How to teach your dog to do nothing: seeing and capitalizing on informal behaviors
By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

Basic dog training tends to focus on behaviors with names, or what are often referred to as commands: sit, down, come, heel, stay, etc.

But in my experience, about 80 percent of what most people expect a well-behaved dog to do is not behave, or at least not behave in ways that come naturally to dogs. Do nothing when a stranger stomps up the front steps and pushes papers through the mail slot. Do nothing when another dog appears across the street. Do nothing while the rest of the family gathers around a table full of food, delicious food.

Our inclination when we want a dog to do nothing can be to punish whatever he does instead. It’s hard to wrap your mind around how you can teach a dog to do nothing using positive reinforcement—after all, by definition, there’s nothing to reinforce, right?

Wrong. That’s our language-based worldview tripping us up. “Doing nothing” is never doing nothing. Whatever your dog is doing when he’s doing nothing—standing around, lying belly up and staring into space, glancing at something without bothering to investigate it—that’s all behavior too. And behavior doesn’t have to have a formal name attached to it for us to identify it, build reinforcement history for it, and thereby push it closer to the top of a dog’s repertoire.

I practice a type of positive reinforcement training known as clicker training. The clicker is a toy noisemaker commonly used in training dogs, but you can also use a word, a whistle, or any other distinct signal. This signal, called an event marker, precisely identifies a specific behavior the dog has just performed and indicates that a reinforcer (often a food treat) is forthcoming.

Dogs come knowing how to do pretty much any behavior you might want. They just don’t know that you prefer sit, down, and that cute head cock over barking, jumping, and playing tug with your scarf. But when you begin systematically selecting behaviors you like, by marking them and/or following them with things the dog likes, the dog learns to resort to them more quickly and more frequently—often in place of other, less desirable choices.

To teach a dog that you like it when he sits, for instance, set up in a quiet environment, wait for the dog to plop down on his haunches, click, and drop a treat on the floor (so that he has to get up to eat it, and is in a position from which he can sit back down). Then wait for him to sit again. The first couple reps might be slow, but usually within ten clicks or so, the dog figures out that he is making something happen by putting his butt on the floor. Soon he’s folding his rear legs as fast as he can after eating, and his tail is wagging at the sound of the click—even before the treat comes out.

This process is known as capturing, but applied animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao has described it as See, Mark, and Reward Training (or SMART). I like this, because it emphasizes that you must first be able to notice the behavior that you want to increase. And I love the SMART x 50 game she suggests in her book, Plenty in Life Is Free, in which you set aside 50 pieces of kibble or treats per day, watch for behaviors you like, and mark and reward them. Do this with a new dog or puppy for the first three weeks, when many newly adopted dogs are still in the relatively subdued “honeymoon period,” and, without ever barking a single order, you’ll have significantly increased the likelihood of your favorite behaviors with the power of more than 1,000 reinforcers.

Cues like words and formal hand signals are typically added once the dog is consciously and confidently offering the behavior during a training session. For sit, e.g., you simply start to say “sit” right before the dog is about to do it again anyway. The word becomes associated with the fact that reinforcement is available for the behavior, and can then be used to ask for it.

But as noted in a previous column, anything else the dog notices in the environment during training has the potential to become a cue through the exact same associative process. You could just as easily walk toward your dog or place your hand on a doorknob instead of adding the word “sit,” thereby turning either of those events into another cue for butt-to-floor.

Sitting is a great alternative behavior to jumping on guests or running out the front door. But so is standing—a behavior we rarely notice and almost never name. And while most dogs need to be taught to sit in those exciting situations, standing is the behavior that is usually already happening right before a dog jumps or runs. Using capturing, you can easily teach your dog to simply keep his front feet planted as people approach or as you open a door. Or in other words, to do nothing.

Likewise, you can capture silence as mail comes through the slot, a cursory glance at another dog, or lingering at the threshold of the kitchen or dining room (or baby’s room).

Recently I set my sights on my own dog’s annoying habit of barking each morning when I picked up my belongings and leaned in to kiss my husband good-bye. I began by leaning in only partway and clicking before she had a chance to bark. After a couple days of this, when she was anticipating a treat for keeping her mouth closed, I finished the kiss before clicking and treating. Problem solved, in a week or so of practicing once a day with a dog who understands the clicker game.

Like me, you may need to break your final goal into smaller ones. If you have a dog who’s already learned to bark at the mail, beg at dinner, or pull toward other dogs on walks, you’ll need to prevent him from continuing to practice those behaviors (by restricting access to or increasing distance from whatever triggers the behavior), and then start capturing whatever small step toward the desired behavior the dog can offer. A qualified trainer can help you make a management plan and plot out training steps that are achievable for both you and your dog.