How You’re Making Problem Behaviors Worse!

The unintended consequences of inconsistent training

The unintended consequences of inconsistent training

Many of your dog’s unruly behaviors are attention seeking. It makes sense! We’re our dog’s best friends! But what do you do when their needy behavior becomes obnoxious? For many people, needy behavior manifests itself in the form of barking, jumping, or mouthiness (biting but without aggression). Most people take to Google (I’m glad you did since you’re here!) to see how they can stop these behaviors.  The advice you get from the big names and prominent methods might be making it worse! 


Cesar’s Way

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Relationships based on trust and respect are key

Cesar Millan is a prominent name in dog training and a top result on Google for most behavior problem fixes. His method advises people to assert themselves to show their dog who’s alpha. I don’t like Milan’s alpha intimidation methods because of the likelihood of instilling some amount of anxiety in your dog. You might think, “Anxiety? He uses his method successfully all the time!” Just because it seems to work doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to do it. Many of us aren’t looking to base a good relationship with our dogs on intimidation, so maybe (hopefully) you moved on. I found this fun and interesting article about “Un-Dog-Whispering” yourself if you think you might be too ingrained.


“Ignore It” Method

There are much more passive approaches recommended by many trainers, most prominently, Victoria Stilwell. Stilwell uses positive training that focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of the dog she’s working with. She and many other trainers recommend completely ignoring these kinds of problem behaviors until the dog is calm.

Instead of fighting the dog off of you when they jump up (which looks a lot like wrestling to your dog) they recommend turning away and making yourself as “boring” as possible. I am much more inclined to agree with this method, except for one major flaw: withholding love and attention is crazy difficult.

To be clear, my unease with this method is not that love and attention withholding is mean, but that it takes a ton of discipline on the human’s part.

I always say that people should choose a training method that not only works for their dog but that also works for them. It’s not just useless to attempt a training method that you can’t commit to, it can actually have a serious and lasting unintended effect on your dog’s behavior.


Reinforcement Schedules

When you attempt to ignore your dog’s bad behavior you are probably pretty good at it from the get-go, but as the behavior persists or as the days go by your commitment starts to wane. This is where the trouble begins.  

Training your animal (or spouse) is done through reinforcement schedules. The schedule you keep will influence your success rate and how easy or difficult it is for the trainee to stop doing the behavior (this is called extinction).


Variable-Ratio Reinforcement

A common mistake that makes problem behaviors worse is when people use methods like the “ignore it” method but don’t stick to it. When these folks manage to ignore the attention seeking behavior for a few days or more but slip up occasionally, they are rewarding their dogs on a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule.

This means that you are rewarding your dog’s (bad) behavior after an “average” number of times. The average can change without disrupting how your dog views the reinforcement.

Variable-ratio reinforcement produces a high rate of response (jumping, barking, etc) because they don’t know when they’ll be rewarded, but the do know that they’ll be rewarded.


Variable-Interval Reinforcement

The other common mistake people make is when they attempt to ignore the dog, but acknowledge them before the dog settles. Sometimes sooner than later and vice versa. Sometimes this acknowledgment comes in the form of a smile or an uncomfortable laugh (a reward nonetheless). This is called variable-interval reinforcement.

This kind of reward schedule produces slow but steady responses and is highly resistant to extinction. Meaning, your dog might waver occasionally wondering when he’ll be rewarded next, but once that reward (your attention) is given, he knows to keep it up no matter how long it takes (extinction resistance). Because of this, it will take longer and longer for your dog to settle without intervention.

If you can't commit, you really should quit!

If you can’t commit, you really should quit!

Trainers who recommend the ignore it method urge pet owners to be consistent because inconsistencies will confuse your animal. This is inaccurate. Your animal won’t be confused, instead, they’ll see that persistence pays off. Variable-ratio and variable-interval are important aspects of training your dog for long-term success. Use them wisely and be careful not to reward bad behaviors.

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