Dog Telephone Etiquette

The other day, someone was complaining to me of how her dog really gets her mad when she is on the telephone. It seems that as soon as she picks up the receiver, he begins to bark and pace at her feet, which makes it very difficult to focus on her conversation.

“What do you do when Hank does that,” I asked.

“I immediately tell him no but he does not listen. Sometimes I will push him away or I will get him a toy to divert him,” was her answer.

Whenever a problem like this arises, it is always important to remind yourself that behavior always occurs for a reason. And if it is repeated, then it is being reinforced by something in the environment.
dog telephone etiquette, stopping dog attention seeking behaviors I have been taught to look at behavior through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis, a systematic approach to solving behavior problems that 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.

In this woman’s circumstance, the antecedent is her picking up the telephone receiver; the behavior is her dog barking and pacing; and the consequence to her dog is her attention and/or being given a favorite toy.

When you look at it this way, can you see how that barking and pacing behavior is getting reinforced? And how her picking up the phone has actually become a learned cue (we call that a discriminative stimulus) to bark and pace in order to receive that reinforcement?

Here is how I’d write that out:

A:           Mary picks up the telephone receiver
B:           Hank barks and paces at her feet
C:           Mary gives Hank attention and a favorite toy

Prediction:  When Mary picks up the phone receiver, Hank will bark and pace more often to get Mary to give him attention and a favorite toy.

Once you see that, developing a strategic plan to modify Hank’s behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way becomes clearer.

There are so many possibilities. Antecedent change is probably going to be the most effective here because, let’s face it, once Mary is on the telephone it is going to be difficult for her prevent Hank from building upon his reinforcement of that behavior.

A few suggestions for antecedent change strategies include: Mary could give her dog a favorite toy whenever she picks up the telephone AND BEFORE Hank begins the problematic behavior; or she could teach Hank a reliable sit or down and stay with a huge reinforcement history and then ask Hank to do one of those behaviors after picking up the phone AND BEFORE he begins the barking and pacing.

She should also have a plan in place in the instance that she cannot prevent the unwanted behaviors from occurring, so as to at least minimize the amount of reinforcement Hank receives. With a portable telephone, she can stand up and turn her back to him for example after the behaviors begin.

These are just a few ideas for solving this. When you look at behavior in the context of its environment, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet and your pet’s behavior; and it allows you to develop solutions that not only help your pet to succeed but strengthen your relationship as well.


Can I be of further help to you and your dog? Please contact me!

Solving Dog Crate Training Problems

I had a very proud moment awhile back (well, I have had many of them but I wanted to write about this one).

A client was having a behavioral issue with her puppy, and with information I had taught and shared with her about behavior, she was able to develop a plan to successfully move from a problem to a solution. It was really awesome. I was beaming from ear to ear.

getting your dog to go into his crateI thought I’d share it (without giving her name) what happened so that it can be a learning tool for you too.

The situation

This family (I will call them the Smith family) had one crate for their puppy, Fred; and at night time, they would bring that crate along with Fred to their room where he could sleep by their bed. Their routine had been to have play and television time together before settling in for the night. That had been all well and good until one day, Fred decided he would no longer follow them when they called him to come into the bedroom at night. Instead he would continue to lay in his spot on the family room rug.

Was this a case of a stubborn, alpha dog?

Here is the thing that is very important to always remember about behavior. It ALWAYS happens for a reason and that reason is to get the animal something it values. Dogs do not do things to purposefully annoy or dominate us. They simply do what works to get them a consequence.

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.

With this in mind, let’s go back and revisit the Smith’s situation and why Fred suddenly chose to continue to lay still instead of following his friends into their bedroom.  What had experience taught Fred would be the consequence if he DID follow them at that time of night?

Let’s describe what had been happening this way.

Background: It is dark outside and around 10:00 pm. Fred has been with his family, interacting with them and engaged in toys or simply laying by their side and getting back rubs. The Smiths go into their bedroom with his crate, and come back out to call him 10 to 15 minutes later.

A (antecedent – the setting event for the behavior to occur):  Mary called Fred’s name

B (behavior): Fred followed Mary to their bedroom

C (consequence): Mary locks Fred in his crate and opportunities for interaction/play are gone

Prediction:  WHEN Mary comes back into the family at night after taking Fred’s crate into their bedroom and calls him to come, IF he follows her, THEN all opportunities for fun and interaction are taken away.

Hmm, can you see now why Fred’s past experience has taught him that following Mary at that time of time is not in his best interest?

So, knowing that, what was the Smith’s plan for modifying Fred’s behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way?

Initially they made plans to go into their bedroom early one night so as to have extra time for Fred. Then Mary called Fred into their bedroom with a tasty piece of meat in her hand; and once he was in the bedroom, they had playtime. They got him engaged in activities that were positive to him, and then gave him a bone to chew on and settle with in his crate with the door open. When they were ready to turn off the lights, Fred was already asleep and they closed his crate door for the night.

The new ABC looked like this:

A:            Mary called Fred
B:            Fred followed Mary into the room
C:            Great play ensued – mental/physical stimulation, human interaction

(which led to this)

A:            Mental/physical stimulation and human interaction
B:            Fred chews on bone in open crate
C:            Opportunity for needed rest

Can you see how this simple change has taught Fred that now experience tells him following Mary into the bedroom at night is again a behavior worth repeating? In fact, it was such a positive experience that Mary said it only took one time before Fred was back to coming with them at night. And she no longer carries meat with her to call him to come.

