Monday, December 26, 2011

The Rewards of Rewarding…

The other day I was sitting at the car wash station, “socialising” with people and I got the question: “So…what do you do for a living?”, and I smiled…because I know that as soon as I answer, I will be flooded with stories and questions about every pet the person has lived with since birth, including the goldfish of his neighbour. I do politely take time to answer all the questions, as wisely as I can, but there are the ones about behaviour that I know cannot be answered by just chit chatting!
Why? Because, the essential component of proper pet behaviour training is…owner training! Most of failed training sessions or unmanageable dog attacks are caused by the owner sending improper or mixed signals to the pet. In reality, the formula is as simple as: Animals do not think proper (as we would like to believe) but they associate events and repeat behaviours that are reinforced. i.e. they will adopt and exhibit a behaviour if the latter has been rewarded in the past. That is the foundation of all “Positive Reinforcement Training”(PRT). Simple huh? If my pet is doing something that I want to or like; I reward it and it will continue to do it. But reality is otherwise, more often than not, while the owner is complaining and telling me how kitty cat comes meowing and rattling the bedroom door at 6 a.m to ask for food or how Blacky jumps on people to greet them…I do realise that the owner himself has reinforced that. Here are a few examples:


This is normal behaviour for playful and friendly puppies to do amongst themselves. What they are seeking (and what would be the reward) is the physical contact. While in the beginning this may be seen as “cute” and rewarded with a praising tone and a cuddle, it soon turns out to be a problem now that the dog is bigger or its paws are dirty. What happens next is: the owner pushes the animal away and shouts. We do forget that this is also a form of attention; negative, but still attention and physical contact; so the dog now sees that as a reward and continues to jump on you…but this time only to get your shoving and shouting. Some dogs might even see that as some sort of rough play; some physical engagement that is oh so craved for.
What to do now?
Simple again. Identify what the dog is looking for and DO NOT give. Basically, here it’s: Attention and Physical Contact. So, look away and keep your hands away from the dog. He will try again and then stop and sit still watching what you do. Now, and only now, you reach down and reward him with a praise, cuddle or treat. This will make him associate the sitting still with the reward. What will now be needed is consistency and patience from your part.
Consistency because if you reward the sitting still and other people in your family still push, shove and shout as before the dog will never learn.
Patience because you have to remember that the “bad” behaviour got ingrained in your pet’s head over a long period of time and it will take a lot of reinforcement to now change all that.

Ok, if you have grasped the essence of what I am talking about, we can proceed to “analysing” a few more common complaints about pet “misbehaving”. If you did not understand well the principles of PRT, then scroll up and read again before proceeding further


Common mistake: Give in to the meowing and feed the cat. The animal quickly associates the meowing with the food and will do so; or may even “try harder” and vocalise louder next time. By feeding when the kitty meows, you reward this behaviour and “carve” future problematic times for yourself. That is one of the main reason for cat obesity (especially after spaying) cat begs for food and owner gives in.
Correct human behaviour: Ignore the cat and wait till the cat stops meowing to give the food. Do not give the whole portion, just a little “treat” portion…to make him associate the food with the silence episode. Ignore again as soon as the meowing starts off again. Reward all other episodes of silence and be consistent
Pitfalls: Cats and puppy do make the famous “big begging eyes” so be strong and do not give in to pity. Your pet will be thankful to you later for that. Meowing can be nerve rattling too…but again be strong and do not give in to the easy way out.


Common mistake: Shouting back at parrot or giving any sort of attention. Parrots are very motivated by “conversations” and will readily take any form of verbal communication, especially when it is loud, as a reward. Parrots in the wild vocalize vociferously to mates and flock members as a way of bonding and maintaining group cohesion. In the human household, parrots call to the people with whom they are bonded and expect some type of reply. When the owners scream back, the bird may view it as what bird vocalization researchers call dueting.
Correct human behaviour: Once again ask yourself what the bird is looking for and DO NOT reinforce the screeching by giving in. If it’s food, do the same as with the cat case. If it’s your presence, do not walk back into the room until he has calmed down. If it wants to be out of the cage, do not do so until he is quiet
Pitfalls: Screeches more often disturb other people in the surrounding (neighbours, family, baby etc) but do not give in.


Common mistake: Shouting at the dog or hurling objects at him or even physically punishing him
Correct Human Behaviour: There is no barking without reason; there must surely be a reason, that is not apparent to you but if you analyse the situation well you will find it. Shouting at the dog or physically punishing him will not solve the problem and may even exacerbate the situation. Your dog my interpret the barking as the only means to attract your attention and continue to do so
Pitfalls: Same as screeching of parrots…many dogs get abandoned or euthanized because of barking.

Enough for today? Well….one last thing that you should be aware of: “Extinction Burst” – this is a phase some pets go through before finally letting go of their former undesirable behaviour. They might first engage in the behaviour even more. So if an owner is trying to ignore his or her dog when it jumps up, it may at first jump even more than usual because jumping has worked so well in the past.

I do not know if all this seemed familiar to you but…yes…it happens in the human world too. We all had our behaviour (good and bad) modelled and carved in through years and years of “reinforcement”. How many of us found it hard to re-wire our behaviour to suit a new situation. Oh how hard was it to understand that what has been reinforced as being acceptable with family and friends suddenly becomes inappropriate at work! How many times have I heard from people: “Uggh! I only attract assholes in my life”…But wait a minute may be you are doing something that reinforces “assholitude”! That is why you end up with them! Looool!

I am surely pushing it a bit far but think about it… What is the difference with that owner who always ends up with misbehaving dogs because he rewarded the wrong behaviour or gave in only to stop the barking/biting or jumping?
It’s all about what we reinforce and what has been reinforced in us; what has been “rewarding” and “worked” in our lives and we repeat it on and on again, irrespective of the situations. But the only constant thing in life is…change. Right? Same behaviours do not necessarily trigger the same rewards and we have to constantly reinvent the whole scenario.

So much for “So…What do you do for a living?” at the carwash station…Lool!

Merry X-Mas