Transformative Dog Training in Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Charleston, SC

Changing Behavior One Step At A Time


Today I’d like to talk about something I call “bite-sized chunks.” This is a concept I use tot show clients how to bring about complex behavior changes in their dogs.

Now, a complex task for a dog is very different from a complex task for us. If someone were to tell me to go upstairs, grab something out of my bedroom, and bring it back downstairs, I wouldn’t think that was a complex task at all. When we’re asked to do something like that, our brain immediately links all the steps together: I need to walk up the staircase, turn at the landing, turn left to enter the bedroom, open the door, pick up an object—and so on. It’s only a few steps. Human brains are good at synthesizing multiple steps of a process, so walking upstairs to grab an object isn’t a complex problem.

For dogs, however, that would be a very complex set of actions. If it’s something that they decide to do, and it’s in their minds already, then it isn’t quite as complex. But if we are attempting to prompt that behavior and associate it with a cue or a command, then we often see that putting all of those steps together is enormously complicated for our dogs. Some will pick it up quickly, but even smart dogs will take a long time to learn how to perform all of those actions reliably and progressively.

The front door of the house is where many dog behaviors go wrong, so I’ll use “doorbell manners” as an example of the tasks we ask of our dogs that are actually fairly complex.

Most dogs flip out when they hear the doorbell ring. Their owners would rather this didn’t happen—they would much prefer if their dog jut sat calmly or relaxed. To us, sitting on our bed wouldn’t be a complex behavior. But from a dog’s perspective, there are all sorts of things they need to do. If your dog is at the door, barking his head off, then in order for him to move over to his bed, he needs to stop barking, walk all the way across the room, get on the bed, and stay on the bed while his owner answers the door. For a dog, that’s a fairly complicated behavior. It isn’t easy to master. So I use the strategy of “bite-sized chunks” to teach complex behaviors like this. If you break the task up into easily understood pieces, it will be a lot easier for your dog.

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There are three primary “bite-sized chunks” we need in order to solve our doorbell problem. If someone rings the doorbell, then you’ll want to stand back from the door about twenty feet or so and get the dog to come to you. That’s a big deal, since a lot of dogs have a hard time obeying a command when they’re distracted. So if your dog has a problem coming to you when he’s distracted, then work on that “chunk” first.

The second “chunk” is getting your dog to his bed. A lot of dogs won’t reliably go to their beds on command, so that will probably be something that you need to work by itself on for a period of time. Finally, your third “chunk” is to stay put while there’s a distraction around—in this case, you walking over to the door and answering not. You’ll generally get further faster with your dog training if you tackle these “bite-sized chunks” individually. Work on the first “chunk” until your dog is comfortable with it, then move on to the rest.

If I don’t have a lot of time, I try to apply the desired behaviors—coming when called, going to bed, staying put—all at once, but this isn’t a problem as long as the behaviors themselves have been taught individually. The doorbell example is a particularly frustrating one for many dog owners, but this concept can be applied to many different situations. In many cases, if we break up our dog training into smaller portions that are easier for our dogs to digest, you’ll be in a much better place. So spend some time thinking about how you can incorporate the “bite-sized chunk” philosophy into your dog’s training!

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