Mark's Dog Blog

Are You Really Stopping Unwanted Behaviours?

Consequences A predictable unpleasant consequence overrides behaviour

sitI had a conversation with a dog owner that raised her dog by purely positive methods. During that conversation we discussed ways to stop unwanted or dangerous behaviours. I suggested to her, that unless a dog has a reason to avoid a behaviour, then the chances of having the dog understand it shouldn't be doing a particular behaviour is virtually nil. A dog will very quickly learn to avoid ANY behaviour, if the consequence for that behaviour is unpleasant enough. This is how all animals learn to avoid behaviours.

Her view was that its not good to teach a dog to avoid a behaviour, as that can only happen if we are mean to the dog by physically punishing it. We should instead use more kinder methods to help the dog choose an alternative behaviour by using positive reinforcement. She stated, "we just offer the dog a more rewarding alternative behaviour to focus on to stop the unwanted behaviour". I asked her to give me an example. The example she gave me was, she stopped her rescue dog from jumping up, by every time she came home she told her dog to sit, then immediately rewarded her dog with a food treat. She informed me, now when she comes home and her dog approaches her, she immediately tells her dog to sit, then pets her dog or gives her dog a treat. I asked her, has she ever just walked in and not asked her dog to sit, or just ignored her dog? Her response was, yes, but then her dog jumps up as he is all excited to see her and wants her attention, so she always makes sure he understands to sit, and then reward him every time. If she forgets to tell her dog to sit and he jumps, she then tells him to sit then rewards him with praise. I looked at her, and said, look at this situation from your dogs perspective, who is training who here? Your dog is only looking for a high value reward, and has taught you to offer it on demand. Discipline shouldn't need to be rewarded, it should just be understood that a certain behaviour will not be tolerated, end of story. If your dog still jumps up if you don't immediately give it attention, then your dog obviously has not learnt to not jump up for attention. Why should your dog receive your attention for demanding it whether sitting or not? Do you like other people demanding your attention? Do you continually inform people to respect your personal space, and always reward them for doing so? Of course not. Or is it just accepted that invading your personal space and demanding your attention will not be tolerated?

If each time a dog goes to jump up and I raise my knee, and the dog makes contact with my knee on its chest, and that contact is perceived as unpleasant, then of course the dog learns to avoid that behaviour. It doesn't matter then if I am in the mood to give attention to the dog or not, the dog understands that jumping will not be tolerated.

If a dog can predict that jumping up on its owner and demanding attention will result in an unpleasant consequence, then obviously, the dog would avoid that particular behaviour, whether the owner was giving their dog attention or not. Too many following this purely positive training methodology are still, in many cases, inadvertently handing over control of the current situation to their dog, believing that just because they ask their dog to do something in that moment for a high value reward, that they are the one the dog perceives is in control. This obviously is not always the case. Those that preach these methods, are generally giving dog owners a false sense of reality, by suggesting that just because the dog is doing something for a high value reward, that that means the dog understands they (the owner) is in control, or that another particular behaviour is not acceptable.

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