Dogs repeat behaviors that result in gratification for them. These behaviors work! Unlike humans, dogs do not outgrow behaviors, but rather grow into them. Owners often inadvertently reinforce undesirable behaviors. Reinforcement makes any behavior stronger. The manner in which you respond to your dog’s behaviors determines whether good or bad habits will prevail.
Dogs do what they do for a reason. For them, certain behaviors have predictable outcomes. When a specific behavior produces no or an undesirable outcome, it is discarded and replaced with another behavior that yields different results. This is especially true in puppies and adolescent dogs.
Young dogs engage in many different behaviors. This is a good situation, because it provides lots of opportunities to reward behaviors that owners want in the dog’s repertoire. Behaviors may be reinforced, redirected, or ignored. Kneel down, clap your hands, and say, “here, puppy”. The puppy comes to you, and you give her a treat. The addition of the treat reinforces the puppy’s coming to you when you clap your hands. Repeating this exercise over several days results in your puppy’s prompt response when you say, “here, puppy”. You are building a reward history, which makes the response stronger.
Puppies and young dogs explore the world with their mouths. When the puppy chews on an inappropriate object, the best response is to interrupt this behavior (“ah-ah”) and redirect the puppy to one of her chews or toys. Offering your dog’s meal in a food-dispensing toy helps him develop heathy, non-destructive chewing preferences.
Dogs must have our attention in order to obtain other resources that they need and want. They can be very effective in training us, if we aren’t aware! They try different behaviors to achieve this: jumping, stealing objects, barking, mouthing, batting with their paws, etc…. Ignoring these undesirable attempts sets the dog up to try a different behavior. Bear in mind that simple eye contact is a signal to your dog that you are engaged with him. He has your attention. As counter intuitive as it is, avoid making eye contact when your dog is attempting to obtain your attention with undesirable behaviors. Any approximation of an acceptable attention-seeking behavior may be reinforced. For example, your dog is jumping. Go about your business, avoiding eye contact. When she lands with four feet on the floor, count to five, and make eye contact. Calmly and briefly speak to her. Chances are good that she is bored and looking for something to keep her busy. Play for several minutes and give her a chew to occupy her in a constructive way.
Leadership and the Role of Resources
All dogs start scoping out the environment, i.e. your home, very shortly after arrival. They are assessing the availability of resources and who has priority access to them. Resources are necessary for survival and enjoyment of life. Here are some examples of resources from your dog’s perspective: food, access to physical space (indoors and outdoors), human attention, access to comfy resting spots,( including the furniture), toys and chews, petting, and opportunities to play.
Access to food and physical space, and obtaining your attention sit high on the dog’s reward hierarchy. The dog must first get our attention before anything else is obtainable. Depending on the dog and the situation, access to space may be more motivating than food. Dogs pull on leash, in part, because they haven’t yet learned to tolerate frustration and delayed gratification. This lack of emotional moderation is on display in many other contexts. These important areas are front and center in a behavior-based training program.
When you control the accessibility of resources to your dog via training, you begin to teach him that patience and deference work best to obtain want he needs and wants. By setting boundaries and teaching compliance, dogs learn calm, respectful behaviors. This structure maintains harmony in any social group. As a benevolent leader, you can delay delivery of what your dog wants pending requested behaviors. Dogs thrive in a structured environment, where predictability exists. When the human remains calm, it is much easier for the dog to be calm.
Your dog can learn to earn resources, if you ask something of her before granting her access. Consider this practice as her “job”. Give your dog a compelling reason to pay attention to you. Ask your dog to lie down and wait before giving him his food or opening the outside door. Many puppies and adult dogs become aroused very quickly and overstep boundaries. Set up for success and train in alternative behaviors. Attach a leash or drag line, because it can be helpful in managing over threshold behavior. There is no drama. Simply pick up the leash and ask for a learned cue. Help your too-excited dog regain his composure and ability to process what you have taught him. Life with the dog is better when there is a balance between enthusiasm and self-control.
Clear Communication – Signals and Feedback
All communication involves signals and feedback. The trick is to learn and use signals and feedback that are clear and relevant to your dog. Remember that dogs do what works for them. There is no human-like executive function in their thinking and no moral compass. Dogs are not verbal. We humans often just talk too much to the dog with the expectation that they process words like a child. They are experts at “reading” our signals! They know what we are going to do before we do it, because that’s how they have survived through the millennia. Depending on your responses, i.e. your feedback to your dog, behaviors that work and become relevant, stay. Behaviors that bring no gratification, don’t work, so the dog discards them . Puppies and adolescents experiment with behaviors to determine which ones are fun and gratifying. Our feedback (our response to them) plays a key role in setting up these habits-to-be.
Reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to increase. The timing of your response, i.e. .5-3 seconds, determines whether your dog is likely to repeat the behavior or try another one. Access to resources functions as a way to reinforce your dog’s desirable behaviors: he must figure out what he must do in order to obtain what he wants. Punishment makes a behavior more likely to decrease. Removal or denial of something your dog wants functions as a punishment for undesirable behaviors. She must figure out what different behavior will result in access to what she wants and learn that the undesirable behavior doesn’t work.
Training goals are: developing a reward history for desirable behaviors, which become your dog’s habits and generalizing and maintaining those behaviors within all contexts. The visual and verbal signals you give must be clear. When your dog responds to your signals, he needs feedback. Is the response correct? Reward and no reward markers provide this critical feedback. The clicker is a clear reward marker. The behavior is marked by the sound of the clicker and followed up with a treat. Verbal reward markers, such as “good” or “yes” can work well, too. No reward markers, such as “pfui” or “try again” indicate to your dog that his response was incorrect. No treat this time. Try a different behavior.
Confusion is unsettling and inhibits focus and learning. So, be clear in your communications. Food lures, physical signals and simple words reduce stress and facilitate learning. Make is easy and fun for your dog to figure out which behaviors work for him to earn the treat. Over time, food lures and super high value reinforcements are faded. The dog complies with trained cues that are reinforced with real-life rewards. Habits have been installed. Randomly reinforced behaviors increase in frequency. Your dog responds, because there might be a “payoff” this time.
Socialization and Counter Conditioning
Puppies have a short developmental window for socialization. By four months of age, a puppy has formed an opinion of other dogs, unfamiliar people, and new places and situations. Socialization is a series of deliberate interactions and exposures. It is not a large get-together “to meet the new puppy” or trips to the dog park. These are set-ups to overwhelm your puppy and/or expose him to negative experiences. These practices can backfire and be harmful. Adolescent dogs have a second growth phase where they are hyper-aware of stimuli and can develop fear of them. Do not force your dog into a scary situation. If he is balking or backing up, respect his clear fear signals. You can either try to “jolly” him past the scary situation or work only within his threshold distances and timeframes to reduce stress. Find a place where he can tolerate the situation and reward his calm, relaxed behavior. Be patient and allow your dog to emotionally unpack what is happening around him. The landscape may look routine to us, but not to him.
It’s best to introduce your puppy or rehomed dog to one or two people at a time. Include lots of smiles, soft voices, and treats. Your puppy’s play dates should always be fun experiences, i.e. with other puppies you know or in a puppy class where play is closely monitored by the trainer. Early interactions and exposure should be brief. All animals have threshold distances and timeframes.
Counter-conditioning and remedial socialization programs may be needed. A counter-conditioning program is intended to change your dog’s conditioned emotional response to certain stimuli from a fearful to a relaxed internal state. In doing this, you change her ability to behave differently in the presence of that stimuli. Remedial socialization is a gradual catch up in that process to reduce stress to unfamiliar stimuli.
Using Resources to Motivate
You can use resources to motivate your dog to be attentive, compliant, and respectful. Every time you give your dog access to her “good stuff” (access to space, food, toys, belly rubs, opportunities to interact with other dogs, go out for a walk….or other real-life rewards), ask her to sit, lie down, or come when called. This practice creates many opportunities to establish an extensive reward history for great behaviors. Dogs thrive on structure and the mental engagement of figuring out what they must do to “make” you throw the ball or gain access to a favorite chew.
A word about motivation….. Individual dogs are motivated in various ways within different environments. Sometimes they don’t comply as expected. This is not your dog being stubborn. There are many behavior-related reasons that dogs don’t comply when asked or expected, and stubborn is rarely the case. It is more likely to be that the behavior is insufficiently trained in, not generalized (dogs don’t do this well), hasn’t been maintained, or that the dog is highly distracted and/or anxious about his surrounding and can’t (not won’t!) process what you are asking of him.
Give your dog the benefit of the doubt. If you are waving a bite of steak in his face, and sitting is too much to ask in that moment, there are other factors at work. Not stubborn…
© 2019 Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC