I’ve written about many of the reasons why we incorrectly view our dog’s behavior as misbehavior. Things like not giving our dogs enough mental and physical exercise, our inconsistency in the application of household rules, not providing a suitable learning environment, and unreasonable expectations are all a part of our misconception. But if you were to ask me the number one reason for misbehavior in dogs, I would have to say it’s because we find it so darn cute.
Cute Behaviors get Reinforced
I don’t think there’s a better way to put it. We find a particular behavior cute and reward it with our attention. After a while, it’s still cute but somewhat annoying; once it becomes more annoying than cute, we reward it with negative attention like saying “bad dog” and pushing the dog away which, oh by the way, is still reinforcing as far as the dog is concerned. Then finally the cute is gone and we may be left with a real problem like say resource guarding that starts with something innocuous and cute, like say an apple.
Dog Misbehavior – The Cute
My terrier mix, Elbee has discovered the apple tree in our back yard this year; the result of which is some pretty cute behavior, at least at first. Having found his first small apple a few weeks ago, he came running in the house with it before we knew hid had it. Not quite sure what to do with it, he ran around the house shaking his head and tossing the apple about as though he had a mouse he was dealing with.
Of course Jackie and I found this hysterical and laughed and questioned Elbee as to what he had, a behavior chain not unheard of in this house. For instance, after the initial excitement of my wife’s return from work at night has wound down, Elbee will often scurry into another room and return with one of her shoes and parade around with it. He doesn’t tear up the shoe; he just uses it for attention, which he gets.
How Cute Becomes a Problem
We’ve noticed something new with Elbee and the apple that doesn’t occur with the shoe. Normally when we call the dogs in from outside, Elbee is the first one to zip through the door. But lately we’ve noticed him hanging out in the middle of the yard and eyeballing the other dogs as they go by him. At first we didn’t know what to make of this but after a little investigation we found out that he is guarding an apple.
Now keep in mind that he doesn’t eat the apple, I don’t think he sees it as a source of food but rather an attention getting device like the shoe. Nevertheless, he is starting to make overtures that could lead down the road to a real problem behavior.
Dog Misbehavior – It’s Our Fault
Elbee is the smallest dog in our troupe and therefore the cutest. I say this not to slight my other dogs, but because Elbee is small where my other dogs are in the 40 to 50 pound range, he gets away with behaviors the other dogs can’t simply because of his size. His ability to get closer to us faster, coupled with his already funny personality allows for a lot of attention from us that is reinforcing to him.
The Cure – Self Denial
Undesirable behaviors that result from our reinforcing cute behavior with attention cannot be labeled as misbehavior by the dog when they escalate to the point that we find them annoying or worse.
Preventing problems like these present a unique challenge because it requires us to project the behavior into the future to see what the full grown version may look like; and if we are to prevent the future problem from occurring, it requires us to deny ourselves something we find enjoyable in the present.
Removing our attention and even our presence from the dog when they engage in behaviors like these is the best way to preserve the few times they do it as fond memories instead of present day nightmares.