Be Careful of What You Reinforce

We have a guest blogger today. Meet Mary Greene. She’ll discuss how important it is to pay attention to what you are teaching your dog.

During my college years, I was a very easily distractible studier. Any distraction was welcome during study time, including Xena the Warrior Poodle. Xena is a black miniature poodle that I’ve had since she was a clumsy little ball of fluff. She quickly caught on even as a young pup to my susceptibility of distractions during study time.
Postive Reinforcement of Negative Behavior Can Lead to Unintentional Training
Anytime I would study or do homework, the same song and dance would commence. Xena’s communication with always began with a stare down. A typical intelligent poodle, she has the ability to identify where my eyes are looking. Therefore, the stare down would take place with her perfectly positioned within my line of sight. She would sit there, silently at first, with a toy right in front of her, staring at me. This fierce little dog is far from a beggar. Xena’s stare is less of a puppy-dog-eye-please and more of a challenging I-dare-you-to-touch-this-toy.
I always gave in to her “dare glare”. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Before giving in, I would tell her “NO” numerous times. Never budging and giving her toy a little squeak periodically, she would remain planted in my eye sight wearing the dare glare.
When I gave in, I would lean down out of my chair far enough to be within a hand’s reach of the toy. Just as I was about to grab it, she would pull it further from me. Xena would stand there, toy of out my reach with that glare – daring me to try it again.
“Fine, Xena, if you want to be like that, I’m not going to play with you.” I would go back to my studies, proud that I was able to tell her no like a good student. My dog is relentless and perhaps the most persistent little monster I have ever met. So the situation escalates into hard, audible sighs from the poodle. Typically, this is where she would place the toy back within my reach again.
“Fine, I will throw it once, and then you have to leave me alone.” I would reach for the toy again and away she predictably would pull it. Announcing that she had lost her chance, I would return to my studies.
As mentioned before, Xena is stubborn and rarely gives up. When the stare glare seemed to be no longer effective, things would get physical. She would put her paw on my leg and scratch at it until she got my attention then assume the I-dare-you stance again. If I didn’t reach for her toy at this point, she would squeak it. The grab and pull away game gets repeated. You get the picture.
Periodically, throughout this “study session” she would let me acquire the toy and throw it for her. The dare glare, grab and pull away, dig at my leg, squeak her to pattern continued until I put away my books for the evening.
I am writing this story because it is a great example of the consequences of unintentionally giving your dog positive reinforcement for unwanted behavior. The entire situation, including the dare glare, is my fault due to poor training.
When Xena was a puppy, I was in my teens and had never owned a dog before. I trained her with no prior research or experience not realizing owning a dog meant training.
My first mistake was incorrectly teaching her how to play fetch. That is how the “dare glare” came to be. While she didn’t have a hard time catching on to the concept of fetch, I wasn’t so clear with the retrieval portion. My mistake was impatience with her. Instead of waiting for the fur ball puppy to retrieve the toy and bring it all the way back to me, I would go get it from her. From reaching my arm all the way out to getting off the couch and grabbing it, she learned not to bring it back to me. This eventually blossomed into a game of keep away, giving the poodle the power in the game. I unintentionally positively reinforced her to make me get the toy from her.
Positively reinforcing negative behaviors is also to blame for Xena’s behavior during homework/study time. She has been trained to see me studying or reading and approach me for play time. Xena knows if she is persistent, I will cave and she will get the reward of playing.
I can’t help but laugh because I know that it’s my fault. Even now, when I crack a book open for some leisurely reading, you can bet Xena the Warrior Poodle can be found within my line of site. Just proof that a little bit of reinforcement goes a long way. Remember, you don’t have to be actively training a dog for them to develop new behaviors. Always be aware of what behaviors you are positively reinforcing – intentional or not.

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