Canine Psychology & Shaping Behavior: Part 6 – Unintentional Reinforcement

Required pre-watching:

Are you damaging your dog’s character without even being aware of it?

Unintentional Reinforcement is the reinforcement of an animal’s behavior without any design or awareness of the owner. UR is exceedingly common and fixing these issues is the bread and butter work of most dog trainers. Generally speaking, these issues are something that is simple and easy to identify by yourself, once you know what to look for! Watch this video to see how it works and understand lots of different examples that are common in the household.

Unintentional Reinforcement is unfortunately generally more prevalent with dogs that have less structure to fall back on, for example puppies and newly rescued dogs. These two types of dogs are yet to develop a baseline for wanted and unwanted behavior and have far less structure in their day to day lives. Subsequently, they take more cues from owners and are misled (unintentionally) far more quickly about what is appropriate.

Here are some common examples of Unintentional Reinforcement:

  1. Dog A is aggressive to Dog B, so Dog B is taken away. Dog A then thinks “Mental Note To Self: Being aggressive made that threat go away, YES!”
  2. Your small dog barks at something so you pick it up to “make it feel better”. Dog thinks “Mental Note To Self: Owner gives me a hug when I bark at things, YES!”
  3. Dog jumps up on you when you get home, you engage with it in any way. Dog thinks “Mental Note To Self: When I jump up on owner, I get attention, YES!”
  4. You start using the vacuum cleaner, dog tries to attack the vacuum cleaner, so you turn it off. Dog thinks “Mental Note To Self: When I attack the vacuum cleaner that threat goes away, YES!”
  5. Dog barks at Postman, Postman keeps walking. Dog thinks: “Mental Note To Self: When I bark at the Postman, he walks away, YES!”

Now of course the dog isn’t there jotting down notes to itself about these things, or even is it having an internal monologue for that matter, instead all it is doing is:

  1. Garnering information from its senses
  2. Putting the information through its experiential learning function “Stimulus-Behavior-Outcome”
  3. Drawing a conclusion that the outcome of it’s behavior is good (reinforced), therefore it should exhibit the behavior more

So, how do we tackle these issues?

Without a doubt, just being aware of this as a concept is half the battle. I have had hundreds of owners from all around the world, living all across China hear me speak about this and there is a universal “ohhh, I get it now” moment, when the light bulb turns on and they have realized what is REALLY happening in their household.

When we identify the issue, if we can sustainably remove the stimuli from the equation, that is the simplest technique for a quick fix.

If we can’t remove the stimuli, then we need to set up the scenario (do not try and do this on the fly when walking your dog, you will fail. Take the time and set it up properly) and work closely with your dog to help them understand what is the behavior that you want in that situation. Keep in mind, it is simply about shaping behavior and channeling the dog to the behavior we want:

  • We give the dog every opportunity to do the right thing by creating a scenario where they have a good chance to “win”.
  • We reliably and consistently reward any small improvement going in the right direction and we reward heavily any major improvement in the behavior (this is commonly referred to a paying out a jackpot!)
  • We provide reasonable, punctual, planned aversive outcomes for when they deliver unwanted behavior, then we take a short break before starting again. (It’s also important for you to take a break to reassess your own technique. Are you are giving your dog every opportunity to win, how can you make the right behavior more obvious or achievable?)

If it is a deep-seated long term issue, then it is likely that you may need to do a fair amount of desensitization training before we can truly start to shape the behavior. In this case, I recommend working with a professional at least initially as desensitization work has a number of moving parts that need to managed simultaneously and most owners may find it a bit too much at first.

A final thought:

The vast majority of owners who I speak to feel like they have good days and bad days with the development of their dog, often commenting they take two steps forward, then a few days later take two steps backwards. In my experience, every owner who understands this basic principle of Unintentional Reinforcement is soon taking five steps forward, with the occasional step backwards (we are all still learning after all). There are two reasons for this improvement: Firstly, they are delivering a far more consistent message to the dog across a wider range of situations about what is wanted behavior. Secondly, the dog’s confidence grows rapidly as they can start to reliably predict how their behavior benefits them.


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