Dogs are often accused of barking in our faces, pawing at us, acting pushy, begging at the table and stealing our stuff, but it’s not always the dog’s fault; often we are inadvertently reinforcing their behaviors without noticing. Every time we look at dog behavior, both the “good” behaviors or the ones that we perceive as “bad,” it’s helpful to take a critical view and evaluate what is fueling the behavior in the first place. By carefully evaluating the dynamics, it often turns out that what we do is what is actually fueling the behavior, and therefore the resolution to the problem relies on us changing our ways rather than trying to change our dogs!
Dogs are Always Learning
We often think that our dogs are learning only during training sessions, but actually dogs are in a constant state of learning, and that includes learning good behaviors and the bad ones too! While it’s true that young dogs come with a great advantage when it comes to their brain’s ability to create new neural pathways, the plasticity of the dog’s brain lasts a lifetime, meaning that a dog’s brain never stops changing and adapting. Yes, young dogs in particular, are easily influenced and particularly malleable to learning new behaviors. but old dogs can learn new tricks too as new studies have found that even in old age the brain has the ability to be plastic. Following are several ways dogs may learn undesirable behaviors because of a history of owners inadvertently reinforcing them.
“Neuroplasticity never ends, you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks, it just might take a little longer.” ~Shelli R. Kesler, senior research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Raise your hand if you ever ended up petting your dog while you were talking on the phone. There’s nothing wrong with this really, except when you start rewarding your dog for acting pushy. So you might be petting your dog for a few seconds and then you may stop. Then, because your dog was enjoying the interaction and wants more, he pushes his head under your hand. So you absent-mindedly resume, petting him once again. Then again, you stop. At this point, your dog puts his head on your lap, but since you are not petting him, your dog paws at you so you end up petting him again afterward.
This scene repeats over and over when you’re on the phone or watching TV, and at one point you may notice that your dog has now started pawing at you more and more often when you’re not petting him. Soon, you are upset that your dog has learned a new bad habit. Off the forums you go to ask for help. “Help, my dog paws at me insistently when I speak over the phone or watch TV! How did this happen? Why is my dog so pushy lately?”
This is a classic example of inadvertently rewarding pushy behavior in a dog. The dog started asking to be pet more and his persistence was reinforced over time. The dog therefore learned that nudging worked in getting attention, but then when the the owner was distracted, he has found that pawing may work. Persistence pays off.
“Clients often tell me that they don’t have time to be constantly rewarding their dog. However, many owners are masters of positive reinforcement-but don’t realise it.”The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour
This other cliche’ is also a common one: dog owners are sitting on the couch and ready to watch their favorite television show after a long day at work, and here comes Rover who starts bringing his toys and barking at his owners.
Perhaps these dogs have been bored and lonely all day long and have been anxiously waiting their owners’ return in hopes of some fun activity. So the owners finally come home and what? They sit on the couch? Rover must desperately come up with some plan to get them to interact with him. So off he goes to fetch a toy and he presents the slimy ball to them. But nope, that doesn’t work to get them to launch him the ball and interact with him.
So next comes plan B, trying to bark at them. “Hey, toss that ball, won’t you? Let’s play! Let’s do something! Just please, please, please don’t just stay hours watching that box again, I have loads of energy, ya know?” So at some point, the owners make him happy, they finally toss the ball and they toss it several times when their dog barks at them as a reminder, just to shut him up and watch the movie in peace. What did this just teach the dog? That persistence pays off! Too bad though that their owners often end up needing to hire a trainer weeks later as their dog’s barking starts getting out of control.
Who can resist a dog looking at you with pleading eyes as you are enjoying a juicy steak? Many can’t. That’s why there are so many begging dogs out there. Begging at the table is reinforced when owners think their dogs look cute so they give in and give them a tasty morsel. Obviously, the consequence is a dog who will always be sticking nearby the table, making a cute face. Totally expected.
At times, though the behavior is inadvertently reinforced. Sloppy eaters like kids may drop many crumbs or the kids may be purposely passing the dog the broccoli they don’t want to eat. Even food accidentally dropped and quickly collected by Rover who coincidentally was at the right place, at the right time, can be reinforcing. No wonder why Rover loves to stick by the table!
