Understanding Animal Behavior

A few decades ago, an interesting thing happened.  Animal trainers, with their practical experiential knowledge, and behavioral scientists, with their experimental knowledge, began talking with each other.  The result was a huge step forward in our understanding of how dogs learn and why they do what they do.  We know our dogs learn in much the same way that we do. This knowledge freed us to train and handle our dogs as working partners and friends, rather than subordinates.  From the wealth of information about applied animal behavior, below are three principles to help us think about improving our teamwork with our dog.    These principles develop a relationship based on mutual trust and respect rather than domination and control.

PRINCIPLE #1:  Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated (Thorndike’s Rule of Effect).  This is the basis for operant conditioning.  We apply it every time we train or handle our dogs.  Simply put: (1) We give a cue to our dog (The Stimulus)  (2) The dog responds by doing something which we have taught it  (The Response) and (3) We Reward the Action if it was appropriate (The Reinforcement).  What can be tricky here is that what we define as a reward or reinforcer, may not be what is reinforcing to the dog.  More on this later in the tip about rewards and reinforcers.

PRINCIPLE #2:  There is no such thing as bad behavior to a dog.  There is only something the dog does in response to something it senses.   Their responses to our stimuli are usually consistent and appropriate.   So why do they sometimes not do what we want and instead do something else?  Many times, they are responding to a stimulus that does not come from us, but has become more important (more salient) than ours.  To understand salience, we must understand what is important to the dog.  In a dog’s world, the nose is more important than the eyes.   The eyes are more important than the ears.  The ears are usually more important than touch and touch is more important than taste.  When there are multiple stimuli, the dog may not respond to the human’s command word with the desired response, but respond to some other more salient cue with their own action.  To the dog, this is not bad.  To us, it may be something we do not want them to do.  It is not their fault; it is ours.  We must make sure that our stimulus is the most important one.    

PRINCIPLE #3:  Two behaviors cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  There are two ways to address what we consider to be inappropriate behavior. We can make our stimuli and ourselves more important than anything else to the dog.  When we have their attention, we can redirect their behavior.  We can also create a secondary negative reinforcer to be used whenever inappropriate behavior occurs.  We then redirect the behavior.  The second way has the advantage of causing the unwanted behavior to diminish over time.     Again, we need to understand what is negative from the dog’s point of view.  Dogs love attention. Positive attention is the most reinforcing.  What seems counter intuitive is that negative attention is still pretty reinforcing to the dog as well.  So, if we yell when the dog barks or jumps, for example, we are inadvertently reinforcing the behavior.  The most negative reinforcer we can give our dog is to ignore and turn away from them—no touch, no talk, no eye contact. 

Operant conditioning works.  When people say that they have tried it and it did not work, analysis shows that they were not doing it correctly.  When applied within the context of these three principles, operant conditioning can help us address many of the common issues that occur with our dog.  

Written by Dr. Carol Vaseleski, Hendersonville, NC

Edited by Darlene Colmar, Asheville, NC



 
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