We introduced our Dog Training 101 series last month. We started at the beginning: a broad overview of what training is really, identified the laws of behavior, defined the basic terms that every dog owner should know, and dipped our toe into the waters of behavior.
This stuff isn’t just for dog trainers – every dog’s life can be improved with this knowledge.
Each month, we’re going to expand your knowledge – and make your dog’s life (and yours) better for knowing about this stuff.
This month, we’re talking about reinforcement and punishment. Pay attention, almost everything in this world revolves around these two things. These are the keys to changing your dog’s behavior (or anyone’s behavior, for that matter!).
This isn’t a scientific paper; we won’t use the fancy science-y words or descriptions. The information here is accurate, however, and will make it easy for you to teach your dog whatever you want and help solve the problems that frustrate you.
There are two ways you can change behavior: (1) You can add something to the situation (called positive) or (2) you can take something away from the situation.
Let’s look at this in both reinforcement and punishment.
Positive Reinforcement: adding something to the situation that makes the behavior more likely to happen again. Real life example: You pay your bill on time and you get a 10% discount. Result: you will pay your bill on time a lot more frequently.
Negative Reinforcement: taking something away from the situation that makes the behavior more likely to happen again. Real life example: you have a headache and when you take an Advil, the headache goes away. Result: you will reach for the Advil again when you have a headache.
Positive Punishment: adding something to the situation that makes the behavior less likely to happen. Real life example: You drive your car over the speed limit and you receive a traffic ticket.
Negative Punishment: taking something away from the situation that makes the behavior less likely to happen. Real life example: your child broke curfew and you take away car privileges.
Timing is essential for both reinforcement and punishment.
Reinforcement and punishment must happen as the behavior is happening. You can’t reinforce or punish your dog’s behavior after the fact. Remember from our first article: “It’s imperative to understand that it’s the behavior that bears the consequence, not the dog… The difference is that you’re not happy or mad at the dog. You simply want to encourage or discourage your dog to repeat the behavior. Good trainers remain neutral even if their dog’s behavior is disappointing or maddening.”
Behavior, like gravity, is always working. Your dog is always doing something. He may just be lying on the floor sleeping, but that’s actually doing something. Knowing the Laws of Behavior (from our Dog Training 101 article) allows you to understand that sometimes the easiest way to get rid of an undesirable behavior is to teach a different, desirable behavior. You need to know how to use reinforcement to get more of that desirable behavior.
HOW TO USE REINFORCEMENT IN REAL LIFE
The first step to changing your dog’s behavior is to decide what behavior you want your dog to do (instead of what they’re already doing). You must start here because if you don’t know what to reinforce, you can’t reinforce it! I realize that sounds like a “Well, duh!” statement, but many clients have no idea what they want their dog to do, only what they want their dog to stop doing.
Here’s how you start to get more good behavior from your dog:
- Identify the behavior(s) you want more of.
- Make a list of the things, activities, and food that your dog loves.
- When your dog does an appropriate behavior or doesn’t engage in an undesirable behavior, reinforce the dog! Whip out that tug toy, toss the tennis ball, get down on the floor and roll around with your dog, or feed him a piece of chicken – whatever’s on your list of “things your dog loves” from #2 above.
Here’s a real-life example I use almost every time I do in-home consultations. The dog usually rushes up to me, sniffing me everywhere, occasionally jumping on me.
Positive Reinforcement: The instant the dog sits, I will pet him, look at him, talk to him – everything he wants! Sitting is more likely to happen once the dog understands that sitting is the way to get attention.
Negative Punishment: When the dog jumps, I turn my back on him. The behavior is more likely to go away because I go away when the dog jumps.
Extinction: I completely ignore the dog when he jumps: no talking, touching, or looking at the dog. The jumping is likely to disappear because jumping is an awful lot of effort for nothing.
Positive punishment: Jerking the dog’s collar when he jumps. Yelling at the dog when he jumps. Stepping on his toes, kneeing him in the chest, shaking a can of pennies, throwing something at the dog, etc. Adding anything unpleasant to the situation is positive punishment and we stay away from that as much as possible as the side effects can be great.
I use positive reinforcement frequently when working with dogs (and with people, too!). I’ve found it to be the most effective and fastest way to teach anyone to do just about anything.
HOW TO GET RID OF STUFF YOU DON’T LIKE
It almost doesn’t matter what the behavior is you’re trying to get rid of, this is how knowing the science is so much more valuable than knowing “recipes.”
Here’s how to get rid of the stuff you don’t like your dog to do.
- What do you want the dog to do instead? Reinforce that desirable behavior a lot whenever you see it.
- Prevent the dog from doing the undesirable behavior. If your dog is barking at the front window, put a gate up so he can’t get to the front window. If he’s jumping on guests, put him on a leash and then keep the leash short enough that he can’t reach the guests (or crate him or put him behind a closed door).
- Teach the dog an alternative behavior that he can do instead of the undesirable behavior and then reinforce the heck out of him for doing that new behavior.
Here’s a real-life example to help clarify the process. Problem: Dog barks incessantly when doorbell rings and people enter the house.
Positive reinforcement: give the dog a treat if he takes a breath (and pauses barking even if for ½ second).
Negative punishment: turn around and walk back out the door if the dog barks (if he’s barking excitedly because he wants to see you. If he’s barking because he wants you to leave, then leaving will just reinforce his barking. If he’s barking because he wants you to leave, simply ignore him).
Extinction: ignore the barking no matter what. This sometimes doesn’t work because it just feels good to the dog to bark. You can ignore him and if he’s barking because it feels good, your behavior won’t have any effect on the dog.
Positive Punishment: shock the dog every time he barks. This is definitely not recommended because it’s very easy for the dog to develop a causal relationship: visitors at the door means a shock is coming. Your dog may not associate the shock with the barking, but rather with the visitors that could make the barking worse — or it could precipitate an escalation of the behavior (a bite instead of just a bark).
You can do this! This isn’t complicated stuff and we’ve got an entire series of articles to help you do this yourself. Of course, if you’d like the assistance of a professional, we recommend a qualified positive reinforcement trainer. Common sense prevails here: if your dog is aggressive or dangerous, always consult a professional. Don’t go it alone in this case!
This article is included in our free monthly newsletter Your Smart Dog. Don’t miss our next installment in this series! Subscribe to the newsletter today! In addition to articles like this, the newsletter is filled with lots more information, fun activities to do with your dog, and opportunities to have fun with your dog.
Are these articles helping you with your dog’s behavior? Let us know, we write this stuff for you. If it’s helping (or not), we’d love to know! Leave a comment below.