Redirect or Preempt?

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Well-intentioned training "tips" can really go south if you don’t understand the underlying behavioral principles. One of those is the advice to “redirect” unwanted behavior, e.g., that when your dog jumps, or puts his paws up on the counter, or barks at you while you’re watching TV, you should direct him to a more appropriate behavior.

If your dog is already jumping on a frail, unsuspecting old person or small child right this very minute: by all means redirect him to another behavior. But know that if you make a habit of this, your dog will probably make a habit of jumping. Here’s why:

Cues are signals that predict reinforcement for a certain behavior. If you have trained your dog (as I hope you have) that sitting on cue will produce a treat, petting, play, or something else he wants—then through close, repeated pairing, your sit cue has acquired some of the value of that treat, petting, or play, becoming what’s known as a conditioned reinforcer. Money is a powerful conditioned reinforcer for humans—we work for pieces of paper or numbers on a screen because they have been endlessly paired with food, shelter, clothing, Netflix, Moroccan rugs, airplane tickets, and everything else we need and want.

Cues can thus be used to reinforce other behaviors. Which is fantastic news if, say, you’re trying to maintain all the behaviors in an agility run, where food or play can only come at the end.

But it also means that if the dog throws his paws up on the counter, and you give him a cue that means sitting will be reinforced, you will reinforce putting paws on the counter. Even, potentially, if you don't give him whatever that cue has been paired with. And behavior that is reinforced is repeated.

Please don’t leap from here, as so many do, to the conclusion that we must therefore punish unwanted behavior. Unfortunately things just aren’t that black-and-white. Punishment, especially (but not only) physical punishment, carries the risk of side effects including fear, aggression, apathy, and escape-avoidance behavior. The same conditioning that creates such good associations with cues trained with positive reinforcement can create bad associations with people, places, animals, and cues that may predict something aversive. (Read about “poisoned cues” here.)

The fact is, if the dog is already doing the unwanted behavior, you’re starting out behind the eight ball. All your choices are less than ideal. You may be obligated for safety or other reasons to reinforce the behavior (e.g., dragging the dog away from whatever he’s using aggression to get distance from, or handing a barking dog a bully stick so you can finish your important work call).

If there’s no immediate danger, you may be able to simply make reinforcement unavailable (e.g., by continuing to scroll through Facebook as your dog barks in your face) or remove it (e.g., stepping away from the dog when he jumps to greet). With ignoring or otherwise removing reinforcement by itself, though, you risk creating frustration, which looks like escalation to more intense and emotional behavior.

If your dog has a rich repertoire of other well-reinforced behaviors that you like, however, he may try one of those next—be sure to notice and reinforce it.

Or you can redirect. Yes, you might reinforce the unwanted behavior. Is it the worst thing in the world? No, and sometimes it’s the best of your crappy choices. Probably anyone who lives with a dog will settle for it in some situations. I’ll confess right here that I redirect my dog from barking pretty much every night—when my husband is cooking dinner, and I finish up on the computer and walk down the stairs into the kitchen, she play bows and barks. I then cue her to her mat, and when she lies down (which for her tends to be incompatible with barking), I pull a fish-skin chew out of the treat basket and hand it to her, or play some fetch. Think she’ll bark again tomorrow? I do; however, I've accepted it as a reasonable request on her part.

If you do need to redirect, do it as quickly as possible, so that you only reinforce a little bit of the unwanted behavior. Then make sure the dog is not set up to immediately repeat the cycle—after all, setting up rapid repetitions and reinforcing each one is exactly what you do when you want to teach a behavior. Prevention of repetition might involve leashing, gating, or crating the dog, or just giving him something more appealing to do (say, chewing on a fish skin) BEFORE the unwanted behavior starts.

If it’s important to you to reduce this behavior in the future, that last item is one to focus on. Your first job is to figure out how to predict the behavior so that in the future you can preempt rather than react. Put another way: if you want to teach a different behavior in response to the cue that currently evokes the problem, you need to first identify that cue.

Ask yourself: What are the conditions that set the stage for the behavior? What time is it? Who’s present? What are they doing? From how far away? What seems to be the most immediate cue for the unwanted behavior? Can you prevent any of these conditions from even happening in the first place? (If the blinds are closed, the dog can’t bark at stuff he sees out the window. No “training” required.)

