Why You Need to Focus on Reinforcing Your Dog’s Good Behaviors


NYC Dog Trainer Services & Dog Wellness | Elisabeth Weiss walking her dog Zeldi

Behaviors fulfill a purpose. Behaviors have consequences. A behavior that pays off will be worth repeating.

A couple of days ago I came across an advice column for parents in the Washington Post:

How to handle a 6-year-old who won’t take no for an answer

I was really excited by the explanations given there. If you have read any of my previous blog articles you will have noticed how I harp on inadvertently reinforced nuisance behaviors and the idea that attention is a great payoff for dogs. So, when a couple of sentences into the article I saw this sentence:

What is your child getting out of this back and forth? Every behavior serves a purpose. It is a useful exercise to sit back and say, “How does arguing serve my son?” The answer isn’t, “He likes to be annoying.”

I was rather amused!

I usually explain to clients that they should notice and pay attention to their dogs/puppies when they are “being good” or when they are “doing nothing”. This is usually met with a blank stare. If it’s all OK why reinforce it? My answer is that rewarded behaviors increase in frequency and if you ignore “good behavior” without reinforcing it, it will not really pay off for the dog. After all, doing nothing can be really boring. And then the dog decides to do something that will get him much needed attention, even if the quality of that attention might not be lovey dovey in nature.

Here’s some more from the article:

Another reason your son may be debating with you is that this is how he connects with you. Because connection and belonging are fundamental human needs (and even more so in children), a child can easily become accustomed to arguing as a form of connection. It sounds odd, but when there is strong eye contact and a raised voice, this feels normal. Even good! Even though you are annoyed, all of your attention is focused on him, and that is powerful stuff for a 6-year-old.

Bingo! Your dog is thinking: If that is the only way I can get my human’s attention, I will do this again! It works! You have just encouraged the dog to misbehave…

So, what should you do? Well, it depends on the problem. If you are over parenting and bossing your child around too much, take a look at where you can make more room for choices and enthusiastic yeses. In fact, I would recommend creating scenarios during which to say yes more. Six-year-olds are remarkably useful, smart and love real work.

In other words: Teach the dog behaviors that will get them approval from you! Instead of yelling at them for barking at you: show them that settling on the floor will get you to share table scraps with them. Instead of jumping up on you in delight when you come home, teach them to leap onto a chair, or get a toy to play tug or whatever seems fun enough for them but doesn’t rip your clothes.

If you feel that your son is mostly connecting with you through arguing, make a list of positive, fun ways you can connect with him. Anything will work: sports, card games, roughhousing, reading together, watching a movie, going on a hike, you name it. The point is that you laugh, be silly, smile and enjoy your son. Will this stop the arguing? No, but my hope is that it will lessen it.

If you find that most of your interactions with your dog are yelling “no” “stop that” “hey” or repeating his name in a disapproving tone of voice or any version of that kind of nebulous reprimand it’s time for playing, walking and training.

Need help applying positive reinforcement techniques for desired behavior?  Book a behavior consultation!

Elisabeth Weiss is a highly certified, experienced dog trainer in Manhattan, NYC. To learn more about dog training services, contact us by phone at (917) 783-1473 or our contact form.

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