Is Your Dog Training Approach Confusing Your Dog?
Dog training concepts typiclly are simple, and solving minor behavior problems often is just a matter of clear communication and rewarding alternate behaviors. But what is clear to humans is not necessarily clear to dogs.
A client recently called to discuss a problem he was having with his dog. The dog would put his feet on the kitchen counter, table and sofa. Despite consistency on the owner’s part, the behavior just would not go away. I asked the client to explain his approach to solving the problem.
He said that whenever the dog would put his feet on something, he would tell the dog “no,” put its feet back on the floor, and then tell the dog “good boy” and praise it. Seems simple enough, right?
(As I dug deeper into the client’s approach to dog training, it became apparent that this pattern of correcting and then praising the dog extended deeper into the dog’s training. There were also hunting-related issues (maintaining a standing position, rather than sitting, when told to “whoa,” for example), in which the client was using the same approach to solve the problem.)
At first blush, the client’s approach seems to make sense:
- Mark the dog’s unwanted behavior (telling the dog “no” in this case)
- Show the dog the desired behavior (putting his feet on the floor)
- Rewarding the alternate behavior (praise and petting)
However, the dog was receving a completely different message than the client intended. In fact, the client established a counterproductive behavior chain. If I may anthropomorphize for a moment to make a point, the process going on in the dog’s mind might be characterized like this:
- Let me put my feet on the counter and see if there is anything yummy to steal! (Getting to look around on the counter is a reward in itself, and if there is food … even moreso.)
- Dad just put me back on the floor and is praising me! I can get more praise by putting my feet on the counter more often! (The dog is associating the unwanted behavior with the reward … again.)
The dog was consistently receving a double reward for putting its feet up on things. No wonder, then, that the behavior problem was proving difficult to remedy.
This blog post is meant to illustrate how improper communication can confuse dogs, not to present a complete guide to behavior modification. That said, several problems in the client’s dog training approach warrant mentioning. For example:
- A alternate behavior should have been defined and regularly rewarded other than immediately following the problematic behavior.
- More emphasis should have been put on the dog choosing the rewardable alternate behavior. Ultimatley, the dog was never making a rewardable choice to keep its feet on the floor. All the thinking and choice-making was being done by the client.
- For most dogs, praise is a weak, low-value reward compared to other rewards in this scenario (i.e. food on the counter, resting on the sofa). For a better understanding of rewards, check out this article.
Because of sending mixed signals, the client’s consistency only served to provide energy to his dog’s unwanted behaviors.
It reminds me of the error of a common saying: “practice makes perfect.” The truth is, practice does NOT make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Doing it correctly gets the correct results.
If your dog has a stubborn behavior issue that will just not go away, give us a call. Chances are your communication needs some clarification.