The idea that we should reward our dogs’ good behaviour and ignore their ‘bad’ (unwanted) behaviour is something I hear very often. It’s actually a misunderstanding of learning theory. Learning theory tells us that animals are more likely to repeat behaviour which is rewarded; Unrewarded behaviour is likely to go away (known as extinction).
Ignoring unwanted behaviour, however, doesn’t guarantee that it isn’t being rewarded. The very fact that it’s happening is a very big clue that it’s being rewarded (reinforced) by something. It doesn’t have to be food or a toy that reinforces the behaviour. It could be anything? If a behaviour is being repeated then the dog is perceiving some benefit to it. It is simply how behaviour works. We don’t go about our day doing things which we think have no benefit to us. We fill the kettle in a way which works; we fill it with the tap because that seems to work well. We turn the tap on in an anticlockwise direction because that is what works.
Rather than ignoring unwanted behaviour, we need to ensure that it’s not rewarded. The reinforcer (or reward) is keeping the behaviour alive so why would we just ignore it. A dog which helps themselves to food from the kitchen worktop is being rewarded for jumping up to investigate the worktop. Would we ignore that? of course not. We ensure that there is no reward available for accessing the work surface and we ensure that behaviour we do want to see more of gets nicely rewarded.
Reward good behaviour, and prevent problem behaviour from being rewarded.
We can even teach alternative behaviours to replace the problematic ones but I’ll save that for another day.
Disclaimer: I use the word ‘bad’ for ease of understanding. Dogs aren’t actually behaving badly, they are simply doing what works.
One of the issues which is often raised in my Canine Enrichment Facebook group is that people feel that their dog doesn’t understand what to do or just isn’t interested in the enrichment item.
What are the reasons and what can we do to help the dog?
Lack of motivation
Technically, motivation is the willingness to commence and maintain behaviour toward (or away from) stimuli in order to meet physical and/or psychological needs or desires. Simply put, dogs need to want to do it; it needs to be giving them something they need or want.
Imagine that the dog is fed freely from a bowl. He may even be fed a little too much because the owner never weighs the food and overestimates how much is required. If you then place 2 pieces of kibble in a puzzle toy, does the dog have a need or desire to try to get them out? It depends on the dog! A typical Labrador might still be motivated to get them out but your typical Chihuahua might not be too bothered because he has had all he needs and doesn’t have the greedy lab genes (I’m stereotyping somewhat in order to set a clear example).
Feed less from bowls and more through interaction and enrichment. It doesn’t need to be difficult. We’re not trying to frustrate the dog but spark an interest. Even just rolling kibble like marbles and allowing the dog to chase them can be very enriching; all that chasing, catching and winning, exercising the dog’s coordination skills. Or perhaps food wrapped in a tea towel which allows the dog to bring that fantastic nose into action as he pinpoints each piece. Generally speaking, dogs really don’t need food bowls.
Lack of understanding
The dog may not have any idea how to access the food. Imagine you give a Kong Wobbler (pictured below). The dog sniffs it but can’t see the food (this concept may be new if he has always been fed from a bowl), maybe he nudges the wobbler a few times but nothing happens. At this point why would he carry on trying? He doesn’t know he can make the food come out. Dogs can smell food in many areas which they can’t access, for example within the fridge or in your food cupboards, maybe the empty snack wrapper in your pocket. Dogs are easily able to detect those scents but they learn to ignore them because accessing the food isn’t an option.
We can show the dog that he can access the treats, by making the game very, very easy and then slowly increasing the challenge until we reach the intended goal. Maybe leaving the lid off the wobbler to get him interested, then balancing it on top, then screw it on. Read more about this here
The dog’s history
The dog may never have learned that his interaction or investigation can pay dividends. He may have been chastised in the past for investigating items, for example sticking his nose in a shopping bag. He may have learned that although the human is great and gives lots of good stuff, the human can also be unpredictable and scary (maybe yelling when frustrated). Dogs with such a history may be less willing to investigate new things (even if we say it’s ok).
Try to avoid that all-too-human impulse to chastise (it comes with unintended consequences). Reward any small steps and always allow the dog to feel safe. Start off easy and build his confidence slowly.
There could be a health reason why your canine friend isn’t engaging. Look out for any changes in his normal behaviour; you know their normal behaviour better than anyone else.
