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"Problem" behaviours, or natural instincts?

by Anne-Marie Mayes

This month, let's talk about some behaviours that are natural for dogs but often problematic for humans. First, during the summer, a common complaint from dog owners is their dog digging in the yard or garden. Believe it or not it is an innate behaviour for dogs, so as a result the desire to dig comes naturally to them. Some of the main reasons for digging are: -It's fun! Digging provides great entertainment for most dogs and is self-rewarding -They smell something worth digging for (insects or animals underground) -They are hot and are looking for a cool place to rest Being a natural behaviour they do not set out to ruin your lawn or garden but they are exploring and following their magnificent nose. My number one solution for digging up the yard is to provide your dog a proper outlet for this natural behaviour. One way to do this is to build them a digging area or sandbox in a cool area of the yard. Section off an area and define the space by using some boards (another quick option is to use a kiddie pool with some sand or dirt) and bury some treats or toys that will encourage your dog to dig in that area. When they start to dig in this area, get excited and reward them. If they start to dig elsewhere then bring them to their spot and encourage them to dig in this area. If the digging is due to boredom, another option is to give them toys or other activities to entertain themselves outside. Find some outdoor activities they enjoy such as a Jolly Ball, a soccer ball, an obstacle course that they can climb on (old patio furniture), a kiddie pool with water in it, or food dispensing toys in the grass. You can also teach a new game such as scent work, or retrieve (yes The Dog Classroom does offer these classes) that are a fun way to interact with your dog in the yard. Another natural behaviour for dogs that humans find problematic is scavenging for food on the table or counters (called "counter surfing"). Dogs are natural scavengers and will repeat any behaviour that results in good outcomes, so once they get a reward (your food) off the counter they will continue to jump up and check. Most people try to discourage it by reprimanding the dog, but often that just teaches the dog to wait until you're out of the room. The most effective way to get long-lasting results is to make sure they are not rewarded for that behaviour again by keeping your counters clear of any food items. You can also teach other skills to keep your dog from checking out the counters while you cook.

One training situation I set up is to practice having my food on the coffee table and tell the dogs to "leave it". Their reward for staying away from my food is that I give them treats on the floor. Once they are good at this step, I practice leaving the room for a short period and rewarding the dogs for staying away from my food even though I left the room. Another exercise I train is 'go to mat'. The idea is to create value for staying in their spot in the kitchen. When I am in the kitchen, the dogs will get rewards on their mat so they choose to stay there instead of checking out the counter. These training skills are simple but take a lot of practice so make sure you take small steps before you work up to leaving the room.

Maui digging in the sand at camp

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