Important to remember, however, is that there is always the possibility for Fred’s association to change again if he goes back to having negative outcomes from following the Smiths to their bedroom at night.

Keep in mind that behavior is always the study of one and what solved this issue, may mean having a different plan for you and your pet.

Tips For Stopping A Pet’s Problem Behavior

I get the question all of the time…”How do I STOP my pet’s (unwanted) behavior?”

Many times when I ask follow up questions, I learn the question was asked because attempts at stopping the behavior Tips for solving dog and parrot problem behaviorhave failed.

Here is the thing to keep in mind about behavior. If it is occurring, it is happening because it has a reinforcement history. Simply stated, behavior is a tool that living beings use to get consequences. If the behavior serves to get the animal something of value (to the animal) – meaning the behavior is followed by something the animal values – then you will see more of that behavior. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance: Learning & Behavior, fifth edition)

Okay, so what does this have to do with why those attempts at stopping unwanted behavior are not working?

The simple answer is because that behavior is still getting your pet something it values – maybe it is not every time, but at least sometimes, your pet can count on a consequence it wants. This is called an intermittent reinforcement schedule and it is the best way to build long lasting, strong behaviors as you are also turning your pet into a gambler. That reinforcement may not necessarily be from you (it could be the release of adrenalin when your dog barks at a stimulus or it could be the sensory stimulation of having something in his mouth when a teething puppy grabs a cloth), but it could also be reinforcement you do not even realize you are giving.  Maybe when your dog jumps on you, you ask him to sit – a behavior that was taught with a VERY STRONG reinforcement history which makes sitting a reinforcer for jumping because you asked for it immediately upon your dog jumping. Uh oh!

It could also be that the competing reinforcers for doing an unwanted behavior way outweigh any negative punishment you may use (such as a leash jerk). Your dog will then continue to run to the end of a leash toward the distraction because past history tells your dog that action is off the charts in terms of sensory stimulation, adrenal rush, possibility of play, etc. Withstanding a leash jerk may be worth the effort – or it could be that your dog becomes so focused on that distraction that he just physically cannot think about you.

Complicating matters further, in the times that you try to simply just ‘ignore’ a problem behavior, you have probably learned that it is a nearly impossible task to do. You may inadvertently do something that could potentially be reinforcing your pet’s behavior without realizing it, like batting a pawing dog which could be a sign of play or looking at a screaming bird.

Something else that will more than likely happen when you try to ignore an unwanted behavior is that your pet will increase the intensity of that behavior. The scientific explanation for this is called ‘extinction burst’. In operant learning (learning from the consequences of behavior), extinction means withholding the reinforcing consequences of a behavior. While the overall effect of extinction in dogs, parrots and other pets is to reduce the frequency of the behavior, the immediate effect is often an abrupt increase in the behavior. (Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance)

During the extinction burst, you may think you have just made your pet’s problem worse; however, if and only if you can continue to withhold reinforcing consequences from that behavior, then you will more than likely see a fairly rapid decline in the behavior. But if you can not continue to withhold reinforcing consequences and you ‘sometimes’ give in by paying attention to your pet, getting him a treat, etc, then guess what? Congratulations, you have just taught your pet that only the escalated behavior is what gets him that valued outcome.

There is a lot to think about here. The overarching theme, however, is that failed attempts at modifying unwanted behaviors make it that much more difficult to create change. The good news is that animals are constantly learning, and so there are teaching opportunities within every day.

How can you solve it?

In a very simplified explanation, begin by focusing not on STOPPING an unwanted behavior, but by arranging the environment so as to try to prevent your pet from practicing (and building a reinforcement history from) that behavior (as much as possible, anyway) while teaching your pet another, acceptable behavior that can serve to get him the same or higher value than the unwanted behavior. On the occasion that your pet does do the unwanted behavior, pay attention to assure that behavior does not get anything of value – or as little value as possible.

For the dog who is on leash and working around distractions, several things his caregiver can do to help him succeed include having enough distance from the distraction where he can be below threshold; and having his caregiver mark and reinforce him for noticing the distraction while continuing to have loose body language and maybe even looking back at his caregiver. In other words, having enough distance so that he is least likely to practice running to the end of his leash (and getting reinforced for it) while also teaching him that staying near his caregiver with loose body language in the presence of a distraction is pretty awesome.

Below is a three step process.

  1. Ignore the unwanted behavior. Period. If your dog is pushing your knee or whining to get your attention, it is best to get up without any eye contact and simply turn away or leave the room.
  2. Differential reinforcement. While you are ignoring the unwanted behavior, reinforce either an alternative behavior (one that takes the place of the unwanted behavior) or an incompatible behavior ( one that cannot be physically done at the same time as an unwanted behavior – laying on a mat is incompatible with bumping your knee)
  3. Thoughtfully arrange the environment. If you do not want your dog to bump you when you sit on the couch when you watch tv, some solutions can be putting him in another room or tiring him out with exercise prior to your favorite show so that resting is his more valuable choice.

My favorite parts of solving behavior issues this way is that you are actually providing enrichment opportunities for your pet as you are teaching these new skills, you are making learning positive, and you are strengthening your relationship with your pet.

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