Are You Accidentally Rewarding Unwanted Behavior?
Dogs are very clever and they quickly learn to repeat behaviors that have been rewarded, even behaviors we don't like. You might think to yourself: "How could this be? I don't reward my dog when he's doing something I don't like!" Read on to learn how this happens accidentally.
Example 1: People are often frustrated when their dog jumps up to greet them. The bigger the dog, the more problematic. Many folks know not to pet the dog when his paws are up. Instead, they may ask for a SIT and when the dog complies, they reward with attention and perhaps a treat. But because that sequence of behaviors is all bundled together -- approach, then jump up, then sit, then get attention -- the undesired jumping gets folded in and is actually rewarded at the end of the sequence.
Instead, you can back away when the dog jumps up. This gives him a chance to re-approach and possibly try a different strategy. When he is able to approach WITHOUT jumping up, that's when you can give him attention or a treat.
Example 2: I have a wonderful client who has done a lot of training with her handsome lab. He absolutely LOVES his training sessions and is apt to pester his pet parent or even get into some mischief in order to gain her attention. From there, she cues him to do a preferred behavior and then rewards him. In this case, the behavior bundle begins with pestering or mischief, which is accidentally rewarded at the end of the sequence.
We're currently working on eliminating the lab's barking behavior when he sees dogs on the TV screen. At my request, his pet parent has completely stopped giving him any attention when he barks and she avoids redirecting him to a more desirable (and quiet) behavior. Within a short amount of time, his barking at the TV has decreased sharply because it no longer leads to her attention and then a training opportunity that leads to treats.
Example 3: Enthusiastically friendly dogs may pull like crazy on leash in order to say hello to other people they see during their walks. If we follow the pulling dog because we know how much he wants to 'say hello,' that access to the other person is rewarding the leash-pulling behavior and it will surely get worse over time. If instead we ask for the dog's attention first, we can then give him permission to 'say hello.' Now, access to the other person is the reward for focusing on the pet parent first.
If your dog is displaying a behavior that you don't like, take a closer look at what is happening shortly after he displays the unwanted behavior. If you poke around a bit, you may discover that you've been accidentally rewarding that behavior. Once you make that discovery, you can then adjust your technique to avoid that in the future.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, puppy matchmaking services, and pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120