I am talking to my colleague about a recent case he had. We are discussing different possibilities as to why training or behavior modification might not produce the results we would like. We toss around ideas and I settle for three possibilities:
1. The technique or techniques employed are either not appropriate or they are not being used correctly.
2. Lack of client compliance.
3. Not enough training.
4. Unrealistic or non-specific goals to obtain as a result of the training.
As I explained to my colleague, these are my thoughts on the possibilities above:
1. Here is an example to illustrate what happens so very often when people are trying to have their dog stop doing something they don’t like. As soon as the dog engages in the behavior, which in essence it’s the “symptom” or “symptoms,” of the observable and quantifiable behavior of the dog’s inner motivation, the owner might say “no” or give a correction such as a leash “pop,” or use all sorts of techniques to admonish the dog. Sometimes the owner might remove the dog from the interaction or at least block visual access to the stimulus.
2. However, what is missing in all these very common scenarios is that the dog has really not learned any other alternatives for behaving. The result of all these actions on the part of the owner *might* result in suppressing the behavior; most likely because the dog got scared that he will be hurt or scared again. But as you can see, there is truly no behavior modification taking place.
Let’s dive deeper: Is the suppression of the behavior permanent? I would venture to say, that in most cases the answer is no. Because in order for a behavior to become extinct several conditions need to be met such as: there is nothing else motivating that same behavior. The interesting thing here is that behaviors often have multiple motivations behind them. For example: A dog is yelled at and given a leash correction for lunging at another dog. The dog stops for a “while,” but he still will lunge at dogs while on leash because he’d much rather act in a way that might make the other dog “go away” and lunging in the past has worked. The fear that this dog experiences when a scary stimulus is too close will trump the fear of being yelled at or even given a correction that hurts! It might be also the case that the dog has not really generalized that the behavior the owner is trying to suppress will carry intimidation or pain in all instances.
Here is a typical example a lot of pet parents have experienced: They do not want the dog getting on their sofa, when the dog gets on the sofa, the owner yells at the dog “Nooooo” or gives it a squirt with a water bottle or… Okay finally the dog does get off the sofa. Now, do you think the dog will not get on the sofa when the owner is not present? I think we can safely guess that in most cases the dog will get on the sofa when alone at home, so technically, the behavior of getting on the sofa is not truly gone into extinction. Okay, okay, I hear you enough with the Animal Learning stuff! What is one to do instead?
Ah, great question! Troubleshooting is at the center of modifying our dog’s behavior.
First off, let me say that in my example of the dog lunging at another dog while on leash is most likely motivated by what is called proximity sensitivity. In essence the lunging dog has had a bad (or several) bad experiences when he was being restrained in some way and interacted with another dog. So now, he is motivated by fear and wants the other dog to get the message he does not want anything to do with him and if he continues in its proximity (or moves closer) things can get “really ugly.” So, in my very ubiquitous example, the lunging dog’s most pressing motivation is fear.
Now, to make things even more interesting, this dog might be afraid of dogs when restrained BUT he is also curious about smelling the other dog (after all this is how dogs say hello, right?). This is because he actually really likes to romp around with other dogs when everyone is off-leash. If we can peg the most pressing motivation, we should start there in coming up with appropriate measures to teach the lunging dog some new stuff. My first goal here would be to teach him that dogs in close proximity (we start with being far away – where the dog can tolerate the presence of the other dog) that dogs on leash mean really good things for him and not painful stuff such as leash pops or a tightening prong collars on the neck. Once this happy customer realizes that his displays of defensive aggression in other words: “A Go away! Go away!” strategy will not be met with more pain or fear, the dog begins to relax. And now we can teach the dog more appropriate behaviors that will take the place of the lunging (or whatever other “inappropriate behaviors” the dog had learned) to do when in the presence of dogs while being restrained. What is really interesting and a second bonus of using the correct strategy is that as the dog practices the new behavior; say looking at the dog for a few short seconds, and then being asked to look away, the dog is also learning to tolerate the proximity of dogs because he is not associating the presence of dogs with being choked with a collar, yelled at or even worse.
I realize the thinking above is not necessarily intuitive to most folks, but I am here to tell you that if one understands the power of positive and negative association and their role in learning folks will be best suited to help their dogs.
As for my second example of the dog not getting on the sofa when the family is home but doing so when alone, the truth is that while some dogs might get the message and not get on the sofa when unsupervised, I would think of this example as a management situation versus a training scenario. It comes down to priorities in training. Most folks do not have the interest in spending time on behaviors like this when they or their dogs have bigger fish to fry. Management means that we make changes in the environment to prevent the dog in engaging in a specific behavior. Perhaps making the sofa inaccessible to the dog and providing him with a very comfy bed. Reinforcing the dog for lying on the bed when we are around are some ideas.
Next post I will continue exploring the two other points. I hope you will join me in the conversation by reading the blog.