Dog Behaviour – Understanding How they Learn
How Dogs Learn – Behaviours, Reactions and Outcomes.
Whenever your dog performs a behaviour, there are three possible outcomes that he or she experiences:
- Things get better
- Things get worse
- Nothing changes
When a dog behavior results in something pleasant, this is called reinforcement. There is a benefit to doing the action.
Whenever a dog behavior results in something unpleasant, this is called punishment. There is no benefit to doing this action.
This mechanism of learning is not exclusive to dogs. It is demonstrated across many animal species (including Human Beings!), and it is referred to in science as “operant conditioning.” Operant conditioning is a process of adding or taking things away to influence behaviour. categories.
When nothing changes as the result of a behavior, it is highly probable that the behavior will become extinct. Consciously communicating through these consequences will give you the power to maintain or improve your dogs skills and behaviour patterns. Teach new desirable behaviours, and trouble-shoot when issues arise.
Many of us have heard the saying “Positive reinforcement” In science, positive means to add. Reinforcement means that the outcome makes things better. When you deliberately apply this principle to dog training, you are adding something the dog enjoys to make a behavior more likely to occur. Unfortunately, the principle of positive reinforcement still applies when the reinforcement happens accidentally or unintentionally.
Here are some examples to demonstrate the above.
- Deliberate human learning example: Child gets an allowance for doing chores.
2. Unintentional human learning example: Child pretends to have a sore throat and gets ice cream for dinner.
3. Deliberate dog learning example: Dog gets a treat when he or she sits on command
4. Unintentional dog learning example: Dog jumps up on the table and eats the food that was left out
In all four scenarios, a reward resulted in the outcome of a particular behavior and made that behaviour more likely to occur again in the future.
In science, negative does not mean bad. Rather it means to remove or take something away. Remember, reinforcement means that the outcome makes things better. So, when you deliberately apply this principle to dog training, you are taking away something uncomfortable or unpleasant to make a behavior more likely to occur. The principle of negative reinforcement still applies when it happens accidentally or unintentionally.
Here are some examples to demonstrate Negative reinforcement:
- Deliberate human learning experience: An irritating beeping or dinging occurs until you fasten your seatbelt in the car.
2. Unintentional human learning experience: Parent stops disciplining the child if the child begins to cry.
3. Deliberate dog learning experience: Collar pressure is removed when the dog moves in the desired direction of travel
4. Unintentional dog learning experience: Collar pressure is removed when the dog resists moving in the desired direction of travel.
In all four scenarios, something uncomfortable or unpleasant was removed in response to a particular behavior and made that behavior more likely to occur in the future.
Positive punishment sounds like an oxymoron, but remember, positive means to add in science. Punishment does not necessarily mean cruel. It refers to any outcome that deters a behavior from occurring in the future, and it can exist in a variety of severities. Unintentional positive punishment can result in confusion or anxiety. The following practical examples should make this easy to understand:
- Deliberate human learning experience: You are fined £100.00 if you submit your tax return late
2. Unintentional human learning experience: A schoolboy is laughed at by his classmates when he incorrectly answers the teacher’s question.
3. Deliberate dog learning experience: You apply a leash correction when your dog is distracted.
4. Unintentional dog learning experience: You accidentally step on the dog’s foot when the dog responded to your command to keep walking
In all four examples, something uncomfortable or unpleasant was added in response to a particular behavior and made that behavior less likely to occur in the future.
Negative punishment is the act of removing something pleasant in order to make a behavior less likely to occur. It too is applicable to deliberate and unintentional learning. See below:
- Deliberate human learning experience: A child is not allowed to go to a friend’s birthday party after being rude to the parent.
2. Unintentional human learning experience: A coworker does not reciprocate a friendly greeting when distracted by his own thoughts.
3. Deliberate dog learning experience: All interaction with the dog and its owner stops abruptly through totally ignoring the dog when the dog jumps up at you.
4. Unintentional dog learning experience: You clip the lead to the dogs collar and remove the dog from the play area without reinforcement after he or she has recalled nicely.
In all four scenarios, something pleasant is removed in response to a particular behavior and made that behavior less likely to occur in the future.
When nothing changes as a result of a particular action, you may think that the dog will be no more or no less likely to perform the behavior, but this is not the case. Scientists have discovered that behavior that does not have any consequence has the same effect as punishment. In other words, if nothing changes as a result of a particular behavior, the behavior will be less likely to occur. There is no benefit to doing the behaviour. Practical examples are:
- Deliberate human learning experience: A child cries when he doesn’t want to go to school. Crying does not change the fact that the child has to go to school, and over time, he stops crying before heading out to school.
2. Unintentional human learning experience: You work extra hard on a particular work project. Your employer doesn’t seem to notice, and consequently, you lack motivation to repeat that extra effort in the future.
3. Deliberate dog learning experience: You completely ignore a dog that is whining when left alone. Over time, the dog learns whining does not change the situation, and he or she stops.
4. Unintentional dog learning experience: You neglect to praise or reward your dog when he or she is doing a great job – sitting, or laying still, or doing something that you are wanting/expecting them to do.
It is important to note that some dogs may be receiving a self-soothing feeling from particular behaviour (e.g. whining, barking or jumping up) that isn’t always easily obvious to you. If completely ignoring the behavior does not appear to deter it, an incompatible, alternative behavior should be taught and reinforced or a form of punishment should be applied to interrupt the unwanted behavior. Whenever possible, it is best to look for behaviors that you do want versus concentrating on what you do not like.
It is really important to use all of the above immediately an action occurs, otherwise the dog simply will become very confused, not knowing what he is being rewarded or punished for. One example would be:
When recalling your dog, and they do not come back you – the natural reaction is to get frustrated and annoyed, raising your voice each time, and then when the dog does eventually come back to you, you punish it because it didn’t come back the first time. This behaviour is likely to DISCOURAGE the dog to come back to you no matter how many times you call, because he will then have the expectation that when he does come back to you, he will get shouted at or punished in other ways. Instead, reward his coming back with verbal praise or a treat. This will ENCOURAGE his recall each time. He will be glad to come back to you, as he will associate such behaviour with a reward as opposed to a punishment.