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The ABC’s of learning

BladeThere are many, many ways of learning, but when you are teaching your dog something (and sometimes when you are not even trying) there is one concept you always have to keep in mind and that is “Consequences drive behaviour”

All animals and hoomans will continue to do things when they are rewarded for doing them.   If there is no reward, it is very likely that the animal or human will not take part in the activity.

Rewards come in the form of many things.   A reward can be receiving some kind of treat (not necessarily food) for a task well done. Rewards can also be having had avoided something very nasty, painful or scary.   Sometimes a reward can be having something painful or scary removed from a situation, or feeling the relief of it stopping.   Which scenario would be your first choice?

I think the majority of us will choose the first option. Receiving something nice for a task well done. That is called Positive Reinforcement. When we use Positive Reinforcement all the happy chemicals in our nervous system and brain kicks into gear and our memory switches on the record button and we usually end up with a feeling of motivation and accomplishment.   Animals, are not different from us in this aspect. When they are rewarded for a behaviour, they will offer it again and again and again.   If the reward stops, they will offer it less and it can eventually cease completely, but only if there is no reward whatsoever.

Now, about them rewards, sometimes the things dogs find rewarding leaves the mind to boggle. It can be completely random and odd.   As odd as it may be, that individual dog, is finding it rewarding. I know about a certain escape artist doggit who would climb a two-meter fence, tear out her toe-nails and tear her skin to shreds, but the reward of escaping was bigger than the pain she was feeling. It was of course driven by an unrealistic fear, as she has a phobia, but it is certainly very real to her, even if it’s not to us.

Dogs who tend exhibit repetitive behaviours like spinning, running in circles, licking the fence or wall (yes you read that right) is doing it because they are getting some kind of reward out of it, it can be self soothing, it is sometimes very difficult to really pin point.   The only way to change that, is to try and match the reward they are getting or offer an even better reward in order to get them to stop and learn alternative behaviours.

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If I want to change something my dog is doing, I would go and look at why my dog is doing it. What reward is he getting out of it?   Can I match that reward or offer him something he finds even more rewarding?   The main thing would be to try and stop your dog for practising the unwanted behaviour, by managing his environment or block his access to whatever he is finding so extremely fun to do.   Once you can manage it, you can start rewarding the lesser evil, something he does instead of the unwanted behaviour that you can live with. If he does not offer anything you like, you might have to train something completely new, even if it’s just to go lie down on his mat.

Try to nip unwanted behaviours in the bud as soon as it starts, because the longer your dog gets to practice it the better he will get at it and the longer it will take to change it.

 By Tersha, Trainer