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— March 24, 2015 —
Don’t Let Other People (Un) Train Your Dog
by Daniel McElroy Jr.
Reinforcement is reinforcement. Where it comes from is irrelevant.
How a dog will behave is based on two very simply equations.

Equation #1: What dog wants + the action dog performs to get what he wants = behavior dog will do. (This is the effect of reinforcement.)

Equation #2: What dogs does not want + how dog avoids that = behavior dog will NOT do. (This is the effect of punishment/deterrence.)
That pretty much sums up how dogs (and people and cats and horses and goldfish for that matter) will generally behave. I read a great quote once that sums up our dogs’ behavior and training aptitude perfectly. “Your dog is completely and innocently selfish.” He does what he does for what it gets him. He may “love” you, but he will only perform behaviors for you if you pay him. The other side of that coin is this. He will perform behaviors for just about anyone who pays him, as long as the payment is enjoyable and worth the effort.

Often people think of a reward as a thing you give your dog, like a treat or a pet. A reward, however is ANYTHING the dog gets for a behavior that makes him want to do that behavior again. Counter surfing is a very difficult behavior to stop in a dog, until we remove ALL rewards from the counter. According to Equation #1 above, the smallest bit of reward, tiny crumbs of bread, scraps of food or even a smear of bacon grease on the counter can be rewards for counter surfing. On the flip side, Equation #2 states that correction can be used to make the dog stop counter surfing. My preference is generally to remove the reward, but in the case of an especially tenacious dog, a bit of deterrence may be called for.

Think of it this way. If you’re trying to stop your counter-surfing dog, but your roommate leaves her ham sandwich on the counter and he eats it, your dog is getting un-trained by her. He’ll never stop counter surfing until either the reward stops or the correction starts. Again, I think being diligent about removing the reward (cleaning the counters) is usually the best approach, but your mileage may vary.

We’ve all seen the experiment where a mouse is trained to run a maze. Generally it comes up in movies and T.V. shows and there is a scientist in a lab coat teaching a mouse to run a maze for a bit of cheese. The cheese at the end is reinforcement. The scientist isn’t offering the cheese with a “good boy” and a pet. It is simply there as something the mouse wants. Reinforcement doesn’t have to be given intentionally to solicit a behavior. It just has to be there. A dog that jumps up for pets from strangers is getting reinforced for jumping. If anyone pets him when he jumps up, he’ll keep jumping. I have had moms complain that the dog wouldn’t stop jumping on them at the same time their children were petting the dog for jumping…

In much worse situations, people can do real damage (un) training our dogs. I am currently involved with a case where a bulldog mix allegedly bit a child. In spite of the fact that the bite was pretty minor, the dog has been branded as a dangerous dog. The dog’s owner is involved with a court case to save her dog from being seized. The problem started because the dog was teased in the back yard through the fence. When I evaluated the dog, he was anything but dangerous. The dog was a bit timid, but he let me touch him over the head and body and allowed the staff to approach him and pet him. I took it a step further and even tried to solicit aggression with a hard stare and an aggressive posture. He wanted nothing to do with it and tried to run away.

Unfortunately, this dog was “trained” to be aggressive at the fence (or un-trained to be friendly). He wanted to avoid the kids teasing him so he would bark at the fence. Eventually, the kids would leave. In the dog’s mind, the barking at the fence removed the thing he didn’t like. Over time, his behavior got stronger and the alleged bite occurred. The dog’s owner reports that she even approached the kid’s parents and asked them to stop it, but the teasing continued.

In this case, I obviously fault the kids for teasing the dog and their parents for allowing the teasing, but unfortunately, the owner should have figured out a way to terminate the teasing before the bite occurred. In her defense, she may not have realized how things could play out, but she inadvertently let someone (un) train her dog. Now that she understands the potential outcomes, she has been very diligent in her training. I am happy to report that the dog is doing much better. He is being supervised in the yard and is being trained to recall from the fence rather than charge the fence and display negative behavior.

In the end, understanding reinforcement can help prevent or eliminate bad behavior. Realizing what our dog gets out of behaving badly, and eliminating that reward may just help you solve issues that you are struggling with.

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