In a previous posting we talked a bit about the myth of dominance and how we really want to teach our dogs to defer to us in situations instead of acting or reacting. We'll cover the "hows" of that in a future posting but first we need to have an understanding of how animals learn, important to know for any training or behavior modification.
It's about pleasure
Animals are are very efficient in their learning. If the behavior is pleasurable (eating, chasing, playing), or gets something access to something pleasurable, the animal will display the behavior more and more often. If the behavior is not pleasurable, or does not work to obtain something pleasurable, the animal will use the behavior less and less. For example, if a dog jumps up and it gets attention, even if that attention is that you push him down, then he knows jumping works. Another example, if a cat play-bites and you don’t end the game, then he knows play-biting works, the play continues.
Bear in mind that rewards (we refer to it in this context as positive reinforcement) are always from the view of the receiver, not the giver. So while you might not think that being pushed away or yelled at is rewarding, from the animal's viewpoint it just might be the attention they crave.
We can use this fact to “sculpt” their behavior by consistently rewarding the desirable behaviors, and ignoring or interrupting the undesirable ones. Gradually you’ll see the animal behaving more and more in desirable ways and “giving up” the undesirable ones. Repetition and practice are key. So go back to that dog who jumps up all the time. Does it really jump all the time? Isn’t there a moment when its four feet on the floor that we can reward? If your dog wants to go outside, the opening of the door is a reward for whatever the dog was doing at the time. This can include pawing at the door and whining. So if you open the door to these behaviors, you are rewarding them!
What about punishment?
Punishment, while it can be effective to stop unwanted behavior it always carries with it the risk of fallout. Once such fallout is that animals make associations with you and with the situation every time you interact with them. Thus while they may learn to respond, using punishment they also may form negative associations to you, to the situation, to training, to people. Thus while they may learn to respond to cues, using punishment they also may form negative associations to you, to the situation, to training, to people. Also, a punishment has to be severe enough to stop the behavior and we may actually put the animal in a no win situation. Finally, effective punishment reinforces the punisher, who is therefore more likely to punish again in the future, even when other arrangements and positive reinforcement would be equally, or more, effective.
So the keys to training or modifying behavior are:
- Manage the situation to prevent what you don't want rehearsed/inadvertently rewarded.
- Train for what you do want
- Be consistent and reinforce, reinforce, reinforce
- Gradually relax management bits, testing to see if training is taking over
- You have to grit your teeth and establish new habits for yourself during this process. And that might mean some inconvenience.
As always, please feel free to ask questions or talk about problems you might be having. Please note, I can't provide behavior help via a blog, but I can point you in a direction to get assistance.