Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Is Your Dog Learning?

What are you teaching your dog?  

Whether you wish to do so or not, you are teaching your dog  every minute of every day. Below are two examples of how easily this can occur without our even being aware of it, followed by an example of how to reinforce a desired behavior.

Breakfast Time!

Pup is in his crate. He hears you stir and begins to whine and paw at his crate door. You walk straight over to the crate and open the door. The pup comes blasting out, dancing and leaping in the air. You let him outside while you prepare his breakfast. He does his business, and then he hears the sound of kibble falling into his bowl. He runs to the back door and begins to bark excitedly and scratch at the door to be let in.

You have not had your coffee and really want some QUIET so you open the door to stop the scratching and barking. The pup blasts in and begins to leap about with excitement. Jump, jump, jump! You tell him “Down, down, down”.

He pauses for a nanosecond, then resumes jumping, this time managing to rake your bare leg in the process. OUCH! Here, eat! You begin to lower the bowl. Simultaneously, the pup jumps up,  catching the rim of the bowl with his paws, flipping the bowl and its contents to the floor. He then races around the kitchen snarfing and chasing the food. Fun, fun, fun.

Okay-let's review. What did I teach my dog?

(Yes, this was me, I am sad to confess)

Dog hears me stir---he whines/paws at crate door---whining =  CRATE DOOR OPENS!!! Happy Happy!!! Run! Running feels GOOD!!

Dog hears sound of food being poured into bowl--- begins to scratch/bark/paw at door---scratching/barking/pawing = DOOR OPENS!!! Happy!!!Food!! Jumping is FUN!!

Dog sees/smells food---Jump/jump/jump/paw at legs of human---Jumping/pawing legs = FOOD EVERYWHERE!!!!! Oh, man, this is the best EVER!!! I love to eat!!!

How many behaviors did I reinforce without meaning to? I am not the only one to become blinded by the moment. Here is a scenario that is likely happening right now, in homes all across the country.

The Family Pet

You have just brought your sweet, chunky, squishy lab puppy home. Look at him-he is so cute! Look at him run! Oh…he wants to be picked up! Come here you sweet boy! Kiss kiss kiss. Who’s my little boy!? Kids, don't fight over who gets to hold the puppy! Take turns!

Six months later:

Get DOWN! I don’t know why he jumps on people-I have tried everything (which really means strongly protesting each time he jumps up, sometimes in combination with pushing him off).  I have got to get this dog into a training class. I just don't have the time or money right now. Maybe he will calm down as he gets older...

The dog's perspective:
For the past four months whenever he ran on his cute, clumsy, chubby little legs to a human, that person immediately bent down and picked this sweet, kissy puppy up, laughing as he licked and squirmed, all while speaking baby talk to him.

Now the rules have changed. But having no other tools in his greeting toolbox, he will likely try even harder to get the only results he knows and has been so richly rewarded with.

Pushing him and shouting "down" have no meaning in his world-"My human is making weird noises again! Oh, she wants to play! Fun times! But it makes me a little anxious, too, this new game. I may just mouth a little bit, while I am jumping. Let's REALLY play".

The children soon tire of being nipped and mouthed and jumped upon. Mom is busy and so outside the pup goes, to the "perfect for a dog!" back yard that has not been puppy-proofed in the slightest.

Now he is all alone in the back yard, a very unnatural state for a pup. In fact, a potentially dangerous state for a young dog to be in, if he were in the wild. Evolution has very nicely provided a solution for a dog who finds himself alone; he begins to bark and howl for his siblings and parents to come and find him. Eventually he tires of barking and finds something to chew on...ahhhh...that feels better. Maybe a nice dig in the dirt while I am at it, too.

At some point in the day, mom thinks to check on the pup-but what's this? He has chewed my flowers! Oh NO! He has dug up every one of my spring bulbs. That DOG. Why is he so BAD?

She lets him back inside-he is so ramped up and excited to be back with his family that he rockets around the room, crashing into tables and knocking the lamps over with his wildly swinging tail. The children had been quietly playing, wrapping doll's limbs in toilet-paper bandages and placing them carefully in the 'hospital' located under an end table. The dog, in his excitement, grabs a doll which was recuperating with two broken legs. The children howl in protest and begin to chase the young dog (FUN!!! A game of CHASE!!!) Mommmm!!! He has my DOLL! Her legs are broken!! Does he have to be in here?!  

Are you starting to see how behavior problems are born, and then maintained? Much easier to see when you are not a participant, aren't they? We must teach ourselves to be aware of what we are reinforcing, every minute of every day. It's not easy!

But it does get easier.

What TO do, then?

Let me say first that it is much, much easier to prevent unwanted behavior by setting clear rules and being consistent. Does this mean that you can't go back and fix a behavior problem? Not at all! But first we must talk about extinction bursts.

Extinction bursts

The usual example of an extinction burst is the soda machine analogy. You walk over to the machine, feed your dollar bills into the slot, then push the button for your selection...and...nothing. You check the button for an "empty" light, but all looks good. So you push the button again. And again. then hit "refund" and...nothing! Frustrating!!! You push "refund" a bit harder. Then you use the side of your fist.

That is an example of an extinction burst-that little anxious cloud of..."hey...what's going ON here...HEY...?!".  Keep this in mind as you are changing behavior. For a time, you may see an increase in the behavior you are hoping to change-that's an extinction burst and it's really important to understand that it will pass.

If you have a new pup and the luxury of starting with a clean slate, then simply decide what behavior you like and reinforce it. Notice I said simple-not easy! It takes practice. But don't worry-one slip will not spoil your efforts.

Reward what you like
For a feeding, I like my pups to sit and wait before I place the bowl on the ground. This means that the first few times I feed (believe me, dogs catch on quickly when food is involved), I stand and WAIT. When the dog gets tired of jumping around, eventually, he sits. THAT is when I begin to place the bowl on the ground. If he gets up from his "sit" the bowl goes back up, too.  Soon you have a dog sitting nicely before the bowl is on the floor.
I cannot possibly cover all aspects of changing a behavior in this one article. Fortunately, there are many wonderful resources already written. One of the best is "Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor.

Like it or not, we are always teaching. When faced with a behavior you strongly dislike, before getting angry and frustrated, try taking a step back and asking yourself,  is this is something I actually taught my dog to do?*

(* it something my dog has taught me to do?!)

Happy Training!

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