Why Are Some Behaviors Hard To Eliminate?

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Why Are Some Behaviors Hard To Eliminate?

Why Are Some Behaviors Hard To Eliminate?

Almost every dog has a behavior that the owners don’t enjoy. The most common offenders are jumping, pulling and barking. Since we know that we can train a dog to any number of behaviors using positive reinforcement, people often ask us to train their dog not to do a behavior and assume it’s the same process.

Positive reinforcement training all boils down to one basic concept- what is rewarded is repeated. The biggest problem with eliminating a behavior is eliminating all sources of reinforcement for that behavior. To complicate things further, the behavior itself can feel rewarding in some cases.

This may sound simple: don’t reward unwanted behavior. But, let’s break this down for a dog who pulls on leash. Dogs who pull on leash are rewarded by getting to move forward while their owner is getting dragged behind them. So, don’t move forward. Sound simple? It is, or can be, if you can practice it 100% of the time. In reality, this means don’t move forward if you are walking into daycare, if you are walking into your home, to your car, or any number of places you are trying to get to quickly. Don’t move forward. Realistically most people will make exceptions and practice on long walks around the neighborhood but not when they are going somewhere on a schedule or with a purpose.

What does this mean for your dog? Well, you have just introduced an intermittent schedule of reinforcement! When we use positive reinforcement, we often start out with a continuous schedule of reinforcement (i.e. every correct behavior is rewarded while the dog is first learning to exhibit proper behaviors). Once the behavior pattern is fairly well known, we switch to an intermittent schedule. We only reward some of the behaviors which results in stronger patterns for your dog. Only rewarding some of the time is what makes a slot machine so addictive. The excitement of “will this time be a winner?” is what keeps you pulling the lever. Now you have just put your dog in that same position with pulling on leash. You have actually made the behavior stronger by occasionally reinforcing it. One helpful tool is to use a no-pull harness on every walk to prevent any reinforcement from pulling forward, but this must be used every time the leash is used or you will still be occasionally reinforcing a pulling dog.

So what can you do? This is where most people get frustrated and begin using an aversive, such as a prong collar for pullers, a spray collar for barkers, etc. Think about that for a minute: you trained your dog quite effectively to pull or bark by intermittently reinforcing the behavior and now you add a punishment. How is your pooch supposed to understand that? Instead, take it from your pet’s point of view. Your pet is repeating behaviors that have been rewarded in some way. You can either stop reinforcing the behaviors and allow them to extinguish, but we have already discussed how that can be very difficult, or you can begin rewarding oppositional behaviors.

Oppositional behaviors are behaviors that cannot be done at the same time. One example is jumping and lying down. A dog cannot both jump up and lie down at the same time. Be highly reinforcing one behavior and doing your best to not reinforce another one and you can teach a dog to offer the better behavior more often. Will this completely eliminate the undesirable behavior? Probably not for a while, but it should drastically decrease the frequency of behavior.

If you are going to try this model, I recommend using multiple reinforcers for the preferred behavior. For example, if you are teaching your dog to lie down when greeting people, you can use a food reinforcement and a belly rub to add duration to the down behavior. Most dogs who jump want contact with the person and are using their front feet to get as close as possible to their face and hands. If we use the contact that they are seeking to reward a down instead they still get the attention they were seeking paired with a delicious food treat- a double reward! While working on this new behavior, you can remove attention from all jumping and prevent jumping from being reinforcing by using a leash or a baby gate to prevent the human contact from rewarding the jump.

Accidentally allowing undesirable behaviors to be rewarded on occasion actually sets your dog up to behave worse in the future. If your dog is exhibiting behaviors that you do not like, try to think of it from your dog’s point of view. They certainly do not know better and they certainly are not doing it out of spite. They are simply repeating behaviors that have been rewarded, even if those behaviors have also been punished at times. Wasting $100 on a slot machine can feel quite punishing, but the lure of the occasional win draws people to spend more and more money. Even if you know the odds are against you, the potential for a possible win is enough to draw you in. Think of your dog in the same terms and it will be easier for you to spot the intermittent reinforcement that is going on so that you can work to eliminate the reinforcers and begin training better behaviors.

Happy Training!

Tamar Paltin
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator