Discouraging Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement


Don’t Risk Punishing!

Punishment coercion domination does not work if you want to teach cooperation, good manners, tricks, obedience behavior and have a loyal companion. Punishment generates evasion, aversion, defiance or aggression. Yes it may stop a “bad” behavior (temporarily), but it doesn’t teach good behavior. Your dog will choose one of two ways to react to punishment: He will stop acting or avoid (sometimes this is what you want) but this often becomes what is called learned helplessness (cringing, eye averting, slinking, unresponsive dogs).  He will retaliate. Aggression as growling will become snarling will become biting.  So how to get the dog not to bite, chew, jump up, or pee on the floor?  Management and positive reinforcement.

Management means never putting your puppy/dog in a position where he can make a mistake. And positive reinforcement means immediately following any “good” behavior with something that the dog will work for (food, play, praise etc.). We each want a dog that chooses good behavior, listens to us and lives with us as a friend. How could punishment create such a dog? Studies demonstrate that learning is strongest and best retained when the learner has figured it out for himself.  We know this is true for us and behavioral science has shown that it’s true for all animals. Positive reinforcement creates learners who “think” or puzzle out what they can do to get reinforced.  So they quickly learn that if I sit this human will give me a cookie.

Reinforcement can be given for a good behavior, and equally valuable for training, an important reinforcement can be withheld for a “bad” behavior.  If your puppy bites too hard don’t punish.  Instead remove the reinforcement – your hand! The puppy is playing, which is fun (reinforcing).  When he bites, which he likes to do, you say “ouch!” and remove the reinforcement briefly (your hand).  When he stops biting in surprise, you return the reinforcement, your hand and attention.  In this case you remove a reinforcer and then give a reinforcer.  The puppy chooses gentle play because that’s the only way he’ll get to play. Dogs do what works! What does this mean to the dog?  What works means that your dog believes that what he just did got him what he wanted.  The dog freely chooses a good behavior because he wants the reinforcement.  Isn’t this how we all want to live?  Its fun, its humane, and it’s a creative challenge to figure out how to set your dog up for success and steer him away from failure.  There is no good dog switch hidden somewhere under your dog’s fur coat.  But the friend your good dog can be is worth the challenge of learning the skills of management and positive reinforcement.

Puppy Biting

Puppies bite. And thank goodness they do! Puppy play-fighting and play-biting are essential for your puppy to develop a soft mouth as an adult.

Puppy Biting is Normal, Natural, and Necessary!

Puppy biting seldom causes appreciable harm, but many bites are quite painful and elicit an appropriate reaction—a yelp and a pause in an otherwise extremely enjoyable play session. Thus, your puppy learns that his sharp teeth and weak jaws can hurt. Since your puppy enjoys play-fighting, he will begin to inhibit the force of his biting to keep the game going. Thus your puppy will learn to play-bite gently before he acquires the formidable teeth and strong jaws of an adolescent dog.

Forbidding a young puppy from biting altogether may offer immediate and temporary relief, but it is potentially dangerous because your puppy will not learn that his jaws can inflict pain. Consequently, if ever provoked or frightened as an adult, the resultant bite is likely to be painful and cause serious injury.

Certainly, puppy play-biting must be controlled, but only in a progressive and systematic manner. The puppy must be taught to inhibit the force of his bites, before puppy biting is forbidden altogether. Once your puppy has developed a soft mouth, there is plenty of time to inhibit the frequency of his now gentler mouthing.

Teaching your puppy to inhibit the force of his bites is a two-step process: first, teach the pup not to hurt you; and second, teach your pup not to exert any pressure at all when biting. Thus the puppy’s biting will become gentle mouthing.

Teaching your puppy to inhibit the frequency of his mouthing is a two-step process: first, teach your puppy that whereas mouthing is OK, he must stop when requested; and second, teach your pup never to initiate mouthing unless requested.

No Pain

It is not necessary to hurt or frighten your pup to teach her that biting hurts. A simple “Ouch!” is sufficient. If your pup acknowledges your “ouch” and stops biting, praise her, lure her to sit (to reaffirm that you are in control), reward her with a liver treat, and then resume playing. If your pup ignores the “ouch” and continues biting, yelp “Owwwww!” and leave the room. Your puppy has lost her playmate. Return after a 30-second time-out and make up by lure-rewarding your puppy to come, sit, lie down, and calm down, before resuming play.

Do not attempt to take hold of your pup’s collar, or carry her to confinement; you are out of control and she will probably bite you again. Consequently, play with your puppy in a room where it is safe to leave her if she does not respond to your yelp. If she ignores you, she loses her playmate.

