How Dogs Learn Right from Wrong
Your dog learns to differentiate between right and wrong behaviors the moment he comes into your home and you have the power to help your dog choose acceptable behaviors.
High reward equals high motivation
Let’s pretend that your boss just asked you to complete a special assignment. You didn’t ask for it, perhaps you don’t even want it but you are now on the spot to deliver the assignment. You throw yourself into it, work extra hours to complete it and finally turn it in. Your boss recognizes your hard work and effort by giving you a substantial cash bonus and recognizes you and your effort at the staff meeting.
The next time a special project becomes available, will you be more motivated to take the project and perform again to the best of your ability? Because you have been highly rewarded, you are most likely more motivated to do it again. Consequently, if your boss did not recognize your efforts and you didn’t even receive a, “thank you” what would that do to your motivation? Would you work as hard on the next project? Probably not. In fact, you might think that project time is now a goof time to call in sick or schedule your vacation. Dogs, just like people, repeat behaviors that are rewarded and avoid behaviors that are not rewarded.
Dogs are not born knowing which behaviors are right and which behaviors are wrong- they learn this through trial and error.
Dogs only perform behaviors that are rewarding to them. If the behaviors demonstrated are not rewarding for the dog, the dog will stop offering those behaviors. Every moment that your dog is awake, he offers a variety of behaviors and waits for your response. For example, if your dog sat down politely in front of you and you gave him a pat, verbally praised him or threw him a cookie, the behavior of sitting politely will automatically increase. The dog learned from your response that sitting politely is very rewarding.
On the other hand, if the dog sat down in front of you and you ignored him, the behavior of sitting politely will decrease. Behaviors that result in a non-response or negative response most likely won’t be repeated. As another example, if your dog paws and scratches at your leg and you pick him up in response, the pawing and scratching behavior will increase because these behaviors worked to get your attention. If your dog pawed at you and you ignored the behavior by getting up quietly and walking away, the pawing behavior will decrease. The next time your dog wants your attention, he will try a different behavior because he learned from your response that pawing and scratching does not work to get your attention.
The method we use to train dogs is similar to the methods used in child rearing.
We focus on controlling the environment to prevent the dog from practicing unwanted behaviors and consistently reward behaviors that we do want the dog to perform.
Control the dog’s environment
Actively control the dog’s environment to eliminate opportunities for the dog to practice the wrong behaviors. For example, if your shoes are placed out of the dog’s reach, he cannot chew on them. If the bathroom doors are closed, the dog cannot play with the toilet paper roll or root around in the garbage. If the dog is crated during mealtimes, then he cannot practice begging behaviors, steal food from the babies highchair or jump up on the table to obtain food. Not letting your dog practice the bad stuff in the first place is essential so that you can focus on teaching him which behaviors are right.
Eliminate reinforcers when the dog performs unwanted behaviors
Reinforcers are things that your dog finds rewarding and when offered to the dog, ensure that he repeats the behavior. Common reinforcers include eye contact, physical contact and the sound of your voice. It is very easy to accidentally reward your dog when he offers a behavior you don’t like. For example, if the dog jumps on you and you tell him, “No!” while pushing him off of you, you have just accidentally rewarded the dog for jumping. The sound of your voice and the touch he received are very rewarding to the dog and the jumping behavior will increase as a result.
If you catch your dog doing something that you like, praise him, “good boy!” Is he lying down quietly chewing a bone? Good boy! Is he taking a treat gently from your hand or sitting calmly by your side? Tell him that you like these behaviors by praising him when the behaviors occur. You cannot praise your dog too much! Remember that every behavior you acknowledge will be repeated by your dog.
When do you start training?
The minute your dog comes into your home, he’s learning and forming habits. Every interaction you have with your dog is an opportunity for him to differentiate between right and wrong behaviors. The humans in the household are also developing habits. How do you respond to the puppy whining in the crate or the puppy that barks at you for attention? You may be unconsciously rewarding behaviors that can become a bigger problem later on. It is best to develop good habits right away rather than teaching puppy undesirable habits which will have to be fixed later. If you wait to start training your puppy, everyone will have to work harder and unlearn bad habits while also learning new ones. Start shaping good behaviors now!
Set your dog up for success by providing professional dog training, issuing a consequence (positive or negative) at the appropriate time and ensuring that you’re attending to the “right” behavior. Your dog will thank you for the clear communication and you’ll finally have the well-behaved, well-trained dog you’ve always wanted.
©Paws in Training, 2011
The goal of all dog training is to provide peaceable solutions to everyday problems so that pets and their owners live harmoniously. Paws in Training provides dog and cat training services in Raleigh, Apex, Cary, Fuquay Varina, Holly Springs and Garner, N.C.