Tag Archives: dogs

Reinforcement Gone WRONG


Often a chain of actions grows a behavior. Barking, whining, jumping up, mouthing, excitement at the doors … are very commonly increased by chained events and unfortunately most of the time the person doesn’t realize that they are growing the behavior instead of reducing it.

So if your dog is doing something you don’t particularly like and you don’t know why it’s getting worse. Take a look back. Usually two steps of actions back and you then will spot the behavior/reinforcement cycle.

What then? Put more steps into the cycle or take out a step right before or after the dog’s usual action. Example: in the above cycle the dog barked, woke the person up, then got affection or maybe play time outside. Options: 1. ignore barking (earplugs) and wait until it completely stops before getting out of bed … stay neutral (non-reinforcing) until several preferred things have been offered by the dog, or 2. Schedule wake up time earlier, before dog would usually start to bark or whine, then reinforce quiet behavior immediately, or 3. dog barks, you wake up and go to bathroom and dog follows quietly and lays down (no speaking), you go to other room and dog is asked to do a series of behaviors … sit, down, do trick … then gets rewarded with pets and praise (with this, you may be just growing a longer chain, but usually not).

In our house, Jazzie goes over by the stairs and leans against the wall when she wishes to go outside. Or if I’m using the computer, she puts her head on my thigh and waits. I see her there or feel her chin, get up and go outside with her and play flying disk games. Lately she’s been increasing her requests. Why? Because the reinforcement of the game. Why was I playing the game … because it’s winter and I have to get dressed to go outside and so for efficiency sake potty plus game.

Since I don’t want excessive requests … I let her out, said nothing, waited for her to go potty and turned around and came back inside. She didn’t need to go potty, so it was just a game request.

I like her go outside reminders, because sometimes I can get overly involved in reading or work, but I don’t want to have to let her out too frequently. So we just won’t play her favorite games outside unless I’m the one who initiated the trip outdoors. I expect this will reduce her requests. We’ll see.

Have you discovered unintended behavior chains?




Dogs leaving work – or other stuff is more interesting than you

Other stuff is more interesting than you


Who’s the teacher? Being a student and trainer at the same time

Urrgh! It got my Irish up.

You must be mistaken. I would not just go sniff a Boxer's private parts. I am much too refined for that. I was investigating and you kept interfering with my important work and wanting me to jump over and go through tunnels. Mmmph.        -photo J. Renzoni
You must be mistaken. I would not just go sniff a Boxer’s private parts. I am much too refined for that. I was investigating and you kept interfering with my important work and wanting me to jump over and go through tunnels. Mmmph.                                                                                                                                   -photo J. Renzoni

Last night at agility basic class Obie decided to leave the course and me and go visit the dogs at the sidelines. The Duck Toller said, “Get out of here!” So he left. The Aussie’s people blocked him, so after a couple of hopeful dodges he left, but the Boxer … well he smelled real good and after some initial complaint didn’t seem to mind being smelled. That’s where I caught up and escorted Obie back to the course. We started one jump later so we didn’t have to look at the Boxer and that was fine that time.

Then we waited for our turn again and came up with a slightly different problem, but it ended at the Boxer again. And with slightly different variations we continued, sometimes with a great run, sometimes just at the Boxer.

I asked the Boxer’s person to block my dog, because he was having too much fun sniffing the Boxer. She made a slight attempt. Finally the Trainer came and stood in the way – problem slightly solved, at least for that rendition.

I’m a trainer, why did I have so much trouble figuring out I needed to change the set up for Obie? Which is funny because I predicted from the outset the draw of the dogs was a difficulty – he is very charmed by new dogs.

In this place I’m a student and so I’ve given up much of my training control, which makes me susceptible to following directions and cooperating even if on my own I would have changed things up. Also I wanted it to work and it did part of the time. Also I’m hesitant to give other students direction, because it isn’t my class. Also I know this class is more ‘reactive’ based than ‘proactive,’ but I still tend to cooperate. Urrgh!

Sometimes I think I need reminders like this to be more ready to take control of the situation when I’m acting as a student … of course the new piece of equipment we had just been introduced to was at the beginning of the run (so move that Boxer or block him).

