From time to time I get asked what I do to tell my dog NO when he is doing something I don’t like. I tell them I try very hard not to use that word.
Here is the thing about that question. First of all, while your dog may or may not momentarily stop what it is doing when you are saying NO, if you are needing to continue to use that word, then it is not solving your problem.
There are many reasons why I do not like using that word. While NO may stop the unwanted behavior in the moment, it does not give your pet any information on what you would like for him to do instead. Also using aversives has the potential for creating apathy, fear, anxiety and even aggression—and you will become associated with those things if you are the one delivering that negative consequence. As the bad behavior punisher, you may also only succeed in teaching your dog that he should not do the unwanted behavior in front of you.
Another thing to keep in mind is that constantly, animals are making choices based upon where the value is for them. Whether you like it or not, if the unwanted behavior helps your pet get something he values, then you will see more of that behavior. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance, (2005). Learning and Behavior [5th ed.].)
So, if the reinforcement for doing the behavior outweighs the negative of your punishment, your pet will continue to do the unwanted behavior…just possibly when you have your back turned or are in another room.
Let’s also think about the teaching perspective from a human standpoint. Let’s say your significant other continues to reprimand you for things you do. Over time, how will that make you feel about being around that person? Will it cause you to enjoy doing things for him/her or to see those things as a chore? On the other hand, if your significant other consistently tells you how much you and what you do are appreciated, I bet you will do a lot more things around the house without being asked. You will feel much different about your relationship.
So, what is a pet owner to do when a pet’s behavior is not acceptable?
First of all, step back from the situation for a moment, catch your breath and instead of blaming your pet for simply doing what works in the moment to get his needs met, ask yourself what YOU can do differently to help your pet succeed.
Since, each practice of a behavior is highly likely to be building that behavior’s reinforcement history (and we know that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated), ask yourself what you can do to set up the environment so that your pet doesn’t have an opportunity to practice the unwanted behavior.
Think about what needs or wants that behavior helps your pet to meet, and behaviors you can teach (with a high rate of reinforcement) that will help your pet to get his needs and wants met in acceptable ways. Then teach those behaviors that will help your pet to succeed in your world.
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.