The Power of Incompatibility

willow head tilt

I had a house full of out of town friends visiting this past weekend and it sure was fun to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in quite a few years, some in over 15 years, which was prior to beginning my professional dog training career.  When someone finds out what I now do for a living, it’s not unusual for them to say, “Hey, can I ask you a question about my dog?”  When I have the time, I do like to at least give someone a few quick tips and this weekend I did have the time.

But I want my dog to stop…..

My friend went on to lament about the way his large 80 pound mixed-breed dog frequently walked up to him and leaned against his leg. It was an affectionate lean, but with 80 pounds of dog against a leg, it can knock one off balance if you’re not really prepared for the lean. And for my friend’s grandchildren, it could be unsettling, even though it was an affectionate gesture from the dog.  So he asked, “How do I get my dog to stop leaning on me?”  My reply was “If you don’t want your dog to lean on you, what would you like him to do instead?”  You should have seen the inquisitive look on my friend’s face.

An incompatible behavior?

My question “what would you like him to do instead” was a hint at training an incompatible behavior.  Training an incompatible behavior is a technique used in behavior therapy with children and also used in dog training. The goal is to identify a behavior that’s incompatible with or cannot occur at the same time as the “problem” behavior. The focus is on replacing unwanted behaviors with behaviors you DO want your dog to do.

We use it all the time in our own home.  I don’t want my dogs to counter surf, so I train each of them to sit quietly outside the entrance to the kitchen. If they’re sitting outside the kitchen, they can’t be counter surfing (or eating the cats’ food).

In my friend’s case of “the leaning dog,” I suggested he get to work teaching his dog to sit and reinforcing the heck out of that sit each and every time the dog sat. With all that frequent reinforcement (reinforcement is what drives behavior), it wouldn’t take long at all for that sit to become really solid and he could then add the verbal cue “sit” and his dog would easily sit for him. Then the next time his dog waltzed up to him, before the dog leaned, he could cue to the dog to “sit” thereby preventing the leaning. If the dog is sitting, the dog can’t be leaning on his leg.

The rest of the story….it worked!

A couple weeks after my conversation with my friend, he emailed to say, “Lisa, thanks for the dog training advice, which instantly worked. Flip (the leaner) has not leaned on me since I did the technique you mentioned; amazing.” Yes, the power of training an incompatible behavior!

It’s so very tempting to yell “No!” or “Stop!” or other verbal reprimand to a dog when we don’t want a dog to do something. But what has that taught the dog?  Nothing. All that yelling becomes nothing more than an interrupter and can be considered nagging (to a child or a dog). I’d much prefer to calmly ask my dog “to do” something than become the nagging human.

So the next time your dog is doing something that’s not to your liking, ask yourself this question, “What would I like him to do instead?” and train that!

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.


Lisa Lyle Waggoner is the author of The Original Rocket Recall™: Teach Your Dog to Come. She’s a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. The company’s trainers enjoy providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals.


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