Back to the real problem – dog leaving work. Obie likes food, likes tug, likes agility, but loves greeting new dogs, loves intense smells … and that’s a real problem. With the issues he’s had being noisy and upset being left in kennels (crates and outside runs) I put lots of value, games, food into his crate and kennel. I haven’t put as much into being with me (‘cuz he’s not my dog partially), but this whole thing of him leaving work is a big deal.

Plan: 1) Hand feed at least 50% of his meals with the majority of the hand feeding training being rewarded for returns to me in distracting environments (simple recalls are a no brain-er for him). We started out this morning with a loaded food cube (a game he plays vigorously) and me calling him away from it each second or third hit, clicking and rewarding and releasing him to ‘get it’ again.

2) Upgrade his delight in tug to ‘love it everywhere.’ He’s great in low distraction settings, but he’s not willing to commit to really playing if there are unknown dogs in sight … need to work up to that. We’ll start going to the park and see how far from the walking path we have to be to still play. Also go to the parking lot at the grocery or hardware store and see if we can play tug wholeheartedly.

3) Bring Jazzie down to the cover all and have turns doing some obstacles. Jazzie won’t tolerate irritating sniffing by Obie so there will not be a reward for him. Plus it will be good for Jazz to have to wait her turn.

Sometimes it takes a massive fail to trigger a plan. We’ve got a week of three times or more trainings until next class – wish us luck! Or a strategically placed Duck Toller.

I'm not sure that plan sounds ... wait a minute, a giant fail. Me?!!!    I do smell something good on the breeze though.                - photo J. Renzoni
I’m not sure that plan sounds … wait a minute, a giant fail. Me?!!!
I do smell something good on the breeze though.                                                          – photo J. Renzoni

Intent matters – why is punishment addicting to the punisher?

Intent Matters – essay on why punishment remains so prevalent as a first tool in training despite the serious fallout on both the student and trainer.

Here’s the basis: If my intention is to stop or reduce any behavior, my answer will be punishment. By definition punishment decreases a behavior.

When my intention is focused this way I will be affected by becoming frustrated, angry, aggressive or fearful, because actions, intent and body posture drives our own emotion. And my ‘acceptable’ answers will become more invasive, more disturbing because aversive-type punishment needs to be ‘horrible’ to actually create fear of doing something in another creature. And if or when it works, even temporarily, I will experience significant release of those unpleasant emotions and have satisfaction that all the trouble was worth it. Hence, addiction to punishment-type answers to problems.

And then I will repeat the same process the next time and the next. Never really resolving or clarifying the what’s right and what’s not liked in issues of aggression or jumping up or barking or coming or going or taking things or chewing or pulling   or… you name it. And often creating new, more difficult problems like running away, hiding to do undesirable things, serious aggression …

Remember there are times and places for barking, carrying, pulling and chewing and pottying and jumping on things, etc. You may want these, you may have difficulty getting them back if your dog is afraid to do them in front of you.

If l just keep doing what I have done and expecting a different result and thinking ‘this dog is a problem,’ then I’m just a victim of the dog.

Common side-effects to using punishment* as an answer. Anxiety seems prevalent in many of the dogs I’m seeing lately. All sorts of worry, fear, short attention span, lack of trust, dog-to-dog aggression displays out of fear matched with their humans who are worry, fear, anxiety displaying too. What’s going on?

What does your dog actually know how to do? How many people or dogs has your dog met well (not wildly)? How many places has your dog seen and can he/she do stuff you ask for there? Does she/he want to? Will your dog try new things? Or are they suspicious of anything new you introduce?

Dogs should want to do stuff with people (with their people), if they don’t then the relationship is marred. The desire to do stuff is primary…basic otherwise you would have to ‘make them do it.’ And what fun is that?

A basic concept of behavioral thinking and study is ‘what is rewarded, reinforced or given attention – increases.’ Conversely punishment, by definition decreases behavior – but scaring or hurting or shaming actions have side effects: fear, aggression and limits learning. Yes, your dog will be more fearful, more aggressive and also ‘dumber.’ Maybe if you have really good timing you may be able to stop an unwanted behavior and if you have the intensity just right, and if the dog doesn’t make an unwanted association to something else … so are you really skilled? Do you understand the down side and what to do if it occurs?

