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Reinforcement - The Key To Successful Dog Training

What is this thing called Reinforcement? As you may have noticed, if you have read them, throughout the homepage files, Reinforcement is often mentioned. Understanding reinforcement is critical to understanding your dog's behavior, how it was learned and how to be successful in making any changes in his/her behavior. Here is a statement to always remember. THE VAST MAJORITY OF YOUR DOG'S BEHAVIOR IS THE RESULT OF REINFORCEMENT!!

Before we start, I would like to say something about guilt. Many people feel guilty upon discovering they were reinforcing the very behavior they are dealing with at the moment, or a behavior they ended up disliking. I can understand this feeling, but I really consider people blameless in this matter. If one has little or no understanding of how reinforcement works, and most people don't, it would seem a exercise in futility to blame the person. With my own dogs, even understanding reinforcement and training dogs for twenty years, I still occasionally, accidently, reinforce something in one of my dogs which I learn to regret later. Behavior is not stamped in stone! Using the proper methods, one can always change a behavior they may have accidently reinforced in the past which is less than pleasing now.

Keep in mind you may or may not have been the person who reinforced a particular behavior in your dog. Anyone, friends, relatives, neighbors, kids could have been the one who reinforced a certain behavior. Anyone who interacts with your dog has the potential of reinforcing behaviors in your dog.

A simple way of talking about Reinforcement is to say it is anything your dog likes. Food, petting, tones of voice, certain words, facial expressions, playing with a certain toy, access to the outdoors, access to the person or persons the dog loves, and a very important one most people don't consider, escaping from something unpleasant. These are just a few of the possible Reinforcers which determine most of your dog's behavior. Simply stated, this is the reinforcement procedure: WHEN YOUR DOG DOES SOMETHING YOU LIKE, IMMEDIATELY DO SOMETHING YOUR DOG LIKES

A pup comes into our world. He/she starts behaving. (doing things). Some of the pup's behaviors get reinforced, and some do not get reinforced. The vast majority of the behaviors your dog has when he/she is a year old, or older, is the result of accidental or intentional reinforcement. True, some of a dog's behavior is genetic in origin, but the vast majority of the behavior we are concerned with in day to day living are learned or reinforced. Even the genetic behaviors can be exaggerated or of little consequence depending on whether or not they are Reinforced. Most research seems to indicate genes, for the most part, give a dog at best, a predisposition to have certain behaviors, or behave in certain ways.

Reinforcement is powerful and fast! It has been estimated that ONE Reinforcement can increase the probability from near zero percent to as much as eighty percent of a behavior happening again! Imagine that! Just one Reinforcement can almost guarantee the behavior will happen again in the future. Do you begin to see why a knowledge of Reinforcement is so important to understanding your dog's behavior and this understanding being a requirement if one is trying to teach or change some behavior?

A second very important consideration is the timing of the Reinforcement. Four Tenth of a second after the dog does a behavior is the optimal time to Reinforce. Much research has shown this to be true. This makes a great deal of sense, for obvious reasons, if one thinks about it. A dog is continually behaving. e.g. moving. If one waits a second or two to Reinforce, its very easy to be Reinforcing something other than what was intended. For example: teaching a dog to sit. The dog sits but one may wait until the dog stands to Reinforce the sit. In reality, one is Reinforcing the dog to stand, not to sit. Whatever the dog is doing when one reinforces is what gets reinforced!

Many times, while I was still training dogs, the problem voiced by the owners was their dog was jumping up on them. Often, while I was talking to the owner, as a result of the owner's lack of the understanding of Reinforcement, I would see the dog jump up, and watch as the owner would be petting the dog. The owner was completely unaware of the fact they were reinforcing the dog's behavior of jumping up on them.

A dog's begging was another behavior I saw many times. The dog would pester the owner whenever the owner ate anything. Of course, what was happening was the dog would sit/stand and stare at the owner until the owner gave a bit of food to the dog. Often, the owner would try "out waiting" the dog, but eventually they would "give in" which resulted in the dog becoming more and more persistent in the begging behavior.

Accidently reinforcing aggressive behavior in a dog can often happen with the best of "good intentions" of the owner. A stranger may come to one's home. The dog growls at the stranger. Meaning well, the owner may try comforting the dog with, "That's alright Fido. He won't hurt you". etc. Again, without meaning to, the owner may very well be Reinforcing the dog's aggressive behavior by their words and tone of voice.

The following is an example, which I experienced recently, of a person reinforcing a dog to be aggressive. I went into our local Western store for a purchase. A beautiful, Boxer pup came out from behind the counter. He growled at me. The store owner said, "That's ok Rambo, its ok", in a very pleasant, comforting tone of voice. I tried to explain to the store owner what was happening with what he was doing. I told the store owner the dog did not understand the meaning of his words. I also added that it was very likely with his tone of voice he was teaching the dog to growl. The store owner would have none of what I was saying. In fact, he thought what I was saying was ridicules. Incidentally, I later learned this same dog had bit a customer and was put down.

Sometimes, I have worked with what I call storm dogs. These were dogs that were very fearful of storms and often did much damage to the home and furniture as a result of this fear. Most of the time, I would discover the owner had tried to calm the dog with comforting words during a storm which had resulted in Reinforcing the fear even more. Again, the owner certainly meant well, but by their not understanding Reinforcement, ended up creating or aggravating the dog's fear.

Shyness in dogs can also be aggravated by Reinforcement. A dog may cower or be slightly fearful in certain situations. Again, the owner may try, with the best of intentions, to reassure the dog, but in fact, ends up reinforcing the cowering or fearful behavior.

As you can see, its very easy to either create and/or aggravate any behavior problem with the lack of knowledge of reinforcement.

So, what are we to do with a dog that now has some behavior problems? At first, it may appear to be a dilemma. It is true that to change these behaviors it may take some trial and error, and a little extra skill, and the use of small steps. The solution to these problem behaviors is what is called REINFORCE THE INCOMPATIBLE BEHAVIOR.

The easiest way to understand incompatible behavior is to see that a dog cannot do two opposite behaviors at the same time. For example: A dog cannot sit and jump up at the same time. A dog cannot be friendly and aggressive at the same time. A dog cannot be outgoing and fearful at the same time.

Here, it is much more difficult to be specific as each dog is different and the situations for each dog are different, but I can give you a specific example of the use of reinforcement of the incompatible behavior. A dog is jumping up when approaching the owner. The incompatible behavior would be sitting after approaching the owner. So, the first step would be a good response to the command "Sit" in situations other than the dog approaching. The next step might be when the dog does approach the owner, the owner would give the command "sit" and heavily reinforce the dog when he does it. It does not take long before the dog would learns to approach and sit in front of the owner instead of jumping up. I've used this technique successfully many times with dogs jumping up on their owners without the use of punishment. e.g. stepping on the dog's toes, knee to the chest, slapping on the head. etc.

It may take some detective work to figure out the incompatible behavior and the steps to teach it, but it will work in the long run if you have a good understanding of reinforcement. Hopefully, as a result of this file you will have a better understanding of reinforcement.

If you would like to know ways of maximizing the use of reinforcement, visit my home page at if you are not already reading this file on the home page.

To give feedback, or for any questions that I might be able to help with please e mail me on internet at [email protected], on aol DogTrain is my nickname.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).