We are all at least somewhat familiar with the story that is playing out in these type of situations. It is a stereotyped role often found in the plot of Hollywood movies. Where the troubled kid is acting out because their rich parents don’t pay attention to them, or some form of that general story. I’ve also heard that this type of behavior is very common with special needs children(K2 is a special ed teacher). It boils down to the fact that any attention is seen as a positive thing in the eyes of the person(or dog) getting it and when they get attention, it is a very valuable, strong reinforcer for the behavior that got it for them.
Attention, for our dogs, is a particularly strong positive reinforcer. They have, literally, been bred to live alongside their humans while providing companionship, love, etc, so when that human throws attention their way, it’s like a 64oz porterhouse with a side of bacon-wrapped, peanut butter smeared, dog treats.
This is common sense to any dog owner you say? Of course, it is! But attention, is attention, is attention. So that means when your dog greets you after a long day of work by jumping and you push him away, you are giving him that uber high-value reinforcer he knows as ATTENTION! As a result, that behavior is being constantly reinforced every time you push, yell, or otherwise try to stop the jumping.
I hear many people complain that their dog doesn’t get it, he just does what he wants, etc, etc. I would bet that 95% of the time the problem is that the person(or their environment) is reinforcing the dog for the wrong behavior without even realizing they are doing it . This can also take many forms other than attention. The smell of something in the grass, the joy of ripping apart a toilet paper roll, etc, etc can all be very strong reinforcers.
Reinforcing the wrong behavior is the most difficult obstacle to overcome in pursuit of effective dog training. Mostly because we aren’t aware that we are doing something wrong and even when we learn, it is still hard to pinpoint our error until we sit down and really think about it with a critical eye.
Asking ourselves a series of questions can usually guide us to how the pup is being reinforced for the unwanted behavior.
“What is the dog doing”
“When/where is he doing it”
“What is reinforcing the behavior”
After a few trial and error sessions answering these questions, in as much detail as possible, we will, most likely, have a good idea of what needs to change so that we can start reinforcing the behavior we want instead of the problematic behavior we don’t!
In the meantime, one of the easiest ways to stop reinforcing unwanted behavior is to completely ignore it. Withhold your super high-value reinforcer(attention) by completely removing it. If your dog jumps on you when you get home, show him your back until he tries something else to get you to pay attention to him! If your dog pulls you down the street on walks, stop and pretend you are a tree. Don’t move again until he comes back to you and waits.
Attention can be a saboteur to training, but when used like any other tool, it can also be one of the most effective forms of reward available to us!