Why Teach Go To A Mat

This week seems to be my week for mat work. Twice already I have been working with clients to begin the process of teaching their dog that a mat is a pretty awesome place to hang out and relax, as it is the place where valued stuff happens.

Teaching your dog to settle on a mat can help solve numerous dog training problems.The reason for training these two dogs to go to and settle on their mats is similar and different at the same time. One, a large lab, barks and jumps on guests upon their arrival. The other is a small dog who spends time sporadically during the day at his human’s work where he can hear people walking down the hall, car doors opening and closing, voices, telephones, and guests who walk in; and any or all of those stimuli can cause him to bark and run in circles.

In each of these cases, just saying ‘No’ to the dog, and with the lab, also trying to push him down or away, was not solving the problem. It is frustrating for those who live with dogs.  Why do dogs continue to do things that so clearly are not acceptable behaviors to their human companions?

What gets things of value will be repeated.

One thing is for sure, dogs are not behaving simply to annoy their people. They are simply animals who are doing behaviors that cause valued consequences – from their standpoint. A dog who jumps on visitors may be reinforced by humans that give attention, make noises, move in ways that appear to be play; and also by the dog’s own release of energy. There are many potential reinforcers for dogs who bark at noises and stimulus depending on their reason for barking. It could be that from a dog’s point of view, barking gets distance from a stimulus, gets attention or food, gets good people to walk in, is a release of energy, etc.

Here is the tricky part. This reinforcement need not occur after every incident of the behavior to maintain the behavior. In fact, intermittent reinforcement is the culprit of just about every (if not all) unwanted behavior that continues. It creates gamblers in learners, and lean reinforcement schedules cause great addicts. In other words, if there is a 1/500 chance that barking will cause a door to open with good people to walk through or get you attention or cause scary things to move away, then the dog will keep trying what works.

This is why, in order to solve problems in the most positive and least intrusive way, a component of your plan needs to be arranging the environment so as to prevent practice of the unwanted behavior. Another component is teaching your dog alternative and/or incompatible behaviors (a replacement behavior) that will get your dog a valued consequence. In doing this, with many repetitions, your dog will come to do the replacement behavior more because THAT behavior is associated with great outcomes.

And this is where the mat comes in. A dog cannot settle on a mat that is a distance from the door AND bark and jump on people at the same time, so we are spending time first teaching this dog to go to his mat, then settling on it, then working up to being able to stay with distractions, and then calm greetings. These skills are being worked on separate from the door before adding the door and real visitors into the mix.

As for the other dog, in just the first lesson there was a marked difference in his behavior in a short period. When he was sitting or laying down on his mat, he was already paying less attention to the noises than when he was walking around the office. When he did alert to a noise, I began teaching them to give him a treat ‘before’ he got up and began barking. Over time, with enough repetitions of good things (treats) happening after hearing a noise, he will come to have a different emotional response as well. (This is called classical conditioning.) Breaks to go outside and play are also part of his day. (Just part of what we are working on.)

The lesson here is that, when you are frustrated with not being able to stop that unwanted behavior, try thinking about it differently. If you don’t like what your pet is doing, then what would you like for your pet to do instead? Now that you can teach!

 

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me

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.

Why Ignoring A Pet Problem Behavior Is Not Enough

Dog Training Tip:

When you are trying to stop your pet’s unwanted behavior, do you ‘try’ to ignore it or ignore it ‘most of the time’? Whenever I am meeting with a client and hear those words, right away I know that is a good indicator of why that behavior has become so resilient. Intermittent reinforcement is when you ‘sometimes’ give an animal a valued outcome for that behavior…and it builds very strong behaviors. That is why ignoring alone just does not work ‘most of the time’. Learn about another strategy in my blog post: http://goo.gl/7H2C1U

intermittent reinforcement  in dog training

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