Self-Reinforcing Behaviors

When families contact me, they're usually reaching out for help with stopping or preventing unwanted behaviors. One of the first thoughts that go through my head when someone is discussing a behavior problem with me is "what's reinforcing this behavior?" Why would this dog do this, or continue to do this. Is the environment reinforcing it, is it the owner, or (the dreaded answer) is it self-reinforcing?


What are self-reinforcing behaviors? These are the behaviors dogs do because they like to do them. The list is actually quite long. The behaviors I get the most frequently asked about are chasing cars or animals, counter-surfing, stealing clothing, chewing on the things we don't want them to, elimination in the house, digging, play biting, or barking.


With most families, I'm helping them find a way to stop the reinforcer for the unwanted behavior, and teaching the dog an alternate behavior to get what they both want. Lets looks at barking. Dogs bark for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it's reinforced by the owner; "when I bark at the door, my owner lets me outside. I should bark at the door every time I want to go outside!" Sometimes it's reinforced by the environment; "when I bark at the mail carrier, they always go away. I should bark at the mail carrier every time they come and make them go away!" Sometimes it's self-reinforcement; "when I run and bark at the birds, they fly away. THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!! I love to make the birds fly away and chase them. I should do this ALL. THE. TIME!" Owner reinforcement is sometimes the easiest behaviors to stop or prevent. When we change our reaction, we change the reaction of our dog. If an owner doesn't respond to their dog barking at the door, the dog will stop barking at the door. If the owner also teaches an alternate behavior to go outside, the barking will stop faster. Environment reinforcement is a little trickier. We can't stop the mail carrier from leaving. We know they're not going away because our dog was so great at the job of "keeping away all threats to my home", but our dogs don't always understand that. We need to teach an alternate behavior when the mail carrier comes.


But HOW do we stop them from doing what they like to do? It's all about prevention! Don't allow them to have the opportunity to learn the behavior is THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!! The easiest time to teach them not to steal food/clothes/paper/tissues is BEFORE they have to opportunity to do it. An ounce of prevention is worth far greater than any effort to stop when it comes to self-reinforcement. If you can't watch what they're doing, use the crate as a babysitter. If you are watching them, don't leave items out for them to successfully steal. Ignoring won't help here. Every time your dog or puppy has the opportunity to steal food off the counter, they're being rewarded, and will continue to steal.


But how do we prevent the behavior AFTER they've learned it's THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!!? Most of the time this is management of their environment, sometimes life-long management. Charlie likes to chase cars. It is THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!! He runs after them barking, and they drive away. He did an AWESOME job of "keeping away all threats to my home!" Plus there was all that running. Seriously....THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!! It's not like I told him to, or gave him the opportunity. He just did it one day, and the look at pure unfiltered happiness was all over him. Of course I could put up a fence, put him on a tie-out whenever he's outside, keep him on a leash, teach an alternate behavior (run to me instead, sit-stay, etc), or maybe a high-value reward to keep him very close to me all the time. I ended up do a combination of all these except for a fence. After 2 years Charlie does good. If I don't have something of high-value (treats or THE BALL), he's on leash when he's outside. I have a tie-out that I use only when camping. When we're anywhere close to the road, I have him on varying lengths of leash and teach him to run to me, or sit-stay when he hears a car. He's VERY good when on leash. When he's off leash, I make sure we're as far from the road as possible, and I listen very closely for cars. When I hear one, I have him do a sit-stay until it's passes. Fortunately, I live on a road that doesn't get much traffic, so he can still enjoy THE BALL almost everyday. Unfortunately, everytime he successfully chases a car, I have to go back to basics with him. 


If your dog is in the middle of having THE. MOST. FUN. EVER!!, the teaching opportunity you may have had, has passed. The opportunity for prevention, training, or management is gone. What you're left with is damage control. You'll still want to interrupt and redirect your dog (don't let them actually finish eating the turkey they snatched off the counter), and then you'll need to go back to basics with your training, redirection, and management plan.


Thank you for taking the time to read this post! If you found it helpful, please share it on social media! As always, please ask if you have any questions!