How To Uncondition Your Canine Companion

In Psychology we have just learned about conditioned responses.  Basically, a neutral stimulus (like your arrival home) has the potential to cause your dog to have a conditioned response (such as peeing or salivating) if you habitually take your dog for a walk or feed her right after you get home.  I am just learning the vocabulary to describe this phenomenon, but I have understood it for years.

Many people report these conditioned responses as bad behavior.  If you regularly feed your dog at a certain time of the day, she will come to expect food at that time, and act out until she is fed.  If you always take her out the moment you wake up in the morning, she will get anxious waiting and might have an accident.  These behaviors are learned, and so they have the potential to be “un-learned.”

Bad behavior: Peeing when owner first returns home

Don’t act excited when you first greet your dog.  Sometimes the pee is just a submissive response to seeing you as the dominate figure arriving home.  It can also be a response to the fact that you always take your dog outside the moment you return home, and the pee in response to your return is a conditioned response.  You might try ignoring your dog for just the first 5 minutes and THEN take her out.  Then build up to longer times.  If she does not expect to go out the moment you return, the automatic peeing should cease.  The only exception to this is if your dog genuinely NEEDS to pee, which should only be the case if she has been alone too long.  As a general rule of thumb, an adult dog should be able to “hold it” at least 6-8 hours with no issues.  My dog is 5, and she can easily make it through the night (8-9 hours), and she has on many occasions waited 10-12 hours without having an accident.  Much older dogs lose some bladder control, so the “comfortable” window will be different for every dog.  But if you are returning within the window, just let your dog wait it out a few extra minutes to “un-learn” the behavior.

Bad behavior: Begging for food at certain times of the day.

I have friends who keep their dogs on an elaborate feeding schedule.  For example, Jack-the-dog gets breakfast in the morning, a bone at lunch time, dinner at 5pm, and a treat in the evening.  That’s a lot for his owner to manage every day.  And when I see him at the park, he is anxious to go home and get his dinner.  In contrast, my dog gets breakfast whenever I wake up in the morning (it varies), and that’s about it.  She doesn’t always eat all the food in the morning, but generally within 24 hours, it’s all gone.  Basically, she eats when she’s hungry, not on a specific schedule.  This means that there are never times of the day when she is in the kitchen begging for her treat.  I give her treats at random times (not even once per day), so that she never learns to expect them.

The lesson here is that it’s very easy to condition dogs to have “bad behaviors” like begging or peeing indoors.  But it’s also easy to change your behavior towards your dog so that they no longer act that way.  Give your dog lots of love, but stay away from routines that promote neuroses and your and your dog will BOTH be happier.

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