Monday, January 18, 2010

Self Reinforcing Behaviors

The other day my Facebook status was the following:
"So, I took the kids down to the bus this AM and left my french toast in the pan on the stove to keep it warm. When I returned, my french toast was no longer there. As I was pondering my lost breakfast, I looked at Zinger and said "You took it didn't you?" His only reply was a lip lick and a belch. Yup."

This is a perfect example of
A Self Reinforcing Behavior -ior -ior!!

What's a 'self reinforcing behavior', you ask? It's a behavior that is self training - no external reward or reinforcement is necessary. The mere act is reinforcement enough. For you to fully understand why these are important, let's start at the beginning....

If you take all of the behavior theory* that we use in dog training, and cook it down to it's most basic and useful essence it's this: Behaviors can either be rewarded or not. Simple. "Or not" translates to "Meh. It didn't do anything for me" or "Crap, that really sucked!" - AKA - it was either not worth the effort or it was punishing in some way. Rewarded behaviors will be repeated in an effort to get more reward. The "Or not" behaviors will die out. This works for pretty much all sentient beings (including husbands and wives), believe it or not.

*** Husband comment: excludes children. Kids' behavior defies all logic! ***

The important thing to remember about rewards is the value of the reward, or whether or not it's even considered a reward at all, is in the eyes (or mouth) of the receiver - NOT on the giver or observer. As humans we like to do a lot of transference and generalization. We think "Well I like it, therefore everybody else must too!" Not so much. We all have been in situations where somebody else did that to us, and we were decidedly not in agreement. By the way, sometimes the reward for humans isn't so obvious...sometimes satisfying or silencing the voices in our heads (oh hush, I know you have them too!) is a strong enough reward to get us to do some pretty crazy stuff.

Now, back to our dogs. There are some things that dogs do that are inherently rewarding for them. These are the aforementioned "Self Reinforcing Behaviors"! The one mentioned in my Facebook status would be food stealing. Other common ones are

  • chewing Barbie legs (and all inappropriate chewing) - there is something about Barbie legs that is just insanely satisfying for a dog to chew. I have a whole team from Barbietopia for the upcoming winter Paralympics.
  • barking at the mailman - I bark, he goes away. Most dogs don't realize he was going to go away anyway.
  • drinking out of the toilet - fresh cool water from the porcelain spring!
  • digging for "litter box crunchies"TM - the crunchy coating makes the cat poo taste even better!
  • sleeping on the furniture when you're not home - Duh! It's more comfy up there and it smells like you!

There are many many others, and you may or may not care. Personally, dogs drinking out of toilet (assuming it's flushed) doesn't bother me. Food stealing, especially when it's my breakfast, is a problem. Barking at the mailman is cute since my dogs howl an adorable opera. Racing around the house from the back yard and biting the mailman, on the other hand, is a problem.

Some of these can be trained away and we'll discuss those in future posts. Regardless of whether you plan to train them away or not, if you feel a behavior is a problem, you will need to control it. Why 'controlled'? Because - you are fighting a losing battle! Your dog isn't going to all of a sudden develop a conscious and decide to stop because it bothers you. Heck! There are lots of humans that won't even to that! The inherent reward is far to strong. If it wasn't, they wouldn't do it! You coming on the scene an hour later and yelling at your dog isn't going to do anything other than make you feel somewhat better that your daughter's brand new Holiday Barbie is now a contender for the Barbietopia Paralympic bobsled team. Plus, if you plan to train it away, it's very difficult to train away something that is a) rewarding and b) that your dog can do when you're not looking.

Now that you understand what a self-reinforcing behavior is (hopefully!) and why they are important, you're probably wondering what it means to control a behavior! Mwhahaha!! That's my next post! Luckily, you won't have to wait long though. That post is almost completely written! Stay tuned!

BTW - I apologize for it being so long since my last post! My intent is to do one weekly. So now that I've stated that goal, I expect y'all to keep me honest! :)

* When I say "theory" I mean the real scientific definition of the word - something that has been proven true repeatedly using scientific method. I am NOT using the cultural misinterpretation that really means 'hypothesis' or 'something I believe to be true but has not been proven yet'. Pet peeve? You betcha!

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