No Pressure

Once your pup’s biting no longer hurts, still pretend that it does. Greet harder nips with a yelp of pseudo-pain. Your puppy will soon to get the idea: “Whooahh! These humans are soooo super-sensitive. I’ll have to be much gentler when I bite them.” The pressure of your puppy’s bites will progressively decrease until play-biting becomes play-mouthing.
Never allow your puppy to mouth human hair or clothing. Hair and clothing cannot feel. Allowing a puppy to mouth hair, scarves, shoelaces, trouser legs, or gloved hands, inadvertently trains the puppy to bite harder, extremely close to human flesh!


Once your pup exerts no pressure whatsoever when mouthing, then —and only then—teach him to reduce the frequency of his mouthing. Teach your puppy the meaning of “Off!” by hand-feeding kibble.  Your puppy will learn that gentle mouthing is OK, but he must stop the instant you ask him to stop.

Puppy Must Never Initiate Mouthing

At this stage, your puppy should never be allowed to initiate mouthing (unless requested to do so). Please refer to our Preventing Aggression booklet for a detailed description of the essential rules for bite-inhibition exercises such as hand-feeding, play-fighting, and tug-of-war.

By way of encouragement, mouthing-maniac puppies usually develop gentle jaws as adults because their many painful puppy bites elicited ample appropriate feedback. On the other hand, puppies that seldom play and roughhouse with other dogs, puppies that seldom bite their owners (e.g., shy, fearful, and standoffish pups), and breeds that have been bred to have soft mouths may not receive sufficient feedback regarding the pain and power of their jaws.  This is the major reason to enroll your puppy in an off-leash puppy class right away.

Should a dog ever bite as an adult, both the prognosis for rehabilitation and the fate of the dog are almost always decided by the severity of the injury, which is predetermined by the level of bite inhibition the dog acquired during puppyhood. The most important survival lesson for a puppy is to learn bites cause pain! Your puppy can only learn this lesson if he is allowed to play-bite other puppies and people, and if he receives appropriate feedback.

Crate training your puppy

Crating a puppy is a procedure widely recommended by trainers, groomers, veterinarians, animal shelters, and behaviorists. Crating is based on the idea that dogs are denning animals. In the wild many canid species use a small cave or dug-out area to give birth to pups and for protection while sleeping or resting. However, contrary to what some sources would lead you to believe, wild canids do not spend their day in the den. Crating, while a useful tool in many situations, can be over-used and improperly used.

Using a crate as a house training aid has two purposes. First, it makes it easier to supervise the puppy and prevents him from having complete access to the house where he is likely to get into mischief. Second, since puppies have a natural tendency not to soil their den or sleeping area, the puppy will be unlikely to eliminate in her crate, and more likely to eliminate when she is taken outside. Problems can develop if a crate is used in ways at odds with these premises. First, young puppies can only be expected to control their bladder and bowels for several hours, NOT for an entire work day. Leaving a puppy in a crate for 8 to 10 hours is not an appropriate way to use a crate in house training. The puppy needs to be released from the crate and put outside when she needs to eliminate. A puppy who is forced to soil her crate as a result of being crated too long is not being treated fairly, and will be much more difficult to house train.

What should you do when you have to leave puppy alone before completing this protocol?  Behaviorist and veterinarian Ian Dunbar recommends a long-term confinement area:  this can be a small bathroom, kitchen or an ex-pen (a freestanding circular “fence” for puppies and small dogs), containing the pup’s crate (with door removed), water, toys and potty area.  The potty area can consist of newspaper, pee pads or even a square of sod in a cat litterbox.  This allows puppy to sleep in her crate but potty on an approved surface.  This containment method can also be used if you must leave your puppy for longer than she can hold her bowels and bladder:  this usually means your puppy’s age in months plus one.  In other words, a 3-month-old puppy can generally be left for a maximum of four hours.

Crate training can be accomplished in several days, or may take several weeks, depending on the age, temperament, and previous experiences your puppy has had. You should keep two things in mind while training your puppy to a crate. First, the crate should always be associated with something pleasant for the puppy, and second, training should take place in a series of small steps – don’t try to do too much too fast.

Step 1: Introducing your puppy to the crate.  Put the crate in an area of your house where you and your family spend a lot of time, such as the family room or kitchen. Put a soft sleeping blanket or towel in the crate. Bring your puppy over to the crate and talk to him in an excited, happy tone of voice. Make sure the door to the crate is securely fastened open so it won’t accidentally hit your puppy and frighten him. Drop some small tidbits of food around the crate, just inside the door, and then gradually all the way inside to encourage your puppy to enter. If she doesn’t go all the way in at first to get the food, that’s OK. DO NOT force her to enter.

Repeat this experience until your puppy will calmly walk into the crate to obtain a piece of food. If your puppy isn’t interested in food, try tossing a favorite toy in the crate instead. This process may take just a few minutes, or as long as several days.

