As a trainer working with humans who care for dogs suffering from serious behavior issues, I’m rarely the first trainer an owner has consulted with. By the time I see a client for a serious case, the client has likely already experimented with a variety of techniques without much success and is seeking new solutions. It’s not uncommon to blame a technique when it doesn’t work for you, but it is critical to consider the difference between method and application. If you’ve attempted to modify your pet’s behavior using positive reinforcement techniques and didn’t get the results you were looking for, don’t fret. Adjusting your techniques and building your knowledge are what you need to get yourself and your dog back on track for good behavior.
The current, most up-to-date science on animal learning tells us that positive reinforcement is the most effective method of creating long-term behavior change. Positive reinforcement is defined as the addition of something the learner desires that will strengthen the learner’s future behavior. If you give a dog a cookie when he sits, he is more likely to sit in the future if he enjoyed that cookie. Contrary to popular belief, handing your dog a treat doesn’t necessarily mean you are engaging in positive reinforcement. Reinforcers are unique to the motivations of the learner. If your scent-driven dog is eagerly looking up to you for permission to go sniff a bush only for you to respond by feeding him a treat, you may have just reduced the likelihood of your dog’s “checking in” behavior.
Think your dog isn’t food motivated? The truth is, all living animals are motivated by food, because we need it to survive. If your dog won’t eat any treats during a training session, you might be overlooking your dog’s underlying emotional state. Similarly, you may have accidentally associated food treats with something your dog finds unpleasant or dangerous. This is a very common mistake people make when trying to modify behavior problems using classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a common technique used to teach dogs to be calm and relaxed around other dogs while on leash.
Classical conditioning pairs a conditioned stimulus such as other dogs with an unconditioned stimulus such as food, causing the response to the food to replace the previous response to other dogs over time. The dog sees a dog in the distance and is then fed his favorite food, eventually associating the presence of the other dog with something enjoyable.
Ideally, we are looking for the following behavior equation: See Dogs + Eat Treats = Feel safe/happy = No need to bark, lunge, fight, or bite.
Instead, you may see the approaching dog before your dog does, causing you to reach for your treat bag and begin feeding your dog in hopes of preventing him from noticing the other dog coming and becoming reactive. In this scenario, you can quickly create a problematic association: Eating Treats + Seeing Dogs = Feeling anxious/concerned when owner pulls out treats = Scanning environment for approaching dogs, bark, lunge fight, or bite.
While it may seem subtle, that second equation will create a radically different response from the first. Your dog might associate treats with a scary dog approaching instead of the other way around. Oops! That’s not the association we hoped to create.
Using food to lure your dog toward scary things can also create unforeseen problems. This technique might teach your dog to move toward something that makes them nervous rather than away from it. This can also cause your dog to associate treats with being asked to move in the direction of frightening things. Too much of this and your dog will likely stop following food lures, stop eating all together, or learn to approach things that make it nervous. This has the potential to set your dog up to make a mistake, causing the dog to get into situations it isn’t quite ready to handle, even potentially provoking him to bite.
Plan training to be realistic for your life. Any thorough training plan should include teaching your dog to enjoy a variety of real life and play/relationship based activities that can later be used to positively reinforce behavior without relying on food treats exclusively. Otherwise, you can only expect your dog to do what he has been taught—to perform a behavior for food treats.
Finally, don’t lose sight of ethics. Just because we can do something and it works, that doesn’t mean we should. Science tells us that if you punish behavior effectively, that behavior will occur less frequently in the future. This means that I can use force, fear, and intimidation to create behavior change in my dog. Knowing that adult dogs have the cognitive function of a 2-year-old child, it is important for us to ask if that is ever an ethical thing to do, especially given that positive reinforcement techniques are proven to work more effectively when applied correctly.
If after reading this article, you’ve found some things you’ve been doing that you don’t feel good about, that’s OK. Now you have the opportunity to make some changes and see better results for you and your dog. We should all be ready to change our approach tomorrow if some compelling evidence becomes available. Your dog will thank you for your clear communication and compassion in helping him be his best.
Sara Scott is a certified professional dog trainer and behavior counselor who has been training dogs professionally since 2000. She has extensive experience training dogs that suffer from fear, anxiety, and aggression and runs a small business in Oakland, helping people and their dogs live peacefully together. Find her online at OaklandDogTrainer.com, Facebook.com/dogtrainingwithsara and Instagram.com/dogtraining_with_sara.
Main article photo by: Photo courtesy of Sara Scott