Send Reinforcements!

Dogs are constantly learning. Your dog watches you, hears you, smells you and gathers information about your every move. When Fido is lying on the kitchen floor with only one eye open he may appear to be sleeping, but he is really gathering information about your activity and learning about you and your habits. If you have a tendency to accidentally drop a morsel or two on the floor while preparing a meal, how long does it take Fido to learn about that? If you think Fifi is cute when she sits and begs and the begging makes you smile, how long does it take Fifi to figure that out? Of course, the answer is not very doggone long!

Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly reinforcing behaviors that we see in our dogs. What is reinforcement anyway? The definition of reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will reoccur. When my female Lab, Kaia, was a puppy she quickly learned that lying on her back and pawing at the air made me smile in amusement. My smile reinforced her behavior and the behavior is still present and often repeated to this very day.

The most common form of reinforcement is called “appetitive stimulus”. An appetitive stimulus is anything that the dog wants. Some good examples of appetitive stimuli are food, water, praise, touching or petting, safety, freedom and social contact with other dogs. Any time a dog (or a human for that matter) performs a behavior and the behavior results in appetitive stimulus, the behavior is reinforced.

If your dog barks outside your door and you let him in, you have just reinforced barking at the door. If you smile when your dog jumps and puts his front paws on you when you come home, you have just reinforced jumping on people. If your dog makes sad eyes at you while you’re eating and you toss him a tasty bit, you have just reinforced his use of “sad eyes” and you are virtually guaranteed to see the behavior the next time he sees you eating. These are all very common forms of reinforcement of common behaviors.

Some of the less obvious instances of reinforcement are just as powerful, even if they are not as obvious. When a dog growls or snaps at a source of fear and this makes the fear go away, his growling and snapping are reinforced. The classic example of this scenario is the mailman or paperboy who drops his paper at the door and then leaves. From the dog’s perspective, there is the approach of a feared stranger and the fear promotes barking and snarling. Moments later the feared stranger departs, seemingly as a result of the barking and snarling. The dog has just learned that barking and snarling makes scary things go away. What will this dog do the next time he is confronted with a fearful situation?

Similarly, we could be walking a dog and notice the approach of another dog a block away. Our dog then begins to growl which is an instinctive response to fear. If we then move to the other side of the street or turn around, we have just reinforced his growling because the growl resulted in him getting exactly what he wanted, freedom from the fear.

I’m not saying that we should charge headlong into fearful situations when they occur. What I am saying is that we are constantly reinforcing different behaviors in our dogs. By raising our awareness of this fact we can structure our activities in such a way that we reinforce behaviors that we actually want rather than behaviors that can get us and our dogs into trouble.

Virtually every learned behavior has at least one reinforcer. Can you think of other, less obvious examples of specific behaviors and their reinforcers? We’d love to hear about it! Please take a moment and tell us about them!
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