Dog’s Eye View: Reinforcing good behavior
November 7, 2013
Steamboat Springs — You've worked hard to teach your dog to greet people nicely at the door. He's really doing well. No more paws on shoulders. No more shredded clothes. He's sitting politely and waiting to be petted. He can take a treat from your guests without taking their hand with it. You've set the bar high. You've gotten him where you want him. He's going to stay there. Now, that job is over. Or is it?
My friend who keeps me updated with her perspective on raising her first dog said, "You know, I used to think that once I taught my Labrador, Riggins, what to do when people came to the door, that there was no more work to be done. Well, that wasn't the case at all. I had to periodically reinforce his good behavior with a special treat or he would start to ad lib with his own ideas."
Picturing a graph of your training progress with any given exercise, like greeting people at the door, would look like a sawtooth edge with ups and downs and leveling off in a straight line for a bit. Hopefully, the lines would continue to go in an upward direction with little dips down, then upward again.
Without frequent reinforcement of the behavior you want, previously strong behaviors tend to break down. Little things creep into your dog's stellar performance. You might notice that he's not so quick to sit or that he jumps up a bit, then sits back down. You might think, "Oh well, at least he's not as bad as he used to be" (happily mugging everyone who came through the door).
Ah, but here is the slippery slope of regression.
The principles of learning, behavior and reinforcement are the same across the board for humans and animals. I love the humorous but powerful statement, "You've gotten so good at your job that we don't need to pay you anymore." How long would your good job performance last with that policy from your employer? We get a paycheck to maintain our work and perhaps a bonus for a really special effort. It keeps us enthusiastic, and we keep our skill level up to speed.
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Remember to frequently reinforce your dog with a special, yummy treat to maintain his already good behavior. Keep him interested and working on his skills. Treat yourself, too. You've worked hard to get there.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.