Ordinarily, when you think about your dog learning a new behavior, you think about actual training – specific, planned instruction to elicit the response you want.
What few people realize is that your dog is constantly learning – not just when you’re actively teaching. Dogs are masters of association. Have you ever marveled at how your dog sometimes seems to know what you’re planning to do next before you do? For example – I pick up the dog toys in our living room each time before I vacuum. Well, as soon as I start putting toys away, Tucker goes to his bed to get out of the way and prepare for the entrance of the vacuum cleaner – and the vacuum isn’t even out of the closet yet.
This same principle is at work when we teach “auto” commands. If you habitually ask your dog to sit as you approach a cross walk, odds are high that he will eventually start sitting at cross walks before you even ask. He has learned that certain actions from you warrant a certain response from him.
Because dogs are creatures of habit, love associations, and pay attention to every little detail, it can be very easy for us to “accidentally” train behaviors. Allow me to give you a funny example.
When Ellie was a small pup, I didn’t trust her to be out of my sight for more than three seconds. She was notorious for getting into things and even more likely to have an accident in the house – housebreaking was not an easy task for her. I spent a lot of time with her corralled in the living room so I could sit on the couch and work on my computer while still monitoring her playtime. Well, when I needed go to the bathroom, I would pick her up and take her with me to the closest one, our guest bathroom. As she got a little bigger, but still no less mischievous, I would entice her to come into the bathroom with me with a toy. At the time, my only thought and concern was that if she was closed in the room with me, I would at least be able to see if she had an accident instead of missing it and stepping on a spot of soggy carpet later in the living room.
Fast forward several months. Ellie is now more trustworthy and no longer has accidents in the house. And yet, nearly every time I walk into our guest bathroom, regardless of where she is and what she’s doing, she follows me! Without meaning to, I convinced Ellie that when I go into our guest bathroom, she is required to come with me. Now, she is a shepherd, which means her desire to keep an eye on me is fairly high. So, how do I know that the behavior is accidentally trained and not just a virtue of her breed? She only does it with our guest bathroom – never the master bath.
As she gets older and the behavior isn’t reinforced, it will likely fade. But for the time being, she seems very convinced that I either need moral support or a bodyguard when I go to the guest bathroom!
Ellie’s example is a funny one, but sometimes, we can accidentally train behaviors that we don’t like. As you’re evaluating your dog’s behavior and trying to figure out how to stop a certain action, ask yourself if you may have accidentally taught it or still be reinforcing it – it might give you some insight into how to fix it!