How do I stop my dog from eating...? How do I stop my dog from doing...? These are the two most common questions asked by frustrated dog owners. Sometimes the answers are complex. Too often, the answers are shockingly simple.
A questioner asked how to keep her dog from eating the baseboards in her house (she was looking for something to spray). The answers fell into two very distinctive camps.
Non-dog trainers saw the problem as inevitable to the situation: dog loose in house, dog eats stuff they shouldn't, we need to punish away the undesired behavior through deterrents. Their answers were diverse in their creativity and perplexing in their adherence to the paradigm of inevitability: double sticky tape on the baseboards, various sprays, scat mats, mouse traps, crinkly aluminum foil.
The suggestions from the trainers differed markedly, because they took a half step back from the question and looked at it from the perspective of, why does your dog have access to your baseboards if he likes to eat them? They did not see the behavior as an unfortunate side-effect of having a dog, rather they saw it as a management problem of asking too much of a dog who does not understand the arbitrariness of human rules. Their suggestions: crating, putting outside when at work, locking in small rooms away from baseboards, etc...
The pet owners were looking to solve a problem they saw as inevitable.
The trainers saw it as a ridiculous question when the answer was to simply deny the dog access to the baseboards if he likes to eat them.
The pet owners were looking at the dog as an animal that should somehow have an intrinsic understanding of house rules and had failed to understand the baseboard eating element of it. Once the dog ceased eating the baseboards, all would be well and perfect.
The dog trainers saw this as a dog who has no idea that eating baseboards is bad, and therefore, the simplest solution is to deny the dog the ability to continue practicing the behavior in the owner's absence, and insist upon owner attentiveness when the dog was present so that the dog would figure out the rules, and never have an opportunity to practice the behavior in the absence of the owner (thereby learning two sets of rules).
They saw the baseboard eating as a larger misunderstanding on the dog's part and knew that if the dog was denied access to the baseboards through sprays or other means, the dog might just eat the electrical cords or the legs off the couch, not in retaliation, or revenge, but because he likes to chew on stuff, and the whole house is filled with chewable stuff.
This is also not a case that can be solved by throwing more chew toys at the dog. Dogs like different textures, and wood may feel better than Nylabone plastic. Or the dog might be in the living room, and the Kong may be elsewhere. The dog is not bored, or lonely, or sad, or afraid. The dog is being a dog, and dogs like to chew stuff.
This is why I recommend living with a dog for a minimum of a full year before trusting him to freely roam the house in my absence (longer if it's a puppy). During that year your pup may spend weeks quietly chewing appropriately at your feet, then wander over and begin casually gnawing on a house plant. Here's where you throw in an interrupter word, and redirect the pup to more appropriate chew items. Dogs forget. It may take weeks or months for the dog to try to reexamine the yumminess of plants. Being present allows instant redirection. Five months later your dog might be laying with her muzzle up against a chair leg. Whoops! Interrupt and redirect. The dog isn't bad. She's just being a dog.
People come to me and ask how do I keep my dog from counter surfing, and my often unwanted answer is: don't let them start. It just takes one time of your dog jumping onto a counter and finding a steak to establish a life-long behavior pattern.
Think it isn't possible? Ask yourself how much you would spend on lottery tickets if the very first time you bought one you won a Corvette. The barrier to entry is low ( a buck) and the payoff possibilities are huge (Dude! it's a Corvette!). What if I also gave you hints about when a winning ticket might be next? Like I tell you pink tickets are more likely to pay?
Your dog absolutely knows when there's a high likelihood of food available on the counter. Add to that the possibility of food crumbs and buttery utensils even when there isn't raw hamburger, and the dog never loses.
Think about what kind of punishment, and how often it would have to applied to overcome the lottery-like effects of counter surfing. Especially if the dog learns to associate the lack of owner presence with the zero likelihood of punishment (or punishment is reduced to tin cans on a string or an easily circumvented mouse trap).
Think of how much we'd have to reward our dog for alternate behaviors to stay on the floor. Again, what happens when the dog finds out that reinforcement on the floor is never possible when the owners are home, but the counter still occasionally pays.
Once a dog has been rewarded heavily and randomly for a behavior we have to be able to control the dog's access 100% of the time to make the behavior disappear. The dog only has to get lucky once to undo everything.
Management is boring. It means being attentive to our dogs. It takes a bit of work and a lengthy time commitment. But it isn't hard. And to do otherwise often means a lifelong habit that will create discord and a feeling of eternal combat with your dog.
So the next time you want to ask, How do I stop my dog from doing...? Take a step back and look at the picture from a slightly different viewpoint. Sometimes the answer is complex, but all you often it is embarrassingly easy.