You Don’t Know It… But You Are Reinforcing Your Dog’s Bad Behaviors

Over the time I have worked alongside clients and their dogs there is an underlying reason why people come to professionals for dog training. Dog owners’ simply can’t solve the problems on their own or don’t have the knowledge to effectively stop undesirable behaviors. Some individuals go as far as anthropomorphizing dogs as their own kin. Dogs are actually quite simple when it comes to communication. Dogs only have the ability to feel a limited number of emotions as opposed to human complex emotions. Using a rudimentary and simple language is one of the best ways to communicate with dogs. Operant conditioning gives dogs a full spectrum of our expectations and it is very simple to implement. I will go into more detail about how one can use verbal and physical praise, and also discuss how one can use verbal and physical corrections to help solidify a stronger communication method with all kinds of canine companions.

Your Voice is A Clicker

The most common way of communicating with canines is one’s voice. When one uses “baby talk” it can be interpreted as verbal praise. Dogs can sense the cheerfulness through the inflection in a voice. If verbal praise is used in the wrong moments it can lead to accidentally reinforcing a behavior to happen more often. For example, let’s say a puppy is whining while you are in the checkout line, so the owner tells them “it’s ok” in a sweet, soft tone trying to console them. In turn the owner is telling them it’s ok to whine while waiting to check out. Dogs can take this verbal praise as a form of reinforcement depending on their sound sensitivity, temperament, and genetics. Reinforcement is encouraging a behavior to happen more frequently, so whining in the checkout line may happen more frequently because one has verbally praised them to do so. This can also be used to reinforce positive behaviors as well.

Clicker training is a great example of how we can use audible praise. Each time the dog hears a click on the clicker they receive a treat. The dog then starts to understand that each time it hears a click it marks the moment in which they will receive a reward. A marker is a verbal word or audible sound that is paired with a physical reward and/or correction. This notion is our modern example of Pavlov’s Dogs. Ivan Pavlov was one of the first people to understand how dogs retain and understand information. Each time one of the dogs in his experiment heard a bell ring they would salivate because they had already been conditioned that a meal would follow after the ring. So keep in mind your voice acts as a clicker to your dog! Make sure you are using the right voice at the right time to ensure you’re not rewarding or reinforcing bad behaviors!

Touch, Food & Play

The use of treats, touch, or a toy is considered physical praise because we are using more than just our voice to communicate a desirable behavior. Adding something physical to the equation applies in all positive quadrants of operant conditioning. Positive reinforcement is used amongst all “positive only” training methods but is also extensively used in balanced training. An example of positive reinforcement can be to teach a basic command like “sit”. One uses a treat to entice the dog into a position then marks that moment in time with a verbal marker such as “yes” and then gives the dog the treat. The behavior then begins to happen more frequently because the dog is understanding that is how the dog will receive a reward. Reinforcement using any of the physical rewards can also be conditioned subconsciously by a human. Take for instance a dog that jumps on people. The dog may have had that behavior reinforced on accident by their owners. The owner’s way of getting their dog to stop jumping up, was grabbing their paws and setting them back to the ground. Setting them on the ground is considered physical touch so even if the owner is using a verbal correction but still setting them back to the ground it can be considered reinforcement especially if that verbal correction hasn’t had any consequences.

Saying “No” Isn’t Always Enough

Dogs have all types of temperaments, drives, and genetics. When it comes to guidance and leadership it may take a more assertive, calm demeanor, and even a tool such as a prong collar to correct a behavior. As we are correcting behaviors we use positive punishment in the quadrant of operant conditioning. A verbal correction may not have enough value with certain dogs if they are easily aroused or have a higher drive for other stimuli in the environment. Take for example a dog on a walk that sees another dog across the street and wants to go greet that other dog. We can tell them “no” several times and it still won’t do anything about that situation because greeting that other dog is more motivating than listening to the words we are trying to communicate. The motivation to see and/or greet that other dog is too overwhelming to listen to our verbal correction. As we continue to try to verbally correct our dog as their arousal to the situation builds, we also lose value in the word “No” because there is no consequence behind the meaning of that word in a dog’s mind. This is where a prong collar can be useful. The prong collar is designed to replicate a dog correcting another dog like a mother dog corrects her puppies for undesirable behaviors. It is also one of the most effective ways to communicate to our dogs that their behavior is unacceptable rather than physically intervening with our hands. In my opinion, “each time my hand enters my dog’s space it should mean something positive, never a punishment.”

