Behavior Odyssey, Part 5

Step Two: Create a habit by rewarding the desired behavior every time initially and then switch to rewarding at a variable rate.

Reward every time
Practice, practice, practice
Change the rate of reward

So you’ve developed clear communication of expectations and Sadie knows her new behavior—what’s next?  Now it’s time to create a habit.  This is best accomplished through frequent training followed by adjustment of the timing of rewards.

Initially, the desired behavior is rewarded every time Sadie performs perfectly.  You must make sure you’re rewarding exactly what you desire or you will cause confusion or get a different outcome.  Behavior expert Bob Bailey says, “You get the behavior you reinforce.”   (Parents, remember this for your children as well!)

Next, you and Sadie must practice it enough that it becomes a habit.  This is best accomplished with short frequent intervals of training and properly timed rewards.  Practice this until the behavior is consistently performed.  This means you must have treats at hand at all times to avoid missing an opportunity to reward.  Constantly having treats available in the early training phase allows Sadie to be rewarded for good behavior all the time, not just at “training time.”  Every interaction becomes a training session and every moment of the day should be “training time!”  She can then take her good behavior into the real world.

Lastly, change the rate at which you reward.  In other words, reward with a treat every time until it is a habit and then begin intermittent rewards.  You want Sadie to develop a habit, not just learn a trick.  So, mix it up a little.  Treat one time, then praise or play then praise again, then petting, then treat.  Interestingly, it is often said that the most addictive behavior is one which is intermittently reinforced.  This is why slot machines can be so addictive — you know there is a payoff, you just don’t know when!

Step Two Homework:

Check your timing on your rewards.  Understanding that rewards must be immediate (within a split second), answer these questions:

1.  When your new puppy potties outside, should your puppy be rewarded while you are still outside or when you come back in? (remember your answer can’t change based on how cold it is outside!)
2.  What are you rewarding if you give the treat after you return inside?
3.  What does your puppy think you are rewarding if you give the treat inside?
4.  Which is more likely to perpetuate going to the bathroom outside?

Another common problem is barking.  If Buffy is barking and you shout at her to stop, in the long run will the behavior stop or continue?  Why?  (remember dogs are rewarded by speaking, eye contact and touch)  What is another solution to stop the barking?  This one is a little more difficult since dogs will often be distracted by your scolding, but then go right back to barking.  So the behavior persists.  Why?  Because we haven’t given direction for a well-mannered response.  To solve this dilemma, start with teaching them to sit for any attention, then when they are barking, if we distract them (maybe with by whistling or making a smooching noise), they will look to us for attention and offer the behavior which has been previously rewarded—a calm, quiet sit.  Then, you better have your treats ready to reward that calm, quiet sit!!!

Dr. Shari