In recent weeks, we have talked a lot about how dogs learn and the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in building trust. But what happens when we have a problem behavior that, despite our best efforts, will not go away?
First, we have to understand what is going on from the dog’s perspective. One of the big lessons I had to learn when we first started to take in numerous fosters was that dogs learn whether you are teaching them or not. They learn by the exact same methods as we use when employing positive reinforcement techniques. But what exactly does this mean?
Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. This came up yesterday while I was on our daily bike ride with Sully, who by the way, is now faster than an 18-speed bike in the lowest gear with me pedalling as fast as physically possible.
In order to make the ride safe and healthy for my boy, I make sure that I let him dictate when we go fast, when we slow down, and set the general pace for both. To accomplish this with minimal strain on me, I make use of the higher gears of the bike when needed.
So this is what used to happened when we were preparing to sprint, I have always said “ready……set………GO” and Sully is off like a banshee on the word “go”. But now, because keeping up with him requires me to drop the bike into the low gears, as soon as he hears the “click” of the gear shift, he takes off!
Fortunately, he listens well and learns very quickly, so a “not yet” is enough to slow him down and keep my butt on the bike!
The lesson here is a very important one to learn. It is, perhaps, even more, important to realize the implications for behavior issues that we have all dealt with at one time or another.
Anyone, and I mean anyone, who has worked with dogs has had a friend, acquaintance, or complete stranger ask them a question that went something like this…
“My dog Muffy just can’t learn to pee outside, she always goes in the house?” or
“Why does my Brutus always chew on my shoes as soon as I leave the house?” or
“why does [dog’s name] always do [unwanted behavior] even when I teach him to do it right?”
Barring some physical or mental issue, which does happen, but very rarely, the answer is always “you taught him/her that behavior, either directly or indirectly”. Put another way, the behavior is being reinforced, whether the owner knows it or not, by the environment(or owner).
Just like Sully learned to associate the “click” of the gears with an activity he loves, if a dog associates an activity(whatever it may be) with a positive outcome, then that behavior will become more and more prevalent.
So the first step when trying to fix a problematic behavior, and the advice I always give those that ask is to look at things through your dog’s eyes. What is reinforcing the behavior that you want to stop?
With that simple question we can figure out what is going on “behind the scenes” and formulate a plan to reinforce the behavior we want, instead of the one we don’t.