Next, what do you want instead? If the cue does happen, what would you like the dog TO DO? (This answer shouldn’t involve the word “not,” as in “not bark.”) A word of advice: Pick something easy. When the cue for the unwanted behavior occurs, that’s the best time to ask for (or just catch) a desired behavior. With repetition and reinforcement, the problem situation can begin to cue the new behavior instead of the old one.

Finally, what does the dog get out of the unwanted behavior? That’s the “reason” he does it again and again. Can you provide that same consequence "legally," either for free or so that it reinforces a more acceptable behavior? Can you provide something the dog likes as well or better? If the new behavior produces more reinforcement, over time, that’s what the dog will begin to choose when he has the option.

This systematic way of looking at the behavior in the context of its environment is called functional assessment. It lets us figure out when and why a behavior is probably happening, and gives us the specific information we need to get ahead of it—instead of waiting for it to happen and then trying to figure out what to do about it.

Now you’re ready to train. Does your dog have the needed tricks in his bag already? You may need to strengthen, or even teach from scratch, the behavior you want the dog to do instead. Best to do that in low distraction first, then introduce it into the problem scenario. While you're doing that teaching, you need to prevent the problem scenario if you can (it's of course much easier if you have identified it, as described above). And you may need to introduce the new skill into the problem scenario in small, achievable increments.

But sometimes it’s much simpler than that. If your dog routinely jumps to greet, and you routinely cue him to sit before petting him, can you instead reach down and pet your dog while his feet are still on the ground, or invite him up on a bench or chair so he can get closer to your face without jumping? If your dog puts his paws up on the counter to get tidbits while you’re cooking, can you put his bed nearby, ask him to lie on it before you start food prep, and toss him bits of what he wants straight from the chopping block?

As a treat for reading, here's 20 seconds of Crash, the dog pictured at the top of this post. Crash had developed a hapbit of barking at his owners for the duration of meal prep and eating. He's a recent rescue, so we don't know his history, but this behavior looks to have been reinforced, perhaps intermittently, leading to a rather persistent version with the hallmarks of "frustration" discussed above. Over three sessions in the past month, Crash has learned new skills, including going to a mat, lying down, and maintaining that position in different settings and for different durations. This week we put it all together and added a problem scenario: meal prep. In the entirety of this session, a whole carrot was chopped into tiny bits, and Crash got to eat some of them—a powerful reinforcer for his new behavior.

Revised and updated from a blog post written for One Tail at a Time.

How to Teach Your Dog to "Do Nothing"

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 wait for and then punish the thing he's doing 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?

Sometime our language seems get in the way of our eyesight. “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, reinforce it, and thereby make it ever more likely in the situations where it has been reinforced.

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 immediately 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.

What's more, the context in which offering that behavior was reinforced will begin to signal to the dog that this behavior is a good choice in that context. In the video at the top of this post, three-month-old Milo, who has been reinforced periodically for settling on a bathmat over the past couple of weeks, is now beginning to learn that settling on that mat is a better choice than jumping in the dishwasher to lick plates or jumping up to grab towels as his mom tries to fold them. She's not waiting for him to jump and then kneeing him in the chest or pushing him down; she's proactively teaching him what TO do when she does dishes or laundry. And though it looks like "nothing," it's decidedly not.

To teach a dog to do a behavior more often, you can use a technique called "capturing." Applied animal behaviorist Kathy Sdao has described this 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, mark them (with a word or a click), and deliver one of the treats. (The advantage of marking, rather than just delivering a treat, is that it can bridge the gap between when the behavior occurs and when you can get the treat out and give it to the dog.)

Do this with a new dog or puppy for the first few weeks, when many newly adopted dogs are still in the relatively subdued “honeymoon period,” and, without ever barking a single "command," you’ll have applied the power of more than 1,000 reinforcers to significantly increase the likelihood of your preferred behaviors happening, in the circumstances where you would most like them to happen.

Cues like words and formal hand signals can be attached to these behaviors, if you like, once the dog is consciously and confidently repeating them in a predictable way. For sit, e.g., you could simply start to say “sit” right before you can tell the dog is about to do it again anyway. Just like other, environmental context cues, the word can become associated with a high probability that reinforcement is available for that behavior, and can then be used to ask for it.

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, because to many of us it looks like "doing nothing." And while most dogs will need quite a bit of training to learn to sit in exciting situations, standing is the behavior that is usually already happening right before a dog jumps or runs. Using capturing—with treats or other reinforcers the dog may be seeking, such as petting—it's fairly easy to teach your dog to simply keep his front feet planted as people approach or as you come in the door. Which would you prefer upon coming home—having to tell your dog what to do or having him figure it out from the context?

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 the baby’s room). A while ago, when I used to routinely leave the house before my husband, I set my sights on one of my own dog’s annoying behaviors: barking at me when, after gathering up my belongings, I walked over to the bed and leaned in to kiss my husband good-bye. I began by leaning in only partway and clicking before Pigeon had a chance to bark, then leaning back out (what I hypothesized was the reinforcer for her barking) and delivering a treat. After a couple days of this, when she was anticipating reinforcement for just watching me lean in, I advanced stepwise through the whole cycle of leaning in, kissing, and then leaning back out before clicking and treating. It took a week or two of one session a day to solve the problem.

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. If you need help, a good trainer should be able to help you make a management plan and plot out training steps that are achievable for both you and your dog.

The Importance of Fundamentals, or Why Musicians Make Good Dog Trainers

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When I originally wrote this post for One Tail at a Time, I had some new clients, both professional musicians, and our two productive sessions so far had me thinking about why musicians were some of my favorite people to work with. (These clients have since moved to semirural Texas and adopted 38 more animals, including goats, chickens, and donkeys.)

It’s not just that I have an affinity for musicians—I’m married to one, and I’ve played in a couple bands myself. It’s that musicians frequently seem to enjoy and excel at dog training.

Like playing music, dog training is in large part a physical skill. It requires practiced movements and good timing. Any kind of training you care to do comes down to providing consequences in such a way as to make them dependent upon the dog’s behavior.

But I also think musicians do well at training because they understand the importance of good fundamentals.

You’ll notice above that I didn’t refer to myself directly as a musician. That’s because, after 15 years, playing two different instruments in bands that recorded and toured, I still can’t call out a note by name or play a proper scale. Figuring out my own way to play what I wanted to hear, with the occasional assist from a knowledgeable friend, was good enough for punk rock. Yet a few years ago, a client who was taking ukulele lessons invited me to a hootenanny at her house. I merely observed, becausae I didn’t have the foundation skills to pick up a piece of sheet music and join the fun.

Likewise, humans have been cohabitating with dogs for centuries, and when it goes well, good enough is good enough (at least for the humans—I can’t speak for the dogs). We figure out ways to get dogs to do what we really need them to do, picking up bits and pieces from TV or the Internet or friends with dogs or people whose dogs seem to be under control at the park, and we put up with whatever we’re not sufficiently motivated to figure out. But under pressure, the lack of fundamentals will out.

The good news is that the foundation most dogs need to live successfully with humans consists of a few simple building-block behaviors (I’ve recommended some here) bolstered by a long, consistent history of reinforcement, or “behavioral mass,” a concept behavior science has borrowed from physics. The more mass a behavior accrues, the more momentum it has when it encounters resistance. The more that sitting when you say “sit” has been reinforced, the more likely your dog is to sit when you say “sit”—even if more effort is required, even if there are more appealing options, even if you haven’t reinforced the last few sits, and even if there are potentially aversive consequences.

If you want fancier behaviors, the dog still needs fluent component skills. One example of a foundation behavior that opens up a lot of possibilities is targeting, where the dog touches some part of its body to something. Once a dog learns to touch its nose to a person’s hand, for instance, it can learn to move to or follow the hand into a multitude of other behaviors, including come, sit, down, up, off, over, under, around, spin, retrieve, and many more. (For some beautiful examples of the uses of a targeting, watch this video of Ken Ramirez working with a one of the dogs at the Shedd Aquarium.)

If the basic target behavior doesn’t have enough mass, though, it will fall apart when you try to build on it. So if you’re teaching your dog to touch his nose to your hand, start close in and reinforce well. Practice regularly, practice in different places, make small changes to how you present the target. But don’t be in a hurry to ask the dog to do a lot more work to follow your hand. Once you have the understanding of and enthusiasm for the simple target, it will be relatively easy to build distance, duration, and performance amid distractions.

Or to put it in music terms: play the scales.