If in any doubt you should get him checked over by your veterinarian.
Some activities just don’t suit some dogs. Some generally more timid dogs may be quite nervous of a toy like the Kong Wobbler because they bang and clang as they are knocked around. My West Highland Terrier (Miss Daisy) isn’t interested in doing any heavy chewing, so her Kong has quite loose food inside which comes out easily. Mr B, on the other hand, could quite happily chew frozen or very compact Kongs one after another all day long (that’s not a recommendation).
Mr B loves messing about in water, so a play in the stream is perfect enrichment for him. Miss Daisy has no interest in water and trying to get her into a stream would be more aversive (and stressful) than enriching. Give her somewhere to dig and she is as happy as a double rollover lottery winner.
Consider what your dog likes because not everything will be enriching for every dog. Considering the breed and what they were bred to do can be a good starting point in finding activities which may fulfil strong desires.
EDIT: After publishing the above blog, I received a comment suggesting that I was forcing the dogs to do things or starve. It’s a reminder that, no-matter, how clear you think you’ve been, somebody will misinterpret it. So just for clarity, my dogs’ food is weighed out into containers for each day and that’s what they get, no-matter what activity we are doing. I just use it in interesting ways to enrich their lives and fulfil their needs.
Based on a misconception of wolf behaviour, dog owners have often been directed to establish themselves as the Alpha or pack leader, maintaining a hierarchal dominance order within the home in order to solve behaviour problems and prevent the dog from becoming the pack leader, top dog, Alpha, dominant, or whatever term you choose to use. The term Alpha (in relation to wolves) was first introduced by David Mech (animal ecologist and wolf expert) who later, as he learned more of the wolves true nature, greatly regretted the term.
Wolves, in actual fact, do not hold any ambition to become the pack leader. The leaders of a wolf pack are the parents. The only way to head a family of wolves is to leave the family, find a mate, and produce a family of their own (just like humans do). Even if that wasn’t the case (which it is), dogs are not wolves any more than we are Chimpanzees.
The belief that dogs want to become pack leader has often led to mistreatment because owners are often encouraged to use force to establish their dominance. Ironically, as the Alpha theory is a complete misnomer, dogs are not able to understand our intentions when we use force to dominate them.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the pack leader theory persists. What really bugs me is that there are still professional trainers and behaviourists who charge people a lot of money to tell them how to dominate their dog based on a total fallacy.
They even have a name for it – ‘Rank Reduction’. The idea is that the dog’s behaviour problems are due to them thinking they are high ranking. This instant diagnosis means the trainer doesn’t have to think about what else might actually be causing the issue (that’s convenient). I must have heard a thousand times of straightforward behaviour issues which have been put down to Alpha theory.
A quick search for rank reduction programs revealed 26 exercises (from 6 trainers) for supposedly reducing the dog’s rank. I’m not going to publish the trainers’ names as my intention is only to explain why I believe them to be nonsensical, not to ridicule individuals. I was, however, extremely disappointed to find that one of the authors is very well educated in canine behaviour but still chooses to prescribe (what I consider to be) nonsense.
You may think I’m joking when you read them. I’m not joking and these are absolutely genuine recommendations from professional trainers and behaviourists, aimed at reducing a dog’s rank within the household. My view is written in green, following each item of nonsense.
Prevent the dog from entering or leaving the living room uninvited.This would prevent the dog leaving an area where he feels uncomfortable, prevent him finding a quiet spot, remove the little bit of freedom that dogs have, create anxiety, potentially prevent access to the water bowl and increase behaviour problems because you have removed one of his options for increasing distance from something he doesn’t like (the only other option is to make the thing he doesn’t like, go away!) Does anybody want a dog that’s not permitted to leave or enter the living room (the dogs home) uninvited?
Ignore the dog when he seeks attention.This removes the freedom of a highly social animal to interact, increasing boredom and depression for dogs. The gentle nudge of a dog’s nose on your hand as he seeks to interact is a beautiful thing. Why any dog lover would not find this pleasant is beyond me. Why any behaviourist would consider it an act of dominance is rather odd also. It also contravenes the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which stipulates that animals must be permitted to exhibit normal animal behaviours.
Don’t walk around the dog, walk straight into him so he has to move. You could easily injure a small dog and you could easily create a conditioned emotional response, which means the dog becomes fearful of people walking towards him. This doesn’t tell the dog that you are the boss, it tells him that you are a jerk to be avoided.
