Self Reinforcing Behaviors

self reinforcing behaviors in dogs

Ignore the behaviors you don’t like and reinforce the behaviors you do like, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Many times you can just ignore something and it will go away. However, some behaviors are self-reinforcing, which means the behavior reinforces itself by providing the dog with some sort of satisfaction.

For example, counter surfing is self reinforcing – meaning the dog gets what he wants with or without you.

Here are some other examples of self reinforcing behaviors:

  • jumping can be rewarding for a dog depending on the situation
  • barking at the mail man (because the mail man leaves when the dog barks even though it isn’t because of the barking)
  • pulling on the leash
  • chewing (on inappropriate things)
  • digging

Pretty much anything the dog benefits from whether or not you do anything.

Management is the best way to prevent behaviors from becoming self-reinforcing. This means you prevent the dog from doing the behavior or you remove access to the rewards that  the behavior would produce. If the dog doesn’t get that piece of toast on the counter each time he goes up there, then there is no reason to make that effort anymore. It is critical, however, to make sure your dog does not ever get anything from the counters or the behavior will be put on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (sometimes the dog gets rewarded) – something that trainers use to strengthen behaviors! Keep things put up or keep the dog put up

You can also work on incompatible behaviors which means the dog learns to do something else instead of the inappropriate behavior in order to get what he wants. An example would be making four paws on the ground more rewarding than jumping or counter surfing.

One more way to change problem self reinforcing behaviors is to change the where the reward is coming from. Instead of making the counter very rewarding – make the floor very rewarding. Keep food put away and off the counters and  leave crumbs of (dog-friendly) food on the ground. After a while, your dog will have completely forgotten about the counters and will keep his nose to the ground.

Most importantly, you have to provide alternatives for your dog to use his brain to get what he wants. Dogs are smart and they naturally want to use their smarts to figure out puzzles to get to their rewards. Give them the opportunity to do that!

What does your dog do that is “self-reinforcing”?