Have a dog who loves to steal things? Have you ever found yourself chasing your dog around the table when he gets a hold of your shoes/socks/underwear/anything you hold in your hands? While this may be frustrating for the owner, the dog is likely instead having a blast! In the dog world, playing a game of keep away is one of the most fun ways to play. One dog grabs a toy and the other dog chases. This game can be highly rewarding for a dog who has loads of energy and a need to play, so this behavior is likely to continue. A fun way for a bored, under-stimulated dog to get his own form of entertainment and involve the owner!
So you know that your dog is not supposed to jump on you, so you make sure you don’t pet him unless he standing is on all fours or sitting. However, when you come back from your week-end trips, your dog is so happy to see you, you cannot resist the commotion and just pet him while he’s standing up against you happily licking your face.
And some goes when aunt Molly comes over. She has owned dogs all her life and doesn’t mind having him jump on her, but you make sure he doesn’t do that with anybody else.
What happens next? You guessed it, you’ll have a dog who will jump more and more and who doesn’t have a clue of which guests he can jump on and which ones he cannot, but the behavior is worth trying as eventually one person or another gives in and greets him happily.
Negative is Better than Nothing
Many dog owners are surprised when they are told that for many dogs any kind attention can be rewarding, even the negative type. Imagine for a moment a dog who is left alone all day while the owner is at work. He spends hours at at home doing nothing and eagerly awaits his owners to come home in hopes for a walk or a game of fetch. His high hopes and expectations start fading though when the owner sits on the couch with the remote in his hand. So the poor dog starts casually chewing on the owner’s shoe. The owner get angry “Bad dog! Leave my shoe alone.” Bingo, the dog got at least some attention from his owner! He looked at him and then even talked to him! Soon the dog learns that when he craves attention, all he needs to do is do something the owner doesn’t like.
Playing the Slots
Think that it’s OK every now and then to give in? Think again, this is the best way to give the dog the idea that there are no consistent rules and that persistence pays off. It’s the canine version of playing the slot machines, sooner or later he will win the jackpot. So say, you never feed your dog at the table but then one day you feel sorry because he had a bad day at the vet. So you hand feed him a little piece of steak. Then, for another week no more feeding at the table but Buster is always nearby the table staring at you in hopes of a tasty morsel. All until the next vet visit when you feel compelled to give him a tiny piece again. This is the best way to pave the path to a persistent begging behavior because the behavior is put on a variable schedule. And don’t just assume that giving a teeny piece in a blue moon won’t lead to begging; studies have revealed that animals will persist and keep trying even if the reward is small and given sparingly.
Did you know? It’s important for everybody to be on the same page when it comes to changing dog behavior. As Steven Lindsay claims goes a long way: “Finally, inadvertent or bootleg reinforcement is a frequent problem in family situations where differences of opinion exist regarding an unwanted behavior… One family member may may feel strongly that the dog should not be allowed on furniture while other members enjoy such behavior and allow it in the objector’s absence… Training requires a united front with a shared sense of purpose and agreement on the behavior being modified.”
Tackling the Issues
When your dog behaves “badly” stop punishing and instead critically evaluate whether there’s inadvertent reinforcement at play. If so, stop reinforcing the behavior (expect a few extinction bursts in the process) Also, make a commitment to use management techniques so to prevent these behaviors from happening in the first place (for instance when you come home from work, walk your dog, play with him and provide interactive toys before sitting on the couch) and train alternative behaviors so that you can provide reinforcement for behaviors you want (eg. train your dog to drop instead of running after him or teach him to go to his mat and enjoy his Kong during meal times rather than begging for table scraps). Set your best buddy for success!
Also, it’s important to capture those moments when your dog is behaving well. Many dog owners fall into the trap of interacting with their dogs only when they are misbehaving while missing all those wonderful opportunities to reward all those good behaviors that go unnoticed. So pay attention to what your dog is doing so you can change the dynamics and pave the path for catching more good behaviors so to help your dog become a better behaved companion.
- The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour, By Sarah Heath, Rosie Barclay, Julie Bedford Souvenir Press (April 1, 2016)
- Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 1: Adaptation and Learning Volume One Edition, by