"Disobedience": Why Your Dog Might Not Do What You Ask, And What You Can Do About It

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Pretty much every morning, the same routine goes down at my house. I open my eyes. My dog, Pigeon, jumps off the bed and sits. I ask her if she wants to go outside. If she does, she thumps her tail on the floor and springs up. At the top of the stairs, she pauses; I say "downstairs" and gesture for her to go ahead of me.

In the kitchen, I open the back door and let her into our fenced yard, leaving the exterior door open but closing the interior glass one to keep out the bugs or the chill. While she’s doing her business, I grind coffee, scoop grounds into a filter, dump water in the reservoir, and push the start button. When Pigeon’s ready to come inside, she sprints up the back stairs and stands at the glass door. When I see her, I open the door and let her in.

Or rather, I usually do.

Before I could start my coffee the other day, I had to empty some old grounds and rinse the filter. In the process, I got cold, wet coffee grounds all over my fingers.

When Pigeon showed up at the door, I was still rinsing my hands at the sink. I saw her standing there—but instead of going to the door, I finished rinsing, and then turned off the faucet. Then I debated whether to try operating the doorknob with with wet hands, and decided instead to dry them off with a towel. Then—finally!—I let her in.

In other words, I blew off Pigeon's cue for me to come to the door and open it. If I were the dog in this scenario, how might you describe me?

Was I being disobedient? Stubborn? Willful? Vengeful? Dominant?

Or was I just distracted by something that felt slightly more pressing to me than opening the door at that moment? Did getting the grounds off my hands under those circumstances simply promise a more valued outcome than opening the door?

When your dog responds to a cue, he does so because past experience has taught him what behavior is likely to be reinforced when that cue is present.

But the value of a given reinforcer is always relative. If you love broccoli, you’ll be very likely to perform behaviors that have historically earned you broccoli. That is, unless maybe you just ate as much broccoli as you wanted, or filled up on rice. Or unless there’s another behavior you can perform to get carrots, which you love even more than broccoli.

And this isn’t only true with positive reinforcement (following behaviors you want to increase with consequences the dog wants). Relief from an aversive, such as a release of pressure on a choke chain when a dog sits, is still reinforcement. Specifically, it’s negative reinforcement (following a behavior you want to increase with the removal of something the dog wanted to escape or avoid). And as people whose dogs have run through an electronic fence to attack another dog or catch a rabbit can tell you, the value of this type of reinforcement is also relative.

As we move through life, there are almost always multiple reinforcers available at any time. Have you ever been called to dinner and replied, “Hang on, there's just two minutes left in this show?” Disobedience—a term I pulled out of the mothballs of my mind for this article—is the the dog telling you (a) he’s confused about what you want or (b) something else is just more important right now. Sometimes it’s getting something he wants; sometimes it’s escaping something he doesn’t.

My behavior of opening the door when Pigeon appears has become pretty reliable. It’s been reinforced many, many times by my dog's cute little wiggly greeting. But on that particular day, removing those wet grounds from my hands was more important.

I also almost always step on the brake when I see a stop sign, to the point where it seems automatic. But if there are no other cars visible, or if I'm running late for an appointment—if the usual reinforcer of avoidance isn't as valuable, and/or getting on with my trip quickly is more valuable—I might not perform this behavior as reliably.

Our dogs’ lives, like our own, are a constant stream of competing reinforcers—and on top of that, the things they’re most interested in are often telegraphed to them by smells we can’t smell and sounds we can’t hear. So how do we ensure 100 percent reliable responses to our cues?

The short answer is: We don’t. Is it reasonable to hold dogs to a standard even we can’t meet? The behavior of a living being is 100 percent reliable right up until it isn’t.

But we can get pretty darn close, and here, broadly, is how:

FIRST: Make sure you are not the thing your dog is trying to avoid by doing whatever else he’s doing. Punishment is often associated with the punisher—and we are sometimes punishing our dogs even when we don’t think we are.

Does your dog’s recall cue usually mean the end of fun in the yard or park? Does your dog’s name mean it’s time for nail trims? Does your dog actually duck or back away when you pet him to "reward" good behavior?

THEN: Make the odds work in your favor by understanding and applying a behavioral principle called the Matching Law. The Matching Law says, in a nutshell, that animals exhibit behaviors in proportion to how much reinforcement has been available for those behaviors in the past. Simplified, that means that under given conditions, if your dog has been reinforced for jumping to greet you 20 percent of the time and for sitting to greet you 80 percent of the time, then under those conditions you can predict that he’ll jump to greet you about 20 percent of the time and sit to greet about 80 percent of the time.

