Friday, September 16, 2011

Extinguishing Bad Behavior

One of the least talked about and most useful tricks up the sleeve of any competent animal trainer is called "extinguishing" bad behavior.

What's extinguishing?  Well, it can take many forms, but the basic premise is that if there is never any reaction to a bad behavior, then that bad behavior will tend to go away.  After all, why waste time and effort on something that produces no obvious result, either good or bad?

Of course, extinguishing bad behavior is harder than it seems!

Take the issue of barking and fence fighting.  A lot of dogs (and people too, it should be said) are barkers and fence-fighters, and both problems are harder to extinguish than you might imagine, as there is a natural ebb-and-flow to life that can be seen by the barker and fence-fighter as a positive response to their negative behavior.

A dog goes out into the yard, for example, and its barking sends a few squirrels scampering up into the trees 

The dog barks again at an overhead airplane and then that airplane moves away. 

The dog barks again at a car that goes by on the street, and the car moves away. 

"Wow," thinks the dog, "I am really powerful force, and my barking is really intimidating."  

That might have been true from the squirrel's perspective, but not for the airplane or the car.  But can the dog tell the difference?  It cannot, and so in a matter of days or week, it may end up barking at every leaf that flutters to the ground. 

"Look at me," the dog screams and yodels.  "I am the great and powerful Rover, and the world trembles in my presence."

This kind of thing goes on all the time in the world of dogs. For example, when a mailman comes to a house and shoves mail through the slot, a dog may see "his" territory as being invaded, and so the dog will rush to the door barking, and may even attack the mail as it falls to the ground. 

And what happens then?  Why the mailman retreats! 

The dog has apparently gotten a response, and though that response has nothing to do with the dog's actions, the dog does not understand how the world works, and so it assumes a cause-and-effect reaction because it cannot imagine that the postman is focused on his route, and not on the mighty roaring Rover!

This story explains why so many dogs bark at mailmen, but the inverse of this story also explains why so few dogs bark at refrigerators. 

Think about it.

To a hungry dog, a refrigerator should be a magical thing, as behind every door lurks food of every kind.  Marvelous!

But guess what? 

Dogs never bark at refrigerator doors, despite the fact that all that food is just a few inches from their nose. 

And you know why? 

Simple:  refrigerator doors never open from the inside when dogs bark at them. 

A back door may open from the inside if a dog barks at it often enough, but a refrigerator door never does.  A refrigerator is as immovable as a rock, and a dog quickly learns that.

Bored Dogs With Too Little Excercise

So what can you do to turn things around if you have a congenital barker or fence fighter?

It's actually not as easy a problem to solve as some people would have you believe, especially if the dog has been doing it for quite some time. 

Yes, most yard barkers are bored and have far too little stimulation in their life. 

Yes, Job One is to take these dogs for a walk morning and night, and yes hiding food treats around the yard or in the house will provide mental stimulation. 

Yes, packing hard hollow dog toys full of foods that will take the dog a few hours to dig out will help give the dog a "job."

Yes, weather permitting, you can also put bones and treats into a "time release" brick by freezing them into a block of ice that will take several hours to unthaw.

Will that do the trick? 

Maybe.  Maybe not. 

Other tricks may need to be resorted to, such as treadmills, spring poles, and actually working your dog in the field with a ball or Frisbee.

All of this will help, and most of the time it will solve the problem.

But not always.

You see, barking and fence-fighting are strongly self-reinforcing behaviors in a very small number of dogs. These dogs may get a lot of exercise and may get involved in a lot of hobbies, and still end up being a little too vocal for some owners and some neighbors. In these situations, you may have to decide whether you can live with the noise, whether you need to swap out the dog, or whether an anti-bark collar is called for. This last device is not one I recommend, but it is far more likely to work than the most common bit of nonsense parroted from one book to another, which is to "put the barking behavior on a command, and then never give the command." I am still looking to find any problem outdoor barker where that "trick" has actually worked!

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