What Is Inadvertent Reinforcement?

I always think that the best way to “train” a puppy is by reinforcing them in time. Of course, that requires us humans to be mindful enough to notice and observe our dogs just as they observe us.

So often, I hear people say that their dog has trained them well! And yes, in a way, that is true because dogs observe us with attention to the tiniest details in our behavior with amazing accuracy. Every movement, every sound, every action, and its consequence is registered by them.

We humans, on the other hand – not so much. We are preoccupied with ourselves and somehow less concerned with our own responses. Or, better put: We do not necessarily think through what our responses tell our dog.

That leads me to the concept of “inadvertent” reinforcement.

Let’s say your dog is happy to see you and greets you by jumping up. Your natural reaction might be to pat them as their front paws are up on your lap. Although when you have guests arriving, you are not pleased that your puppy is greeting them with the same behavior. You then either reprimand them or ask yourself why the puppy is jumping on your guest and how you can “correct” that behavior. Well, the first step is to realize that you have reinforced that behavior yourself.

In addition to that more obvious kind of physical reinforcement, keep in mind that dogs find all kinds of other – perhaps more subtle reactions – reinforcing. Those include, for example: commenting or laughing!

Some might find it astonishing that reprimands and corrections actually give the dog a tremendous amount of reinforcement from you and are often much more intense in nature than praise. Since they have no idea why exactly you get so animated and intense, and if that is usually the biggest reaction they get out of you; they will do it again and again. The human then tends to label the dog “stubborn” or “incorrigible” without realizing that they themselves are encouraging the unwanted behavior.

Good dog training is all about being mindful and thinking from the dog’s point of view! You can best “help” them by making it more obvious how to choose the behaviors that get the reinforcement they crave. Ask yourself if you are as focused on your pup’s behaviors as they are on yours! Observe them in order to reinforce them successfully. Then they will gladly play along with you.

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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