Nothing helps your dog remember good behaviors better than reward training. This positive-reinforcement training motivates them to continue to do good, especially when done right. Could there be a dark side to the whole process? In this episode, Doug Poynter talks about the power of rewards and when it is good or not. He shares stories from his own clients that exhibit how dogs perceive rewards and what we’re unconsciously doing that affects them in a negative way. Join this conversation to learn how to get your reward right to get your dog right!
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Get The Reward Right…And Get Your Dog Right!
I’m the owner of the business, Better Dog Behavior Now. In the last episode, we talked about the myth of alpha dominance. This episode is going to be about the power of rewards. A reward is defined as positive reinforcement, something that’s given that reinforces the behavior and makes it continue. If a dog sits and, as a result, gets a food treat, then that food treat means that it is the reward that has positively reinforced sitting. It makes the behavior more likely to be continued and repeated. That seems obvious to everybody, I would imagine but could there be a dark side to this whole process of rewarding? I’m going to tell you a few stories and let you see for yourself.
Attention Is Reward
Let’s get started. You remember back when COVID started and as a result of that, not knowing the severity of it, not knowing how infectious it was, pretty much everything that I did in training at that point was done by Zoom. Quite a few people in my business did that. Zoom sessions were safe but it felt a little awkward doing that at first. I’m used to working with people face to face and in person. Although I do quite a bit of consulting by telephone, it still felt a little awkward to be doing everything by Zoom or by telephone. I can remember my first COVID client, it’s how I’m going to describe him. He had a Belgian Malinois puppy.
I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the movies that have come out starring a Belgian Malinois where it’s become the new dog that everyone is excited about. They think it’s cool. Please, do not think about getting a Belgian Malinois. This is a serious working dog for serious working people. These dogs are very intense. They are not for the average dog owner. That’s at another level. Don’t even put yourself through the heartbreak.
This guy had gotten himself a twelve-week-old Belgian Malinois puppy. I wanted to make sure he got off on the right foot. We did the typical session that I do with my first-time clients over Zoom. We got to the part in the session that focuses on rewards. I asked him a question I asked all of my clients. I said, “Would you agree with me that any behavior that is rewarded is going to be repeated?” He paused and said, “Yes, any good behavior that’s rewarded is going to be repeated.”
I said, “That’s not what I said.” He had a puzzled look on his face. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “My question or the thing that I focused on or asked you about was any behavior that’s rewarded is going to be repeated, not just a good behavior.” He said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Let me tell you a few stories so you can see what I’m talking about.” I told him about a client that I had, a 28-year-old guy who had lost his job. As a result, he moved back in with his parents and was living with his parents until he found his next job. What came along with him was his female Labrador Retriever. He hired me.Attention is a reward. Click To Tweet
When he called me on the telephone and we spoke, he told me, “My dog is crazy. She’s hyped up beyond belief. She’s got separation anxiety. I can’t even leave the room. She goes ballistic and tears things up in the house. When people come to the house, she jumps all over them like a wild dog. She has got so much energy. I walk her 3 times a day, sometimes up to 3 miles. She never settles down. She’s on the go every minute of the day.”
I said, “Is part of her problem that she wants to bite people or we don’t have aggression?” He said, “No, there’s nothing like that. She’s just hyped up and way energetic.” I said, “We start it a different way if she’s trying to bite people. If she’s not trying to bite people, then we don’t need to worry about that. It’s a different way to get it started.”
I set up the time to meet him. I went over to his house. A lot of people feel like you need to take the dog out of its environment to train it because there are too many associations in its environment and you can’t make any headway with it. I’m the opposite. What I always say to my clients is, “You could send your dog to board and train but it’s not likely that they’re going to see what you see because it’s associated with you. We need to get it fixed in your environment.” I have no problem going to somebody’s house. In the COVID environment, I would meet people at their house and we’d meet outside but this guy was pre-COVID, so we didn’t even have to worry about that.
