How do we influence our animals' behaviour?
Let's start with learning theory.
In the simplest sense, in the moment after occurring, a behaviour is reinforced (meaning more likely to occur in the future) or punished (meaning less likely to occur in the future).
These reinforcers or punishers can be added (called POSITIVE, as in the mathematic sense) or removed (called NEGATIVE).
So that means there are 4 quadrants:
- POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (R+) adding in something an animal likes to reinforce a behaviour eg. Giving a treat when our dog sits.
- NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT (R-) removing something an animal dislikes to reinforce a behaviour eg. Release lead pressure when our dog steps towards us.
- POSITIVE PUNISHMENT (P+) adding in something that an animal dislikes to punish a behaviour eg. An electric shock when the dog barks.
- NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT (P-) removing something an animal likes to punish the behaviour eg. Removing an animals toy when they jump up on us.
Key point: These consequences have to occur straight after the behaviour for the animal to connect them together.
Every animal has different reinforcers and punishers- My horse finds carrots reinforcing, but the cat really doesn’t. Part of our job as animal owners and trainers is to find what we can use to reinforce the behaviours want!
So how and why do we avoid punishment?
First up, let’s review the definition of positive punishment: POSITIVE PUNISHMENT (P+) is adding in something that an animal dislikes to punish a behaviour eg. An electric shock when the dog barks.
So why do we want to avoid it?
Punishment tells the animal what they did wrong without giving information how to get it right the next time.
We may apply what we think is punishment, thinking that it will reduce a behaviour, but to the animal it isn’t! eg. Growling and banging on top of a dog’s crate when they bark. If this doesn’t scare the dog, and in fact they wanted your attention, you may have inadvertently reinforced the behaviour!
Punishment often stops a behaviour continuing, but doesn’t result in long-term change eg. Dog growls, is told off, and then growls again when someone touches them. It can also stop them showing those warning signs and in this situation, they can skip straight to biting!
Frequent exposure to low-level punishment will change it’s effectiveness, leading to escalation of the punishment slowly until a behaviour that used to be stopped by a ‘growl’ from the owner, needs a shout and tug on the lead for example.
Punishment can induce a fear or anxiety response where there didn’t use to be one. An example of this is a dog that is leash-popped when they see another dog, may associate other dogs with punishment and become aggressive towards other dogs…
If there is already fear/anxiety, it can escalate it, leading to excessive submission or aggression.
In conclusion, positive punishment misuse is common, has serious welfare concerns associated with it’s use, and can permanently damage the human-animal bond.
So what do we do instead??
Let’s think of a behaviour most people don’t enjoy, eg. A dog jumping up on you when you return home!
Jumping up is fun for dogs. It’s a normal, excitable greeting behaviour that all dogs do naturally. It is reinforced by getting hands in their face, being able to lick you and is associated with the pure joy of their human returning!
Sometimes, we add to this game by pushing dogs away, or even playing with them with our hands. Not only does this reinforce jumping, but can also become a game of chewing hands… I digress! If you don’t mind your dog jumping on you, this is a poor example, but it’s a common one.
So how do we stop jumping? By teaching an ALTERNATIVE behaviour. This can be sit, or run to your mat when my human gets home, or whatever you would like, as long as it is hard to jump up when doing it!
Once you’ve decided what your alternative behaviour is, you need to practice it and reinforce it. For best results, use positive reinforcement to reinforce this behaviour. Remember, POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (R+) adding in something an animal likes to reinforce a behaviour eg. Giving a treat when our dog sits. In the case of jumping, giving the attention they are craving can be a really useful reinforcer.
Set your dog up for success, practicing your sit in lots of places before attempting it on return, at the door.
Some other examples of alternative behaviours include:
- Teaching your horse to stand still at the mounting block instead of swinging their butt away
- Teaching a dog to go to a mat when the doorbell rings instead of running barking to the door
- Teaching your cat to station on a piece of paper instead of jumping on the counter when preparing food.
This is why one of my favourite questions to ask in a consultation is “so what do you want your animal to do instead?”