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Dogs Need a Reward Program Too

Recently, while walking on the beach, my dogs and I came across a couple with two young dogs, one of whom seemed rather aggressive despite his youth.

After he snarled and lunged at one of my dogs, the woman holding his leash pulled him back and began cooing at him and rubbing his chest in an effort to soothe and calm him. Flashback to 1987: PETA had just completed an investigation into Midwestern dog dealers, and we had to find permanent homes for the six dogs who had been bought from the dealers as part of the investigation. Five of them were quickly adopted, but feisty young cocker spaniel Rogan was aggressive, so no one really wanted to adopt him. He specialized in grabbing big dogs’ lips and refusing to let go.

In fact, that’s what he was doing when I first met him. What possessed me to adopt Rogan is still a mystery, but once he was mine, I couldn’t give him up despite the aggression. And I had to solve this problem quickly, because my other two dogs were none too happy with Rogan in spite of my attempts to manage the situation.

Off we went to our first one-on-one dog-training session with a local dog trainer. There were big dogs everywhere, and Rogan was lunging and snarling and getting quite worked up. So I tried to calm him down by petting him and speaking soothingly to him. And that’s when the dog trainer walked up to me and said the words that I will never forget: “Do you always reward your dog for bad behavior?”

Wow! A light bulb went on inside my head, and I instantly understood the error of my ways. By petting Rogan when he was acting out, I was telling him, “Good boy! I like what you’re doing! Keep up the good work!”

Fast-forward to the present: I notice dog guardians all around me making the same mistake that I had made. They are unaware of the meaning that their behavior conveys to their dogs and don’t realize just how susceptible their dogs are to these signals.

Whatever dogs are doing at the precise moment when we reward them, they will repeat it. So rewards should never be offered when a dog is in a negative state of mind, whether aggressive, pushy, hyperactive, anxious, or fearful. Rewarding a negative state of mind (and thus, negative behavior) will guarantee that you will see it more often.

This is why it’s so counterproductive to pet and cuddle dogs who quake with fear during a thunderstorm, it validates their phobia, which will then worsen with each subsequent thunderstorm. In addition to petting, rewards can consist of treats, toys, verbal praise (especially in a high-pitched voice), being picked up, being let outside, chasing a ball, anything positive qualifies.

How to deal with negative behavior (besides not rewarding it) depends on its severity, but in general it should be redirected into a more positive activity that can be rewarded. For example, if Fido jumps up on you, he can be shown that an alternate activity (sitting politely) will actually result in treats, whereas the jumping up will not. Dogs don’t take very long to catch on.

For dangerous behavior that could cause damage or injury, it would be best to consult with a pet behaviorist or a humane dog trainer who can show you how to implement positive training methods correctly. Luckily, even dogs with behavior problems have their angelic moments, and that’s when they should be richly rewarded. Whenever Fido behaves nicely – whether he’s relaxing calmly in the living room, greeting another dog in a friendly manner, not barking at the mail carrier, sitting patiently while on a walk when you stop to chat with a neighbor, or being brave during a thunderstorm?he needs to get positive feedback from you. This good behavior should never be overlooked or taken for granted, because rewarding it will encourage your dog to do more of it, which leads to a win-win situation.

When it comes to rewards, we humans are no different. If you tell a joke and everyone laughs hysterically, won’t you tell it again at the next party? If your boss gives you a bonus for getting a job completed early, won’t you try to finish the next job ahead of schedule too? We all, dog and human alike, enjoy rewards and go through life trying to have as many rewarding experiences as possible. You can help make your dog’s life more rewarding with each passing year by making sure that you reward only positive behavior.

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  • Amanda says:

    I think some folks may be over analyzing, especially re: emotion. I believe what Karen is trying to say is that when a dog behaves in a way that is unacceptable (i.e. barking, lunging) s/he must be taught to make better choices, rather than being inadvertently rewarded for the inappropriate behavior. Using the first example of the dog on the beach, the guardian, who no doubt meant well, might have instead made a sharp, “ah!” sound and walked her dog briskly in another direction, thus removing any type of reward (being fussed over, interacting with others of his own species) and taking all the fun out of the situation.

  • Kathleen says:

    I didn’t know that about dogs and thunderstorms.

  • chander kumar soni says:

    i liked much.

  • chander kumar soni says:

    liked much.

  • Sarah says:

    I completely agree that dog owners need to be mindful of what behaviors should be rewarded and that this general “rule” applies to most minor behaviors such as jumping up on people or door busting. There is, however, a difference between rewarding a behavior and acknowledging emotions. We need to realize that dogs DO have emotions and that these emotions should be considered whenever we talk about behavior modification. This is especially important when talking about a dog that has been rescued from a neglectful or abusive situation. Dogs have formative years, much like humans do. And as it is with humans, the occurrence of traumatic events and a failure to learn basic social skills during those formative years can have a huge impact on a dog for the rest of her life. For example, a dog who is not allowed to interact with other dogs or her environment properly from birth, will not learn the social skills she needs to feel comfortable with her peers and her environment in her adult life. This lack of social skills can result in a dog having aggression towards other dogs or anxiety towards new experiences. Unfortunately, most owners of dogs who exhibit aggression or anxiety simply see negative behaviors that MUST be eliminated, despite any emotions that the dog may be feeling. When working towards eliminating these unwanted behaviors, I think a lot of dog owners make the mistake of trying to force a dog to ignore her emotions. A dog who is anxious and “quakes with fear” during a thunderstorm or who is fearful and is “lunging and snarling and getting quite worked up” when she’s in a room full of other dogs, has real emotions that we need to acknowledge. And I don’t feel that “it’s counterproductive to pet and cuddle dogs who” are in these situations. We need to let our dog know that we respect their feelings and are going to do our best to protect them and keep them from harms way. What IS counterproductive, however, is ignoring our dog’s emotions and instead believing that we have the right to force her to overcome them when they don’t suit OUR needs. Now, I know that there are behaviors such as aggression that should be taken seriously and be addressed appropriately and humanely, for safety’s sake. But perhaps we should not only address the behavior, like aggression, but also address the emotions that are causing the behavior, like fear. For example, if our dog is afraid of something, and it can be avoided, why don’t we do just that? My dog Gracie, a rescue, is deathly afraid of being in crowded, noisy locations like pet supply stores or outdoor festivals and know this because when I have tried to take her to these locations, she either turns-to-stone, her eyes as big as saucers, or she lashes out at other dogs who come too close. Now, Gracie is an incredibly sweet and loving dog and I want so much to take her with me and show her off to anyone and everyone! But I know that taking her would make her uncomfortable and I love and respect her too much to do that to her. I would rather maintain a trust-based relationship with Gracie than lose her trust by forcing her to do something I know she doesn’t want to do. If you knew that your best friend was afraid of crowded, noisy places would you force them to go to the mall with you? Of course not. Instead you would acknowledge their feelings and try to comfort them, so as to maintain their trust in you. I think that our dogs deserve the same acknowledgement and compassion from us. So as I work with Gracie to help her gain confidence and overcome her anxiety, I want her to trust that 1) I “have her back” and will do my best to protect her, and 2) if the situation becomes too much for her to handle, I will respect her feelings and remove her from it. We need to realize that dogs have limitations just like humans, and that ignoring or trying to push past those limitations can jeopardize the relationship we have with these amazing creatures. I want to have a relationship with my dog that is built on mutual respect and trust, NOT on force and uncertainty. If you want the same for you and your dog, I would highly recommend that you read the book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs, but Suzanne Clothier. It’s a fantastic book! :o)

  • Corey says:

    What a great article! How many of us “calm” our dogs but in reality are simply rewarding his behavior. Thank You!!

  • Bernadette Kerbey says:

    I see a confusion here between behaviour and emotions. Behaviour you want should be rewarded, behaviour you don’t want should be ignored (where possible) but emotions are emotions and need to be dealt with. The “snap out of it and pull yourself together” attitude will work when someone is perhaps being hysterical as a learned behaviour, but fear is an emotion and needs addressing by teaching strategies to cope. In order to learn any living organism needs to be moved out of its panic zone and back into a safety zone before moving to an active learning zone. A dog needs to know where and with whom it is safe. From this place it can learn.

  • Gladys says:

    Very Good article. Thanks for sharing your experience.