Are You Rewarding the Wrong Behavior?
One of the only draw backs to positive reinforcement training that I have found is inadvertently rewarding the wrong behavior. With that said, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages and dogs who are not regularly use to positive reinforcement training still end up “training” their human counter parts!
Dogs are superior trainers! With very little effort, a dog will realize which behaviors get them what they want and which behaviors don’t get them anywhere. They are much better about analyzing behavior and reward principals than we are, and they are devoted to getting what they want out of life, no matter how long it takes them to convince us “dumb” humans what they need.
The problem therein lies that most of us “dumb” humans are too busy with the challenges of life to realize the naughty behaviors we are rewarding and that we are creating or enabling most of the problems we see in our dogs.
Dogs are nonverbal, they can’t come up to us and say “Hey! I’m hungry feed me!” or “Let’s play!” instead they use behaviors to convince us to do the things they want. They pick up their bowl and throw it, they bark in our faces, or whatever motivates us to do what they are asking. They are much better at picking up minute behavior cues!
What Can You Do?
First, analyze the behaviors you don’t like and figure out where your relationship is going wrong. Then you can determine what behavior you would like instead!
I once had a client who was trying to keep her dog off of the furniture. Her husband HATED the dog on the sofa, so I recommended that she only reward the dog when he was off of the furniture and on the floor. If he got on the sofa she was to calmly get him off, give a command to change his thought process, and then reward him for good behavior.
She called me one day totally frustrated because he was being good except in the morning when she was cooking breakfast. She described how her dog would peak at her from the floor in front of the sofa, make sure he had eye contact, then fly onto the sofa, almost immediately dismount (I give him a perfect 10.0), sit and then wait for her to give him a cookie.
She couldn’t figure out WHAT she was doing wrong! I told her that in this case her dog was by far the most adept trainer! He had figured out a behavior chain to get the reward he wanted. I could imagine him waiting impatiently to get the initial eye contact and then running through the gamete of behaviors until FINALLY (in his mind) he had earned his treat. She had to break it down and realize where her part of the scenario went awry.
In the dog’s mind, jumping on the sofa was part of what she wanted at least at this time of day. Why? Probably because he realized she was too busy to watch him and make sure he stayed off of the couch, however he noticed quite quickly that she immediately saw when he was on the sofa and then gave him attention (although negative) but when he did his dismount, he was rewarded with a treat!
We discussed ways to stop him prior to his jumping escapade. She could either encourage him to be in the kitchen, laying at her feet while she made breakfast, therefore PREVENTING his access to the sofa and the continuance of this behavior. Or, she could reward him BEFORE he leaped with joy onto the sofa. The moment he made eye contact or she noticed him sitting in front of the sofa she would reward with the commencement of a treat! This worked, because he still got what he wanted (the treat) except this time it was for a behavior that his owner wanted!
What Bad Behavior are You Rewarding?
When your dog drops a ball in your lap and barks in your face do you throw it? Does he bark when he wants to be fed? If so you are saying “Please bark in my face and DEMAND I jump into action and fulfill your needs!”
- Instead, immediately remove yourself from his company. Jump up and leave the room! Let him know, your barking makes me leave! Even if you have to shut yourself into a room for a moment or two until he quits do it! You will be telling him, when you are quiet I will spend time with you! Teaching him the “Quiet” command is helpful too!
Are you petting or even screaming at your dog when he jumps on you? Even negative behavior and punishment is attention!
- You may simply need to PREVENT the behavior by rewarding when their feet are on the ground and only when their feet are on the ground or using a tab leash and plucking them quietly and kindly off of you then rewarding when the feet hit the floor! Be careful, if your dog is ricocheting off of your body and then sitting like an angel…you may have inadvertently created a negative behavior change. Instead, wait for a few seconds after the jump, move a step or two any and then reward for four on the floor, MINUS the jump!
Even if you allow forward movement when your dog pulls on the leash, or barks at another dog while on leash, you are REWARDING the behavior. You are saying “I love when you pull me and/or bark while we walk!”
- Instead freeze and become immobile or change your direction!
Whatever the behavior that you want to fix, analyze what your dog is getting out of the situation so that you can change the dynamics to your favor. Sometimes you will have to reward a good behavior if it follows a bad behavior, but the key ingredient is rewarding that good behavior sans the bad behavior or you will be building that behavior change of destruction!
Decide what you want! As with any dog training, what behaviors you decide to reward is simply up to you and your situation! If the behavior is cute and you want to continue to see it…reward it and it will never go away. If you don’t like it, ignore it or change it!
Even silly things can be markers, one of my dogs scratches his collar and jingles his tags in the morning to wake me up so that I will get up and feed them. If I do (which obviously I have done in the past because he continues to do it) I will see the behavior show up earlier and earlier in the morning and probably at other times. Feeding time is on my schedule, so I lay in bed and ignore him for a few minutes until I am ready to get up!
Rewarding the wrong behavior is easy to do, we ALL do it! The important thing to remember is to bow down to their superiority as trainers, face it, they really are better than us in most instances. But, when you realize you are having a problem, analyze what happens at each chain in the behavior and figure out what they are getting from the behavior and how you might add to the reinforcement.
Once you can break things down and start thinking more like your canine companion, you will exceed the limits of training, because you are becoming more advanced and you will begin to realize exactly how to manipulate your friend to do what YOU want, while he still thinks HE is the one training YOU!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.