Understanding Reinforcement – How your Dog Learns

Do you ever wonder why your dog continues to carry out the most annoying of actions even when you are trying to teach him something far more useful? Well, I am going to let you into a little secret, something that all positive and professional dog trainers already know, your dog is repeating the action because he is somehow being rewarded for it.

When I say that your dog is being rewarded I don’t necessarily mean by the type of reward which you would expect. A canine friend can find an incentive in many actions and does not even need a treat or cuddle to see an action as something worth repeating.

An example of this is the canine that jumps up on greeting. This is quite a common act which many dog owners can struggle with. No matter how many times they push the enthusiastic dog off with their hands, and scold vocally, he still jumps up. The owner cannot understand why the dog is being disobedient and the dog, very simply, adores the attention. In this instance, the attention is the reward and therefore reinforcing the dog’s unhelpful behavior.

Dogs, as a general rule, love attention and it does not matter whether the focus on him is positive, such as praise and cuddle, or negative for example pushing him off and telling him how naughty he is. To most dogs all attention is rewarding because they love to interact with their owners. The only exception to this is a dog that has fear issues and cannot cope with direct interaction as it may seem like confrontation to him.

When you look at the interaction between your dog and you as his owner, as he is doing something unhelpful, you can actually see whether you are keeping the bad habit alive by reinforcing it with attention. If you find that this is the case then changing your response will most certainly change the behavior of your dog.  For instance if he is jumping up and you completely ignore him you are taking away the reward. Then if you offer positive attention whilst all four of his paws are on the ground he will soon learn that this position is far more worthwhile to him.

The idea of reinforcement can be difficult to grasp initially but with some effort and understanding it will most certainly improve your relationship with, and understanding of, your dog.


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