15 December 2008

Unintentional Reinforcement

Can your dog count? Why yes, she can! Think of the times you have asked your dog to do something and it takes three or four times before they actually do what you have asked. Is your dog stupid or stubborn? Probably not. Can your dog count, absolutely yes! Whether you know it or not, you have very effectively taught your pooch to do exactly what you want.

All animal training is based on reinforcement – intentional or unintentional. Unintentional reinforcement occurs when you unknowingly reward or reinforce a behavior that is undesirable. Most people do this with the very best intentions and do not realize they are telling their dog to do exactly the opposite of what they want it to do. For example, if you give your dog two commands and reinforce the dog's obedience to the second command you have taught her to be disobedient to the first command. Eventually, you begin reinforcing the third and then the fourth command and before long you have unintentionally created the incredible counting canine.

Does this sound like something you have experienced? The mail person rings your doorbell and you tell pooch to STAY while you open the front door. You chat with the postal carrier and pooch decides to wander off from the STAY. If you ignore pooch, you have just unintentionally reinforced that STAY means wait a minute and then get up and walk around. To help your training be more successful, you need to become much more specific with your commands and be correct your dog every single time she does something you haven't asked her and don't want her to do.

Do you have a more timid dog? If so, you may all ready be an expert at unintentional reinforcement. Imagine a new situation where your do is shy or tentative about the activities around you and as a caring person, you reach down with a gentle stroking and soothingly say "It's okay, sweetie. Good poochie." Your dog understands your stroking and gentle voice quality to mean, "Great job! You are doing just what I want you to do! I love it when you are shy and timid!" In an instant, you have reinforced the shy, timid behavior that you were hoping to discourage.

The same thing applies to aggressive dogs. While walking your dog a person approaches and your dog is unsure of himself and may raise hackles or start growling. The owner reaches down and strokes the dog talking in soothing tones. Just like the shy, timid dog, this dog now knows that hackles and growling are good and that you like when they treat strangers that way.

Barking dogs can be unintentionally reinforced too. The dog is in the yard, barking and yapping up a storm and you bring him into the house so the neighbors don’t complain. Bingo, you have just taught the dog that barking will get them inside. Or how about this? Your dog is barking wildly in the yard and out of your mouth comes a scream worthy of a fishmonger telling the dog, "SHUT UP!" Weird isn’t it? Even an angry screaming from a distant window can you’re your dog that is exactly what you desire. Lonely dogs, starving for attention even welcome the horrible harsh corrections that their owners may dole out.

Eliminating Unintentional Reinforcement
As with most things, the first step to eliminating any unwanted behavior is to recognize that it is occurring. If you keep a chart for one week to track the dog's behaviors you can quickly see any patterns that are developing. For the first half of the tracking week, tally the number of times the behavior you wish to eliminate occurs. Do not make any changes during this initial time period; just track the behaviors. For the second half of the week, correct the behavior in your usual fashion and keep track of the number of times the behavior occurs. Here's where you’ll learn how to tell if your actions are correcting or reinforcing the behaviors. If the frequency of the "problem" does not noticeably reduce by your action, then you are not correcting the behavior. If the frequency of the "problem" is increased by your action/correction then the action is reinforcing the behavior.

The next thing you need to accomplish is effectively correcting or changing the unwanted behavior. Reinforced behavior will increase and behaviors that are not reinforced will decrease and eventually disappear. Each time your dog presents you with the problem behavior use it as an opportunity to train the behavior you desire. This method will also show you areas that you and your dog need to work on. If you use good leadership skills and pack management in conjunction with positive reinforcement training you should be able to create a happy and productive working relationship with your dog.

Remember to be consistent with your companions, they like it. If you SAY IT, MEAN IT. If you MEAN IT, ENFORCE IT. Always PRAISE for doing something right.


Looking for dog training assistance in the Twin Cities area? Contact me, I would love to help.

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