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After some months working with my dog I've managed to more or less get my 8-year-old beagle to behave enough to live indoors with near full access to all areas of the house. This is something that seems to make him very happy, as we don't have a yard and he used to be kept on the small balcony.

He's even better behaved on walks now. I still haven't managed to break him of his obsession with garbage, however. My understanding of training methods is extremely limited, as I've only been studying about pet ownership and training since becoming his co-owner less than a year ago. I've been trying my best at applying principles of positive reinforcement, which is how I've gotten him to behave well within certain contexts, but I'm really very unfamiliar with animals in general as of yet and have very little clue what sorts of incentives to offer - or more accurately, I don't know how to connect refraining from bad behavior with rewards.

So far I've experimented with "NO" which only works temporarily. I've tried lightly slapping him whenever he shoves his head into the garbage at home, then when that didn't work I tried chasing him out to the balcony and giving him 30 minute time outs. I've gotten him to behave when he knows I'm watching. But when my back is turned, he's sometimes getting into the garbage or the cereal box or something else.

I've carried out the training presented in the "It's Yer Choice" video, and that worked wonderfully - when I'm watching him. When I'm out of sight, the training seems to break down. It doesn't happen every time I'm not watching him, but it happens often enough to be a bit of a headache.

Should I just wait for him to get used to living indoors? Am I doing anything that's reinforcing the garbage obsession? Is there a better way for me to get him to behave when I'm not watching as much as when I am watching?

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You're on the right track with some things, but first I wanted to get some things out of the way that are just going to hinder your work.

While timeouts can be helpful, 30 min. is WAY too long and this isn't really the right place for them. Plus, chasing your dog may actually be fun for him as he might see it as a game. For things that can be helped with a timeout, 30 sec. is a more appropriate time frame.

Don't hit your dog unless you want them to hate you and potentially become aggressive towards people.

Now for things that you're doing well. It's Yer Choice is the perfect game to teach your dog to stay out of the trash can, and you've run into a very common problem. How to get your dog to understand not to get into things while you're not there.

Leaving something alone while you're not there can be very difficult for your dog to understand. It can even be difficult for human kids (see Stanford Marshmallow Experiment). You can build up to it, but you must do it slowly. You can build up in a couple of ways that can be done concurrently.

  1. Play IYC with higher-value objects (treats, toys, etc). Show your dog that no matter what the object is that he leaves, he'll be allowed access if he waits for your cue, and not allowed access if he tries for it himself.

  2. Work your way up to leaving the dog alone slowly starting with just turning around and turning your back on him. Eventually, you can start leaving the room for very short amounts of time.

In the meantime, I would recommend either putting the trash cans out of sight / reach or ensuring they are secured well enough that he can't get into it. Every time he gets into the trash can is a huge reward that teaches him he can get into the trash whenever you're not there.

Edit: Additional Tips

Controlling the environment is definitely the hardest part. Here are two ideas to help continue to control reinforcement even if your back is turned.

  1. Place the treat / trash can between you and your dog, but closer to you. Use a mirror or listen to find out if your dog tries for the reward. If he does, you should be able to turn around and cover the reward before he gets to it.

  2. Another game involves showing your dog a treat going into a bowl (you could use a trash can) and setting it down, but secretly taking the treat out. Your dog still thinks there's a treat in there, but if he fails, he doesn't get rewarded. Be sure to release your dog and discreetly toss the treat back in the bowl so he gets rewarded for good choices.

  • Thank you. I have some follow up questions: 1. I don't slap him hard enough to hurt, just barely enough to register. Is this harmful even so? 2. The method you suggested, I can't really work out how to control whether or not he gets the reward if my back is turned. How do I establish a link between waiting and reward if the reward is immediately available for not waiting? – Hamshine Sep 14 '14 at 9:09
  • Re 1: Any form of positive punishment has the potential to increase aggression in dogs. Here's one study, but I encourage you to seek out others. vet.osu.edu/assets/pdf/hospital/behavior/trainingArticle.pdf I've edited my answer to include two tips to help with controlling the environment. That's definitely the hardest part of positive training. – jeffaudio Sep 15 '14 at 15:59
  • You seem to be on the right track indeed! Just as a side note: "1. I don't slap him hard enough to hurt, just barely enough to register. Is this harmful even so?" Punishment is defined as punishment if your dog view it as such, in which case it hurts be definition. – Cedric H. Sep 15 '14 at 20:15
  • Cedric: As an expression of disapproval? Does that not count? jeff: thanks for the info! – Hamshine Sep 17 '14 at 9:25

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