How many times have you been told that one of the best ways to stop a behaviour is to simply ignore it? Parents often tell it to their children when their siblings are being annoying, we may say this about a dog jumping up, or a cat meowing at us for attention. Does it work? It can do! But do you understand why?
When you have a dog, constant feedback for the dog is very important.
Dogs are deceptively simple creatures who live on a basis of ‘safe, not safe’ and ‘gets me what I want, doesn’t get me what I want’. They quickly learn which actions are ‘profitable’ to them and which ones get them nowhere.
Many people scratch their heads in puzzlement when they are told by a dog trainer to ‘ignore’ unwanted behaviour, like jumping up or barking. Sure we need to tell a dog it is wrong? Let’s look at an example…
Why do dogs jump up? Usually it starts because they want to get closer to people’s faces, perhaps to make eye contact, maybe to give a friendly lick and get a good sniff and quite simply, unless they are taught not to do this, most dogs will continue to jump up, because they find it is a highly rewarding behaviour. Why? Attention! When puppies jump up, most people cannot help but make a fuss of them, the puppy learns that it gets lots of fussing and attention from this behaviour. So they keep doing this. As they get older, they keep jumping up and even though the reaction is less favourable, the end result is often still attention.
I imagine many dog owners are familiar with a variation of this scene; it’s been a long day and you come home with armfuls of shopping. Fido has been eagerly awaiting your return and as you get through the door, he rushes to greet you. You struggle through, ignoring Fido as you take your shopping to the kitchen. You put your shopping down, pop the kettle on, get the oven on and start unpacking your shopping. Fido is wagging his tail at you and then… Fido jumps up. You shout ‘No’, but then realise that you’ve been ignoring him since you got home, so you give him a pat, pop your shoes on and take him for a quick walk.
I’m sure that everyone reading this will see that Fido’s owner just rewarded the jumping up with the pat and the walk. Even though the jumping up was marked with a no, it started a chain of events that lead to attention and a walk. Fido might try this sooner next time he is being ignored. However, what you might not also have realised is that the owner was actually punishing Fido’s good behaviour earlier by not rewarding it. Fido got no reward from his amiable waggy tailed greeting when the owner arrived home and so he tried something else. The only behaviour that got him any attention was jumping up, which was met with the first word uttered to Fido since the owner got back, ‘No’. From a human perspective you may feel that ‘No’ wasn’t good attention, but it was still attention and which then lead to something good for Fido.
Of course, it wasn’t practical for the owner to dump all the shopping bags and make a fuss of Fido the moment they got through the door, however at this point, verbal praise to Fido would have reinforced the behaviour until the owner could make a fuss of Fido. This example illustrates how ignoring a behaviour will lead to a dog trying something else and that any attention can be reinforcing for a dog, regardless of whether we feel that attention is positive or not.
Praise alone means little to a dog (how long would you keep working if you were only praised but never paid!) but if praise is frequently accompanied with, or swiftly followed by, something that is valuable to a dog (food, toys, games etc) then a dog will associate praise with good things. This makes it a useful tool in training. For example, in training a stay, you have to wait a certain length of time before you can reward your dog for the stay, however in the interim, praising your dog helps him to understand you are not ignoring him (and that he should try something else) and that a reward should soon be on its way. Perhaps you are looking to improve how quickly your dog responds to your verbal ‘sit’ cue and only rewarding the sits she does within say, 2 seconds of you issuing the cue. All the other sits are good, they just take a little bit too long to earn a reward. Praising your dog for these sits, will help her understand they are still good, but she needs to do something more. If executed correctly she would soon understand that she only gets a reward if she sits promptly and will start responding faster.
I personally try to remember to praise my puppy for any behaviours I like. Why spend time having to train your dog not to do things if you can make sure the behaviours it is already doing are rewarding so it doesn’t have to try something else? I praise her for sitting quietly whilst we are eating, not jumping up at guests, not mouthing me in play and so on. I often follow this praise with cuddles, play, treats and chews. Not only does this keep rewarding her good behaviours, but when she does something less good, my ignoring of her is much more obvious and clear for her to understand.
Praise is a very useful tool in training, it is a free way of providing constant positive feedback to your furry best friend. If you are sat with your dog now, tell him what a good boy he is and give him a pat from me!