If the dog tries to go through the doorway first, slam the door. This from a highly qualified behaviourist. It is (or should be) perfectly obvious to anyone who’s studied learning theory that this could easily create a fear of doors, or going anywhere near them with the owner. When we are dealing with behaviour problems, fear isn’t something we are trying to increase. Utterly shameful!
Hold puppies upside down and growl if they struggle. Continue until they relax.(see number 6)
Press puppy against the floor (don’t allow struggling or nipping), praise when they relax.These things are more likely to cause the puppy to fear being handled, increase stress and cause aggressive behaviour as he grows.
Prevent the dog from getting on bed or chairs.Dogs get on beds and chairs for the same reason we do, ‘COMFORT’. However, if you do have a dog which is prone to acting aggressively, it’s probably not a good idea to have them next to you in bed due to you being in a more vulnerable position. It’s fine to keep dogs off the furniture, but not for rank reduction reasons.
Grab scruff, stare into their eyes, shake and place in a crate for 15 minutes. The dog is not able to comprehend why you are acting in this aggressive way. The only thing you are teaching him is that you are sometimes aggressive. If your timing is good, you may teach him (by association) that a particular behaviour (by the dog) brings on the assault but you could have just taught him a more appropriate behaviour in the given situation (differential reinforcement) rather than causing fear, anxiety, further behaviour problems and a lack of trust. Furthermore, a crate should be the dog’s place of absolute safety. Used as a punisher, the dog is hardly likely to be relaxed in there. This will result in increased anxiety and behaviour problems.
Prevent dog eliminating (going to the toilet) unless instructed to do so.Whilst I see nothing wrong with associating a cue word with elimination, to encourage them to go, preventing it at any other time is ridiculous. How would you prevent an animal from performing necessary bodily functions? Why would you want to? Who on earth would think that going to the toilet increases your rank within a group??? Do we really want to control dogs to the extent that they cannot even eliminate without permission? (Permission to poo sir?). Let’s not forget that according to number 2 (no pun intended) he can’t ask for permission because he’s not permitted to solicit attention!
Prevent dog sniffing unless instructed to do so.I ask you to consider why you ever decided to get a dog if you do not even want to allow them to sniff without permission. Sniffing is an integral part of being a canine. It’s a genetic predisposition and a very strong behaviour trait. It’s how they make sense of the world and it’s great mental stimulation. It is clearly in contravention of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to prevent sniffing.A sniffing dog isn’t attempting to become the pack leader, he’s just sniffing.
I won’t evaluate all of them, I think you probably get the idea, but here’s the rest of what I found. I’m sure a few more hours online would turn up hundreds more.
Keep all toys out of reach
Prevent dog entering doorways first
Sit in the dog’s bed
Make the dog sit before he is permitted to do anything he wants
All interaction should be initiated by the owner
Hold puppies off the ground and growl if they struggle. Continue until they relax
Don’t allow dog to walk ahead
Ignore dog for first 2 minutes
Don’t lay on the floor with the dog
Remain higher than the dog at all times
Don’t blink first when looking at the dog
Never play tug
Make dog perform a 20-30 minute stay each day
Act big, powerful and assertive so the dog is happy to follow you
Force the dog onto his back and hold him down until he relaxes (alpha roll)
Always eat before the dog eats
Rank reduction programmes, I would argue, prevent the dog from functioning normally or having any choices. They remove enjoyment and cause increased anxiety for dogs. To the untrained eye, they can appear to work, but what they are actually doing is moving the dog toward a state of learned helplessness. They may not behave badly because they are afraid to behave at all.
The whole idea that dogs are trying to work their way up some imaginary dominance hierarchy to become the pack leader simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and contrary to helping, many of the exercises designed to help dog owners will more likely increase their problems and/or dramatically decrease the dog’s quality of life.
Dogs certainly should know their place. It should be a safe, comfortable place, where they are not abused in the name of training.
You might think that Mr B would hate his medical collar, but creating a positive association with the collar can work wonders. Mr B gets treats for putting on the collar, hence he thinks it’s an excellent idea. First treat comes before I mess about with the fixings. Second treat comes once I’ve fixed it. Third comes as we do something else to take his mind off the fact that the collar is on.