For many of us, we bring a dog into our lives to have a truly meaningful relationship with him/her. One of the easiest ways to do this is to build a huge history of both positive reinforcement for wanted behaviours and a massive history of classical conditioning.
In case you are new to my blog, or to dog training, I”ll offer a brief description of both. Positive reinforcement is where we add (+/positive i.e the mathematical term) something to the dog’s environment which makes behaviours more likely to occur in the future (reinforcement). This is a scientific term, and this is the meaning of it.
Classical conditioning, is linking one thing, to another, through repetition. It is learning by association. You pick up your dog’s leash and go out for a walk. Over time, picking up the leash in itself, causes the dog to become excited as he has learned that this predicts a walk, you have classically conditioned the leash to the feeling of excitement of the walk. I’ve linked a fuller explanation here
Positive reinforcement is used to make behaviour more likely to occur in the future. Think of it as paying into an investment account, which will pay future dividends. I’ve also linked a previous blog for a fuller explanation of this
When your dog doesn’t respond how we would like, it is for three reasons. The first is that your reinforcers are not reinforcing enough. A piece of dried kibble or a short pat on the head might not be enough reinforcement for a recall in the presence of other dogs. The second is that you don’t have a sufficient reinforcement history (you haven’t practiced enough) or haven’t practiced enough in those specific circumstances. The third reason is that your dog is having an off day for whatever reason, much like some days we go into work or into the gym and can’t get out of second gear, it’s just not happening on that day.
Now, using classical conditioning (CC) we can build a great bond with our dog. I will talk about the science of it here rather than any deeper spiritual or emotional connection with your animal as that is a matter of opinion and belief (I do believe we can form deep emotional bonds with our dogs). When a dog eats a piece of food, her internal chemistry changes and she feels a release of feel good hormones. If we feed our dog, then over time, we will cause that release of feel good hormones. The dog will now feel good just being with us. Conversely, if you are unpredictable around your dog, or shout at him, you will classically condition fearful emotions in your dog. The more you feed your dog, the more classical conditioning occurs. Instead of feeding all of your dog’s food from a bowl, set a portion of that food aside. Take one piece, smile and tell her she’s a good girl and then give her the kibble. Do this with all of the portion, one piece at a time. The more you do, the quicker and stronger these CC ties build.
Find our what your dog likes. A game of tug or a belly rub might be his favourite. Spend time doing this. Take five or ten minutes of the day, to just do this, not for any other reason other than to do it and spend time with him (make sure he actually does enjoy it or you will be classically conditioning unpleasant feelings with you rather than pleasant ones). If you are petting your dog, it is good to use the five second rule. Pet your dog for five seconds, and hold your hands back. If she moves back in for more petting, continue. If she moves away, she’s not enjoying it in that moment. Just by spending time with your dog doing something you both enjoy, teaches your dog, through classical conditioning, that you are good to be around.
The added benefit of this is that you can now use your bond to reinforce behaviour. When your dog does something you like, tell him “Good boy” and smile. This now has more meaning than it did before. Your dog does something else you like, you tell her “good girl” and play a short game of tug or give her a short ear scratch or belly rub. Because you have spend time investing in your relationship, this short reinforcement can be hugely reinforcing because you have taught your dog what it actually means rather than being something you kind of do for good behaviours i.e the dog has a reinforcement history of the long game of tug or the big belly rub.
The same principle goes for our family and friends too. We need to invest time with them, showing we care about them so that when we aren’t able to, they still know it. If we aren’t able to reinforce our dogs when they do something we want them to do, we at least have a huge history of really good stuff to fall back on and the behaviour and our relationship remains strong.