As humans, we unintentionally shape our dog’s behavior all the time. Our own behavior can prompt our dogs to do certain things – if I head upstairs my dogs will follow me very reliably. And our responses to their behavior can reinforce or discourage that behavior. If my dog puts her head in my lap I very reliably will scratch it. This is a sort of communication.
I Created a Blanket Monster
It didn’t take me long to figure out this was why my dog Ruby was waking me up ten or more times a night. She didn’t need to go out to potty. Wasn’t sick. Didn’t want to play or burn off energy. She wanted me to put her blanket back on her.
Yep. She has to be fully covered to sleep, often including her head. I think this is a somewhat common thing for dogs that have very short coats and naked undersides. So when she would shift around in the night, the blanket would move and she couldn’t get comfortable unless she was covered again. Before we moved to the Midwest, she didn’t care about the blankets. But after moving to a cold climate, she NEEDED the blankie.
Wake Up Call
Since she sleeps next to our bed on my side, I was the lucky recipient of a cold, wet nose prodding me repeatedly in the middle of the night. I would wake up enough to stand up and put her blanket back on her. But in the moment, I wasn’t really aware that I was training her to wake me up. My responding to her snout punches by covering her up was reinforcing her behavior. I was half-asleep and just wanted her to stop poking me so I obliged.
At first it was only a couple times in a night and I wanted her to be comfy and warm at night, so even though it was annoying, it wasn’t that bad. But the nose poking increased until she was waking me up ten or more times in one night. At this point, my sleep was very disrupted and I knew I needed to do something to change her behavior.
Ignore the Wet Nose
My first plan of attack was to quit rewarding the nose pokes with covering her up. I would just ignore her prodding and eventually she would stop; this process is called extinction. This seemed like the easiest solution to the problem.
I went to bed with this new plan in mind, however my resolve to ignore her wavered. Sometimes I ignored her, but other times I was so annoyed and just wanted her to stop so I could fall back asleep, and I would get up and put the blanket on her. This only made her behavior stronger because she learned that is she persisted, I would eventually get up. The times I gave into her poking in were sabotaging the times I successfully ignored her, and thus training her to be more persistent.
Why Ignoring Can Be Challenging in Behavior Modification
In order for ignoring to be effective in diminishing the behavior, it has to be consistent. If the dog gets rewarded sometimes, you’ve only strengthened the likelihood of that behavior happening. And in the real world, it is very hard for a dog to be ignored 100% of the time they do an undesirable behavior. Think about the friendly dog that jumps up on people for attention. Their owner tells guests and strangers to ignore their dog when it jumps up. Inevitably some of them won’t listen and will pet the dog. And those occasions will typically cancel out the times people ignored the dog and the dog will continue jumping.
I do think that ignoring her behavior COULD work, but it required me putting up with minutes of nose poking at a time. And when you’re tired and groggy, it’s really hard to have the resolve to stick with the plan. So I needed a different method.
Reevaluating My Plan
Because the undesirable behavior was happening at night when I wanted to be sleeping, it didn’t really feel like training an incompatible behavior was realistic. There was no way I was going to be up rewarding her for doing a replacement behavior in the middle of the night. This is a great strategy for a lot of behavior issues, but in this case, it wasn’t a good match.
Even though I know Ruby is capable of sleeping without a blanket, in her mind, being fully covered by the blanket is a need. She was coming to me to get her need met. But what if she could meet her own need? Then she would get what she needs to feel comfortable and I would get the sleep I need.
Helping My Dog Meet Her Own Needs
Enter the Cozy Cave Bed. This dog bed solved all my problems in one night.
It’s a round bed with what is essentially a blanket attached to the top, forming a sort of pocket for the dog to snuggle in. It was a bit more than I had paid for dog beds in the past, but it seemed worth it to regain the quality of my sleep.
I recall taking the bed out of the box and zipping the cover on. I put it down on the ground and called Ruby over. She immediately got inside the bed and looked very pleased with herself. I imagine her thinking, “You finally got the bed I’ve been wanting.” I was prepared to do a little training to help her learn how to get inside the bed, but it really wasn’t needed. She instinctively knew how to use the bed. I put it upstairs beside my bed and when it was time to go to sleep, she went got in all by herself.
Occasionally, she will get too hot and go lay stretched out on the floor. The great thing is that she tuck herself back into bed all by herself! The cozy cave bed is worth every dang penny.
She gets to be covered and I get to sleep – a win win for both of us!
This is the same idea behind a doggy door. The dog can meet their own need without the help of a human. This strategy will not work for every annoying behavior. Sometimes our dogs just can’t have what they want when they want it. But because it is such a simple solution, it’s worth considering if we can empower our dogs to meet their own needs.
What annoying behaviors have you accidentally trained your dog? And have you been able to successfully fix it?