How many times have you encountered in a dog, or have seen in your own, behaviors that have been positively reinforced, even though reinforcement was either not intended, or the exact opposite (punishment) was the expected outcome? It happens *ALL* the time and in a great number of different circumstances. Dogs are very tuned into us humans and almost constantly looking to us for cues, so it makes sense that some behaviors we’d rather not see more of end up reinforced- especially if we aren’t aware of all the things dogs may find reinforcing.
Let’s use Hazel as a case study. When Hazel first came to live with us, she had mange. She was constantly itchy and shedding skin. It felt really good to her to rub herself on any surface she could. She developed this habit, which seemed endearing at first, in which she would ever so gently hop up into your lap and start rolling her head around. It clearly felt good, we allowed it, head rolling in lap behavior increased. But, she would often get herself quite worked up and start nipping at hands and/or shirtsleeves. Since I was not keen on a dog who enjoyed biting people even as part of play, I would give a warning cue (“Hazel, no nipping.”), remove my hands, wait 5 seconds and bring my hands back. If she continued using her mouth, I gave the cue “Game Over” and would quietly walk her to the bedroom. For me, it only took about 5 repetitions of these time-outs for the behavior to stop. For Paul, following through on the time-outs was more labor intensive (and seemingly more punishing as a human than being nipped at!) and so he wasn’t as quick to try to stop the behavior. Consequently, Hazel would get more worked up and when he eventually gave the “Game Over” cue and got up, she would go along with it, but not without nipping at his tee shirts along the way (he still has these shirts to prove it!).
Another case in point: my buddy Marlowe, pictured above. Marlowe developed this “habit” of nipping people ever so gently if they turned their backs or went to exit a room. Sometimes if he was excited he’d lope up behind someone and give them a little nip. It was never painful (I received one) and resulted in more of an “Oh!” sound from people than an “Ow!”. And, almost inevitably, people would start chuckling. He’d be called a silly boy, and smiled at. Well, guess what happened? Nipping behavior increased. Never in intensity, just in frequency. It was becoming a problem, though one that mom and dad admitted to being guilty of thinking was funny. But, we devised a plan- a very simple plan: if Marlowe nipped, the person was to simply say nothing, not react or engage with Marlowe and keep moving. Nipping behavior decreased almost immediately. Within a week, it was gone completely. It took some dedication on the part of the humans to stay the course and not give in to the urge to laugh, but the less laughs he got, the less nipping he did. There was no initial attempt on the humans part to punish the behavior in any way, but, and here’s the important part- there was no intent to reinforce it, either. But, reinforcement happened. Marlowe found happy, laughing humans reinforcing, as many dogs do. When they weren’t engaging with him in that way anymore, the behavior went away.
There are so many other behaviors we reinforce without intending to.
-Using our hands to push away a jumping dog. To a dog, this can actually mean “Oh, she’s engaging with me, what fun!”- even while we are saying, yelling or shouting “No jumping!”
-Acknowledging begging at the dinner table, even by something as simple as eye contact. This is the simplest form of engagement and can be enough to convince a dog to stick around.
-Putting a harness or leash on a dog while they are fidgeting, which makes it more difficult and can start walks off on a not-so-great start, because you’ve got an amped up dog before you even walk out the front door.
-Exuberant crotch sniffing, which, like the butt nipping mentioned above, can cause a surprised noise from a human and often an embarrassed giggle.
-The Almighty Bark. Ever yelled while your dog is barking? He could think you are barking right along with him.
So, how do we stop these behaviors? The answer is simple. Punishment. Of the non-violent type, of course. Negative punishment. Yep, that’s right. P-, the removal of the opportunity to earn reinforcement. Nothing scary, nothing harmful and if executed properly, a decrease in behavior generally happens pretty quickly. 12-20 reps might not seem very quick to some, but for a dog with an entrenched history of reinforcement for jumping? That’s pretty darn good. The catch is this: we are talking about changing the behavior of not one, but two species. Us humans often have to develop a new way of interacting with our dogs and be very aware of our own actions throughout the process and our dogs often have a bit of a learning curve which can involve extinction bursts, in which behavior temporarily goes up before it goes down. This can be tough on humans, but worth putting the legwork into and soldiering on.
There is *another* answer, as well. The dog trainer’s friend: The DRI (Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior or what I like to call “Do this instead of that”), and in many cases, this can be the go-to option. Replace a shirtsleeve with a toy, ask for a sit to head off a jump or crotch inspection, teach a down-stay to be used at times like human meal time, maintain a sit for the leash-harness to be put on, you get the picture. Here’s a post that focuses on the power of the DRI: http://www.yourpitbullandyou.com/dri-the-dog-trainers-friend/
The bottom line is that many of the behaviors we consider to be problem behaviors are just part of the dog genome. They come with the package. So often, we expect dogs to just “get it” or “know” what we want from them and they simply have no clue. Or, we might be reinforcing something we don’t mean to. Or, we might be thinking we are punishing something and we are not. Reinforcement and punishment are defined by the animal, despite our grandiose thinking as humans.
Take Oliver for example. Here he is, sitting in a chair in a salon. Seeming to enjoy it very much. I’m willing to bet this shot came along with lots of human laughter, treats and/ or lots of happy talk from humans. He looks pretty relaxed and happy.
We can guess he found those things reinforcing, but only if the behavior goes up. We’ll have to wait until his next visit to the salon to see if that’s the case!
The take-away? Pay attention to your own behavior for a week or so and see if there are behaviors you accidentally reinforce.
You might be surprised! And we’d love to hear any examples from your own lives and how you have dealt with them.