The first step is to limit opportunites for the dog to get reinforced for behaviors you really don’t want. We don’t just wait for toddlers to learn that they enjoy playing with matches or fishing in the toilet—we proactively rearrange the house so they can’t. This works with dogs too.

Limits are not enough, though. Build strong reinforcement histories for the behaviors you do want. As with children, we need to both encourage (through environmental design) and actively teach and reinforce desirable behaviors, making sure the dog finds them well worth repeating. Use great reinforcers, and many of them—and mix it up, because novelty can also be reinforcing.

Once you’ve taught a behavior, you’ll need to practice it, and continue to reinforce it, in incrementally different and more distracting circumstances. Just because you can drive in an empty parking lot doesn’t mean you’re ready for a six-lane expressway at rush hour, and just because your dog can sit in your kitchen doesn’t mean he can do it at the edge of a crosswalk while a motorcycle whizzes by.

Finally, when possible, harness what your dog wants most at that moment. It’s not a “competing reinforcer” anymore if you can make it contingent on the behavior you want. Dog wants to leap out of the car? Ask for a sit or down before opening the door and cueing him to go for it. Dog wants to keep playing in the yard? Call the dog from close by, then send him back to the yard. Dog wants to stalk a squirrel? Wait for a little attention and then stalk it with her.

When I move toward the door to let Pigeon back in every morning, I deliberately do so while she’s still standing quietly. That—and not barking or scratching at the door—is the behavior I want more of in the future. Sometimes, to mix things up, I also surprise her with a treat or her breakfast in hand, but mostly what she gets for standing quietly is me opening the door.

And that long history of getting what she wants for waiting patiently is why she didn’t immediately start barking the day that I decided to wash my hands off before opening the door.

I think I owe her the same patience and courtesy.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.

Dogs in High-Rises: A Modest Proposal

Practicing preventively with puppy Siena in the elevator

There’s probably no tougher place to have a dog with fear or aggression issues than a high-rise. Except maybe a “dog-friendly” high-rise.

For dogs, as for all of us, fear is mitigated by distance. Generally, the farther away you are from something scary, the less scary it is. But distance can be hard to come by in long, narrow hallways, busy elevators, and tight foyers, especially when they’re populated by other dogs and dog lovers. And when dogs can’t get distance through avoidance, aggression becomes a more likely option.

Sound programs to reduce fear and aggression usually start with keeping the dog “under threshold,” which roughly translates to “far enough away from his triggers that he’s not freaking out as soon as he sees them.” So ideally, dogs who can’t cope in close quarters wouldn’t be brought into high-density living situations in the first place. But owners can’t always predict such issues in a new dog, prevent them from developing, or simply pack up and move if they do. Plus, small spaces not only aggravate existing problems—they can create new ones. A dog or puppy who wasn’t previously afraid of people or other dogs may develop new phobias and related behaviors after a single traumatic experience—especially one where escape was made impossible.

A lot of problems could be prevented in high-rises with some simple rules for dog-owning residents—even those whose dogs are comfortable with other dogs and humans. Here are a few suggestions to start with:

ONE DOG PER ELEVATOR CAR. Stand back from the door while waiting. If there's already a dog inside, wait for the next car. Additionally, instead of designating only one elevator that must be used by all dogs, as some buildings do, let them spread out, or maybe designate some elevators as dog-free or others for use by space-sensitive dogs.

OWNERS MUST GO THROUGH DOORS WITH OR AHEAD OF THEIR DOGS, including elevator doors. If someone or something problematic is on the other side, this prevents an immediate conflagration and allows you a chance to turn back or negotiate space before proceeding.

DOGS MUST BE LEASHED IN PUBLIC AREAS, INCLUDING HALLWAYS. Most buildings probably have this rule, but many don’t enforce it well. I’d add: on fixed leashes of a reasonable length, no retractables.

These rules alone wouldn’t prevent every incident, but they would likely reduce how often a person or dog actually gets injured or traumatized.

Buildings billing themselves as “dog-friendly” might also want to go deeper than private dog runs and free poop bags. In addition to multiple elevators, consider letting dog owners use a variety of exits to manage their space. And if you’re installing an off-leash dog run on the property, definitely don’t require all dogs to exit and enter the building through it. (This was a real situation in at least one building I’ve worked in.)