Step 2: Feeding your puppy in the crate.  After your puppy has been introduced to the crate, you can begin feeding him his regular meals near the crate for a while. This will create pleasant associations with the crate and decrease any fear he has of the crate. If your puppy is readily entering the crate when you begin step 2, you can place the food dish all the way at the back of the crate. However, if your puppy is still reluctant to enter the crate, then place the dish right in front of the open door or as far inside as he will readily go without becoming fearful or anxious. Each time you feed him, place the dish a little more toward the back of the crate. Once your puppy is comfortably eating his food while standing in the crate, you can close the door while he’s eating.

At first, open the door as soon as he finishes his meal, let him out, and praise him. With each succeeding feeding, leave the door closed a few minutes longer, until he is staying in the crate without protesting for 10 minutes or so after eating. If he begins to whine to be let out, you may have increased the duration of crating too quickly. Next time, try leaving him for a shorter time. Be sure to release him from the crate when he is not whining or barking. If vocalizing results in release, the behavior will be reinforced and a problem will develop.

Step 3: Conditioning your puppy to the crate for longer periods.  After your puppy is eating her regular meals in the crate with no sign of fear or anxiety, you can begin to confine her there for short periods while you are home. Begin by calling her over to the crate in return for a food reward. Give her a command to enter such as “kennel up”. You can encourage her to do so by pointing to the inside of the crate with a tidbit of a favorite food in your hand. After your puppy enters the crate, reward her with the tidbit and close the door. Sit quietly near the crate for 5 or 10 minutes and then go out of sight into another room for a few minutes. When you return, sit quietly again for a short time, and then release your puppy. Repeat this procedure several times a day. With each repetition, gradually increase the length of time the puppy is crated, and the length of time you are out of sight. Once your puppy will quietly remain in the crate for about 30 minutes, you can begin leaving her crated when you are gone for short periods, and/or letting her sleep there at night. It may take several days or several weeks to get to this point.

Step 4: Crating when left alone.  After your puppy is spending about 30 minutes in the crate without becoming anxious or afraid while you are there, you can begin leaving him crated for short periods while you are gone. Put him in the crate with your regular “kennel up” or a similar command. You will want to vary at what point you put your puppy in the crate during the process of getting ready to leave. Although he should not be crated for a long period before you leave, you can crate him anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes prior to leaving. Do not make departures emotional and prolonged, but matter-of-fact instead. Praise your puppy briefly and give him a tidbit for entering the crate, and then leave quietly.    When you arrive home do not inadvertently reward your puppy for excited behavior by responding to him in an excited, enthusiastic way. Keep arrivals very low key and reserve playful, excited greeting behavior for after he has been let outside and has calmed down somewhat. Continue to crate your puppy for short periods from time to time when you are home so that he does not begin to associate crating with being left alone.

Step 5: Crating at night.  Follow the same procedure you have been using to encourage your puppy to enter his crate willingly. Initially, it may be a good idea (especially if you have a young puppy) to locate the crate in your bedroom or nearby in a hallway. Puppies often need to go outside to eliminate during the night, and you’ll want to be able to hear your puppy when she whines to be let outside. Initially, older puppies should also be kept nearby so that crating does not become associated with social isolation. Once your puppy is sleeping comfortably through the night with her crate near you, you can begin to gradually move it to the location you prefer.


If your puppy whines or cries while in the crate at night, it may be difficult to decide whether he is whining to be let out of the crate, or if he needs to be let outside to eliminate. If you follow the training procedure outlined above, your puppy should not have been reinforced by being let out of the crate when whining. Initially you can ignore the whining. Your puppy may stop if he is just testing to see if he’ll be let out. Yelling at him or pounding on the crate may only increase his vocalizations. If the whining continues after you have ignored it for several minutes, you can repeat the phrase your puppy has associated with going outside to eliminate. If he responds and becomes excited, take him outside. This should be a trip with a purpose – not play time. If you are convinced that your puppy does not need to eliminate, the best response is to ignore the whining completely. Most attempts at punishing the behavior actually end up inadvertently reinforcing it because the puppy is getting attention from you. During the process of ignoring whining, expect it to get worse before it gets better. You cannot give in, otherwise you will have taught your puppy that he must whine loud and long to get what he wants! If you have progressed very gradually through the training steps and have not attempted to hurry the process and cut corners, you will not be likely to encounter this problem. If the problem becomes unmanageable, you may need to restart the crate training process from the very beginning.

A puppy should never be crated as punishment for misbehavior:  avoid crating your puppy angrily or forcefully, as this could teach her to fear it.  It is, however, thoroughly appropriate to use the crate as a “time out” area when play gets too rough or puppy gets too mouthy!  Simply walk your puppy to her crate and say something neutral like “kennel up” or “time for a nap” and put her inside.  If she vocalizes, do not let her out until she is quiet again.  Used in this way, a crate can allow the puppy to calm down.

