Using Predictability, Scheduling, and Enrichment to Train Your Dog

What is predictability, and why is it important?

Predictability refers to the likelihood that something will occur as expected. When the daily routine is consistent, your dog can predict when there might be an opportunity for play, attention, food, and bathroom breaks. He is more likely to wait patiently for you to prepare his dinner if he knows he can expect to be fed at 5 PM. Do not worry if your lifestyle does not allow for a completely rigid schedule—your dog can also learn that dinner arrives after a walk or after you do yoga.

Regardless of the exact timing or context in which you provide your dog with his wants and needs, it is essential to be as consistent as possible. Consistency allows predictability; without predictability, dogs can become frustrated, leading to demanding behaviors, such as barking, pawing, or mouthing, to attain their goals. These frustration-based behaviors could be disruptive when you are unable to respond.

You must also respond consistently and predictably to your dog’s behavior. Training improves predictability as dogs are taught to follow specific behavioral cues and learn to predict a positive outcome (a reward). For example, most dogs are taught the cue ‘sit’. During training, you probably gave your dog a treat for sitting. Soon, you could say ‘sit’ and expect your dog to respond by sitting; in turn, your dog learned to predict that you would deliver a treat if he sat on cue. A trained dog may begin to volunteer the highly rewarded sit behavior to earn various rewards—praise, treat, or a chance to go outside. Your dog can now use this learned behavior to communicate his wants and needs clearly and appropriately. Communication facilitates social interactions and provides an opportunity for your dog to have some control over his immediate environment. This is important for the emotional well-being of all animals (and people).

"Communication facilitates social interactions and provides an opportunity for your dog to have some control over his immediate environment."

If you were to suddenly or deliberately stop rewarding your dog for sitting when asked, your dog would likely become frustrated or even anxious. Your behavior is no longer predictable. It is possible to be unintentionally inconsistent. An example might be a person’s response when a dog jumps on them during a greeting. When your dog jumps up on you, sometimes, perhaps when you are wearing jeans and are in a playful mood, you might pet your dog even as he jumps. Other times, perhaps when you are dressed for work, your dog might jump up only to be pushed off or scolded.

The inconsistent response to jumping up can create stress for your dog. Your dog does not know what to expect and does not know how to behave—your dog no longer has control over his environment. He offered a behavior that he thought would result in a greeting but was unable to reach that goal. In an attempt to solve the problem and accomplish a greeting next time, your dog may try jumping higher or may retreat from you, avoiding a greeting altogether. He may even exhibit frustration-related barking.

It is essential to respond consistently to your dog’s behaviors. You can create predictability by teaching your dog which greeting behavior you prefer and by only greeting your dog when he does that behavior. Let’s use the ‘sit’ as an example. Once your dog understands how to ‘sit’ on cue for a treat, have a treat in your hand when you are about to greet him. As soon as he approaches, show him the treat and ask for a ‘sit’. Reward him with the treat and follow with a light pet—not enough to get him excited. Be sure all people use the same greeting procedure. Over time, your dog will behave predictably—he will sit whenever he greets anyone—because people have behaved predictably.

How do normal behaviors become problem behaviors?

There are many dog breeds; some have been bred to excel at hunting, herding, or guarding property. Depending on his heritage, a dog may show a tendency for a breed-typical behavior, such as chasing small animals or barking at intruders. Many behaviors that dogs naturally exhibit can be considered ‘normal’ in certain contexts, yet are inconvenient or dangerous within the home.

"Many behaviors that dogs naturally exhibit can be considered ‘normal’ in certain contexts, yet are inconvenient or dangerous within the home."

Two strategies will help you teach your dog to consistently exhibit desirable behaviors instead of normal but problematic ones. First, though it can be tempting to look for ways to thwart your dog’s behavioral choices, it is more helpful to teach your dog an alternative behavior that is more appropriate in a particular context. In the previous section, you learned that instead of trying to stop your dog from jumping up, it is more effective to teach your dog to sit for a greeting. Similarly, instead of teaching your dog to stop jumping onto the couch, you can provide a reward when your dog rests in his bed. Behaviors that are consistently and predictably rewarded will be repeated.

Unfortunately, most strategies designed to merely stop behaviors rely on punishment, which is not recommended, especially when applied inconsistently. It contributes to frustration and fear and leaves your dog unclear about which behaviors you prefer. See the handout “Why Punishment Should be Avoided” for more information.

