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Environmental Management: Better Behavior Without Training

Ren Volpe, March 4 2022
Black dog lying on the arm of a sofa and barking
Black dog lying on the arm of a sofa and barking, photo by Jess

What if you could have a better-behaved dog without doing any training? Of course, training is important, but you can, in fact, prevent many annoying behaviors by employing what trainers call “environmental management.” This means changing your dog's environment to prevent them from engaging in certain behaviors. Management does not require your dog to learn anything new, and you don't need treats or cues. Good management also means you won't have to yell at your dog or give corrections for naughty behavior.

Decades of research show that it is more effective to train dogs without using punishment or aversive techniques. But using only positive reinforcement and rewards is not the same as being permissive or allowing your dog to do whatever they want. Both children and dogs need structure and boundaries, or they will run amok. Management is how we keep our dogs safe and curb inappropriate behavior without resorting to painful or uncomfortable corrections.

Behavior does not occur in a vacuum: dogs do what works for them. Whether your dog is getting into the kitchen garbage or jumping on houseguests, these behaviors get repeated because your dog finds them reinforcing. If the trash was tasty last time or licking the houseguest's face was enjoyable, then your dog has every reason to repeat the behavior next time the conditions allow. Behavior that is reinforced will get repeated. That is how bad (and good!) habits become entrenched. Management means changing the conditions to prevent the behavior from occurring in the first place.

Environmental management for common behavior problems can be a quick and easy fix and can often be a stand-alone solution. You are likely employing many management techniques already, like using a leash or closing the door behind you to prevent your pup from running into the street. Here you will learn additional management techniques to help make life with your dog a little more pleasant.

Combining Management and Training

Addressing inappropriate behaviors usually requires using a combination of management and training. Training will frequently involve teaching and reinforcing a behavior that is incompatible with the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Preventing your dog from making mistakes or practicing unwanted behavior while training a new behavior is an essential part of the process.

For example, if your dog madly dashes out the second you open the front door, you would train a “sit and wait” before exiting. Sitting and dashing are incompatible behaviors. It is vital that your dog not rehearse the behavior you are trying to eliminate during the training process. In the door dashing situation, the management solution would be leashing your dog before opening the door. The training process will take longer if your dog gets to dash out sometimes and has to wait at other times.

Below is a partial list of common problem behaviors with management solutions. While some may seem obvious, this should help get you thinking about creative management solutions to some of your dog's frustrating behaviors. Step back and consider how you can rearrange the environment to help your dog make better behavioral choices. Training may well be the end goal, but better management will keep you sane and make for more effective training.

Problem Behavior: Getting into the garbage.
Management Solution: Put the garbage can under the sink behind a locked cabinet.

Problem Behavior: Jumping on house guests.
Management Solution: Leash your dog inside before people walk in the house or put the dog behind a baby gate.

Problem Behavior: Chewing or stealing your shoes.
Management Solution: Put shoes away in a closet or in a bin with a lid.

Problem Behavior: Barking at people and dogs from the window.
Management Solution: Install privacy film on windows or use a baby gate to block access to street-facing rooms.

Problem Behavior: Barking at noises outside.
Management Solution: Use a fan, white noise machine, or radio to mask outside noise.

Problem Behavior: Stealing food off the countertops.
Management Solution: Keep the countertops clear and use a baby gate to keep the dog out of the kitchen when unsupervised.

Problem Behavior: Begging at the dinner table.
Management Solution: Put the dog behind a baby gate, in a crate, or have them lie on a dog bed while tethered with a nice chewy item during your dinnertime.

Problem Behavior: Drinking from the toilet.
Management Solution: Close the toilet lid.

Problem Behavior: Digging up the flower beds.
Management Solution: Install fencing around sensitive areas of your garden.

Problem Behavior: Multiple dogs in one house scuffling at feeding time.
Management Solution: Feed the dogs in separate rooms.

Unrealistic expectations are frequently at the root of our resistance to management solutions. Management isn't just for puppies. Instead of complaining that "my dog should know better" or "I already trained her not to do that," set your dogs up for success by managing their environment and not putting them into situations that are too challenging.

They’re only canine, after all.

About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com