Feel free to bring these ideas up at your next condo board or pet committee meeting. But in the meantime, individual owners can make a dent by changing some of their own practices. Most of these suggestions are good etiquette whether or not your own dog is space sensitive, but a few, toward the end, are geared more toward those who need to actively manage space.

TEACH WAIT AT DOORS, including the door to your apartment. You can use the same technique for when you approach blind corners.

TEACH WAIT INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE ELEVATOR. This can be accomplished using existing behaviors, like a sit- or down-stay, but here’s my favorite method:

  • PUSH THE BUTTON, THEN STEP AWAY: Move back as far as you can while maintaining your sightline to the car’s interior—ten feet is great if you can get it. Shorten your dog’s leash, leaving slack between your hand and the harness or collar. From this position, if something pops out unexpectedly, your dog cannot get to it. The slack is to prevent your dog from instantly feeling trapped if a person or dog does appear.

  • CHANGE WHAT THE “DING” PREDICTS: Whether you're inside or outside the car, when you hear the ding that says the door will open, or the elevator coming to a stop just before the doors open, start feeding your dog little bits of something special, one after the other, or let him lick out of a food tube. Practice this frequently without actually getting on or off the elevator. The instant the doors close, stop the treats. Over time, your dog will begin to look to you when the doors open, which you can mark and reinforce (this is what you see in the video at the top of this page), at first with a treat, then with a release to go through the door. If your dog is looking toward you, he’s not running into or out of the car or focusing on what might be coming through the other direction.

  • PUT THE ENTRY/EXIT ON CUE: Teach a cue that means going through the elevator doorway will earn a treat—again, both in and out. Reinforcing the release behavior will help your dog learn to wait till you give the all-clear. Keep the leash short enough that the dog cannot run through if you haven’t given the cue.

Teaching your dog where to hang out in the elevator is a good idea too—ideally somewhere that's not right up against the elevator doors. Routinely walk him to that spot and reinforce a stationary behavior, like standing or sitting with eye contact and you should start to see a habit develop.

CONSIDER CARRYING YOUR TINY DOG. Preemptively, I mean, from the door of your apartment to the exit—not just after he barks at someone or someone lunges for him and freaks him out. Some dogs feel safer in your arms, and won’t try to fight or flee from there. However, others may struggle or bite you if they get frightened; in that case, you might consider using a carrier of some sort to get in and out of the building, at least temporarily. (That is, if your dog is comfortable in a carrier. If not, here's how to start training comfort with confinement.)

TAKE THE STAIRS. If you live on a lower floor, just consider it part of the exercise program. If you live on a higher floor, consider getting off the elevator a few flights up from the main, congested lobby and hitting the steps.

ASK FOR SPACE SO YOUR DOG DOESN’T HAVE TO. Your body language—curving out and around instead of walking straight toward another dog or a person, putting your body between a handsy stranger and your dog, avoiding eye contact, etc.—often works as well or better than verbal communication to prevent unwanted approaches. But don’t be afraid to speak up, too, and politely ask if a person with another dog can wait to get on the next car, or if they can give you a little space to get off before they jump into this one.

DON'T FORGET THE DOG WALKER. Dog-care pros sometimes walk our pets more often than we do, so it's important that the dog's experience with them is the same as it is with you. Teach partners, family members, dog walkers, and pet sitters to take the same measures you do when they take the dog out. (Or as my friend and fellow trainer Laura Monaco Torelli puts it, more catchily, "communicate for consistency."

TEACH YOUR DOG TO WEAR A BASKET MUZZLE. You might fret that it makes your dog look "mean," but if your dog has a bite history, or you think a bite is likely, it’s the responsible thing to do in close quarters. Basket muzzles, such as the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle, are ideal because they let dogs not only pant normally but also eat through them, so you can train and make positive associations using food. I like these videos from Dr. Colleen Koch, a downstate Illinois veterinary behaviorist and trainer, on how to turn the muzzle into a “treat basket.” There are more instructional resources, as well as sound arguments for muzzle training, at the Muzzle Up Project.

And should you see a neighbor with a muzzled dog, or even one who just seems to be actively working with her dog to reinforce good behavior around the building, give her space, avoid staring at or moving toward her dog—and flash her the biggest, most approving smile you can muster.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.