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Gidget, a 2-year-old Poodle jump up on me and scratch me, won't quit and whines all the time when she is in the car

We recently adopted Gidget, a 2-year-old Poodle, and she is just a mess. She yaps and jumps at the door when we need to leave her for a time. Also she will jump up on me and scratch me and won't quit. In addition, she whines all the time when she is in the car with us. How do we get her to stop these behaviors? It is very annoying. The scratching is leaving bruises on me.

Gidget may have brought some old habits, and old expectations, into her new home. During the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship with a new pet, it is easy to fall into habits of overattentiveness. Figuring out what our dogs need requires attention and sensitivity.

People rely on their knowledge about dogs in general and their understanding of their own pets in particular to know how best to tend to them. We also look for cues from them to reassure us that we are on the right track. Observing her at the door, it would be logical to assume Gidget feels anxiety about being left home alone. The subject of separation anxiety is very complex. You can read an entire article I devoted to this subject, "The Road to Separation Security," in the August 1999 issue of DOG WORLD Magazine). Some steps you might try for now include:

  • Reducing emotional aspects of exits and returns-try preparing your dog for physical separation by emotionally separating a bit sooner before your departure.
  • Making sure she is tired before you go-engage Gidget in 10 or 15 minutes of fun obedience training or play about a half hour before you intend to leave, and she will be a tired rather than wired dog dealing with separation.
  • Providing an interesting distraction-give a toy stuffed with treats or a baked natural shank or knuckle bone stuffed with marrow right as you are leaving. This may result in Gidget looking forward to your exits!

As for some of your other behavioral concerns, when she jumps on you she is seeking your attention. It would be a pretty automatic response to look down, address her and even ask out loud, "What do you need?" Logically we know she won't answer, at least not in words, but she will certainly jump up again and again, as long as it gets something for her, and in this case it is, at a minimum, getting exactly what she has learned to expect-your attention!

Vocalization in the car is a reaction to frustration or nervousness. When dogs are restrained or prevented from expressing behavioral impulses, the "frustrated energy" may be redirected into tension-outletting behaviors such as whining. If you respond to her whining, it begins to serve a second purpose; now, in addition to "letting off steam," it gets her more attention from you!

Paying attention to a dog is one of the best parts of having them near us; they are lovable and respond to our attention. As we begin to understand and react to a new pet dog's indications, training begins for both dogs and people. You are being "trained" to respond to certain actions your dog makes, and she is being trained to expect your responses. The only problem is, you are getting into a relationship that could result in you being the one who "jumps through hoops" for your dog! The key to success in dog training is knowing which behaviors you want to keep and which you do not. Once you have a list of desirable vs. undesirable behaviors, the next step is reinforcing them properly.

Although many people focus on the negative, trying to show their dogs what not to do, greater success for both you and the dog can be had by focusing on the positive. Responding to desirable behaviors, and only allowing good things, or positive reinforcement, to come to dogs that offer those desirable responses causes dogs to choose to behave appropriately! This is a similar approach to what parents of whining children know: Ignore whining, and only "hear" the child who speaks in a "normal" tone of voice, and whining dissipates.

Sometimes dogs have such a history of repeating a behavior, they are patterned into repeating it even when it seems to bring no obvious results. Many people ignore behaviors, hoping they will go away, and are dismayed when they continue despite the lack of human reaction. Some behaviors are "self-reinforcing"; the expression of energy is its own reward. Whining, for instance, brings the whining dog relief, whether a person responds or not. But making another behavior, such as quietness, even more rewarding than the self-reinforcement provided by whining causes the old behavior to be replaced by the more meaningful new one. Dogs always repeat the behaviors that get them the best results.

Gidget misbehaves right now because her behaviors bring her some sort of positive result she has learned to expect. You do not need to suddenly apply negative results, or punishment, because it may confuse her or cause her to feel insecure in your suddenly very-changed presence. The best thing to do is teach her what now works (sitting quietly, which results in getting petted) and what now does not work (jumping, which is ignored completely). Whining in the car is ignored, but when she is momentarily quiet, she is petted.

The hardest thing for many owners is removing negative attention. They look, scold, push, pull, prod, but they seem to always be doing something in reaction to the behaviors they are trying to extinguish. Instead of making those unwanted behaviors meaningless to the dog, they remain purposeful; they bring a result of some sort, even if it is an angry one. Some dogs get stuck in a behavioral vicious cycle; they offer an action that their owner responds to, negatively. But they are never really taught what to do; just what not to do. Punishment may temporarily suppress a behavior, but sooner or later the behavior resurfaces; after all, it is the only one the dog knows. When inappropriate behaviors stop working, and meanwhile new behaviors result in success, dogs commit to the new behaviors.

Dogs do what works for them. It's honestly this simple, but it takes patience. A dog might jump 18 times, requiring a total absence of response, and sit still for only a few seconds. Attention should be given only for those few seconds, and it should end the instant she begins jumping again, which initially is highly likely because right now she associates attention with jumping. The trick is to change her expectations; now, jumping gets nothing, while sitting quietly gets attention! Of course she will test these "new rules," not to be "dominant" or "defiant," but because she is smart! To give up easily isn't a canine characteristic, and when you look at things from a canine perspective, doesn't it make sense?

In the wild, canines have to be terribly persistent in order to get a meal; domestic dogs have similar "hard-wiring" for tenacity. Intermittent success has been proven to be more motivating than consistent success, so any family member who occasionally "gives in" and lets her have "the gain" (attention) without the payment of appropriate behavior is rewarding her misbehavior! Jumping has brought "success" many times, so "Air Gidget" isn't going to just hang up her jumping shoes the first time she fails to "score"!

The ones who need the most training in Gidget's life are the people she perceives as providers of "good things." Using positive reinforcement with the right timing will help Gidget get a grip and be perceived as a better dog without having been compromised or intimidated. If you are patient, but find that ignoring and waiting for positive moments seems not to be getting you anywhere, you may need to include some mild, impersonal negative reinforcement. Keep her on a leash when she is near you and when she jumps, apply mild, steady pressure (not jerking!), without looking or speaking at all, while she is up. Traditional dog training methods frequently advise owners to address the jumping dog, stating "Off" or some other "command." This is giving attention to the dog while it is jumping and actually rewards the jump! Do it enough times, and the word "off" will become a prompt for jumping! If jumping is ignored or, if necessary, made to feel mildly, impersonally, uncomfortable, Gidget will jump less. But the most positive approach is to make sitting feel better than anything else; she will quickly begin to approach people and sit without being asked when she wants their attention!

Using a positive approach, you will be able to retrain your dog without ever having to be "the bad guy," and without ever having to make her feel bad!

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