The other day, I was sitting in the home of a friend as she was telling me about one of the issues they are having with their dog. “He chews on things he shouldn’t be chewing on like furniture,” she said.
Her otherwise loveable joy of her life was sitting at my feet at the time raising his face as I scratched beneath it. But I stopped scratching and when I did, he began looking around. Before long he found his way to a table leg and proceeded to put his mouth around it.
I asked for some of his toys, and among them was a chew toy. Mary put the toy on the ground. His attention was immediately diverted and he spent the rest of our conversation laying down, completely engaged in his new activity. The leg of that table was of no more interest to him.
So what was the lesson here?
Well, it is important to understand the function of behavior and know that all behavior occurs for a reason – and that reason is to get a consequence. If the behavior is reoccurring and even strengthening, then we know that the consequence (what occurs immediately after the behavior) is of value to the animal (positive reinforcement). When given a choice, animals will chose to do what gets them the consequence of the greatest value.
And, in this situation, when Mary’s dog was without attention and activity options, he chose to chew on the table leg. A guess is that chewing on it gave him as a consequence of sensory stimulation and intermittent attention. (Please click here to read more about intermittent reinforcement.) My predication would be that if all things remain the same, that he will continue to choose to seek out that table leg or another household object when he is without sensory stimulation or attention.
Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.
So, after looking at the behavior in the context of its environment, how can you solve it in the most positive way?
Well, once you have an understanding of what is giving that behavior value to the animal (what is reinforcing that behavior), then you can devise a plan that
a) involves modifying the environment whenever possible so as to not set the occasion for that behavior to occur in the first place (because we know that practice builds fluency)
b) plan for modifying the consequences of that unwanted behavior so as to not give that behavior value in the happenstance that it should occur
c) teach the animal new, acceptable behaviors that will result in the animal getting the same amount or greater value consequence as the behavior you do not want to see.
What are some ideas for solving this particular behavior issue?
Overall, Mary can increase her dog’s environmental and behavioral enrichment through a combination of exercise, activity games and toys, and training. Mary can limit access to the ‘off limits’ furniture and/or paint it with Bitter Apple or a similar product, plan ahead to involve her dog in physical activity before having guests over or before sitting down to watch tv so as to temporarily reduce the value of chewing furniture, teach her dog an alternative behavior like settling (laying down) and ask her dog to do that behavior before visiting with guests or watching tv, provide her dog with activity and enrichment toys before times when her dog is most likely to chew.
Is your pet doing something you do not like? My challenge to you is this: Instead of punishing and blaming the animal, look at the behavior in terms of why that behavior is important to your pet. Then, teach him what he can do instead to get just as valuable a consequence.