I said, “I’ll be at your house. When I get there, what do you prefer I do, knock or ring?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “What do most people do when they come to your house?” He said, “They ring the doorbell.” I said, “Okay. I’ll ring the doorbell and then we’ll get started.” I showed up at the house, walked up and rang the doorbell. As soon as I rang the doorbell, I could hear the sound of dogs moving, running, scuffling on the floor and barking. There’s a lot of commotion behind the door. Before the door was even opened, I could hear all this going on. When the guy finally opened the door, I could see he was standing there in the doorway.
Behind him were two people that I took to be his parents. There was a lady, his mom, I was assuming, and then his dad. The mom had a look of horror on her face. The dad had a look on his face like, “I don’t even know why I’m here.” The guy had his dog by the collar and she was lunging at the door trying to get to me, breathing heavy, breathing hard, panting and excited beyond belief like a torpedo launching at the door. He would have to pull her back with his arm. I walked into the house, shut the door and said to him, “Let her go.” He went, “What?” I went, “Let her go.” He said, “She is going to jump all over you.”
Mind you, while we’re having this conversation, she’s still leaping. He’s still having to pull her back with his hand on the collar. I said, “Let her go.” He let her go and true to his word, she launched full bore and hit me right in the hip. I did nothing. An old-school trainer would be mortified by hearing that. “Correct her.” I just looked at the guy and kept talking to him. His parents looked in horror as the dog hit me in the side. I kept talking to the dog’s owner. In less than ten seconds, that dog sat right beside me. The father’s jaw dropped and said, “That’s never happened.” I said, “That’s because I don’t do what you do.”
They went, “What do you mean?” I said, “When she acts this way, you guys give her lots of attention. Attention is a reward.” “What do you mean?” I said, “You’re talking to her and putting your hands on her. Not only is she getting attention but because of the way you’re doing it, you’re getting her more wound up. You’re telling her to keep going crazy because I get attention from doing that. When I backed off on all the attention and she got no reinforcement, no reward, no attention for jumping, look what she did.” She was still seated right next to me. They were stunned by that.
The 28-year-old guy looked at me like he couldn’t figure that out or compute. I said to him, “Why don’t you hand me the leash and let’s take her out for a walk?” He went, “Good luck.” I went, “It will be okay.” I took the leash and put it on her. When I put the leash on her, she popped up out of that sit and started going crazy again. Why? It’s because she associates the leash and going out with being crazy.
I put the leash on her and she popped up. I immediately looked away from her and started talking back to the guy and his parents again. It took about 10, 15 seconds. You could see her looking around like, “What do I do?” She sat. When she sat, I reached out and put my hand on the doorknob to go outside. As soon as I put my hand on the doorknob, she popped up again. I took my hand off the doorknob.
The family is sitting there looking at me. They cannot figure out what I’m doing but I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to reward good behavior. When I see behavior that’s not good, I’m not going to reward it. The owner of this dog didn’t have any inkling about what was coming yet or the question I was going to ask him but I couldn’t have asked for a better teaching moment than for them to be watching this whole thing.Nothing happens a hundred percent of the time for a hundred percent of dogs. Every dog is different. Click To Tweet
When I reached out and put my hand on the doorknob because she was seated and quiet, she popped up again. She was excited to go out. I took my hand right off the doorknob again. This went on for about a minute and a half. That doesn’t seem like a long time but I promise you if you got a hyperactive dog and three people who don’t know what you’re doing looking in anticipation at you, that minute and a half seems like an eternity.
At about the minute and a half mark, she was confused and laid down on the floor. She was not submitting. She was mentally tired. She couldn’t figure out what was going on. When she laid down on the floor, I put my hand on the doorknob. She did not pop up. When she didn’t pop up, I said to the guy, “Let’s go out.” I opened the door slowly and slowly walked out. She slowly walked out with me. When we got outside, the guy and his father went with me. As we got out there, we stood. When we didn’t walk any farther, we just stood out in front of the house, the dog sat right beside me.
This looks magical because I haven’t done anything to train that dog to sit. I’ve been just rewarding her when she’s been calm. Part of her being calm was being seated. She started to get what she wanted when she sat down and she got what she wanted another time when she laid down. I said to the guy, “Does she like to go outside?” He said, “She loves to go outside.” I said, “Therefore, can you see if she’s hyped up and you take her outside hyped up, hyped up just got rewarded? You saw it begin to move in his head. Never take her outside until she calms down. Look at her. Does she look hyped up?” He said, “No.” I went, “Why? It’s because being calm got her outside. Let’s walk.”
I showed them how to walk her on a loose leash. That won’t be part of our session. We’ll make that in another session but it didn’t take long to get her walking calmly on a loose leash. We walked around the block. I asked the father when we got back to the house, “How far was that?” He said, “That’s 0.5 miles.” I want you to remember that this is the dog that this client walked 3 times a day, sometimes up to 3 miles and she never settled down.
We walked her back into the house after that 0.5 miles of walking politely. We took the leash off of her. She laid down on the floor and went to sleep. The guy’s jaw dropped. I said, “It’s mental work. Besides, she’s been calm the whole time. She got exercise while she was calm. Do you see?” My job was to teach him, “You have been rewarding the behavior that you don’t want to occur.”
This is the point I was making with my Belgian Malinois client when I said, “Would you agree with me that any behavior that’s rewarded is going to be repeated, good or bad behavior?” That’s what I want you to think about. Think about ways that you may have been rewarding behavior without knowing that you were rewarding behavior. I’ll give you another example. This one is going to have maybe a little controversy to it. If not controversy, maybe a little bit of an argument but I’ll tell you what I’ve found research-wise.
If you remember from the last time we spoke, I was telling you nothing that happens 100% of the time for 100% of dogs. Every dog is different. Anyone who tells you that they know exactly what’s going to happen, every time you do something and every time you train a certain way is pulling your leg or they don’t know that they don’t know, one or the other. At any rate, there’s a little discussion around this one but let me give you the info anyway. This is another example of rewarding behavior in a way that you may not be aware of and creating some consequences that you don’t want. This was pre-COVID. I was hired by a client who has had a dog, a little hound mix.
They lived in an area outside of my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. That is an area that’s got a lot of wood and land involved in it. It’s in the country. They were living in development but behind that development was a golf course and a lot of wooded lands. They had a little hound mix that they had rescued. I’m not going to get into a discussion about the positives and negatives of electric fences but suffice it to say, they had an electric fence. They told me that there was a gap in the fence. They knew there was a gap in the fence and their dog knew where the gap was.
They had had her for not a huge amount of time, three months maybe. The husband told me that one night, she scooted out the back door between his feet and was making a beeline for the area that was not working in the electric fence for the gap. She was running pretty fast and chasing after her because they didn’t want her to get out. She’s a hell mix. What they were afraid of was she was going to get out and catch a scent. That’s probably why she was running in the first place, be off on a trail, chasing rabbit or deer or something, get lost and then gone. That’s why many times, hounds ended up in the shelter. They catch a scent and keep going because that’s in their DNA. They get lost and can’t find their way back home. They didn’t want that to happen.
The husband is chasing after her. He told me that the only chance he had to stop her because they were getting close to the back of the yard was to dive on her. He said at the last incident, he dove and got her by the hind legs and scared her. I was hired because the wife called me and she said, “My dog is scared of my husband. As a matter of fact, she’s scared of everybody.” She told me this story. I went down and met with her at the house. I walked into the house. True to her word, that dog was scared to death. She had the dog in the house. The dog took one look at me, took off to the back of the house and hid behind the wife’s legs the whole time. She wouldn’t come anywhere near me.The only reason you can ignore behavior is when you have control. Click To Tweet
I had her tell me more about the story and their household. I asked them some questions and something very specific. I said, “The first time you saw fear, what did you do?” She said, “I picked her up and held her. I told her it was going to be okay. I petted her and tried to soothe her.” I said, “You rewarded fear.” She went, “What?” I said, “You paid attention and soothed her. You did not change the way she felt. You soothed her fear and rewarded it. That’s what you’re seeing.” This is where the controversy comes in if this is controversial. There are some behaviors that I respect but I’ve seen those who say, “You can’t reward fear because fear is aversive. Why would a dog work for an aversive?”
There was a study out there. When I hear stuff like that, that contradicts some of the things that I’ve grown to understand. I want to go find the science and find out. If I’m wrong and the science is different or new information has come, I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing for my clients. I went and read a study on this. It did say when a dog is afraid and is petted and comforted, some of the comfort chemicals are released. Oxytocin, I believe, is one of the comfort chemicals that’s released. If you read further into the study, which I did, it also said one of the things that are not affected is the release of the stress chemical, cortisol. That chemical continues to be released. The stress is not going away.
Therefore, I believe, based on the science and everything that I’ve seen, that yes, you can reinforce and reward fear. Anecdotally speaking, everyone I’ve ever worked with, with a scared dog was someone who was soothing their dog when the dog was feeling afraid. That’s exactly what this lady was doing. I said, “What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to change this environment.” She went, “What do you mean?” I said, “We’ve got to ignore her when she’s afraid and reward her when she comes out of it.” She was like, “What do you mean?”
I said, “When she acts scared like this, you can’t go get her and soothe her. We’ve got to set up some behavioral modification exercises such that we can desensitize her to people. At a distance, she’s probably not scared of people the way she is with me being close right here. We can begin a desensitizing scenario where when she sees somebody and doesn’t react fearfully, we’re going to reward that.”
Without going into a huge long harangue as to every little step that I took, suffice it to say, it took 5 sessions but on the 5th session, we had 6 or 7people in the house that wouldn’t normally be there and she acted fine. She wagged her tail and didn’t run from anybody. We did not reward fear. We ignore it. When we saw the opposite of that, that’s when she got the attention and reward. There were no corrections. Corrections don’t work for stuff like this. Corrections hardly work for anything. I’m going to have a session about corrections later on but there are no corrections for anything like this. What you do is behavioral modification.
We ignored the behavior. The only reason you can ignore behavior is when you have control. We had control. We had her on a leash and in the house. She wasn’t going to run away. We could ignore the behavior that we didn’t want and reward the behavior that we did. I want you to think about that. Have you ever rewarded fear in your dog? Have you ever tried to soothe your dog? If you can’t change the dog’s feeling and make the dog instantly feel better and goofy in the presence of the thing that it’s afraid of, then you’re not changing the behavior. You’re rewarding it. That’s been my experience. Those are a couple of examples of rewarding behavior that you don’t want to continue.
I have this all the time. When I have somebody who tells me they’ve got a dog who acts like he doesn’t like people, I go, “What do you do when the dog acts suspicious of somebody? You’re out on a walk and the dog sees somebody and growls or somebody comes to your house and the dog growls, what do you do?” Almost invariably, the person will tell me that they say, “It’s okay. He’s our friend.” They’re petting the dog. I say, “Do you think your dog is an expert in the English language?” They look at me and start to laugh. I go, “He’s not but he knows those words feel soothing and good. He knows he’s growling at somebody when he gets words that feel good. Therefore, you have been rewarded growing.”
They’re like, “I never even thought of that. What should I do?” I went, “Ignore it. You got him on a leash, so he’s not going to go bite anybody. You’ve got him under control. Ignore the behavior and then reward the behavior that you do want to continue.” The work that I do is showing people how to set these exercises up so that they’re effective. You can do these exercises in such a way that they work. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you cannot make any progress at all. The work that I do is to help people get past this and change their dog’s behavior for the better. It also changes human behavior because they begin to understand, “I haven’t been helping my dog at all.”
I’ll tell you one more story about this, a scenario where it could have been much worse. It could lead to something bad because of a behavior that was rewarded and was therefore repeated. I got a call from a guy who told me, “My mom was attacked by her dog.” I said, “Tell me a little bit more.” “My mom and dad have a dog that’s a cross between a Doberman and a Rottweiler.” I said, “How big is he?” “80 pounds.” I went, “Is your mom okay?” Quite frankly, I was a little worried about why he was calling me and not his mom. I was hoping it wasn’t because she was in such bad shape that she couldn’t call me.
He said, “She’s fine. Her whole arm from her shoulder down to her wrist was black and blue but she’s okay now.” I said, “Why didn’t they call me?” She said, “I don’t know.” He goes, “Here’s the phone number? Give her a call.” I called and the husband answered the phone. He told me, “Yes, Duke,” that’s the dog’s name, “He grabbed my wife by the arm, dragged her around the floor and made her arm black and blue. He’s a combination, Doberman and Rottweiler. He’s a big dog.” We set up a time to meet. What I did was I asked him to meet me outside with Duke. I asked the husband to bring him on a leash. I showed him how to use the leash so that the leash didn’t aggravate the dog.Lead, not dominate. Click To Tweet
I had him bring Duke out, the wife and they had a fifteen-year-old daughter. All three came out in front of their house. They live in a cul-de-sac. I didn’t approach him head-on like walking straight at him because that’s confrontational to a dog. I approached from the side. I curve. Dogs curve when they approach each other. If you see two dogs coming at each other nose to nose, there’s probably going to be a problem but dogs approach each other on a curve. It lessens tension. That’s what I did with Duke. I didn’t get so close that he could reach me and that I was putting a huge amount of pressure on him. I got close enough to where he started barking at me. He went up on his hind legs.
It was a pretty impressive display, if I may say so myself, as an 80-pound dog. After working with them for a while, I don’t think he had a Doberman Rottweiler cross. I think he had a Beauceron, which is a French herding breed. They rescued this dog. It would be something that would be highly unusual to be able to find a dog like that in the pound. I believe he was. He looked like a Beauceron with uncropped ears. The Beauceron is an interesting breed, eclectic and has a different personality. Duke was up on his hind legs, going crazy and barking with lips curled back. He looked pretty vicious. I was standing sideways, probably 15 or 20 feet in front of him. That may have been a little too close but I was there. I didn’t move.
I asked the husband after the session, “What did most people do when Duke barks at them like that?” He said, “They get out of the way.” I went, “Exactly. Can you see how that’s rewarding his barking? If he’s protecting the property, that’s what Beaucerons do. If he goes nuts barking and people back off, his barking got rewarded.” This business that I do sometimes is dangerous. I don’t think you should try this unless you have a qualified behaviorist with you. Don’t try something dangerous. Ignoring behavior like that is dangerous unless you have control. I had already gone over with this guy and held him on a leash. I was pretty confident this guy could hold him on a leash. He did a good job.
I knew he wasn’t going to get me but it took about a minute of him going nuts, barking and me standing there calmly. He stopped barking and laid down on the ground next to Greg, the owner. Greg went, “That I have not seen ever.” I said, “I didn’t do what most people do. I didn’t try to correct him or do old school stuff like, ‘Give me the leash.’ A lot of old-school trainers would grab the leash and hang him up by the leash. That doesn’t do anything but make things worse. Punishment doesn’t work.” We talked about that in episode number one. Rewards work but you got to be careful what you’re rewarding. As soon as he laid down, he got a reward for me, a food treat. It didn’t take long before the wife and I was walking him down the road.
I didn’t walk him. I tell my clients all the time, “I’m not going to touch your dog until your dog is begging me to touch it. It changes the way they think about people.” At any rate, we walked and I was 2 feet from the dog. He was walking politely with the wife. I said, “Do you see now? What have you done when he goes ballistic?” She goes, “We tell him it’s okay, that this person is our friend.” “Exactly. You’re rewarding behavior that you don’t want to continue.” On top of that, she didn’t hear episode one of the show talking about how to get the dog to work for his love and affection so he would follow his owner. She was following him. He was running the household. I taught them how to lead, which we talked about in episode number one. Not dominate but lead.
We started rewarding Duke for the behavior that we wanted. We had to do some behavioral modification exercises for him. Once that was put into place, he started to calm down. The point that I want to make with you is I want you to understand that rewards are powerful. Everybody knows that. What most people don’t know is that many times they’re rewarding behavior that they don’t want to continue. You can ignore it as long as you have control. If you have no control, then we need to think up another exercise and create a safe scenario. If you have situations like this, I want you to get a qualified behaviorist to help you out.
You can go to my website, www.BetterDogBehaviorNow.com. There’s a Contact form. I’m happy to do a telephone discovery session with you and talk with you about your dog. You want to make sure that you got somebody that’s helping you that knows what they’re doing but I want you to understand the power of rewards. I want you to see that so that you can begin to take advantage of this and learn how to reward behavior that you want to continue with your dog. This helps create better dog behavior now. It’s been fun. I will talk with you in episode number three of the show.