A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of giving your dog feedback while training him. I had a lot to say, so I thought making it a two-part blog would allow it to sink in better. I was talking about the importance of feedback when dealing with your dog. Feedback is important because let’s face it, ignoring your dog is a big disappointment for him. I mean, he’s been waiting all day for you to come home from work. He was bored because “Live with Kelly and Ryan” was a pre-recorded episode that he’d already seen. Why do they do that every summer? What’s a guy to watch on a hot September day when the thermometer reading makes it hazardous to take even a short stroll to the nearest Starbucks for a Pink Drink? Reruns and stuck in the house all day—ugh. Your dog is really looking forward to your arrival and that ever-so-anticipated training session.
Imagine it’s 6:00 p.m. You get home, exhausted from whatever it is you do at work all day and decide to skip a day of training your dog. Shocking as it sounds, some people are too tired to spend quality time with their dog. I know—I was shocked when I heard about this, too. Or just as bad, they think that “spending quality time” with their dog means sitting on the couch sharing a bag of lard-ridden potato chips with him. Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not against hanging out with you while enjoying some chips and dip. As a matter of fact, psychology professor Karen Walker of the University of Buffalo performed a series of tests that proved that just being near a dog helps reduce people’s everyday stress. She did so by wiring volunteers to blood pressure monitors and asking them to count rapidly backward from a four-digit number. Sounds complicated to me. She found that the test subjects had significantly less stress when there was a dog in the room with them. Okay, I get it. A dog’s mere presence has numerous health benefits for you, but what about your dog? How does he benefit from your proximity? What’s in it for him? Do you have a symbiotic relationship?
The following day is no different: you’re still too tired to train. Then you wonder why he doesn’t listen when you talk to him. You’re frustrated when you call him to “come” and he fails to obey you? Are you “too tired” to understand why he won’t obey? Hmm, let’s mull that one over. This is one of the reasons that unrewarded behaviors will become inconsistent and unreliable. In fact, even bad behaviors that are ignored will eventually phase out—that is unless they’re self-rewarding.
Self-rewarding behaviors, especially those dogs perform when they think you’re not watching them, are very difficult to get rid of. You might be asking yourself what difference it makes whether you’re watching your dog or not. The answer can be found in a 2012 study by Dr. Juliane Kaminski, A. Pitsch, and M. Tomasello from the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom, and other researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In the study Dogs Steal in the Dark, a seated human forbade the dog from taking food. Part of the room was illuminated and the area that was illuminated varied. When the food was illuminated, but not the human, the dogs didn’t try to steal the food. However, when the food was not illuminated, the dogs did try to steal it. Apparently, the dogs assumed that the human couldn’t see them doing it. This research suggests that dogs take into account a human’s visual perspective when deciding on an action. Furthermore, another study published in Animal Cognition shows that dogs also conceal auditory information from others. This study was conducted by some of the same researchers, along with other colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The researchers discovered that when the dogs had a choice of approaching the forbidden food through either a noisy or a silent tunnel, the dogs preferred the silent one when a human was present. But when there was no human in sight, they didn’t show a tunnel preference. These studies show that dogs use their life experiences to determine what humans can see and/or hear.
Keep these studies in mind and try not to get upset when Peewee performs a self-rewarding behavior, especially when she thinks you’re not paying attention. For example, say you’re disgusted by the sight of your dog ingesting goose poop during your once-a-month evening walk. You aren’t really paying attention during your walk because you’re texting a friend about last night’s episode of “Quantico”. You notice that Peewee is lifting her head up and licking her chops. Before you tell her what a bad dog she is for eating the poop, she’s already been rewarded by the tasty morsel. From now on, you’re going to have to praise her when she refrains from performing undesirable, self-rewarding behaviors, such as this one. In this case, have treats in your pocket during your walks and keep your eyes peeled. When you notice she’s looking at or reaching in the direction of one of those delicious hors d’oeuvres, stop her by getting her attention and giving her an appropriate treat. Peewee will eventually associate seeing a goose poop with looking at you immediately to receive a more delectable treat. She will anticipate it and will look at you before picking up the offending edible. You must pay attention and reward her behavior any time it is headed in the right direction—that is, looking at you before reaching to the ground. Follow this method for other self-rewarding behaviors, too. Just be persistent with training; the consistency and patience needed to change a self-rewarding behavior will test your willpower. You must stay strong.