Unintended Reinforcements

It is no secret dogs (and in reality any animal as you will see in the video) do what works to get them what they want. Knowing what motivates dogs becomes a valuable training tool. However, if we are not careful, we can reinforce undesired behaviors. Let’s look at a couple common situations many owners inadvertently teach their dogs.

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Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

How many owners have a raging lunatic when it comes to leashing up their dogs for a walk? The dog bounce and barks, leaps and wriggles as the human struggles to get that leash on. The owner struggles until the leash is on and now the walk begins. What behavior is the human reinforcing? What does the dog learn must happen in order to go for a walk?  The behaviors may begin with the phrase used to indicate a walk is coming or seeing the leash in hand.  When he shows excitement, the leash goes on.  Therefore this act gets a walk started.  Since this behavior got something good, pup is more likely to repeat it next time.  Sadly this becomes annoying for many owners who may resort to punitive methods to stop the actions.

In this video, you will see a behavior many would find annoying that was reinforced in a cat.  Linus is my Persian.  Love him dearly but he is not the brightest cat we have owned.  But he learned bumping and patting us gets him scratched or his eye gunk cleaned out – yes he will drive his face into your hand to get his face cleaned.  All it took was a couple pokes that we absentmindedly touched him after and “BING!” that dim bulb over his head got a tad brighter.  Poking = pats.  Therefore I poke.

As humans, we need to realize every interaction we have with our dogs is a learning experience for them – even if we do not mean it to be. For example, my daughter’s dog, Uhura, loves going for walks. However, somehow, she learned freeze and drop gets her leashed up. I teach my dogs a nice stand or sit so we can put leashes, collars or harnesses on. At some point, Uhura laid down, the leash went on and off we went. Therefore, dropping to the ground, in her mind, got the leash on and the walk started.

Now let’s look at responses from us. Ways we respond to undesired behaviors may give the illusion of them being fixed. However, long term we can create more problems.  I am going to use jumping as an example of how things we do to try and stop a problem can cause more issues.

How often do humans reinforce jumping without realizing it? Puppy jumps on us – oh how cute! We pat the pup. What as pup learned?  Jumping is desired by humans! As the dog grows, jumping becomes less cute and more annoying. It can even become dangerous. Yet we reinforced that behavior because we thought it was cute.  Being bruised, knocked over, clothes muddied, etc. is not fun at all. 

A common recommendation to stop jumping is to grab toes and squeeze. The unpleasant feeling will stop the dog. Well, this also teaches a dog my hands on his feet is a bad thing. Now what happens when I must handle his feet? Will he be as comfortable with it? Instead, why not teach that feet on the floor is the good behavior and not reinforce jumping? Teaching an incompatible behavior can be tougher when the jumping behavior is a big part of the behaviors the dog does to get something.  Therefore we need to teach the manners we would like from adult dogs to our pups.

Let’s look at another common complaint: dog will not walk on a leash. This often comes from how we are taught to teach leash work. One recommended way is to leash up the pup and follow him until he gets used to feeling the leash as he walks around. We praise and encourage pup along while we tag along behind. Then we change the rules. Now we want pup to follow us. Pup does not do what we want. He puts on the brakes, pulls away, struggles, etc. We call him stubborn or dominant, defiant or poorly trained. The dog is confused.

How many owners turn to punitive methods to fix the problem? Leash corrections, choke or prong collars, even electric shocks sadly are suggested and used by many trainers. Short term using these harsh methods, things may seem better, but are they? Over time we can create a dog with increased stress, fears, develop leash reactivity and even aggressive behaviors. Instead, why not teach what we need from the start, using thoughtful methods that recognize how learning happens best? This way, we can avoid the unintended consequences of how leash manners are taught and “fixed” by some.

As owners, pet parents, guardians, whatever you call yourself, remember: every interaction we have with our dogs is a learning experience.

Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training and the Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Northern, VA.

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