The idea that we should reward our dogs’ good behaviour and ignore their ‘bad’ (unwanted) behaviour is something I hear very often. It’s actually a misunderstanding of learning theory. Learning theory tells us that animals are more likely to repeat behaviour which is rewarded; Unrewarded behaviour is likely to go away (known as extinction).
Ignoring unwanted behaviour, however, doesn’t guarantee that it isn’t being rewarded. The very fact that it’s happening is a very big clue that it’s being rewarded (reinforced) by something. It doesn’t have to be food or a toy that reinforces the behaviour. It could be anything? If a behaviour is being repeated then the dog is perceiving some benefit to it. It is simply how behaviour works. We don’t go about our day doing things which we think have no benefit to us. We fill the kettle in a way which works; we fill it with the tap because that seems to work well. We turn the tap on in an anticlockwise direction because that is what works.
Rather than ignoring unwanted behaviour, we need to ensure that it’s not rewarded. The reinforcer (or reward) is keeping the behaviour alive so why would we just ignore it. A dog which helps themselves to food from the kitchen worktop is being rewarded for jumping up to investigate the worktop. Would we ignore that? of course not. We ensure that there is no reward available for accessing the work surface and we ensure that behaviour we do want to see more of gets nicely rewarded.
Reward good behaviour, and prevent problem behaviour from being rewarded.
We can even teach alternative behaviours to replace the problematic ones but I’ll save that for another day.
Disclaimer: I use the word ‘bad’ for ease of understanding. Dogs aren’t actually behaving badly, they are simply doing what works.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read