Hyper Behavior

2004 Ian Dunbar

Puppies are naturally noisy and hyperactive. Puppies are exuberant when greeting, playing, and when expressing friendliness and appeasement. However, adult dogs are
noisy and hyperactive because they are untrained and have unintentionally been encouraged to act that way. For example, eagerly jumping puppies are petted by people,
who later get angry when the dog jumps up as an adult. The dog’s only crime? It grew!

Sadly, adult dogs receive considerable abuse for expressing their enthusiasm and exuberance. For example, “The Trainers from the Dark Side” recommend teaching a
dog not to jump up by shouting at the dog; squirting him in the face with water or lemon juice; swatting him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper; yanking on the dog’s leash;
hanging the dog by his choke-collar; squeezing the dog’s front paws; treading on his hind paws; kneeing the dog in the chest; or flipping the dog over backwards. Surely these methods are a bit cruel for a dog that’s just trying to say hello. Indeed, in the words of Confucius, “There is no need to use an axe to remove a fly from the forehead of a friend.” Why not just teach dogs to sit when greeting people? Be smart. Be kind. Teach your puppy (or adult dog) to settle down and shush when requested and how to greet people in a mannerly fashion. Both dog noise and exuberance may be controlled and channeled into appropriate outlets.

Sit and Settle Down

Lure-reward train your puppy or dog to come, sit, and lie down. Simple instructions such as “Sit” and “Lie down” are extremely effective solutions for nearly all doggy activity problems. Rather than telling the pup “No, no, no!” and “NO!” for everything she does that annoys you, simply ask her to lie down, and then praise and reward her for doing so. If she lies down obediently, she cannot run around the living room, chase her tail, chase the cat, hump the cat, jump on the furniture, jump up and down in the car, run out the front door, or chase and jump on children. Lying down and most behavior problems are mutually exclusive; your dog cannot lie down and misbehave at the same time. Take the initiative and direct your puppy’s behavior by teaching her to lie down on request. Rather than feeding your puppy from a bowl, weigh out his kibble in the morning and use individual pieces as lures and rewards during oodles of five-second training interludes throughout the day. Practice in every room of the house, in the car (while stationary), and on walks. Pause every 25 yards and instruct your puppy to perform a series of body positions: for example, sitdown-sit-stand-down-stand. Within just a couple of days you’ll have a totally different dog.  Simple reward training methods work wonders with out-of-control adolescent and adult dogs. Hold a piece of kibble in your hand but don’t give it to your dog. Stand perfectly still and give no instructions; simply watch to see what your dog does. Characteristically, the dog will run through his entire behavior repertoire. Your dog will wiggle, waggle, circle, twirl, jump-up, lick, paw, back-up, and bark…but eventually he will sit or lie down. Praise him and offer the piece of kibble as soon as he sits (or lies down—your choice). Then take a gigantic step (to reactivate Rover), and stand still with another piece of kibble in your hand. Repeat the above sequence until Rover sits.

Jumping Up

Jumping up deserves a special mention because it is the cause of so much frustration and abuse.  Right from the outset, teach your puppy to sit when greeting people. Sitting is the obvious theoretical solution because a dog cannot sit and jump up at the same time. However, it may initially be difficult to teach your dog to sit when greeting people because he is so excited that he doesn’t hear what you say. Consequently, you will need to troubleshoot his training.

First practice sits (as described above) in locations where your dog normally greets people, e.g., on-leash outdoors, and especially indoors by the front door. Then invite over ten friends for a dog training party. Today your dog’s dinner will be handfed by guests at the front door and by friends on a walk. After eventually getting your dog to sit to greet the first guest, praise your dog and have the guest offer a piece of kibble. Then ask the guest to leave and ring the doorbell again.  In fact, repeat front-door greetings until your dog greets the first guest in a mannerly fashion three times in a row. Then repeat the process with the other nine guests. In one training party you will probably practice over a hundred front-door greetings. Then ask your all your guests to leave one at a time and walk round the block. Put your dog on leash and walk around the block in the opposite direction. As you approach each person, instruct your dog to sit. Praise him when he does so and have the person offer a couple of pieces of kibble. After five laps, you will have practiced 50 sidewalk greetings. Now your dog will be ready to sit to greet bona fide guests at home and strangers on the street.

Put Doggy Enthusiasm and Activity on Cue

To be fair to your dog, make sure that she has ample opportunity to let off steam in an acceptable fashion. Sign up for flyball and agility classes. Play fetch with tennis balls and Frisbees and do yo-yo recalls (back and forth between two people) in the park. Formalize “crazy time”—train your dog to jump for bubbles, or play “tag” and chase your dog around the house. And maybe train your dog that it is acceptable to jump up on cue—to give you a welcome-home hug.