We like to humanise animals, dogs especially. And that can lead to incorrect assumptions on the way our best friends think, and behave. We assume they feel guilt when they’ve done something wrong. And we assign that label ‘wrong’ to certain behaviours. The dog has no concept of wrong, bad or good.

Dogs do doggy things

They behave in dog ways. Some of those behaviours we want, and some we don’t. We then assign those as good behaviour and bad behaviour. The dog has no idea about all of this. Some behaviours that dogs exhibit are innate (the dog is born with a desire to do these things), while others are learned. Learned behaviours must have been reinforced in some way, whether we intended it or not. In fact, we don’t actually have to be present for a dog to be reinforced.

We tend to see the dog being ‘rewarded’ or ‘reinforced’ as something we have to be actively doing. Not the case.

Take, for example, counter-surfing, or raiding the bin. Dogs are opportunists and have an innate need to find food – some more than others. So the behaviour is natural, but when they counter-surf, or raid the bin and find food, they are being reinforced for their efforts. So they’ll then repeat that behaviour at a later date.

We also tend to give dogs mixed signals. Dog jumps up at us when we get home, we love it, we coo and fuss the dog. The dog is reinforced. The dog will repeat the behaviour in future. Dog jumps up at an elderly relative who visits. Bad Dog. Bad Behaviour. But he’s only doing what he’s always been reinforced for – and what we’ll probably continue to reinforce for when it’s just us.

So how do we fix this?

Dogs do not understand good and bad

First, stop thinking about your dog doing good and bad behaviours. This is a concept they just don’t understand. I am sure I’ll get some readers saying “Oh my dog knows! You can see it in her face”. No. Sorry, not the case. Scientific Fact. You are just anthropomorphising, or projecting onto your dog. And that’s for my parents too, who despite my efforts remain convinced my childhood dogs knew when they’d been ‘bad’.

So instead of the dog being good or bad, they are exhibiting desired behaviours or undesired behaviours. This brings the responsibility back onto us. The actions are now linked to our wants, not the dog’s choices. Which is the reality of the situation.

Prevent undesired behaviours from being reinforced

Next, make sure that the undesired behaviours are not being reinforced AND find ways to prevent the undesired behaviours from occurring in the first place, especially the ones that are self-reinforcing. This is what we call management.

Dog barks at people passing the house?

Don’t yell; that might be reinforcing as he thinks you’re joining in. And he is reinforced when the person keeps walking and leaves. “Yay, I barked, and the scary thing went away.” Put frosted plastic sheets over the window, preventing him from seeing the people in the first place. This might be a temporary measure while you work on his confidence with a trainer, or it might just be the easiest long-term solution – up to you and your lifestyle.

Dog counter surfs?

Make sure there is nothing that the dog can reach when she jumps up – thus no reinforcement, and won’t repeat the behaviour. And make sure this is consistent, just finding something once can undo all your good work.

Reinforce Desired behaviours

We are terrible at this in day-to-day life. When we’re having a ‘training session’ we mark and reward. But what about the rest of the time? Just because we’re not actively training, doesn’t mean our dog is not learning. They are. Constantly.

When our pups are exhibiting desired behaviours, being quiet, playing by themselves, etc., we tend to take it for granted and ignore it. We need to learn to tell our dogs when they’re being ‘good’.

Dog takes himself off to his bed to chill?

Doesn’t have to be a big fuss if they’re relaxed and on their bed, just gentle praise, a treat dropped onto their bed…

Puppy Pees inside?

Ignore that. Clean it up properly. Keep a better eye on your pup for signs of needing to go, and take outside. Then have treats and fuss and any toys or games your dog loves when she does go inside. You can read more on this topic in My Puppy Won’t Pee Outside.

So next time you get frustrated at something your dog is doing, stop. Breathe. Think about the behaviour. What is the dog trying to achieve? Something to go away? Finding food? Wants you to play? Ask yourself if this is the desired behaviour or undesired behaviour? (Because it may be desired at times, in which case you need to figure out a strategy as to how to manage this) If it’s undesired, does it get reinforced, either by you or someone else or is it self-reinforcing? How can you stop it being reinforced? How can you prevent it from happening at all? How can you reinforce an alternate behaviour instead?

Because, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as good and bad behaviour in our dogs, just good and bad training from us…

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