Why Rewarding Behaviors Works
If your dog does something, and then gets something he enjoys directly after doing that thing, he is very likely to do it again. This is what is referred to as Positive Reinforcement. Using this system appropriately can come in very handy for teaching your dog what you’d like him to do. Unfortunately the same system can work against us if we allow our dogs to do unwanted behaviors that give them enjoyment.
Some examples of how this system can work against us:
When taking your dog for a stroll the leash becomes tight and your dog starts pulling you in different directions. This is obviously an unwanted behavior, as we don’t want to be pulled. But did you know by allowing it to happen it is very likely to continue and also to get worse? This is because of the reward the dog gets for pulling. The dog learns that if it pulls, it gets good things. (E.g. sniffing trees, peeing on hydrants, greeting people etc.) It kind of breaks down to Walking on leash+ Pulling = Getting awesome stuff. If you did something and got something awesome in return, wouldn’t you do it again?
When eating dinner you accidentally drop a piece of food on the floor. Before you can reach down and grab it your dog already has swallowed it. Because of the reward, your dog is very likely to hang out by the table in the future. This turns into begging which a lot of people hate. Additionally if anyone feeds their dog from the table the dog is going to hang out around the table.
It’s Thanksgiving time and you just took the turkey out of the oven. You place it on the counter and walk away for two seconds. When you return there is a giant chunk missing out of the turkey. This is like hitting the jackpot in the dog world. In the dog’s mind the equation is: Getting up on the counter = Getting awesome stuff. This will result in the dog getting on the counters again and again to find good stuff.
Some examples of how this system can work for us:
When teaching your dog how to walk nicely you can give rewards for the behavior of walking without pulling. These rewards can come in the form of food, toy, or environmental. If using food I recommend something small and not crunchy. This will allow the dog to consume it quickly and be prepared for another one. If using a toy, find something that your dog really enjoys. (Balls, tug toy etc.) And an environmental reward comes in the form of allowing your dog to go over to pee on the tree as long as he doesn’t pull to get to it. With repetition of rewarding your dog for walking next to you, you will see an increase in that behavior, and a decrease in the unwanted behavior of pulling. The equation is: Walking next to human = Treats, Toys, Peeing on stuff, Going in the direction that the dog wants to go in.
While you’re eating dinner you can have your dog lie on his bed. This will stop him from getting food scraps around the table. When first introducing this to your dog you will want to get up and reward him for staying on his bed. This is easiest with small food rewards. In the beginning you will get up often to reward this. With repetition you will have to get up less and less to reward it. Basically you will be asking your dog to wait longer in between rewards. By rewarding this behavior your dog is going to want to stay on his bed. With repetition this can turn into a habit and the food rewards can be faded away. The end result will be you asking your dog to go to his bed, and after you’re finished with dinner, he will be told he can leave the bed. Because of how this is taught, it will be something your dog enjoys doing.
Counters are a lot of fun for dogs. Our job is to show them that nothing good comes from the counters. Our job is to clearly communicate this and also reward our dogs for doing the opposite of counter surfing. By teaching a “leave it” cue we can use that to teach our dogs what we want them to do. We can then reward our dogs for doing that behavior. You’ve probably noticed the trend by now. By rewarding our dogs for staying off of the counter, and making sure no rewards come from the counter, you will have a dog that is more likely to stay off of the counter.
To sum all this up, we can have very well trained dogs if we manage where the rewards are coming from. Just about every problem behavior takes place because the dog is getting some sort of reward for it. Jumping, digging, barking, pulling on leash, all take place because they get rewarded. If we focus on prevention and management of the unwanted behaviors, and also focus on rewarding the wanted behaviors, you will see a lot more of the wanted, and a lot less of the unwanted.
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