3 min read: We moved house and my 4-year-old dog Eddie developed a very annoying habit. He started to eat the mail. I would return from work to find that he had shredded the mail into lots of pieces. He had never done this in our old house and I was puzzled as to why the new house would have prompted this new and annoying behaviour.
On the first few occurrences, I responded by yelling at him when I returned from work, waving the shredded paper about and sending him to his bed. This made no difference.
Next, I invested in a mail cage to go on the back of the letter box to stop him reaching the mail. However, being a super intelligent cocker spaniel, he worked out how to open the catch and reach the mail!! So, I then wired the catch shut with garden wire and he chewed through the wire each day on a mission to get his coveted prize.
I decided to tackle this behaviour during my week off and went down the route of using punishment. I waited patiently by the door for the postman and when Eddie ran to the mail cage I yelled out “Bad boy!” at the top of my voice. He jumped in shock and ran to hide. I did the same routine each day and eventually when the letter box rattled, he just looked at me and walked away to climb into his basket.
“I’ve cracked it!” I thought, as I smugly set off for work the following week. So imagine my disappointment when I came home later that day to find the mail shredded into even smaller pieces than he had ever shredded it before!
It was at that point I realised I was the problem, not the dog. Eddie was bored. He was finding the different puzzles I was giving him each day stimulating and the rattle of the letter box was the prompt that signalled the fun was about to begin, with the prize of making confetti out of the mail.
The solution? I changed his routine. Instead of a short walk in the morning and a long one at lunch time, I took Eddie on a long walk each morning to tire him out. I also sneaked a chew bone in the mail cage. This meant he was often sleeping when the postman arrived and didn’t hear the letter box, but if he did wake, he found a chew bone in the cage and ate that, which he obviously found much tastier than the mail.
Using punishment to stop behaviour is a flawed approach as it only works when the punisher is present in the environment (me being in the house on my days off), with the behaviour resuming when the punisher is absent (me going out to work). The use of punishment often leads to revenge behaviour, which in this case was even tinier pieces of shredded mail.
Instead, providing reinforcement for an incompatible behaviour (chewing a dog treat instead of chewing the mail) replaced an undesirable behaviour with a desirable one.
If you are interested in learning more about changing animal behaviour, we recommend the book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor.