The next time your dog wedges his head underneath your arm to get your attention, or you respond to her whining by opening the kennel door, or you scold her for jumping exuberantly when you arrive home, ask yourself the following question: Have I somehow been paying my dog for this behavior? Do I occasionally/sometimes/always compensate my dog for this unwanted behavior with the most valuable currency, my attention? If your answer is yes, there’s no need to despair. It’s relatively simple to rewire our dogs’ behavioral tendencies by paying them for the behaviors we want instead of those we don’t.
Just what exactly does this mean? Our attention is one of the most reinforcing things to our dogs. When a dog realizes that a behavior like barking or jumping can often lead to interaction with you, it will regularly and predictably offer that behavior. So if there are things in your dog’s behavioral repertoire that you wish there weren’t, find the ways in which you or your family provide reinforcement for that behavior and stop it. At the same time, notice when your dog is doing the things you want and offer the same reinforcement for those behaviors. You’ll likely find that your dog willingly turns the unwanted behaviors off because they no longer serve him, and naturally offers the behaviors you want because they’re the things that get your dog what it wants.
Make an effort to catch your dog being good and reward these moments with the attention and affection it craves, and everybody wins. After all, we should get what we pay for, shouldn’t we?
Shaun Woodard, CPDT-KA