Be Careful What You Reward

It’s no secret that dogs do what works. If a dog receives a treat or other valuable reward each time he lies quietly on his bed, he’s likely to lie there more often. Most dog owners would agree, “that which is rewarded is likely to occur more frequently.” And yet, as a trainer, I often see owners inadvertently rewarding dogs for the very behaviors they want to diminish.

One common scenario occurs when an owner attempts to redirect a dog. Let’s say the dog is chewing at the fringes of a rug. The owner interrupts with a sharp, “No!” or a clap of the hands. The dog, startled, stops momentarily. Of course, if the dog is not redirected to another activity, he is likely to resume chewing. Many owners, at this point, offer an alternate chew item to keep the dog busy—a good tactic! However, if the item is offered directly after the dog stops chewing the rug, many dogs will piece together that chewing on the rug earns a great, yummy chewie! The solution is to add an intermediary step. Interrupt the chewing, then stand at least a few feet away and call your dog to you. When he comes, ask him to perform a simple behavior he already knows, such as sit or lie down. When he complies, reward him with praise and the chew item. You’ve now rewarded your dog for the sit or the down, not for chewing on the rug.

Sometimes people reward dogs for unwanted behavior without even realizing it. More than a few times, I’ve listened to an owner complain that she doesn’t want her dog jumping on her or putting his paws on her. As I’m listening, the dog has both front paws placed on her lap, and she’s absently stroking him! Petting is rewarding. So is lifting a small dog into your lap when he paws at you. For that matter, so is any type of attention. For example, your dog jumps on you. You look at him, and tell him sternly to stop. Perhaps you even push him away. The problem is that you’ve just rewarded him with your attention—looking at or talking to a dog is giving attention. Pushing or shoving, for many dogs, is even more rewarding—it’s a great game! A better solution is the complete removal of attention: Turn to the side, fold your arms, and absolutely ignore the dog until he either sits (don’t cue him; if he knows sit he’ll probably do it on his own) or has four paws on the floor. Give him a few seconds, and then turn and offer calm praise and petting.

A particular type of attention that is rewarding to dogs, but most people don’t consider, are smiling or laughing. When our dog Mojo was a puppy, he had a habit of belching. Seeing this adorable fur-ball belch sent my husband and I into helpless gales of laughter. Apparently this made an impression on Mojo, who, when he became a 120-pound dog, thought it was the height of cuteness to put his face right up to one of ours and release a huge belch. Not so cute.

Whenever your dog is engaged in an unwanted behavior, think about how he’s getting rewarded for it. If the reward is coming from you, it’s time for a bit of human behavior modification. You can give your dog plenty of affection, treats, and play; just be careful what you reward!

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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