Oftentimes dog trainers who recommend reward based training say to reward the dog behavior you want, and ignore the dog behavior you don’t want. Problem is, while you’re busy ignoring the behavior, your dog is having a good old time. His actions of jumping up, chewing on the carpet, pawing at you, grabbing something off the counter, running away from you, or snagging a tidbit out of the trash are pleasurable. He repeats the behavior on another occasion. And you are faced with the same cycle all over again.
The sad thing is that it makes it look like reward-based training doesn’t work. However, what is really going on is that the principles of reward based training are being misapplied. Rewards are powerful. They build behaviors and strengthen doggie habits, whether or not they are habits you like. The trick, therefore, is to be strategic about which behaviors you reward and allow to be rewarded. Strategic use of rewards means expanding your definition of what a reward is. Your dog’s point of view is what counts here; if your dog finds an action rewarding, no matter how diligently you may be ignoring it, he will repeat it.
Instead of ignoring behavior you don’t like and risking the dog finding it rewarding/repeatable, do not allow the dog to rehearse it to begin with. Then he can’t find it rewarding, and you’ll be presented with the opportunity to reward, and therefore build, the behavior you do want to see in its place. Examples:
- Assume your dog will jump up and don’t wait for it to happen. Instead, whenever he approaches, preemptively cue him to sit, then reward with attention/a tidbit. Or crouch preemptively, or use a leash, baby-gate or drag line you can quickly step on to prevent the launch sequence.
- Assume your dog will chew the carpet and don’t wait for it to happen. Provide appropriate chew outlets that your dog finds engaging, appropriate confinement as needed, and roll up a valuable throw rug until you’ve taught the dog desirable habits like working on a food puzzle or relaxing on a mat.
- Assume your dog will take off running and don’t wait for it to happen. Use a leash, long line, storm door, or a better lock on the gate. Meantime, use rewards to teach your dog to come to you on cue.
For details on how to prevent common puppy habits and how to teach alternatives with rewards, see Puppy Savvy.
If you can predict when your dog is going to engage in an aggravating action, you are almost there! Prevent it (rather than ignoring it), then reward an alternative behavior that you would like to see more of. The old behavior will fade (starved of the chance to be rehearsed/rewarded), and the new behavior will become the norm (having been strengthened with rewards).