Conditioning a Verbal Marker as a Correction

The use of a prong collar can help us develop a physical correction paired with a verbal marker such as the word “No”. This technique is taught and used at Complete Canine. If the prong collar is used consistently with a verbal marker, the verbal marker starts to gain more value. One then can create an empowered verbal correction through rehearsal and conditioning. Take for instance a scenario where a dog sees a bunny and wants to go chase after it, but one has consistently been using a prong collar and the verbal marker “No”. The moment when one says “No” as the dog is about to bolt, the dog should acknowledge one’s verbal correction and use their impulse control to stay because the word “No” has had a unwanted consequence every time. The word “No” has been conditioned to mark a correction. Some dogs may take more time to grasp the concept of good and bad consequences depending on their temperament, drive, and genetics.

Each Dog Is Different

Genetics, temperament, environment, emotional state, exercise, health and many other things can be major factors to training your dog. With genetics for example, if a Terrier sees a small rodent and wants to go chase it, an empowered verbal correction may not be enough to break their motivation and drive to capture it, as the Terrier was bred to chase and kill vermin. Each breed was bred with a purpose and one needs to take into account their genetics and natural instincts into each circumstance and how to best train their dog. Each dog needs an outlet for their breed requirements. The amount of exercise dogs receive can also have an impact on how dogs retain information. If a dog is poorly exercised that dog can become easily over aroused because they don’t have an outlet for the energy that should be expelled daily. Dogs are migration animals and need to explore the world, use their nose, and tap into their ancestral instincts. Exploring is stimulating to a dog’s brain. Mental stimulation is another necessity in a dog’s daily routine. An example of mental stimulation can be problem solving or puzzle games. It is mentally exhausting and helps to balance our dog’s emotions. Problem solving can also consist of a dog figuring out how to get a reward or avoid a consequence through trial and error.

Emotional state can also dictate how a dog retains information. Dogs have the ability to feel 9 emotions. These emotions are affection, joy, happiness, excitement, calm, content, anxiety, worry, and aggression. Health can also be a factor in our dogs emotional state. If a dog is under the weather and isn’t feeling well they can be more irritable and can be more easily triggered to all types of stimuli. Lastly a dog’s temperament can dictate how they respond to verbal or physical praise and correction. A dog that is exuberant may not be phased by a verbal correction and may need a physical correction to understand what is acceptable. If the specifications of each individual canine is fulfilled this can also play a role in a dog’s behavior.

Wrapping it All Up

The world becomes black and white to a dog once it is understood there is an incentive for good behaviors and consequences for bad behaviors. There is less gray area for confusion and dogs are able to look to the owner for guidance while navigating the environment. A dog that can problem solve becomes an active thinking pup which can lead to less anxiety, more confidence, and less behavioral issues. Each dog is different and may take a different hierarchical approach through corrections and praise. Verbal praise and correction may be effective to a certain extent but can be abused as it is used without any reinforcement. Physical praise and correction gives a concise picture to our dogs, as it balances the spectrum of incentive and consequences. We also need to take into account how our dogs process information due to genetics, emotional state, physical and mental needs. Utilizing a simplistic language to communicate to one’s canine companion will lead to less accidental reinforcement. Being conscientious of how one communicates with dogs can create a substantial change in the bond one shares with canines, and improve the life of the dogs you interact with or own!

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