Correcting Unwanted Behavior with Positive Reinforcement



It seems like a contradiction. How do we eliminate our dog’s misbehavior with positive reinforcement?

The first step is to focus on what you want your dog to do rather than on what you don’t want him to do. This approach works with all misbehavior, but let’s look at one example in particular: the dog who menaces visitors with barking and growling. We know the problem, but let’s not focus on it. Instead let’s ask ourselves what we’d like to see the dog do when visitors come over instead of barking and growling. Quietly lying in his crate might be a good alternative. Great. Let’s use positive reinforcement training (clicker training, perhaps) to teach the dog to go lie in his crate when guests arrive. The misbehavior is eliminated (replaced actually), and we used positive reinforcement to do it.

Old-fashioned trainers will balk at this idea. Why? Dr. Susan Friedman, professor of psychology at Utah State University, says it’s simply “the perennial gap between research and practice.” Trainers, even some on TV, focus heavily on the dog’s misbehavior. They’re constrained by ever-forceful practices aimed at suppressing what they don’t want the dog to do. Here’s the disconnect. Behavior scientists have known for decades that punishment (intimation in the name of training) has its limitations and side effects. Dogs subjected to these methods often withdraw from social interaction, have suppressed responses to training cues, escalate their aggressive responses, or develop generalized fear (Friedman, 2001). Too many trainers have simply failed to keep up with the research.

But what about safety? If we don’t focus on the problem, in this example aggressive behavior, aren’t we putting people at risk of being bitten? Foregoing archaic methods does not mean we are being gratuitous or precarious in our training. Instead, at every step, we block our dog’s access to repeating the unwanted behavior. In the example at hand, we avoid surprise visitors while we build up the behavior of lying in the crate. As needed, we’d use a leash, baby gate, or other barrier to protect visitors while we refine the fluency of the crate-lying behavior. As we progress, we add other pro-active behaviors related to teaching our dog calm confidence when visitors are present. We’re safe and we’re smart about what and how we are teaching our dog.

And there’s a bonus with all this. Just as harsh training has its deleterious side effects (sometimes called “fall out”), positive reinforcement training has it’s emotional benefits. Dogs who are trained with praise, smiles, and well-timed food treats (again, think clicker training) are generally more engaged socially, respond with vigor to training, and respond more reliably with reduced aggression. This is where research and training practices merge.

As always, real behavior change in our dogs starts with human behavior change. We learn and choose modern training methods. We focus on behavior solutions rather than getting mired in behavior problems. We take responsibility for our dogs’ learning, and we take on an advocacy role for them as a result. We step out from under the burden of having to be a master. We step up to the experience of being a companion and a teacher.

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA helps families with aggressive dogs in Houston, TX.

The Facts About Punishment, Susan Friedman PhD 2001

Functional Assessment: Hypothesizing Predictors and Purposes of Problem Behavior to Improve Behavior-Change Plans, Susan Friedman PhD 2009