Behavior & Training FAQ
Have a question about behavior or training? Ask our experts! We invite you to write in with your questions. Each month we'll update this page with new Q&A's, so check back often!
Send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org with "Behavior Question" in the subject.
Q: I've been using food to help motivate my dog during training. Will I always have to continue using food as part of his training program?
A: You will always have to have something to reinforce your dog with whether it is food, a toy, etc. It is important to always positively reinforce for the most difficult behaviors. We do not work for free so we should not expect our dogs to work for free.
Q: Does giving my dogs human food encourage them to beg at the table?
A: No, they will only beg if you feed them from the table. For dogs, context is more important than what type of treat you're giving. If you are feeding them while you're sitting at the dinner table and eating, they'll start to learn that they get food when you're having a meal.
Q: Is it true you can't teach an old dog new tricks? My dog is 7 years old and I'd like to bring her to a training class, but I'm worried she's too old. What's your advice?
A: A dog is more or less never too old to learn, and most any dog - no matter her age - can learn anything trained in basic manners classes. Furthermore, adopters of older untrained dogs often find training richly rewarding. At the SF SPCA, we have a new Senior Scholars class designed for dogs over 7. We cover everything from reviewing basic skills to new tricks and scenting games, all while keeping your senior dog's safety and comfort first and foremost. Creating new ways to communicate with the dogs we love is a wonderfully eye-opening experience!
Q. How long will it take to potty train my new puppy or dog?
A: There is no exact duration of days that can be predicted with absolute certainty, but there is a basic formula that applies in nearly all cases: if no or few potty training errors are allowed to occur, the puppy or dog will be perfectly potty trained in very short order; if lots of errors are allowed to occur, the training will drag on and on.
It therefore is vitally important to get the right start on potty training! The SF SPCA has free resources to help you with this, including our free New Dog 101 and Puppy Parent Orientation classes, and we definitely do want to help! You can find more information at: sfspca.org/programs-services/dog-training
Q: My dog has the embarrassing habit of humping other dogs at the dog park, and sometimes human legs as well. What is the basis for this behavior? Does it mean he's dominant?
A: No. Humping is an attention seeking behavior. A dog may hump another dog to get their attention to engage in a play session, or a dog may hump a person to get their attention - and it generally works. We engage with them by pushing them off. If your dog is not neutered it is a sexual behavior.
Q: Why does my puppy bite me?
A: Puppies explore the world with their paws and their jaws. Puppies may bite our skin because in their world, they play by placing their mouth/jaws on their littermates or other puppies during playtime. A vital skill we want our puppy to learn is called “bite inhibition” or “soft mouth” - this teaches your puppy to learn to inhibit the force of their jaws, so that when they grow up with adult teeth and may bite someone one day, they would do little to no damage. The best way to help your puppy learn this is through off leash play with other friendly puppies or very puppy friendly adult dogs (carefully chosen), similar in size and play style. The “ouch game” can also give your puppy feedback - if they bite too hard, saying “ouch!” and then waiting approximately 10 seconds until you interact with them again.
We highly recommend our fun Puppy Manners classes here at the SF SPCA - we will cover this as well other vital puppy issues during this critical socialization period!
Note: If your puppy is freezing, growling, body is tensing up, or snapping when you approach them or pet them while they are eating or chewing on a toy, get the help of a professional, positive-reinforcement trainer for private training from our list at sfspca.org
Q. I'm thinking about getting a puppy or dog. In either case, what's the most important quality I should look for? Intelligence? Eagerness to please me? Loyalty?
A: The most important quality to look for in selecting a puppy or dog is friendliness. Everything else pales by comparison. Choose a pet who responds with enthusiastic friendliness to everyone, not just to you.
Certainly, less friendly dogs also can and do become loved and loving lifetime companions, but they sometimes require much more effort on their guardian's part.
Q: Isn’t giving my dog food like bribing him/her?
A: “Bribing” is delivering a reward before a behavior is offered; a reward is offering a special treat after a behavior has been offered. We offer food rewards after behaviors are offered by our dogs and once they are well learned, we fade out the food treats and gradually replace them with “life rewards” like verbal praise, throwing their favorite toy, petting or access to play with other dogs - the key is to make sure your dog views the reward as motivating for them - if they love to play with other dogs, access to other dogs is a great life reward; if they enjoy fetch, throwing their favorite toy is a great life reward and so on! We cover this issue and more in our Just the Basics series classes.
Q: How do I get my puppy to stop peeing/pooping inside?
A: If your goal is to have your puppy go potty outside, begin by using an exercise pen and/or crate to help manage and prevent any potty accidents while you are not at home or are unable to supervise your puppy.
Take your puppy out on a schedule to a designated potty spot outside and the moment before they pee or poop (look for signs they may potty like circling and sniffing) and give them a verbal cue like “go potty”. Say “yes” and treat them the moment they are FINISHED peeing or pooping. Use extra special tasty treats that your dog LOVES for potty rewards and reward each time for the first week or so then begin to fade out the treats and replace with life rewards
Make sure to never punish your puppy for any potty accidents - just remember to supervise them more closely next time and clean it up with a non-toxic cleaner.
Note: If your dog is older or has been housetrained and suddenly is having indoor potty accidents, rule out medical issues - and possible separation anxiety issues - if the accidents occur when you are not at home.
Q: Why does my dog bark/lunge at other dogs only while they are on leash, but is fine and doesn’t react and play with other dogs when they are off leash?
A: Some dogs become excited and/or fearful when they see other dogs while they are walking on leash.
“Barrier frustration” can result from being prevented from getting to what one wants. For example, if you saw your best friend across the street, but were prevented from going to say hi, you might get frustrated and want to yell out to them. You may also see this at animal shelters when dogs bark from their kennels. This is similar to what some dogs may experience when they see other dogs (or people) and would like to greet/play with them but are prevented from doing so because they are on leash.
For other dogs, they may be fearful and saying “please go away” and barking may be their way of voicing this fear.
This is an extremely common issue with many dogs, so you and your dog are not alone!
We have a wonderful class here at the SF SPCA called Reactive Rover for dogs who bark, lunge, or otherwise react when they see other dogs while walking on leash. The Reactive Rover class instructor, Kim, also has an excellent book by the same name.
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