This is my most recent column from Hyde Park Living
On a visit to one of my clients, we worked on solving her dog’s door dashing habit. I thought I’d share the story as a lesson in how animals learn.
Firstly, it is important for all of us as teachers and caregivers to recognize that behavior is a tool animals use to achieve a consequence. It is not something that is done in spite or to be bad, it is just simply the animal doing what works. Every moment of every day our pets (and us) are learning. They are learning from the consequences of behavior. If the behavior gets them something of value, then that behavior will continue or even strengthen. Therefore, it is not enough to simply scold an animal for a behavior as that serves as no teaching function and has other negative ramifications. Instead, it is better to teach your pet what you would rather her do instead – something that can also achieve a valued consequence.
In the case of door dashing, the great value to Ginger was in getting the opportunity to experience everything wonderful outdoors. And she had learned that when the door opened, all she needed to do was quickly bolt through it and that opportunity was hers.
To begin solving this, I first asked what Ginger could do instead that would be acceptable to my client. We decided to teach Ginger to lay down on a small area rug next to the door. In order for Ginger to get that opportunity for experiencing everything wonderful outdoors, we wanted her to learn that she first needed to remain on the rug until released.
So I first taught Ginger that great things happen when she lays on the rug. In other words, when she lays on the rug awesome treats come her way. When she understood that, then I added in duration for her remaining on the rug with longer intervals between giving her treats. If she got up in the beginning I would ask her to lay down again, wait for her to stay for some seconds and then give her a treat (I did not reinforce her immediately for laying back down as that would have reinforced the behavior of getting up and going back down. Once I felt like she understood the lesson, then I began moving to the door in small increments. If she could remain on the rug when I touched the door, she got a treat. If she could remain on the rug when I opened it a crack, she got a treat. And so on. If at any time she got up, I would simply close the door and wait for her decision. Since I had spent so much time building value for her being on the mat, she would choose to go back there and we would start the process over with the door. (We took breaks in between short sessions.) And when I felt she was ready, I quickly opened the door released her and we ran out the door.
We ended that session on a positive note. With much more positive practice, Ginger’s behavior of laying on the mat to get the door to open will become fluent. Down the road, we could also work on this behavior with the added difficulty of guests coming through the door.
Remember, when your pet is doing a behavior you do not like it is because that behavior has a reinforcement history. My challenge to you is this: The next time you are frustrated with your pet, instead of blaming your pet, think about what is giving that behavior value – and then teach your pet that he/she can do something else to get that same or greater value. By doing that, everyone wins!