It’s all (well mostly) about reinforcement

Sorry it’s been a while since my last blog. I asked a question on my Facebook page the other day.( What is the single biggest issue you have with your dog? On looking through the answers, there was a common theme about trying to eliminate unwanted behaviours. I’ll address some of the issues as best as I can. When dealing with any dog behaviour/training issue, it’s always absolutely essential that we have at least a basic understanding of reinforcement. Reinforcement simply means that the behaviour is likely to reoccur. If behaviours are reinforced, they will continue. If they aren’t reinforced they won’t. Here I’m only going to address reinforcement. Punishment (the scientific term) is the is about reducing behaviour. Behaviours which are not reinforced will go away. If the dog continues to do the behaviour you don’t want, he is still being reinforced on some level for doing that behaviour, or has a sufficiently long reinforcement history for that behaviour that he’ll continue to keep doing it, with the hope of accessing reinforcement.

If your dog doesn’t have access to reinforcers, he can’t be reinforced for the behaviour which allows him access to it. If the behaviour isn’t reinforced, your dog will stop the behaviour. This may take time, depending on your dog’s history of being reinforced for that behaviour. One of the sometimes frustrating rules of learning is that behaviours which are randomly reinforced, are resistant to extinction i.e they won’t go away. Think of it like a fruit machine at a casino. They pay out randomly to keep you playing. So if your dog has had a history of being reinforced for jumping on people, and you now try to stop it, but your dog is successful on average one time in fifty, this may be enough to motivate your dog to keep trying because sometimes it pays off. Sometimes dogs will work for one chance in twenty, others one time in one hundred, it depends on the dog.

So, to address some of the issues which came up. These are general points designed to illustrate principles of learning and aren’t exhaustive.

1. Jumping. Dogs find attention reinforcing. When a dog jumps, people will generally talk to (shout at), touch (pull) and look at the dog or a combination of the three. The three things which have occurred, are reinforcing to the dog, he now knows jumping gets a reaction and will do it again the next time. If you are still doing these things time and again, and your dog is still jumping up on people, what you are doing isn’t working and we need to try something else. Dogs I work with often jump on me on greeting them the first time. The client generally does a combination of the above. The first thing I ask them to do is just to ignore the dog. If the dog is on leash, I talk a step back, so I’m out of range (the dog can’t touch me) I don’t give eye contact and the dog isn’t reinforced. As soon as the dog stops jumping, or trying to jump on me, I reinforce the “four on the floor” with attention, praise, treats etc. The other technique I use very often is to stand on the leash. I use 6′ leashes for training. This is a good length for a number of things. What it allows me to do here is to drop the leash towards the ground while still holding it in a relaxed manner, and stand on it. I’m not pinning the dog to the ground here, there is still slack so the dog can sit or stand comfortably, but what he can’t to is jump. I’m stopping him from jumping, so he cant be reinforced for it, and behaviours which aren’t reinforced will go away. In this instance, I’d also combine reinforcing the wanted behaviour, four on the floor. this way the dog learns the jumping doesn’t work but four on the floor does.

This can be done for dogs jumping on visitors. Have the dog on a leash when they come in. Calm behaviour allows access to visitors, excited, jumping behaviour doesn’t. If the dog is calm and you release her to say hello and she jumps, you take her back to where she doesn’t have access. Consistency is the key. Remember the rule of random pay off.

2. Barking and growling at kids, visitors, strangers, men, other dogs, cyclists, skateboards. Again, this is a general description based on your dog being fearful/anxious of these things. Give the dog enough distance that he feels safe (generally, the distance that he isn’t reacting). Give him tasty treats or throw a toy for him. Generally, what happens here is that your dog feels scared/anxious and has learned that barking/lunging/growling causes the scary thing to go away. The dog doesn’t realise that the scary thing is likely to go away anyway. What we want to do is keep the dog feeling safe and make him feel better about the scary thing. overtime, we can decrease the distance as the dog feels better about the scary thing. Another approach is to kong train your dog. Every time a visitor arrives, you give the dog a “super” kong filled with the best food. Allow the dog to take this where he wants. He will make the association of visitors coming in with the kong coming out. Make sure the visitor comes in first and don’t give this “super” kong any other time.

3. Attacking the mail. Management can solve this. An external post box means the dog can’t access the mail, can’t attack it, so can’t be reinforced. A basket which the mail falls into helps also. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most easiest.

Ian Dunbar tells a story of being asked how to stop a Yorkshire Terrier from messing on the bed by a woman at a seminar years ago. He asked her how long this had been going on, to which she told him “every day for 9 years”. He told her to shut the bedroom door. She was delighted. If we stop access to reinforcers, we stop behaviour. Management should always be our first step in training or behaviour modification. This is because it’s easy with some thought and imagination, least aversive for the dog, allows the dog to think, and therefor allows the dog to learn.

If your dog is doing something you don’t like, think about what she is being reinforced with. The more we understand this, the more successful we will be and the more successful our relationship with our dog will be.

I’ll address some problems with recall next week.