Very often dog guardians reach out to a trainer or behaviorist when something with their dog’s behavior goes awry. The neighbors complain about barking, the dog is still peeing and pooping inappropriately in the house when they should be house trained, the dog has bitten someone or has been destructive in other ways.
When I receive these inquiries I offer them a consultation. Why is that important and why don’t I just go and “fix” the dog? It is important for people to know that when it comes to changing their dog’s behavior, they have to change how they behave towards the dog.
Inadvertent reinforcement is a huge component of behavior problems. When we look at the root and reason for behaviors we inevitably see a sequence:
Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence
In other words: an Antecedent would be a circumstance that causes a Behavior to happen, what then follows would be a Consequence.To achieve Behavior Modification we have to change up the previously established chain of events to get different results as consequence.
Let’s say the dog jumps up! So the sequence could be:
A human appears at door.
B dog runs and jumps up to greet
C human wrestles with or pets dog while yelling “no” or “down”.
Consequence pays off for the dog in terms of intense attention from human.
What does the dog learn? ZIPPO! Will the dog stop jumping? No.
Not only will you be caught in a continuous loop of repetition but by practicing the behavior you are actually reinforcing the behavior albeit mostly inadvertently. As practice makes more perfect the dog will improve their jumping or barking, he will bark louder and jump higher and get even more excited with each opportunity to practice.
A human appears at door
B dog runs to human and wants to jump up
C human turns around and walks out again
This consequence is disappointing and surprising to the dog. The dog gets no attention. Not even a reprimand. After a few repetitions the dog will try something else and the human can now start to intervene and redirect the dog towards a behavior that the human can reinforce purposely, the result is that the dog learns to offer this new behavior happily and voluntarily because it truly pays off for them.
In my consultations I am able to teach clients how to think differently about how they interact with their dog and make them aware of what they may be doing to reinforce the unwanted behavior. I can intervene and change the behavior of their dogs before their own eyes. Yes, of course it helps a lot if I come and practice basic behaviors with the dog like sit/stay/go to bed and walk on a loose leash etc. to fluency… this will teach the dog to take cues from the environment and circumstances to help make them self confident and thinking dogs. But if the humans who live with the dogs don’t understand how much our canine companions love to please us and how they can stimulate and reward them for “guessing” right, the chances are they will not learn to avoid the pitfalls of inadvertent reinforcement.