Filling the behavioral void: Training your highly energetic dog

Lately, I’ve encountered a series of training cases involving highly energetic dogs with low to negligible impulse control. These dogs are beautifully socialized. They have no signs of fear or aggression. They’re “only” highly excitable and lack the ability to control behavioral impulses. Yet, the stress and anxiety these behaviors place on the dogs’ owners is palpable – just as palpable as those who own highly aggressive and reactive dogs.

If you’re reading this article, you may recognize the type of dog I’m talking about. Any attention – a pat on the head, an excited voice – unleashes a torrent of jumping, barking, and uncontrollable excitement. The delivery of treats, sometimes even the scent of high-value food, elicits a flurry of the same excited – but unwanted – behaviors.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of ineffective punishment with this type of dog. As dog owners, we don’t want our dogs to jump, demand bark, mouth feet and limbs, and body slam other people or dogs at the park. It’s annoying, embarrassing and potentially harmful depending on the size and bite inhibition of the dog. We try to time out or ignore these behaviors. But the hyperactivity remains. As a trainer, I often hear the phrase “I did so many time outs, and it didn’t work. What am I doing wrong?”

Relate to this scenario? Keep reading.

Let’s discuss punishment for a moment. By definition, punishment decreases the occurrence of a behavior. In force-free dog training, we use something called “negative punishment,” which means we remove a reinforcer (like food, access to humans, access to play and other dogs) immediately after an unwanted behavior occurs. The goal is for the dog to realize that the unwanted behavior results in the removal of highly coveted things, rendering the behavior irrelevant. Despite the negative connotations many humans associate with the word, punishment (the force-free kind) is a valid and necessary component to dog training.

Here’s a typical scenario that responds to negative punishment: A dog jumps on people in order to seek attention. To implement a negative punishment protocol, you could place the dog in the bathroom for two minutes immediately following each occurrence of the behavior. Over time, the dog learns that jumping on people gets him exactly what he doesn’t want – alone time.

“But wait,” you might be thinking right now. “I’ve done this consistently and my dog still can’t handle greeting people coming over to the house.”

And you’re right. For hyperactive dogs with low impulse control (and for that matter most dogs), punishment alone will not solve the problem. Dogs need something to do with their time. Dogs like structure. They like predictability. They like knowing what they’re supposed to do, and what gets them the good stuff (food, toys, playtime, access to humans).

If we only focus on telling a dog what “not” to do, we leave a massive void. The dog knows not to jump, but what does he do instead? For dogs that have high energy and low ability to control impulsive behaviors, we need to help them fill the void. We must teach them replacement, desirable behaviors to do in place of the unwanted ones we’ve them not to do.

Let’s return to the jumping example. A stronger way to address the problem would be to teach the dog to do a sit-stay when people enter the house, in conjunction with timing out any jumping or attention seeking behaviors. This way, the dog learns not to jump on guests, but also learns what to do instead: sit and stay.

The other important benefit of filling the void? You’ll find yourself rewarding your dog more often and breaking free from the cycle of punishment. Which is not only rewarding for your dog, but also for you!

Motivated to start filling the void with your dog? Here’s how to get started.

First, identify behaviors you want your dog to stop. Be specific, including where your dog does them, what he does, and his motivation for doing them. Develop an effective time out procedure based on this information, and remember to initiate a time out each time your dog does the behavior.

Next, think about a replacement behavior you want your dog to do instead. For example, if your dog runs up to the door, jumps and barks each time the doorbell rings, teach your dog to go to his bed and do a sit-stay.

You now have a powerful training combination up and running: You’re rewarding a behavior you want your dog to do more often, and rendering the unwanted behavior inefficient and ineffective.