Someone shared with me the other day of her frustration she was having with her dog. It seems her dog has a favorite pillow in her bedroom she keeps on the ground and as soon as she goes in there with her dog, Fido lays on it. She keeps yelling at her dog when Fido goes to his spot, and he does come off willingly but his behavior hasn’t stopped. It’s very frustrating for her.
So, why doesn’t this women’s dog get the fact that she does not want him on her pillow? Why does he continue to choose to go there every time they go into the bedroom together despite the fact that he gets yelled at when he goes there?
My background is in learning to solve pet issues in the most positive, least intrusive ways by looking at it objectively, visibly, and measurably through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a systematic approach to modifying behavior 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)?
So, to begin with this situation, we need to stop and look at things from her dog’s perspective. We know that behavior is simply a tool to get an animal a consequence of value to that animal, so, instead of becoming frustrated with Fido for just doing what works to get him something he wants, let’s think about what those consequences could be that are maintaining and strengthening the behavior of laying on the pillow (scientifically speaking, he is receiving positive reinforcement for this).
A few possible consequences could be sensory stimulation (the feeling of softness) or attention from Fido’s owner (when he lays on the pillow, she calls him to come off and sometimes may do something else with him that she thinks will divert his attention away from the pillow).
We also know that the antecedent to Fido’s getting on the pillow is his walking into his owner’s bedroom with her when the pillow is on the floor. But also, some other contributing factors (we call these distant antecedents) may be: Fido generally does not receive much attention during the day, the home has all hard floors with no other soft options on the floor. And additionally, we know that Fido does not go into that bedroom by himself.
The ABC analysis for this situation would be:
A (antecedent): Proximity to pillow when owner is present
B (behavior): Fido gets on pillow
C (consequence): Owner’s attention, sensory stimulation
Prediction: When the owner is present, Fido will get on the pillow more to get his owner’s attention and sensory stimulation.
When you break it down like this, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet’s ‘bad’ behavior.
Looking at that situation then, there are choices to make. Altering the consequence so that the learner is not getting reinforcement for the unwanted behavior is very important, but doing that alone does not help to teach the animal what it can do instead to get reinforcement.
Actually in this case, because it would be difficult to prevent reinforcement for the behavior once it is set into motion, a better solution would be to focus on the antecedents so as to prevent practice of that behavior (because practice with positive outcomes builds strong behavior).
Brainstorming, some possible ideas for solutions (using the most positive, least intrusive strategies) include:
1. Moving the pillow to a higher surface
2. Getting a plushy dog bed or other soft area and building great value for Fido to go there instead
3. Have high value puzzle toys or other activity available in the bedroom that Fido will want to engage in
4. Teach Fido to do other behaviors than laying on the pillow, when in the bedroom
To build value for the last three ideas, I’d remove or move the pillow while teaching and building huge value for the wanted habits so that over time, those behaviors are the ones Fido will choose to do.
When you modify behavior in this way, you are also enriching your dog’s life and strengthening your relationship with it. Those are two great reasons to see things differently.