Using Positive Reinforcement to Teach Rex to Play Nice

RexRex is a eight-month-old Lab / Border Collie / Pitbull mix. His owners called me in to deal with his increasing physicality when playing and interacting with the members of the family.

As soon as I arrived for the session, Rex jumped up on me and stuffed his nose deep into my bag. I corrected him from going into my bag, at which point he jumped up on me again. I used the technique I have developed to stop dogs from jumping up on people and for the first time ever, it didn’t stop the problem so I put him on a leash and stepped on it about a foot away from his head.

Rex pulled on the leash a few times then sat down next to me. A minute later he was laying on the ground completely relaxed. I suggested that his family repeat this procedure each time Rex acted out, got over excited or didn’t respond to a correction.

After we sat down to discuss things, Rex got up and went off to look for a toy or bone. When he came back he was full of energy again and started brushing up against of pawing at his owners for attention.

I had them stand up and turn so that they were facing Rex as this is a more authoritative stance. As soon as they stood up Rex took a step back. Problem is as soon as they sat down, he jumped up on them again.

I noticed each time that his owner pushed Rex away, it increased the dog’s energy level. After a few pushes, the dog was bounding around his owner and nipping the air near them on occasion.

I moved to put him back on the leash, but this caused Rex to go into a very heightened state. It wasn’t aggression, more like play. But he clearly wasn’t going to let me grab him to put on the leash. His owner told me that they had to just chase him down when he got that way, but when they did he got more physical.

Whenever you try to chase or wrestle a dog, its natural instinct is to evade or resist. If done often enough, it reinforces a defiant behavior that can lead to many other problems.

Pitbulls play and interact with one another in a very physical way and it was clear that when Rex’s owner attempted to physically control the dog, that the dog’s first instinct was to return the physicality.

To break this cycle I introduced a high value meat treat with a strong smell. As soon as Rex caught a whiff, he stopped his roughhousing immediately and sat in front of me. As soon as he did, I immediately offered the treat and repeated the command word “relax” as soon as the treat hit Rex’s lips.

Throughout the rest of the session, each time Rex started to get physical or over excited, I repeated this technique to great success. I suggested that his owner continue to offer treats when Rex gets all riled up, but only give them to the dog when his is sitting calmly in front of them.

It will take a week or so of constant redirection, but each time they do Rex will be less likely to engage in this physically defunct behavior.  Over time this will condition Rex to avoid this physical interaction, opting instead to sit nicely in front of the human to get a reward, treat or affection.

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