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Unintentional Reinforcement

Do dogs count? Yes!

How high does your dog count? Think of the times you have asked your dog to do something and it takes three or four times before they actually do what you have asked. Is your your dog is stubborn or stupid, probably not. Your dog is counting to the "magic number" that you actually expect them to behave and do as you ask. Whether you know it or not, you have trained your pooch to do exactly what you want.

Reinforcement is the basis of all animal training – intentional or unintentional. Unintentional reinforcement happens when you unknowingly reward or reinforce an undesirable behavior. This usually happens when you mean well, but accidentally tell your dog to do something different than you really want it to do. If you tell your dog "SIT" twice, you are teaching your dog that the first command is worthless and should be ignored. Eventually, you begin reinforcing the third and then the fourth command and before long you have unintentionally created the Carlos, the incredible counting canine.

You may have had this happen in your household. The postal carrier, FedEx driver or really any other person comes to the door and you tell the dog to "STAY" while you open the door. You chat with the person and your dog wanders away. You have now unintentionally reinforced that STAY means sit still for a moment and then leave. To help your dog understand what you really want, you need to be specific and make sure your dog performs the command the same way every time you ask. If the dog does something different, you need to correct and redirect to the behavior you asked for. 

Timid and shy dogs offer a whole new aspect to unintentional reinforcement. When encountering a new situation your dog may be shy, timid or tentative and you being the loving owner that you are, reach down and pet the dog while talking in soothing, cooing tones. You might even catch yourself saying something like "It's okay mommy's little sweetie." What your dog understands from your stroking and gentle voice means, "Great job! This is exactly what I want you to do! I love it when you are shy and timid!"  In an instant, you have reinforced the shy, timid behavior that you were hoping to discourage.

As weird as this may seem, the same thing applies to aggressive dogs. Picture walking your dog and having a person approach. Your dog feels unsure and may raise hackles or start growling. You reach down and stroke the dog talking in soothing tones. Just like the shy, timid dog, this dog now knows that hackles and growling are good and that you like when they treat strangers that way.

Barking dogs can be unintentionally reinforced too. A dog barking and yapping up a storm in the yard gets brought inside so the neighbors don't complain. Now you've taught the dog that barking gets them indoors.  One of my clients told me that they don't bring the dog inside, they yell, "SHUT UP!"  like a fish monger out of the window. Weird isn't it? Even screaming from a distant window tells the dog that is exactly what you want from them. Lonely dogs, starving for attention, welcome the horrible harsh corrections that their owners may dole out. 

Eliminating Unintentional Reinforcement

Like a lot of things, recognizing that there is an issue is the first step in correcting the problem. Sometimes it helps to keeps a tracking chart for a week to ten days so you can quickly see patterns.

For the first half of the tracking week, tally the number of times the behavior you wish to eliminate occurs. Do not make any changes during this initial time period; just keep tracking the behaviors. For the second half of the week, correct the behavior in your usual fashion and keep track of the number of times the behavior occurs. Here's where you'll learn how to tell if your actions are correcting or reinforcing the behaviors. If the frequency of the "problem" does not noticeably reduce by your action, then you are not correcting the behavior. If the frequency of the "problem" is increased by your action/correction then the action is reinforcing the behavior.

The next thing you need to accomplish is effectively correcting or changing the unwanted behavior. Reinforced behavior will increase and behaviors that are not reinforced will decrease and eventually disappear -- this is called extinction. Each time your dog presents you with the problem behavior use it as an opportunity to train the behavior you desire. This method will also show you areas that you and your dog need to work on. If you use good leadership skills and management along with positive reinforcement training you should be well on the way to creating a happy and productive working relationship with your dog.

Animals love consistency and you'll love what consistency will do for you and your companion.

If you SAY IT, MEAN IT. If you MEAN IT, ENFORCE IT. Always PRAISE for doing something right.

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