The second part of the solution to managing undesirable but normal behaviors is to provide your dog with outlets that satisfy her innate behavioral needs. Some outlets may relate to breed tendencies, while others will be based on your dog’s personality.

What is enrichment, and is it the same for all dogs?

Enrichment refers to providing your dog with enhancements that increase his physical and emotional well-being. Enrichment stimulates the mind, reduces stress, and assures that innate behavioral needs are met. Enrichment is meant to be positive—it should feel good! Thus, enrichment strategies are tailored to the preferences of an individual dog.

"Enrichment stimulates the mind, reduces stress, and assures that innate behavioral needs are met."

One form of enrichment dogs of almost every age and breed enjoy is the opportunity to explore their rich olfactory (scent) world. This may be accomplished by taking a leisurely walk during which your dog can sniff without being rushed.

Enrichment may also include plenty of opportunities for dogs to explore their physical environment and engage with objects such as toys. Provide a variety of toys, rotating them so that they remain novel. Offer some food-filled toys and puzzle games. Some toys may require that you supervise your dog to avoid choking or swallowing should a piece be bitten off.                            

Social enrichment can include interactive play and training. Since puppies have short attention spans, they benefit from frequent, short activity sessions and training lessons. If you can find a size, temperament, and age-matched playmate for your dog or puppy, social play can be a great form of enrichment. Be sure to choose playmates that are safe for your puppy: healthy and unlikely to bite but also willing to disengage if the puppy is overwhelming or overstepping normal dog social boundaries. Adult dogs invited to play together should be matched for temperament—take your time introducing a potential play partner. Consider that not all dogs are comfortable playing in large groups—if your dog is uncomfortable, dog-dog play is NOT suitable for her enrichment program.

How should I play with my young puppy?

Schedule regular play sessions to meet your puppy’s activity and social enrichment needs. A predictable play schedule will encourage your puppy to wait patiently for you to invite him to play. Set up guidelines so that the rules of play are predictable. Be consistent. If your puppy begins to use your hands instead of the toy, always disengage and then present your puppy with a toy. Puppies should not be allowed to chase children—keep your puppy engaged with an appropriate toy when children (or adults!) are running about. Be predictable.

How should I play with my adult dog?

As your puppy matures into adulthood, social play may include longer walks and runs, play sessions with other dogs, swimming, and interactive play. Add more advanced training sessions based on your and your dog's skills and interests. Obedience, Rally, K9 Nose Work, agility, herding, and a wide range of other dog sports are options. Consider the working function of your dog's breed when deciding on the most appropriate games, play, and training activities. Look for a trainer or training club that supports reward-based training methods throughout the training process. Training should be safe and fun for you and your dog. Consult with your veterinarian to ensure the sport you are interested in is safe for your dog.

How do I meet my dog's needs when I am busy?

Long-lasting food toys can often keep your dog settled and engaged when you are busy. You can prolong your dog’s interest and focus on the food-filled toys by freezing them or stuffing them in a way that makes it difficult to get at the treats yet keeps your dog motivated to try. Rotate through the toys to keep them novel. Consider providing your dog's meal in a foraging toy instead of a food bowl. Monitor your dog’s weight and make sure he is a good body condition. Monitor for frustration; if your dog stops trying to get the food and walks away from the toy or if he aggressively bites or barks at the toy, the difficulty level may be too high.  

"Consider providing your dog's meal in a foraging toy instead of a food bowl."

How do I teach my dog to accept periods of inattention?

Dogs can learn to predict and accept periods when your attention is unavailable. It may be helpful to teach your dog to rest or play independently. Before training for a rest period, ensure your dog has had adequate exercise, food, and the chance to eliminate. Start with a short session if needed—try for 15 minutes to settle on the bed. You may also try providing a food-filled toy to keep your dog independently busy. Gradually increase the duration of the training period, and when your dog can relax or keep busy without your help, then begin to practice the exercise with your dog in another room. You may try confining your dog behind a gate or in a crate so that he can keep you in sight yet recognize that you are busy and cannot interact with him. Crate training can benefit young puppies that might be destructive or hurt themselves if left unattended in a room. See the handout “Dog Behavior and Training – Teaching Settle and Calm” for more information.

Your dog will soon learn to predict that you are not available for that block of time when asked to settle in bed or is led to the ‘rest’ area.

If your dog is distressed during this exercise—if she barks, whines, or continually scratches to get out, do not continue on your own. A behaviorist can help design a more gradual desensitization technique so your dog can relax and succeed.