As a member of several online forums there are often questions asked about solving behavioral problems. The questions about solving behavioral problems are usually phrased like this, “How to I get my dog to stop [insert problem behavior here]?” This is a very normal way for humans to see problems. However, when you’re talking about decreasing a behavior the solution is most often done by using punishment. Punishment sometimes works, but it can have nasty side effects that don’t justify their use when a risk-benefit analysis is done. The real problem is how do you solve behavior problems using positive reinforcement? Positive reinforcement has many more benefits than risks than it’s counterpart. Using positive reinforcement requires taking a step back and allowing your brain to be creative.
1) What do you want? Be specific.
Problem Behavior: The dog chases after horses.
Desired Behavior: The dog lays at the gate for up to 15 minutes while owner feeds horses. Dog can be called away from horses or sent to a mat away from horses.
Ever hear the saying “Practice make Perfect”? I prefer Kelly Starrett’s phrase “Practice makes Permanent”. Why? If you aren’t practicing behaviors/movements correctly you’ll simply get better at doing it INCORRECTLY! So management helps prevent dogs from practicing unwanted behaviors while you teach them what you want them to do. Keep in mind that management alone is one way to deal with problem behaviors. Management can break down. When management is used without training, behaviors should not be expected to change. Training that focuses on what you want to see is imperative if you want to see long term benefits without side effects.
Possible Management Solutions: Dog remains on a leash or in a crate around horses if he can stay calm. If not, the dog needs to be absent from horses altogether until new behaviors are learned and can then be introduced to the presence of horses.
3) Start with a behavior that you’re already seeing
You cannot build a behavior out of nothing so start with a baby step that has to do with the behavior you’re looking for.
Possible starting points: Dog lays down in house. Dog comes when called for dinner. Dog looks at a towel placed on the floor in front of him.
None of these starting points appears to have anything to do with the end desired behavior but can be built upon gradually and morphed into the final behavior.
4) Break it down!
Breaking behaviors down (or splitting) sounds tedious, yes, but oh sooooo worth it! I would also venture to guess that splitting actually speeds up the learning process because it makes learning fun and limits mistakes and setbacks. Splitting also helps to reduce stress for you. If you write down all the steps, you can easily see and track your progress. Look at your notes once every few days, it’ll be like looking at a diary entry from when you were 7 years old and thinking, “wow, I’ve come soooo far!”
Example split: A) Look at mat B) One paw on mat C) Two paws on mat D) Three paws on mat E) Four paws on mat F) Sit on mat G) Down on mat H) Down on mat with trainer standing 3 feet away from mat I) Down on mat with trainer walking around J) Down on mat in different room K) Down on mat outside L) Down on mat at a distance from horses but horses visible
5) Allow your dog to lead
Make sure your dog has a lot of success at the current step before making it harder for him. If you move too fast you run the risk of discouraging him. Using the above example, move from step A to step B when step B is offered occasionally and drop criteria if 20-30 seconds passes without success. Bonus, sometimes dogs will skip several steps! This is why it’s important to have all of the steps written out so you’ll be prepared for jumping ahead quickly.
6) Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce!!!
Okay, this is a tricky one. You DON’T decide what your dog likes, your DOG DOES. Figure out what would be motivating and use it, liberally! Especially when you’re battling an unwanted behavior it’s important to be generous while rewarding what you do want!
Example reinforcers: Dog – Pea sized pieces of hot dog, cheese and bacon.
Using positive reinforcement to change problem behaviors is possible. Yes, it takes some time but quick fixes will also quickly be broken. Invest in your dog’s future behaviors and you won’t be disappointed.