It’s not just about being nice to your dog

I often say to people that I can talk about dogs anywhere, with anyone. Friends who asked me to officiate their wedding may have thought I was joking when I suggested that weddings were not excluded. I was not joking. As a dog trainer I had learned something about animal behavior that applied to people as well and that is that it’s not ‘stuff’ that makes us feel so good, it’s the work we do to get it, that gives our brain’s reward system the biggest hit of ‘feel good’.

What does this have to do with marriage? It means that even though we have goals in our lives and things we want to acquire, the process we go through to achieve what we want, has the potential to be even more rewarding than the goal itself. The relationships we have as we go through this process are integrated into it, and can be strengthened and improved because of it. So if you ask me to officiate your wedding, yes, I will talk about dogs.

Trainers who think that using food or other rewards is merely the mark of a trainer who is too concerned about being ‘nice’ to dogs are missing the point. The work, or training, we do with our dogs has the potential to trigger a dog’s reward system, which means that whatever we are using as a ‘reward’ is secondary to the enjoyment the dog is experiencing while learning new skills and behaviors. If you’ve ever seen a dog that has been trained using a mark and reward system (such as clicker training) you know what I’m talking about. The enthusiasm they show for performing or offering behaviors can at times be overwhelming! When I pick up a clicker my cocker Annie fairly dances around the room. Her response seems over the top in relation to the small food reward she’s going to gain. And indeed it is, because what is really making her gleeful is figuring out what she has to do to get the treat.

When working with fearful dogs if we become part of what triggers the dog’s reward system, using play and food rewards, we become one of the stimuli that causes the dog to feel good. Take this and apply it to whatever people, objects or situations cause a dog to be afraid and, you will change the dog’s emotional response along with its accompanying behavior.

It’s not necessarily easy to accomplish, which may be why many trainers resort to force and intimidation to get dogs to perform behaviors. But fear and pain change the equation. The stress and anticipation of punishment affects the brain differently than does the anticipation of reward. We are more likely to provoke aggressive responses in a dog if they feel threatened, or, create a dog who ceases to offer behaviors for fear of reprisal or has just plain given up trying.

Thanks to the wonderful trainers at Canines in Action for sharing this blog post with accompanying video by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. You can also watch the complete TED lecture here on The Uniqueness of Humans.

woman hitting dog cowering in cornerWe have the ability to define the culture of our relationships with our pets. Being nice to them may be the place to begin.

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6 comments so far

  1. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    I tend to have a “man tone” when I work with our dogs. As a result of our pet training do-over, I am using a definitely un-manly tone of joy and excitement when I utter the word “Yes,” our marker. The difference is incredible. You can see Ty and Buster working to get that new voice out of me.

    Amy and I will be renewing our vows in May 2012 for our 10th anniversary. Maybe you can officiate that!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s pretty cool isn’t it? With my reactive dog Annie I call out ‘yes!’ when she sees another dog and she turns around to get her treat, and when we do this enough her arousal level goes down and we can get through a greeting without a lot of nastiness. She’s much better than she was when I first got her.

      I would be honored to officiate at your renewal ceremony and I could talk about dogs alot! 😉

  2. Lorie Huston on

    “But fear and pain change the equation. The stress and anticipation of punishment affects the brain differently than does the anticipation of reward.” Debbie, those two sentences really sum up the difference between R+ and punishment-based training. Very well written!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for saying so Lorie! Appreciate the validation, need it actually.

  3. George on

    Very informative link to Robert Sapolsky’s lecture. I knew about dopamine but not the increased amount when only reward was given 50% of the time. That fact really speaks to why people are addicted to gambling, huh, not every pull of the handle results in reward, but it may sometime.

    So does after, some time is involved rewarding a dog for an expected good behavior, not rewarding each time a dog does what you would like, does that increase their dopamine level to really anticipate the reward more?

    Great thought provoking post as usual.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It has to do with reinforcement schedules as they relate to animal behavior. Initially when a dog is learning a new behavior we reward them every time they perform it. Once we are certain the dog knows the behavior, in any situation we ask them to perform it (inside, outside, while we’re standing, sitting, with distractions, etc.) we switch to a random reinforcement schedule, meaning that sometimes the dog gets rewarded and sometimes they don’t.

      If we use the 50% model we need to be sure that we are rewarding in a random fashion, dogs are quick to pick up on patterns so if we start rewarding every other time we ask for the behavior, many dogs will figure this out and know that every other time they ‘won’t’ get a reward so their motivation can drop off.

      And because of this brain mechanism you may also see a drop off in motivation if the dog is rewarded every time we ask them to perform a behavior (after the learning of it has been accomplished). So indeed it’s better to switch to a schedule of random reinforcement as soon as a dog knows a behavior. This is often the challenge for new or inexperienced trainers, we may think the dog knows the behavior, when they actually do not, or have not generalized to other locations or variations. So we are not reinforcing them enough early on.

      You are absolutely right in regard to its relation to gambling. And like the addiction to gambling, we can turn our dogs into training addicts! This is a good thing.


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