Thursday, August 11, 2011
Dog Behavioral Modification 101
The field of dog training and dog behavior is an ever-growing field, with more new information emerging all the time. It's also a controversial field, with many experts disagreeing with certain approaches to behavior modification. I'm going to review some basic pieces of information regarding approaching your dog's unwanted behavior.
Before reviewing this, it's always important that owners distinguish between "unnatural" behavior and "unwanted" behavior. With behavior that is natural for a dog, it becomes important to approach them with patience and understanding that we are truly trying to alter that which is essentially natural for them. And it being natural, we shouldn't feel disappointed, frustrated, or that something is wrong with our dog. Natural dog behavior includes digging, barking, sniffing our delicates, and potentially chewing on something before they know any better. These things aren't wrong, they are unwanted. Unnatural behavior can be any natural behavior taken to excess, ie. barking that is persistent without relent all day long. This is a tough determination for an owner to make, as we are not as sensitive as they, and often times there are real reasons they are overstimulated which are still natural. Unnatural behavior may also be obsessive behaviors, ie. a dog I once knew who'd fixate on the last place he saw his ball, and not leave until physically forced. He's stare for hours. This may be more natural for a terrier breed (their job is to find the vermin in the hole), but it wasn't natural for his breed.
1. Positive Reinforcement. This is often considered the most effective method. Versus constantly reprimanding them for unwanted behavior, focus must be to reward them for desirable behavior. Often times the challenge here, is that we pay less attention to our dogs when they are being perfect. If your dog is just calmly by your side, being mellow and sweet, he needs to be praised. He can make a reward correlation between going potty in the right place, being mellow, not barking, any time he is great or does an appropriate thing. The reward can be treats, play, affection; whatever is your dog's motivator. I cannot stress enough how easy it is to miss acknowledging good behavior when it isn't related to potty training.
2.Negative Reinforcement. This includes presenting a negative stimulus following an undesired behavior. For example, shock collars or choke collars, as well as invisible fences. They don't learn what is "right", but they learn what is wrong because they receive a negative response when they perform it. This is considered less effective than positive reinforcement because it punishes them, yet doesn't show them truly how to behave.
3. Punishment. I take away something you like when you do something I don't like. I personally feel there is a fine line between this and negative reinforcement, because like negative reinforcement, it shows the dog what you don't like, but it doesn't necessarily show him what you really want him to do . Some argue another example of punishment is turning your back when your dog jumps. He associates a negative result.. you turn away.. but he may not learn it's because he didn't sit. He just understands it's because he jumped. He may stop jumping, but don't expect he will make the assumption to sit. He may just walk away. A personal exception, I think, to this is removing a snack if they become aggressive over it. But, I feel this can be a mixture of positive reinforcement also. If he's being naughty, he loses the snack. When I give it back and he allows me to take it again without complaint, I pour the praise and allow him to keep it.
4. Classical Conditioning. This is where you teach your dog to associate things together. I ring the bell by the door, I go outside. I go outside, I pee and my owner is happy! Clicker training falls under this category. I hear the click, I know to do something as per I was trained.
5. Counter Conditioning. This is using something incompatible with the undesired behavior. Using play to bring your dog to a different emotional state. For a dog who is fearful, we try to create a different emotional state by countering their current one with other stimulus, ie. throwing the ball/frisbee.
6. Desensitization. This is tantamount to when we see people overcome their fear of snakes by slowly increasing their exposure, until before you know it, they're holding the snake. This could work with an item which scares the dog unreasonably, like a specific house item that is natural. This is also the approach many take with separation anxiety. You leave for 5 minutes. Then 10. Then 20. Slowly you desensitize your dog to the anxiety caused by your departure.
They key thing to remember about all behavior modification, whether cats or dogs, is that we need to acknowledge the behavior immediately. It's not fair to try and correct your dog for something they did 5 hours ago that you missed. Yanking him by the collar to drag him to a pile of poop will probably not resonate with him; we will never fully understand how long their short term memories are. In all fairness, when I come home to destruction I don't punish my dogs, but I definitely vocalize unhappiness towards the pile of debris without directing it towards the dog. Catching them in the act is a whole other issue. Consistency is everything, and everyone in the house must utilize the same modification methods. If not, the dog will not understand. There is a difference between using a louder, dominant voice and freaking out and yelling at your dog. The later will cause your dog to be fearful, and it's intensity is not proportionate to the offense. I hesitate to write about dog behavior and training, as this issue stirs a lot of passion in people. It's the biggest area of argument. Case in point, at Petsmart adoption events, the employees use water bottles and spray the dogs who won't stop barking. This would fall under negative reinforcement. People walk by and make snide comments about it being cruel, but many others find this an effective method, so long as you are not spraying their faces directly. I concur with not spraying faces; it's less about being cruel and more about not wanting your dog to accidentally inhale the water. That would be bad. If any readers have used methods to train which they found super effective, I encourage you to jump on our forum section and share with the other readers!