How dogs learn
Positive and Negative Attention: Reward the good, ignore the bad
Dogs will repeat any behaviour that gets them attention. ANY ATTENTION. So, the first thing to think about is, what is attention? Attention is petting your dog, talking to your dog, looking at your dog, chasing your dog, yelling at your dog, throwing something at your dog, and so on and so forth. Notice, I did not say dogs will repeat any behaviour that gets them positive attention; I said dogs will repeat any behaviour that gets them ANY attention.
Here is an example:-
Betty is running around the house like a maniac, carrying Dad’s best socks in her mouth and generally making a complete nuisance of herself. Dad, in turn, runs around the house chasing after her and yelling at her, cursing the day he ever thought getting a dog was a good idea.
Then, tired from her great game of chase and make-daddy-crazy, Betty lies down nicely on her bed. Dad, frustrated and angry at the demise of his socks, ignores Betty, and gets on the phone with Aunt Becky to bemoan Betty’s existence. What behaviour will get repeated?
You got it! Running around like a maniac with Dad’s sock. That’s the behaviour that got attention.
Lying down nicely on the bed got Betty ignored. She becomes less and less likely to lie down nicely and more and more likely to grab socks and play chase.
If a dog has a choice between a behaviour that gets ignored and a behaviour that gets attention, it will choose the behaviour that gets attention, even if its get them negative attention.
Here’s the good news. If a dog has a choice between behaviour that gets it positive attention and behaviour that gets it negative attention, it will choose the behaviour that gets positive attention.
This means, there is a ready-made solution to the problem of Betty and the socks. To the extent a behaviour that is attention seeking, can be ignored. If you always ignore it then your puppy will stop doing it. If you can’t ignore it, and let’s be realistic, a lot of it you can’t ignore, make sure you find a way to minimize the behaviours you don’t want with minimal attention, and to emphasize the behaviours you do want with positive attention. When Betty lies down and is behaving how Dad wants her to, he needs to reward her for that. “Good girl to settle.”
Try not to leave things lying around that your puppy can steal. If they do steal something and you can’t ignore it, i.e. you want it back incase it gets chewed.
Then pretend you haven’t seen your dog and go and pick up their favourite toy, start interacting with the toy and sooner or later your puppy will wonder what all the fuss is about, they will drop the object you don’t want them to have and come and see what you are doing. At this point throw your toy in the opposite direction and go and retrieve the stolen article. making sure you don’t leave it somewhere your puppy can get it next time.
Think about the things you give your dog attention for; make sure you include subtle kinds of attention such as looking at your dog and negative attention such as yelling at your dog. Think about the things you don’t give your dog attention for, including lying down nicely on his bed. Now, think about ways of giving your dog positive attention for the behaviours you want. I promise you will see a difference in your dog’s behaviour.
Reinforcement (usually a reward) is anything that encourages the dog to perform the behaviour again.
Punishment (usually something the dog dislikes) is anything that discourages the dog from performing the behaviour again.
Types of reinforcement:
- Food – a survival resource and usually the best motivator. Dogs have 2000 taste buds compared to our 10000, leading their sense of smell to be 1000 times more sensitive than ours. So good smelly treats (such as our garlic sausage) are far more effective than treats that taste nice.
- Praise - Although dogs’ communication systems are not as verbal as ours, praise such as ‘good dog’ can become a learned reward. This occurs by association: as a puppy, ‘good dog’ is often coupled with a fuss and pat on the head. Then the dog learns to associate the praise with a natural reward (which is touch)
- Touch - domestic dogs will often seek physical contact as a reward (when they are brought up well socialised with people and contact)
- Eye contact - dogs will look up at us to make eye contact for our attention, to give theirs and for reassurance. ‘Checking in’ is the regular giving of eye contact that well trained dogs will give their bonded owners to basically ask: “Am I doing this right? What do you want me to do next?”
- Play – positive fun is sometimes a more effective motivator and reinforcement than food for younger, active dogs
These are types of reinforcement we can use practically in a training class environment. But remember, reinforcement is anything that makes the dog more likely to do it again, therefore it is anything the dog wants.
Think about it, what does your dog want more than anything?
- Play with dogs
- Chase a rabbit
- Sniff in the bushes
- Run off-lead
We can use these as rewards for good behaviour. If you dog walks on a loose lead to the park, the reward can be to run off lead. If your dog recalls away from a dog, the reward can be to go play with his doggy friends. If your dog does a nice sit and wait, the reward can be to go and sniff around.
Types of punishment:
- Over the past 25 years, huge progress has been made in training methods, moved on from harsh corrections to more positive methods
- It must be far better to train your dog to behave well and do as you ask because they want to, and not out of fear – and far better for building a good relationship on as well
- How to get your dog to behave well? Reinforce EVERYTHING you want them to do when they do it.
- Use every opportunity to reinforce a good behaviour:
- When they settle quietly on their bed
- When they don’t beg for food
- When they don’t jump on you
- Sitting to have the lead put on/removed
- Giving you attention/eye contact
- Don’t concentrate on correcting unwanted behaviours – just ignore them. Apart from self-rewarding behaviours (barking, fighting), behaviours without reinforcement will fade away and stop completely.
- This is extinction – however, before the behaviour completely stops, an ‘extinction burst’ may be seen, where the behaviour dramatically increases in intensity/frequency as a last attempt of the dog to gain reinforcement from it.