Downeast Dog News

But have you tried Science?

The Truth about Consequence
By | Feb 01, 2021
Photo by: Harold and Ringo have been generously rewarded for "perching" (putting their front feet on upturned bowls). This habit lends itself very well to portrait sessions!

As a professional dog trainer, I frequently hear frustrated dog owners exclaim, “I’ve tried everything and nothing worked!” For any given struggle we are having with our beloved dogs, there is a plethora of solutions to be found from a variety of sources, including friends, coworkers, random internet searches, tv shows, etc. What we uncover can be nothing but a messy quagmire of contradictions, and the result is that we find ourselves confused and irrevocably stuck.

Worst of all, the problem behavior persists.

What and who is one to believe?

Critical thinking

We humans have a tendency to complicate matters by adding an emotional murk to the waters as we cling to concepts of dominance and submission, of winning and losing, of right and wrong. We forget that Psychology 101 also applies to our dog friends. We need to start thinking about the simple tenets of behavioral science and how we can, on a daily basis, apply them to our relationship with our dogs.

Let’s take a deep, collective breath and step away for a moment for a more objective look at things.

Consequence Drives Behavior

All behaviors rely on relevant consequences for sustenance. This means that it doesn’t matter what we say or do before the behavior occurs: if the consequence for the behavior is relevant, it will dictate future behavior, not what happens beforehand. For instance, perhaps you have a professional surfer-dog on your hands - a counter-surfer, that is to say. You can shout, “no!” “off!!” “down!” until the cows find their way home, but none of that matters to your dog. What matters is what happens as an immediate and direct result of the behavior. Did it work for the dog? If “yes,” it’ll be a strategy he’ll use again. If “no,” perhaps, with many future unsuccessful attempts, the surfing will cease. Just a single success, though, can mean dozens of additional attempts.

To affect behavioral change, we need to do the following:

1. Identify the problem behavior [example: counter surfing]

2. Identify the reward [accessing great stuff from the counter]

3. Remove the reward for that behavior [prevent dog from accessing counters, keep all food items out of reach of dog]

4. Identify an alternative and incompatible behavior that you would like the dog to do instead [enjoy “floor activities,” stay in a specific zone]

5. Set up your dog’s situation so he wants to do that new behavior [add relevance to the floor through games, treat-dispensing toys, chew toys, other]

6. Reward the new behavior generously [food, games, whatever!]

7. Be consistent and be ready to tweak your approach!

At PupStart, my puppy dayschool, we generously reward our young canines charge for desirable behaviors throughout their day. We set up the environment so that the puppies are most likely to offer these behaviors and are least likely to offer their undesirable counterparts. It’s a constant balance of prevention and reward.

When puppy parents inevitably ask, “what command do you use to elicit X behavior,” we have to tell them that, for the time being, there is no cue. They have to focus on 1) how to get the behavior to happen and 2) consistently rewarding it. [a future article will address how to add a verbal cue once you’ve done a good job at rewarding behaviors].

Behavior does not happen in a vacuum; dogs always have a reason for doing what they do despite what we might think. We accuse them of being “stubborn”, but that's an indication that we have not fully explored ways in which to convey to them the behavior we do want. This means getting creative and coming to the issue from the dog’s point of view, but always with the understanding that the Consequence Rule is behind it all.

The Consequence Rule also applies to human behavior, of course, where we have systems of norms, rules, laws, and punishments to help provide the consequences for our actions. If one of these norms is broken with no relevant repercussions to the breaker, there is no reason for him to change his behavior. If laws are broken with no resulting punishment, the laws themselves are weakened. An interesting aspect about the behavior-consequence relationship for humans is that a significant amount of time can pass between them. An example of this is a home mortgage. The behavior is monthly payments. The result is a paid-off-mortgage, 30 years later. For dogs, it has to be immediate.

As you think about habits you’d like to change, whether yours or your dog’s, keep consequence in mind.

Happy Training!