What do computers, credit cards, gambling and dog training have in common? Behavioral reinforcement! During spring break in Summit County the population swelled, taxing the computer systems. Between 6-11 p.m., I couldn't connect with my server, so I didn't even try to use the Internet in the evening. When something consistently does not work, we give up. So do dogs. This is called "extinction." If we are absolutely consistent in not rewarding or reinforcing unwanted behavior from our dogs such as jumping for attention, they will eventually give up. They might give it one last huge obnoxious effort, called an "extinction burst", but if we remain consistent, they will give up. Random reinforcement can sometimes encourage behaviors we don't want. For instance, our credit card strips tend to stop swiping randomly. They might work at some places, just often enough to keep us from calling for a new card, even though it takes but a few minutes. As long as our cards work a little bit, we will still keep using them. With dogs, as long as something like jumping works some of the time, they will keep doing it. This is especially true during an "extinction burst" when dogs will do and try everything to "make it work." Adolescent dogs (and humans) are masters at this! When kind but firm consistency meets the persistence of an adolescent, the behavior will eventually go extinct. If the behavior works some of the time, it will continue.Conversely, we can use random reinforcement to maintain behaviors we want from dogs and wean them off constant food rewards. This is where gambling comes in. If we win some of the time, if there is a chance at getting a reward, we keep gambling. When training dogs, we use this same behavioral phenomenon (among other techniques) to wean a dog off constant treats and rewards. For instance, once we have taught a dog to "stay", we randomize the time the dog is in "stay." A dog may be asked for five seconds, then 10, then seven, next 20, then two- second "stays." This keeps a dog from anticipating a release from a stay and teaches her/him to wait for a clear release signal. In summary, if something never works (computer connection or attention for jumping), humans and dogs give up. The behavior goes "extinct." If something works some of the time (worn strips on credit cards or attention for jumping), humans and dogs will keep doing it. If rewards happen randomly and frequently enough to make canines and humans think we have a "chance," behaviors we want can be maintained without constant food rewards. Understanding and management of behavioral reinforcement works for humans and dogs.Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and owner of Skijor-n-More. She is also a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a licensed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. www.skijornmore.com
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