Tips For Stopping A Pet’s Problem Behavior

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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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