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Getting inside your dog’s head X key to behaviour change

An obedient dog, like an obedient child, is a pleasure to have around. To teach your dog to behave the way you want, it is necessary for you as the dog owner to understand the concept of positive reinforcement. It is not humane to use the old-fashioned method that relies on physically intimidating the dog and excessive use of punishment. By controlling “something good” we can effect a lot of behavioural changes in our dogs. We can add a desired stimulus (food, toy, etc) to increase the behaviours we want. This is called positive reinforcement. Let’s use three behavioural equations to aid our understanding:

Owner comes home and the dog runs to the car and jumps up against the owner. Owner pushes dog off and shouts “get off!”. The behavioural equation (from the dog’s perspective) is owner returns + boisterous behaviour = attention. The attention is a benefit for the dog so this behaviour will increase because he has been rewarded for it.

Owner comes home and the dog runs to the car and jumps up against the owner. Owner turns her back on the dog and avoids making eye contact. The behavioural equation (from the dog’s perspective) is owner returns + boisterous behaviour = no attention. The equation has changed and the boisterous behaviour has received no reward, therefore it will decrease.

The owner gets out of the car, asks the dog to sit and then rewards (a pat on the head or “good girl”) The owner only responds when the dog is calm. The behavioural equation (from the dog’s perspective) is owner returns + calm = attention. The equation has changed again, but this time the desired behaviour is being increased.

All we are doing is controlling something that the dog desires (the owner’s attention). By either giving or removing “something good” we change the dog’s behaviour in a simple way which she understands, and there is no need for punishment.

It is very important that the owner-dog interaction is consistent and predictable. In other words the dog learns what behaviours get rewards, and this can only happen if all members of the family are consistent in giving rewards (eg we will go out the door only if you sit first, you will be greeted only if you are quiet and sitting, we will continue to walk forward only if you keep the lead slack, you will get this chew toy only if you lie on your mat).

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