What are You Actually Rewarding?

What are You Actually Rewarding?
It has taken years for reward-based training to become popularized and seen as the rule rather than the exception. Years of scientific research, studies and numerous books written by pioneers in the industry have finally set dog owners on a more ‘positive’ path. 

Science has told us that dogs are more likely to repeat behaviour that is rewarded rather than refrain from performing behaviour that has been punished. That’s not to say that punishment doesn’t play a role in teaching and communicating with our dogs. Without getting too technical, there are four main quadrants in operant learning theory and it is virtually impossible to live your life with any living being without implementing all four, either accidentally or on purpose; but that’s not what this post is about.

In my canine behaviour practice, Pet Intel. & Emotional Well-Being, we subscribe to a methodology called LIMA. This stands for Least Intrusive Minimally Adversive. Essentially, we use the least amount of force necessary to achieve our goal and teach the dogs effectively.


It does go beyond this simple concept though. We want dog owners to consider the emotions behind the behaviour. This means that the focus is not on ‘compliance’ or immediate ‘results’, but instead on building long term skills, understanding, communication and the overall well-being of both the dog & the human. We want the owner to learn how to help their dog become the best well-rounded version of themselves. We change the focus from compliance to calm. 

 So what does this mean when put into practice? It means we need to take a moment, step away from our training minds and begin looking deeper. One ‘rule’ or recommendation I find myself putting in place with new clients who are trying to implement some sort of behaviour change program, is to stop using their obedience commands. Many of the clients we work with have dogs who have excelled in basic training, are highly intelligent, and tend to be highly sensitive creatures. These training cues or buzz words do mean something to the dog if they are present enough to 'hear' them. Like pressing a button the word "sit" has the dog quickly placing its bottom on the floor.

Let me set the mood with a specific, but very common story.

Ruby has always been a social and friendly dog, but lately her owners have noticed her becoming more reactive on leash and at the front door towards people. She has never hurt anyone, but her owners are concerned that her new behaviour appears aggressive and they don't trust how far she will take it. 

I arrived at the home of the lovely couple with a beautiful, 60 pound, well-bred, 2 year old, female Bulldog. She began barking the moment she saw my car pull in the driveway. The door opened and Ruby was adrenalized, excitable and intense. She was jumping, barking and drooling. Despite my previous instructions to the couple to ignore Ruby’s behaviour when I entered the household, their knee-jerk reaction was to grab Ruby’s collar and command her to “sit”. All 60 pounds of Ruby’s loose skin and tight muscles formed the position of a sitting dog.  Her wrinkly Pac-Man face open wide, panting and snorting, her tongue out and hanging to the side, her eyes fixed and dilated. “Good Girl” the owner said and then released her. Ruby instantly threw her big clunky body against mine with enthusiasm and started grabbing my hands with her mouth. I reminded my client to ignore Ruby's behaviour so I may have an opportunity to see the choices she makes on her own. From the first two minutes of walking in the door, both the owners and Ruby had begun telling me a story of how we got to where we are.

When I recommend to a client to stop using their training cues for a period of time, it’s not uncommon for the client to look at me sideways and say “Why on earth would we want to stop using something that works?”. This question is my inspiration for writing this post. “What do you think you are actually rewarding?”, I respond to the client. The common answer, “I don’t know. I guess I’m rewarding him for responding to my command.” While this is true to a certain degree, you can't separate the dog's physical and emotional/mental self. So, while you are in fact rewarding the dog's body position, you are also rewarding the dog's state of mind. In the above scenario with Ruby, the owners rewarded Ruby for whatever the emotional equivalent of a gremlin is, essentially telling her that they like it when she is crazy, tense, thoughtless and impulsive.

Dogs are dynamic beings with thoughts, feelings and emotions. We can not separate their physical and mental states.

Traditional training cues have huge value as they communicate to the dog what body position you wish them to be in or which task you would like them to complete. The reason we have clients stop using training commands for a period of time is so they can learn to listen and communicate with their dog in a different way. When owners stop dictating commands the dog begins to THINK about their options. 

Instead of telling your dog the answer to a problem, let them THINK about it and start to enjoy watching them problem solve. Your dog is entitled to his/her feelings.
When presented with restricted access to something they desire (like greeting a familiar person or being let outside to play) most dogs will land on some sort of default behaviour somewhat quickly. Usually this is a sit or a down while looking at the owner. Obviously, if the experimental problem solving behaviour is potentially dangerous, certain management protocols will need be to be implemented.

In most cases, the most difficult part of this type of teaching is for the human to practice patience. Owners must be prepared to allow their dog make a few mistakes before landing on the appropriate behaviour. Free thinking is a valuable part of learning. What we are watching and waiting for is not for the dog to sit. We are watching and waiting for our dog to calm down, think through a problem, ask a question, look to their human for support and direction.

In time, owners are able to re-introduce their training cues. Armed with the added understanding of their dog’s emotional and mental state, the “sit” command can begin to be taught to mean calm down while in a seated position. If we live this way with our dogs, when in situational conflict (I need access to something, I want something to go away), the dog's new default behaviour is to think, calm down and look to his/her owner for direction. 

As with any topic, there are 1000’s of other little aspects that can contribute to the success or lack of success in behavior modification and training. The purpose here is to have readers begin to think about what emotional and mental state they are rewarding when using reinforcement protocols. Owners need to begin to observe their dogs on a deeper level when training or modifying problem behaviours. We all must recognize that we cannot separate the dog's physical and emotional/mental parts when teaching. For more information on this this topic or to book a virtual consultation with Jessica Eden O'Neill at Pet Intel. & Emotional Well-Being, please click the link, visit the website and fill-out the contact form.


Visit us at www.petintel.ca to work with a behaviour and health coach.

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