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Behaviors Have Consequences: How To Get Dogs To Do What You Want

Learning by consequence is about payoff. It’s about getting what we want and avoiding things we don’t like. People work for money; the consequence of sitting behind a desk in a cubicle for 40 hours a week is a paycheck. (Aren’t you glad you chose a different line of work?) Children whine because it often gets them what they want. But a child is less likely to whine if she’s sent to her room each time she tries it. We learn to do what works and to avoid what doesn’t.

Woman and a large dog walking in the woods.Dogs are good at learning by consequence, too. As dog walkers, we can use operant conditioning (the principles of learning by consequence) to mold dog behavior—to deftly teach dogs to do more of the things we like (such as sitting to be leashed up, coming when called, and waiting at curbs) and remove less desirable behaviors from their repertoire (like jumping on us, barking for a ball throw, or pulling on leash).

Here’s how to use operant conditioning to make your dog walks easier…

Masterful learners
Dogs are constantly learning, and they’re quick studies. They quickly figure out who’s worth begging from. They learn whether it’s a sit or a bark that will get you to open the door for them. They learn that pulling on leash works to get them where they want to go. They learn that coming when called is worthwhile during a walk (when it means a treat and being told to “go play”) but that coming at the end of a walk is to be avoided if at all possible (because it means being leashed up and taken home).

The trick to better behavior on dog walks is taking a deliberate approach to controlling what dogs learn from us on our walks.

Getting more of what you want
The central rule of operant conditioning is this: Reinforced behaviors happen more often. Paying attention to what you reward or reinforce—both intentionally and inadvertently—means getting more canine behavior you like, and less you don’t. Want an off-leash dog to maintain a tighter orbit? Be sure to reward her whenever she checks in near you; you’ll notice her begin to spend much more time by your side. Want a dog who sits calmly at crossings, doorways, and for leashing up? Reward that dog whenever she sits for you.

Getting less of what you don’t want
There’s a flip side to rewarding what you like—being sure not to reward what you don’t.

If a dog drops a ball at your feet and barks at you, throwing the ball rewards that behavior. Do that, and you’ll likely find her barking at you again as soon as she’s retrieved her ball. On the other hand, if you walk away (or even pick up and pocket the ball!) the dog will eventually learn that barking is not the proper way to ask to have her ball thrown, and she’ll try something else—a sit or a quiet stare, perhaps. If you throw her ball only when she’s quiet, you’ll get more quiet.

Or consider jumping. Dog walkers get jumped on a lot. Dogs are pretty happy to see you when you arrive at their homes, and for many dogs jumping is a favored way to show their excitement. If you reward a dog for jumping on you (however unintentionally) by clipping on his leash and taking him for a walk, you’ll continue to be jumped on every day. If instead you step back outside as soon as a dog’s front feet leave the floor, every time, the dog will learn to keep all four on the floor. He’ll be very motivated to figure out what’s making you leave—he wants his walk, after all.

Timing matters
Dogs understand the cause-and-effect relationship behind learning by consequence: if I do this, that happens. But unlike humans, dogs only understand the relationship in real time. I can tell a school-age child I’ll take him out for ice cream when I see him next week to celebrate the good report card he received today. When he eats the ice cream, he’ll understand he’s being rewarded for grades he got a week ago, which he earned because of work he did over several months. A dog could never understand this—it’s way beyond his ability to connect events.

Dogs learn by consequence as we do, but only if the consequence is immediate; it must occur right on the heels of the action that caused it. You can’t say to a dog when you drop him home after a walk, “You behaved so well on our walk today, here’s a treat for that. Thank you!” The dog will never understand what the treats are for, and they will have no impact on his walking behavior.

Your response to a dog’s behavior must be immediate for the dog to connect the consequence to his own behavior. If you’re teaching a dog a new behavior, such as recall, you have to be ready to reward the behavior right away. If the dog comes when you call but you’re busy and get the treat to him late, he’ll learn considerably more slowly and you’ll be disappointed by a spotty recall.

If only they spoke English
Dog walking would be a lot easier if dogs spoke English. You could just walk in and say, “Hey, if you don’t jump on me, I’ll take you for a walk right now.” Or, “Tell you what: If you sit quietly, I’ll throw your ball.” Or, “It’s kind of obnoxious when you bark at dogs you want to say hi to. Would you mind cutting that out?”

But since dogs don’t speak our language, we have to rely on an understanding of learning theory to clearly and patiently show dogs which behaviors we’d like to see more of, and which we’d prefer they drop from their repertoire.

That requires a deliberate, mindful approach. Training yourself to notice and immediately reinforce behaviors you like, and to carefully avoid rewarding those you don’t, is a key ingredient to successful cross-species communication—and to easier dog walks.


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