Jumping up to greet people (or adult dogs) is a very common puppy behavior. This probably hearkens back to dogs’ wolf ancestors. When young wolf pups jump up and lick adults’ muzzles, it stimulates regurgitation feeding. Ick. (It’s also a submissive behavior.) When our cute puppies jump on us to greet us, we might not feed them in the style of wolves, but we do tend to reach down and pet and cuddle them. We might laugh and tell them how wonderful they are. This is fun and rewarding for puppies, and it encourages puppies to continue to jump on returning human family members and guests. Many small puppies grow, though, and become large, gangly adolescents, then 60- or 100-pound adult dogs. Jumping is not cute anymore, but the puppy has never learned not to do it; in fact, the puppy has been rewarded for jumping.

Some old-fashioned trainers might suggest stepping on the dog’s toes or kneeing the dog in the chest to stop the jumping behavior. This is cruel and does not teach the dog anything other than that his human can’t be trusted. From the dog’s perspective, his human has suddenly started hurting him for no reason. After all, the human allowed and even encouraged the jumping when the puppy was small.

A more fair and humane approach is to teach an incompatible behavior, for example teaching the puppy or dog to sit to greet people. If the puppy is sitting, she can’t jump, right? (Another option for overly enthusiastic canine greeters is to teach the puppy to fetch a toy and bring it to the visitor.)

Not exactly cocktails, but it’s a start (photo by Sae Hokoyama)

When Jana was a puppy, I wanted to teach her to sit to greet visitors. I put the “incompatible behaviors” principle to work successfully — both on puppy Jana and on our guests. First, I taught Jana to sit when I crossed my arms over my chest. Then I asked entering guests to cross their arms. This action was “incompatible” with petting the jumping puppy. It also gave Jana the cue to sit (incompatible with jumping). Viola! Jana sat and was rewarded with praise, petting, and, often, treats; I could happily greet visitors without fretting that they were teaching Jana bad habits.

In The Best Alarm Clocks Ever, I also mentioned Jana’s propensity to remind me of mealtimes — well ahead of time. Doggy dinner is at 6 p.m., but Jana often starts hinting, nudging, trying to lead me to the kitchen, pointing out her empty bowl, etc. long before 5 p.m. Do you suppose that, if I taught Jana to make cocktails at 5 p.m., she would stop bugging me for her dinner? It’s worth a try …