He Knows Better!

Frustrated owners of young dogs might be heard to say,” Why is he doing that?  He knows better!”  How?  Has the dog been taught otherwise, and the situation went sideways?  Has the dog been punished for engaging in an undesirable behavior and chooses it anyway?

“Knowing better” implies that some moral thinking has influenced the dog’s choice.  Reminder:  dogs don’t make behavior choices via a moral compass.

Reinforcement Sticks

Dogs choose behaviors that have a history of gratifying outcomes.  If an activity is fun, it is likely to be repeated.  Fun, that is, for the dog.  It’s our responsibility to teach the dog our definitions of appropriate fun and set up to practice and reinforce those activities.

Lots of repetitions and reinforcement (that is meaningful to the dog!) are required for sufficiently training in habits.  When the dog makes an incorrect choice, “he knows better” translates to 1) insufficient training or 2) an over-threshold level of arousal, where the animal lacks presence of mind.

Our dogs are learning all the time.  Where is behavior reinforcement coming from?  Reinforcement can be intrinsic, such as urine marking.  It can be environmental, such as barking at passers-by who continue along their way.  Behavior reinforcement provided by the dog’s human is the best way to teach him which habits we wish to install.

Is It Safe Now?

When we reprimand or punish undesirable behaviors, those may decrease in frequency.  For a while.  When we are present.  Dogs, like all other species, work to avoid punishment.  The presence of a human is a contingency.  Training in “leave it” provides a tool to redirect AND teaches a skill.

Counter browsing is a good example.  If punishment has occurred, the dog might “know better” than to check out the counter when a human is in the kitchen.  Left alone in the kitchen, though, his innate opportunistic scavenger side emerges.  The punisher is gone, so it’s safe to browse. 

If the dog’s opportunity yields a delicious haul from the counter, he has enjoyed a huge payday for that behavior.  Regardless of human presence, the outcome is so highly gratifying that the risk is worth it.   For your dog, an interesting object that is accessible, is fair game.               

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC