Sometimes, I feed my dog when he does the wrong thing…

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by Emily Fisher, CPDT-KA, Scratch and Sniff Canine Services, Guelph, ON

“Blasphemy!” you say?

As a whole, owners are preoccupied with never reinforcing bad behaviour. However, sometimes the best thing you can do is give your dog a treat – even if they are doing the opposite of what you want!

Feed the Emotion

Emotional turbulence is a primary reason for behaviours that we find distasteful. Barking, lunging, jumping, growling, snapping… These are all problems that come from a place of fear, anger, over-stimulation, or another emotion. The “bad behaviour” that the dog engages in is symptomatic of feeling out of sorts. Notably, this “bad behaviour” is often not intentional, so giving the dog a treat isn’t going to result in repeating a behaviour they weren’t intentionally doing in the first place. In fact, feeding a dog in the presence of something they find aggravating or scary can actually stop the behaviour the owner doesn’t like, because the dog develops a happy or calm association.

To illustrate, imagine that you have a work colleague who takes great joy in jumping out from a hiding place and shouting at you to give you a fright. Every time this happens, you let out a little shriek and fling your hands up in front of your face. Your colleague thinks this is hilarious, and he wants you to shriek louder and wave your hands more. Every time he jumps out to frighten you, he gives you chocolate truffles, caramels, cookies, and so on in an attempt to reinforce your behaviour. Are you going to shriek more uncontrollably? You may actually start to look forward to seeing that annoying co-worker because seeing him means cookies!

All animals learn through associations, and our dogs are no exception. In fact, associations can be a much more potent type of learning than consequences. This is why feeding a scared or angry dog won’t make them more scared or angry, and as they build a good association, you will actually see less “bad behaviour.” Keep in mind, however, that if ensure your dog is only a little bit bothered when you feed, your training will be more effective. Even though you aren’t reinforcing the “bad behaviour,” a very frightened, angry, or over-stimulated dog likely won’t see any point in eating.

Just Give Me a Reason!

What if your dog isn’t upset or over-stimulated? What if he just isn’t “getting it” in a training session? Even then, I will sometimes feed my dog, Rowan, for giving me the wrong answer.

In order to train a dog and have them retain that information as effectively as possible, it’s important for your dog to want to work with you. An engaged dog is attentive, ready, and willing to work. In order to create and maintain this state of mind, your dog needs to have a reason to work. For example, you give food to the dog in exchange for them “working” for you. Sit, heel, walking hand-stand, whatever the behaviour is, the food provides motivation for your dog to engage with you in order to learn.

What happens when your dog gets the wrong answer? Perhaps a better question might be why does your dog get the wrong answer? Either your dog isn’t motivated or doesn’t fully understand what you want from him. A dog who understands what you want and is motivated will perform reliably. Likewise, a dog who is not motivated will not be able to learn what you’re trying to teach them.

If Rowan does the “wrong thing” in a training session, I will often choose to feed him anyway. I use food to get him back in the position he needs to start from, for example, if I want him to “go to mat” from a particular location, and I use food as a way to maintain engagement as we work through a trouble spot in an exercise. That said, I will always do this in combination with breaking down the exercise into more manageable bits so Rowan can more easily understand and retain the information.

Does it look like I am “reinforcing bad behaviour”? Yes, I suppose it might to someone watching. However, the end result is the mistake is not maintained. The result is that I’m able to maintain engagement and motivation through a potentially frustrating couple of training trials, and I ultimately cultivate the behaviour I want because Rowan hasn’t quit. If he is engaged and motivated to work, he will push through until he fully understands the exercise. Sometimes, keeping him engaged means that it looks like I’m “rewarding the wrong behaviour.”

The hyper-focus on not reinforcing the wrong behaviour likely comes from a misunderstanding of how consequences, including reinforcement, function. Consequences are defined by the resulting impact on a dog’s behaviour. This means that when you offer a treat to your dog you may or may not be using positive reinforcement.

Does the dog display the behaviour more frequently or more intensely? Congratulations! You’ve successfully used positive reinforcement. Did the frequency and intensity of that behaviour stay about the same or decrease? In that case, nope, that treat was not positive reinforcement. Sometimes a treat is just a treat. This is what happens when I strategically feed Rowan for doing the “wrong behaviour” and he doesn’t persist in it. I may be rewarding the “wrong behaviour,” but I’m not reinforcing it!

Next time your dog is doing the wrong thing, take a step back and think for a moment. Is your dog upset or over-stimulated? Is your dog losing focus and engagement? Sometimes, a cookie is exactly what you need to cultivate the best in your dog.