You’ve probably already seen this hilarious guess at what dogs and cats are thinking. (It went viral recently on Facebook, and if you don’t have a Facebook account then you probably don’t have electricity.)
It is funny – but as they say, “funny because it’s true”. Because beneath the humor lies what I consider to be a deep and important insight (at least on the dog’s side): a dog’s life is basically, naturally, endlessly, and inevitably filled with positive reinforcement. Though of course there are tragic cases of abused pets, fighters, breeders, and others who might not live quite such joyous lives, most of the pets we know certainly do. Even the most mundane activities, your dog enjoys. He never gets sick of the same old food, the same old walk, the same old bush to pee on, or the same old dog bed. Waiting for these things and anticipating them is even fun. And napping afterward is fun again. Then wake up…and do it all over again.
The reason this is important to realize is that it makes clear what I consider one of the fundamental principles of dog behavior training:
In order to stop a dog’s bad behavior from being reinforced and continuing, you must stop it from occurring in the first place.
Why? Because whatever your dog does, normally does succeed in leading to lots of awesome rewards! And so it will be reinforced.
Example 1: Your dog whines, howls, barks, scratches at the door, and chews the rug up when you leave. What’s the result? Most important to him, eventually you return! He has a great walk, delicious dinner…so next time you leave, he’s all the more likely to repeat that behavior.
Example 2: Your dog barks ferociously and lunges at the end of the leash when you pass other dogs on the sidewalk. What’s the result? Far more often than not, owners pull their dogs away and quickly continue on or rush away down the side street. From your dog’s perspective at least, the aggression worked! He aggresses, and his “enemy” disappears! Better be sure to bark louder and lunge all the harder at whatever poor pup passes next.
Example 3: Your puppy jumps up excitedly (and undeniably cutely) all over you while you prepare his dinner. The result? He gets fed! Be certain he will continue to jump, bark, and nip for food, and he’ll soon extend that behavior to anything else he wants. Because his behavior succeeds at getting him what he wants, you are teaching your dog to be demanding, dominant, hyperactive, and impatient.
Alternatively, in Example 1 you begin practicing small exercises of making your dog calm and comfortable when you leave and returning before his anxiety can escalate. In Example 2 you turn the other dog’s presence into a positive experience by taking calm control of your dog on leash and have him either walk calmly, sit and relax, or nibble treats when the stranger dog passes. In Example 3 you back your puppy up and make him wait calmly and quietly on his bed, out of the kitchen while you prepare his dinner. In each case, the heaping rewards that soon follow reinforce the calm, peaceful, respectful, obedient, patient behavior instead of the anxious, demanding, dominant, aggressive kind. So that’s what you’re going to get more of.
This may sound like a sort of “Catch 22”, in that I’m making the remarkably vacuous assertion that in order to stop a certain behavior, you must stop it. DUH! The question, one might rightly insist, is “How?” That’s why we hire trainers in the first place – not to tell us TO stop our dogs’ barking, whining, lunging, misbehaving, but to tell us HOW to stop it. Point taken; I am not telling you how in particular to stop these behaviors. And in fact the “how” differs from behavior to behavior, as well as from dog to dog and owner to owner. Sometimes a clap; a snap; a stomp; a hand gesture; distracting and redirecting with treats or other rewards; a movement or block of the body; a tap on the leash; a click of the tongue; a verbal command. The important point that I want to stress here is that in order to stop bad behavior in the long term, the most important principle is to prevent it from occurring right now, right here – though the “how” will vary case to case. Preventing bad behavior will always be more effective than allowing it to occur and then administering time-outs or any other punishment after the fact. And bad behavior certainly won’t just “fade away” on its own – as so many dog owners realize later was mere wishful thinking.
The good news is that because of the “Your dog’s life is positive reinforcement” principle, illustrated by the above imaginary diaries, your dog’s good behaviors can be reinforced just as easily as his bad ones. Yes, if you allow your dog to do bad stuff, he’ll learn to keep doing it more and more. But on the flip side, if you keep him from doing bad, the good alternatives will be reinforced – so you’ll eventually start to get more and more of the calm, happy, peaceful, obedient behavior you want. Without even having to ask for it!