The ABCs of Dog Training
If you have spent any time in any sort of dog training forum at some point you have probably come across the word reinforcement dog training. If those words conjure up the image of your know-it-all neighbor holding out a cookie asking their little Papillion Suzy for a sit as they espouse training advice about your barking Dog… We are here to rescue you!
Let’s back up a minute and define some terms.
You see, reinforcement is a behavioral term not your everyday language term. Reinforcement simply means to increase behavior. That’s it. It doesn’t mean give a cookie. It doesn’t mean bribe. It doesn’t mean reward. It means increase behavior.
Punishment is also a behavior term. It means to decrease behavior. That is all. It doesn’t mean yell, imprison, or abuse. Take your everyday meaning of punishment and throw that out the window when talking about dog training.
Here is where it gets complex…
Put positive (+) or negative (-) before the words reinforcement and punishment and you start to see how all this can get pretty messy. Positive in this case means to add something to the behavior. Negative means to take away from the behavior. Just like in math class.
Wait you say… negative reinforcement? Positive punishment? Say what??
We are now wading deep into the land of Learning Theory. Learning Theory is just that, a theory (science that’s been duplicated over time), that works on all species. Yes… all species.
Now we are going to stir the pot a little more. I’m giving you a new set of ABCs to solve behavior problems.
A is for Antecedent
B is for Behavior
C is for Consequence
Antecedent is what happens immediately before the behavior (not the life history of the dog, the immediate thing as in seconds before).
Behavior is the BEHAVIOR of the dog NOT the human. In this case we don’t care what the human did (stick with me… I promise you’ll get this).
Consequence means what did the dog do immediately after the behavior (immediately is key here). I really want to stress the point that we are talking about what the dog did after the behavior and not the human. This is the tough one.
Even I screw this one up sometimes because I get caught up in jumping to conclusions instead of really solving the behavior problem.
Now lets put all this together to solve a couple behavior problems. Getting back to the neighbor with little Suzy and getting her to sit.
Antecedent (A) Owner held out treat
Behavior (B) Suzy sat down
Consequence (C) Suzy got treat
Let’s say every time you see your neighbor she is doing this exact thing with Suzy. It’s nauseating, I know, but it gives us heaps of info.
Because we know your neighbor does this every time with little Suzy and we know there’s a very good chance Suzy is going to sit each time, we call this reinforcement because the probability of Suzy sitting increased with each repetition. We use the word positive because a treat is added to the behavior. So you get positive reinforcement. You see how behavior is a little like solving a math problem?
Using what you have learned try your hand this behavior problem…
I hear the neighbor dogs barking. A moment later I hear our Dog Ayla outside barking in unison with the neighbor dogs. I slide open the glass door Ayla stops barking, runs to me, and I start petting and talking to her. Then I grab her collar and walk her into the house.
No matter what, always start with the behavior part of the ABCs. It’s not the first in the alphabet, but you need to know what behavior you want to address in order to determine the antecedent and consequence. The information derived from the ABC will help give you accurate information that can be applied to finding a perfect solution.
In the example above the behavior we want to address is barking.
(B) Behavior—Barking (remember we’re starting with the dogs behavior)
Antecedent here is the neighbor barking dogs. Sometimes trainers call the antecedent the trigger. This antecedent is the thing that is happening immediately before the behavior.
(A) Antecedent—Neighborhood dogs barking
We call all this madness a Functional Assessment. A functional assessment simply means taking behavior and shrinking it down into a useable unit. It also means we have to make sure that our consequence is related to our behavior and our behavior is related to our antecedent.
What do you think the consequence is in this Functional Assessment?
The first thing I would look at is when does the (barking) behavior stop?
If you go up and reread the original problem you’ll see Ayla stops barking when the sliding glass door opens.
(A) Antecedent—Neighborhood dogs barking
(C) Consequence—Sliding glass door opens, Ayla stops barking
Consequence is what happened to stop the barking.
Now that we have all that figured out do you think this this positive reinforcement? Positive Punishment? Negative Reinforcement? Negative Punishment?
In this case, by adding the sound of the sliding glass door opening Ayla stops (decrease) barking. Decrease and stops in this case are going to be used as meaning the same thing. (Don’t ask, but if you Google it just know that this is your warning if you don’t sleep for the next 3 days.) To answer the question, this is Positive Punishment! The sound of the sliding door was added to decrease barking. It has nothing to do with what we normally consider punishment.
You might be thinking…Why bother with any of this? The answer is because it makes training easier. Instead of hearing a hundred different anecdotes about what other people have tried you can sit down with a piece of paper and solve the problem yourself. When you know what the ABCs are you know what behavior you want to change.
And the next time you find yourself outside with your know-it-all pseudo dog training neighbor and little Suzy…hit her up with some theory. You can shut that annoying neighborly know-it-all down in about 5 minutes worth of questions. Just kidding J
Hope you enjoyed our article, feel free to search around our DoGGie ResidenCe site for much more on training and behavior. Don’t forget about our forum community for extra help or just to chat about behavior and training.
Author: Kirsten Frisch