Behaviorism 101-We got a dog!

Behaviorism 101-We got a dog!

We recently adopted a beautiful, sweet dog. When we got him, we were told that he was 18 – 24 months, but an early trip to the vet (due to a rubber travel bowl which was consumed) revealed our new boy was closer to 12 months old. In many ways, he is trained well. He is friendly with people, large dogs, small dogs and is housebroken. There are, nevertheless, still some behaviors which are undesirable and he is a teenager. This has given me the opportunity to use some of the behavioral skills that I learned, teach and convey to parents on a daily basis. This blogpost will hopefully serve to clarify some of the “behaviorism” terms and use the recent issues which have surfaced with our puppy. It should be noted, that the behaviorism which psychologists and other mental health practitioners utilize is based on research which first began with animals.

Positive Reinforcement – This is a very important component in behaviorism. Essentially, we are presenting a reward after a behavior (which is desired) is presented. With our puppy, we use pieces of his dry food and small treats after he does behaviors we like to see such as allowing us to put his collar on and learning new behaviors (sitting, giving his paw, staying still, etc.). Parents and dog owners get this confused with bribery. It is in fact not bribery. With children, it is modeling the idea that if you do what is expected of you (homework), you will get a reward (good grade).

Extinction – Another extremely important component of behaviorism. Here, we are attempting to get our puppy to stop or extinguish an undesired behavior. In the case of our puppy, the first night he was unhappy with our decision to keep him in a crate throughout the night. He let us, and our neighbors, know by a long period of barking. As difficult as it was, we ignored the barking. Eventually, it slowed down and after some time, it stopped. He never barked again. A few points to keep in mind. The first point is once you decide to ignore, you must be consistent and follow through. If you do not, you have just taught the dog that barking very loudly will get him what he wants. Additionally, there is something known as the “extinction burst.” This is when in the immediate short-term moment, we see an increase in the undesired behavior. For example, when leaving him in the crate, we might expect the barking to become louder and more intense. If you wait it out and ignore, it will eventually extinguish. An example in children can be understood as the child screaming in the grocery store line because their parent won’t buy them a candy. The best chance at getting this behavior to disappear for the long term is ignoring the difficult few minutes in grocery store.

Negative Reinforcement – The idea behind negative reinforcement is to removing a negative stimulus after the presentation of a positive behavior. A great example with dogs is the electric fence. Return to the designated boundary, and the shock will end. A great example with humans is the seatbelt alarm. That annoying beeping will stop once the seatbelt is used. One behavior we wanted our puppy to learn was to stay off the couch. We thought about spraying him with water when he would jump on the couch and stop as soon as he hops off. The issue with this is that we need constantly pay attention and be ready to spray, a feat not easy to tackle. Additionally, we are trying to build a positive, warm and trusting relationship with our puppy. Presenting him with noxious stimuli will not foster that relationship. Therefore, with animals and people, this type of behaviorism is not always recommended.

Hopefully this highlights different principles which can be utilized with your dog at home. Additional readings such as Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor can help offer more in depth explanation on utilizing these principles with both animals and people. Additionally, for those parents looking to use these principles with their children. We recommend speaking to a mental health professional who is proficient in behavioral therapy to assist with this process.


photoSay hi to Mordy, the author’s dog.