Accidentally Reinforcing The Wrong Behaviors: Are You Doing It?

An accidental reward occurs when an undesirable behavior is rewarded and therefore reinforced, increasing its likelihood in the future. Are you accidentally rewarding your dog for behaviors that you really don’t like?

I catch myself doing this occasionally. For me, it’s usually giving the dogs pieces of fruit/veggie I cut up for myself when they are staring and drooling at the entrance to the kitchen. I really don’t want them staring and drooling when I cook, but I also like to spoil my dogs. So I need to decide… what is more important to me? Giving them snacks or having them go lay down? I could also teach them that the only way to get snacks is to be laying down politely away from the entrance to the kitchen. I’m guilty of accidentally reinforcing the wrong behaviors. Are you?

Here are some examples:

  • Dog paws at you for attention, you pet him (or even push him away – you are touching him).
  • Dog barks or whines when it’s dinner time and you get up to feed him.
  • Dog steals your socks, you chase him around the house to get it back (chase is fun for him).
  • Dog scratches or barks at door, you let him in (or out).
  • Dog barks or cries in the crate, you let him out.

So what can you do?

Really pay attention to what you are doing when your dog does something undesirable. Are you somehow giving him attention for behaviors you don’t actually like? If your dog is jumping up on you when you come home, try ignoring him completely (aka. walking away, don’t look at him, talk to him or touch him… you may even need to go behind a closed door if your dog is persistent). If your dog is very needy and constantly wants attention, try ignoring him completely when he whines or paws at you (again walking away, avoiding eye contact and not touching him or talking to him).

Negative Attention is Still Attention

To many dogs, especially highly social dogs, even reprimands can be seen as a reward. Dog jumps, you push him down & say “No.” Seems like a consequence, right? Well, it may not be to a highly social dog who actually sees your behavior as talking to him & touching him.

But its getting worse! The extinction burst.

When trying to get rid of a behavior such as inappropriate attention seeking, the behavior often gets worse before it gets better. This is called an extinction burst. The dog realizes that what used to work is no longer working, and decides to try harder! Stick with your plan and continue ignoring the behavior and once he realizes it truly doesn’t work anymore, no matter how hard he tries, the behavior will go away.Herding Dog Playgroup

Speed Up The Process

To speed up the process, at the same time that you are ignoring the behavior you don’t like, you can be reinforcing or teaching behaviors that you do like such as Sit quietly at my feet to get access to the couch and affection or teach your dog to go to his place when he is ready for dinner by having him go there and stay before every meal.

It may take some time, but if you stop reinforcing the behaviors that you don’t like, the behaviors will eventually disappear. Stick with it and be consistent!


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