Dog behavior: Good or bad?

Bad habits can be changed with positive reinforcement

Posted: Sunday, April 21, 2002

"Rover, get down!" screeched the distraught owner as the 70-pound lab jumped on her in an overabundance of energy. She turned to me, anxiety showing in every line of her face, as her 8-month-old puppy swept around her, tangling them both up in the six-foot length of the cotton leash.

"What am I going to do? Is it too late?" she asked. "He was so cute as a tiny puppy, and I didn't worry too much about him jumping up then, but now it's a real problem!"

Does this scene sound familiar? So often we allow behaviors in puppies that will turn into problems in adult dogs. The results can be disastrous and many dogs are given away or destroyed because of behavior issues. This doesn't have to happen, as most behaviors can be reshaped and made into what we consider acceptable.

When dealing with dogs, and most animals, you need to keep in mind they don't consider behaviors "good" or "bad." A behavior is simply something they do. It may be an instinctive behavior (such as biting) or it may be a learned behavior (such as jumping on you for attention).

When we put the idea of "good" and "bad" on these actions, we are crediting our dogs with human concepts and also the expectation that the dogs will understand those concepts. This is simply not possible.

Dogs develop behavioral habits through repetition. The behavior is reinforced in some way and eventually becomes an ingrained habit.

One of the basic premises of behaviorism is that behaviors that are reinforced will happen again. This is confusing to many people, as they see behaviors continue to happen when they are using corrections to "stop" the behavior. In these cases, either the correction is at a time when the dog doesn't connect it with the physical action, or the correction still gives reinforcement to the behavior.

For example, the dog that leaps up on you even though he is kneed in the chest or scolded, may well continue to leap up because the attention he is given reinforces the behavior. For that reason, corrections often do not work well in dealing with problem behaviors.

Instead, it's best to understand why the dog is performing the undesirable actions and find the best method to change the behavior.

Using the example of the dog that jumps up will help you understand.

When your dog comes to you, he wants attention. He leaps on you, you push him away, and even though you see your actions as corrective, he gets the attention he was looking for. Because of this, he will try this behavior again.

In many cases, people inadvertently add extra reinforcement by being inconsistent. If you pet your dog and fuss over him on occasion when he jumps up to say hello, they you are adding even more reinforcement to this undesirable action.

Now that we know why the dog is doing this, let's see how to fix this problem.

The best thing to do is not give the dog what he wants. If attention is what he is seeking, then you take all attention away from him any time he offers the leaping behavior. It's relatively simple. Your dog begins to jump up, you quickly turn and walk away. No words are spoken, as that would be giving attention. You keep your back to him and your face turned away whenever he tries to jump on you.

If your dog has a firmly ingrained habit, it may take some time to reshape the behavior. You refuse to give any sort of attention, even if the dog is leaping at your back. Eventually he will lose interest as there is no reinforcement. As soon as he calms down and all four feet are on the floor, that is when you turn and pet him quietly. If the front feet come off the floor, all attention is again taken away.

Another important point when working with reshaping a problem behavior is that all acceptable behaviors should be reinforced.

What you would be seeking, in the case of a dog that leaps on you, is a calm dog who keeps his feet on the floor. With this goal in mind, you would reinforce any time your dog has his front feet on the floor. This can be during a stand, a sit or a down.

You are going to be building an acceptable behavior in place of the action that has become a problem.

Reinforcement is a necessary aspect of training and can come in many guises. Some dogs are reinforced by attention, while others need the stronger reward of treats or toys. Finding what reinforces your dog and using that reinforcement is valuable.

In the case of the leaping dog, giving attention when he is finally calm will probably be high reinforcement. When you quietly say "what a good dog" and pet him softly, it is indicating to him that his calmer behavior is acceptable to you and will get him the attention he craves.

There are numerous behaviors that dogs develop as they work through their roles as companions and protectors. Some are caused by a lack of knowledge on the part of the owner, some are caused by boredom on the part of the dog, and many are just a matter of miscommunication between animal and human.

When you analyze what the dog finds reinforcing about the unwanted behavior and eliminate that reinforcement while substituting a behavior you find acceptable, you and your dog will have a much better understanding of each other and a more accepting life together.

Melanie Kipp is an obedience instructor at Peninsula Dog Obedience Group in Soldotna.

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