How To Change Unwanted Dog Behavior Using Positive Reinforcement
Step 3 of 33 in the Dogly Manners Channel
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Sometimes your dog's behavior can be annoying.

Yes, we said it, and you know what? That's okay! You aren't alone. Many dog guardians feel embarrassed when their puppy or adolescent dog exhibits unwanted behavior. We all want that perfect well-behaved dog, but how can we communicate that to our dog? Here are a few dog training tips to prevent and change dog behavior problems using positive reinforcement.


Tip 1: Think about the behavior you want from your dog

It's sometimes easier as pet parents to focus on the negative of how horrible it is our dog is showing some type of undesirable behavior (in our opinion) when instead we should be focusing on our preferred behavior or what we actually want our dogs to do. It's the difference between punishment when saying "no" to your dog for counter surfing vs giving your dog a reward like treats or verbal praise for good behavior beforehand. I talk more about this in the video below.

What does that actually mean?

When we think about what we WANT to see from our dogs, we can begin setting things up so those desirable behaviors are the easiest choices to make. Then we reinforce those behaviors heavily with positive feedback, so your dog starts to want to repeat those behaviors more and more to get treats or some type of reward from you.

Give me an example

If you're one of many dog owners whose dog jumps on you as you enter the house, try to catch them with four paws on the floor and reward their good behavior before they jump. Fair warning, you might have to be quick! It's extremely important to catch your dog the moment he or she is doing what you're looking for rather than giving your dog a chance to rehearse and reinforce any bad habit.

Okay, but tell me more...

Most dogs' natural behavior is to get excited and jump when their family members come home. Makes sense, right? You're the best thing ever to them. So as the pet parent, it's your job to teach your dog what you want. The key is to prevent unwanted behavior from happening instead of reacting to it after the fact.

Try this

Write down what dog behavior you less than love in one column on a piece of paper or in the notes on your phone. And in the next column write what alternative behavior you would like to see instead. If you're struggling to come up with ideas, let me know in the Community discussion and I'll help you come up with ideas for an alternative!


Tip 2: Train your dog with a clicker

A clicker is used in dog training as a communication tool with your dog. We may not be able to speak to our dogs (yet) but the clicker gets every dog owner closer at least! The click marks the exact moment your dog did something you wanted. It's basically like saying "Woohoo! You did the right thing! Treats all around!" to your dog.

What does that actually mean?

When you train your dog, an easy way to think about it is when you see behavior you want, click, and treat. See good behavior, mark it with a click, and pay your dog with treats. Your dog's mind will start to understand the behavior they were giving you right before the click got them lots of good stuff.

Give me an example

If you're working on leash pulling with your dog, the moment your dog makes eye contact with you and gives you a loose leash, click and reward your dog with a treat. The click marks your dog's response you want, while the treat pays your dog for the calm behavior. Over time your dog will learn that walking nicely by your side equals a positive reward.

Try this

With your dog sitting in front of you, ask for a stay. Walk around your dog clicking and treating if your pup's body stays facing towards you. After some repetitions of this, your dog will start to understand he/she gets a reward when staying rather than following you around.

Tip 3: Always reward your dog for good behavior

Rewards are a simple, yet effective way of training. By rewarding good behavior with a treat or toy, your dog will want to repeat the behavior over and over again because it brings them something they enjoy. In other words, pay your dog (with treats).

Give me an example

When teaching your new puppy to sit, the moment your pup's bum hits the ground, reward him/her. When your dog takes a break to stop barking at the mailman, reward! If your dog has separation anxiety and lasted even 2 minutes alone without going over threshold, reward! Even for just normal behavior, reinforce what you want with rewards.

Okay, but tell me more...

There are so many more benefits to rewarding your dog than simply giving a treat. It is scientifically proven that dogs learn better with positive reinforcement rather than negative. Negative methods cause stress and confusion for most dogs, something you definitely want to avoid at all costs.

Try this

Find out what motivates your pet. Is it treats? If so, what kind of treats? Keep track of what you try in different situations. What's the most high-value, ultimate reward for your dog? Is it a certain toy? Every dog is different, so sometimes we need to experiment to find what flavor, smell, or sound is the most exciting for our dogs.


Tip 4: Set your dog up for success

Your dog likes to feel successful. In dog training, when you're working on a new behavior or trying to add an alternative, it is important your dog succeeds. We can all relate to that, right? Think to yourself, what will help my dog feel successful? Does your dog need a toy to do this behavior? Is there a special type of treat you could use to help get your dog's attention? Especially when it comes to the short attention span of a puppy, how can you best set them up so they pay attention to you long enough to learn what you want from them?

What does that actually mean?

Think about a time when you were learning a new behavior or trying to master a skill. What made you feel successful? Was your teacher patient and let you take your time, going over things as many times as needed? Did your teacher reward good behavior? Or punish you for not getting it right? If you answer yes to that, did punishment ever really work or did it shut you down? That's why it's important to help our dogs in a positive way.

Give me an example

Many dogs bark. Whether it's because of separation anxiety or just regular puppy behavior, most of us want to stop any excessive barking from happening and would rather our dog calmly enjoy themselves. Sounds not so bad, right?

Okay, but tell me more...

Take a look at your dog's environment. Many dogs are sensitive to noise and what's going on around them. Loud noises can cause dogs to bark in panic. Can you give your dog some chew toys for mental stimulation to distract your dog from the loud noise? If your dog is barking at other dogs through the window, can you block your dog's view? Again, the name of the game is getting ahead of your dog's unwanted behaviors before they happen.

Try this

Think about your dog. Go back to that list of behaviors you less than love. Choose one and set up your dog's environment so your pup can't fail. Set your dog up to succeed from the start so it's nearly impossible to not do what you want.

Tip 5: Practice is how you get to your perfect dog

Change doesn't happen overnight and there's no magical quick fix for teaching your dog to behave differently. Sorry! If someone or some company ever tries to sell you on a "quick fix" they don't have your best interests at heart. The best thing you can do is practice how you want your dog to behave. You'll be surprised how quickly your dog picks it up if you're consistent and start positively reinforcing this early in their lives.

What does that actually mean?

Being consistent is how you change problem behavior to good behavior, so keep working on it! Good news, this means you'll get to spend more time with your dog. And don't worry, your dog is a good dog. In fact, there's no such thing as a bad dog. You and your dog will get there eventually with lots of love and patience!

Try this

Practice one behavior for 15 minutes every day this week. That's all it takes. Just 15 minutes. If you need help, ask any questions in the Community discussion. We can work together in the community or one-on-one. Most importantly, practice, be patient, and enjoy your time with your dog.


Learn how to prevent and change unwanted dog behavior through effective tips, from focusing on desired behaviors to using rewards and clicker training.

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Next up in the Manners Channel on Dogly

Now that you have a base of how to change unwanted dog behavior whether that's attention-seeking behavior or otherwise, you're ready to start training. The next guide in Basic Manners here on Dogly will teach you how to help your dog stop jumping on people when they visit your home. Go there next or you can check out other behaviors like training your dog to "go to bed/mat" here.

If you have any questions, ask them in the Community discussion in the Manners Channel. Or, if you need more personalized 1-1 help, sign up to work with me here!

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Tressa because she sees training as a journey to better canine communication.

Tressa guides you

Anxiety - Kids & Dogs - Manners - Bite Prevention - Reactivity - Walking

Tressa is certified

Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner - & Family Paws Parent Educator