As I was walking the little lady to school this morning, I had a brief panic attack when I couldn’t remember whether or not I locked the sliding glass door into the backyard. This has only recently become an issue because Sully is tall enough to slide the door open! This wouldn’t be bad in and of itself, but Mama Coral has some separation anxiety and will break through the side gate to get to us! Needless to say, this is a bad state of affairs and one that I will avoid like the plague.
Turns out that I didn’t lock the door, but, what really struck me, was that Sully had not opened the door. It got me to thinking about operant conditioning and why he stopped the behavior.
The Basics of Behavior
For a quick refresher the folks at www.dogsnharmony.com made this outstanding infographic:
So why didn’t he open the door?
I found out(the hard way) about this behavior around 2 months ago. We had to run some errands and when we pulled up to the house, ALL FOUR DOGS WERE OUT! I nearly had an aneurysm at the same moment when my brain froze because I could not comprehend how they did it. I always shut the house up when we leave, “dog-proofing” we call it, but they somehow got out and Mama broke through the fence, allowing the rest to follow. After corralling everyone and getting them inside, I found that they had opened the sliding glass door somehow.
It took a few days for me to ascertain how they accomplished their Houdini act. I was cutting the grass in the backyard, which meant all the dogs were inside(they like to try and eat the trimmer) and, suddenly, I look up to see Sully staring at me from the middle of the yard.
I ask him “How the hell did you get out here?” since no one was home to let him out. He didn’t answer(:P). But the truth revealed itself when I put him back in the house and shut the door. As I was walking away, I hear the door start to open. I spin around to see Sully using his nose to slide it!
Of course, I started to lock this door religiously after that first experience. I was 100% from then until today.
That means that every morning at 9am and noon, I walk to get the little lady from school, leaving the dogs home alone. So, somewhere along the line, after trying each time we left, Sully decided that he never got the reward(going outside) when he practiced the behavior(trying to open the door). Whenever this happened, he no longer tried to open it when we left, which is why it was still closed when I came home today even though it was unlocked!
So how did he “unlearn” this behavior
It’s vital to understand the mechanics behind learning. This information helps us to understand our dogs and why they do the things they do. I also think this is a fun, real-world, case study that shows(really well) how dogs will learn/unlearn behavior with or without us there to guide them. Have a look at the graphic above and see if you can figure out what method caused Sully to unlearn the behavior!