Marketing, profit and big money in sales for tools that are used to punish, for example;  Electronic training collars, ultrasonic, no bark collars, electric fencing. In a small magazine of dog supplies there were 31 different remote punishing devices that shocked or sprayed or sounded to scare dogs.  The marketing works, despite the behavioral science which provides different answers and despite the numbers of behavioral problems produced. The marketing says it’s easy to have a well-behaved dog, just use this product. You know the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And dog training equipment is mostly different styles of “hammer” punishment tools.

I’ve gotten to work with a few dogs who were seriously badly affected by electronic devices – one use and the dog wouldn’t go near her owner for weeks, many uses and the dog got so anxious he needed psych medications, aggression towards the owner, crazy behavior, really not coming – as in leaving, and of course biting people and dogs, shaking so badly at a loud noise that was similar to the collar warning that the family thought it was a seizure.

If I focus on dieting, I end up needing to diet more – this is true, by the way, since the biggest predictor of weight gain is having previously dieted. Most diets are self-punishing tools. Conversely, if I focus on wanting/doing something, I see it more often, my awareness of it has increased, my creativity increases toward getting it/doing it.

This function of reward, reinforcement, attention is very important to understand and use wisely. It is easily turned backwards towards  ourselves and the animals we say we adore. The intention, the focus of the behavior change is the important piece. If intention is to stop the behavior or decrease it, then the trainer is focusing on punishment…by definition. If the intent is to create an alternate behavior, then the focus is on reinforcement.

When the focus is on stopping something and it doesn’t stop, people get angry, fearful and frustrated, which turns to disgust, rage, serious fear and/or apathy if continued too long.  Just think of the appalling case, recently in the news, of the man who used a hammer to bludgeon his dog to death because it pooped in the house … sounds like unreasoning rage to me.

Being aware is a good thing. Looking for root causes is a good thing. Being able to name something as a problem or an issue is a good thing. Getting stuck at that point…not good. And getting stuck is where the punishment answers pop up.

Stuck, stuck, stuck and afraid and anxious and embarrassed. I have been surprised at myself becoming embarrassed over dog behaviors sometimes. Here I thought I was beyond that, obviously not quite. Taking a fat, dog-aggressive dog into the vet clinic seems to make me want to explain, ‘no this dog is not mine.’

And I’m a trainer, I can imagine that the real owner is mortified. But the only sure way to resolve a problem without bad side effects is to temporarily prevent and manage the behavior until the new reinforcement (training) of the behaviors  that are wanted are in place. (Or go into permanent hiding always managing, never fixing.)

Let’s say a dog is barking, growling or somehow acting wild when other dogs or people or motorcycles or livestock appears. The first time a pup sees these things it’s not unusual for them to be surprised or fearful and want to hide or want to bark at them. And it’s OK for you to tell them all is well, to kindly joke about it, to give them a reassuring pat, to let them look or to give them extra space to consider the situation and then to distract them with food or a game or toys.

On the other hand it’s not good to over react, or encourage their fear or bravado or to scold or jerk/hurt them as if they should know better, why would they know better? The important focus is to find the parts of their behavior that you want to have and reinforce those as they occur. It’s also important to remember what you just found out so you can use this as a prediction of future behavior (so you’re more ready the next time with the food, toys or game).

Is there a way to always be positively rewarding? No, but the aim is to figure out how to reward behaviors that you like, how to reinforce behaviors that are opposite of those that are unacceptable.

Most of the junk your dog is doing has been rewarded or set up – unknowingly or maybe foolishly knowingly by you. But just because you trained the ‘not so good’ things, doesn’t mean you can’t re-train new stuff. And you don’t need to start by adding punishment.

So the next time you hear yourself starting to reprimand your dog for _________________ (you fill in the blank), review, ‘What do I really want my dog to be doing?’ Then start focusing on and rewarding that and you will be training them a better behavior and if you persist your dog will be smarter, you’ll like them and yourself better and the earlier problem will actually be gone.


(*note in this essay the word punishment is used as it is popularly understood – all levels from soft to hard of hitting, shocking, scaring, yelling, saying no, complaining at them, angrily using their name, jerking, kicking, choking…not in its full behavioral terms which includes negative punishment ,which is fairly benign and effective in changing behaviors and is the taking away of something desired – especially attention – i.e. dog jumps up on me, I ignore or turn away = I have taken away my attention,)