Who’s Training Who?

My dog Gavin in the kitchen

Now do it just like I taught you.

I’ve seen a lot of training tips being offered lately that deal with a simple concept, ignoring behaviors that we don’t our dogs to repeat. Whether we know it or not, we are constantly training our dogs. Decisions we make about what to ignore, or what to reinforce, shape the dogs we live with.

I was actually working on another article today when I saw an old battle of who’s training who breakout between my wife, Jackie, and my Aussie, Gavin. As usual in this particular battle, Gavin won.

Sometimes Jackie will prepare a treat for the dogs to keep them occupied while she is doing other things.  She takes some bones and stuffs them with a dog biscuit and maybe a little bit of peanut butter and gives the bones to the dogs. This normally keeps Gavin, Annie, and Tosha occupied for quite some time, as they work at trying to get the treat inside.  One day while working on his bone, Gavin decided that it was taking just too long to get the prize. He walked up to Jackie in the kitchen and dropped the hard bone loudly on the tile floor. My wife was busy doing other things, but Gavin was persistent and my wife was tired of hearing the bone hit the floor (and her feet) so she reached down and pushed the treat out for him. A behavior was born and the battle was joined.

If Jackie had initially ignored the behavior, Gavin would have eventually quit doing it because a behavior that is not reinforced will decrease in frequency until it ceases.  She could have also used negative punishment (the removal from the dog of something that it finds positive) and taken the bone away from Gavin anytime he dropped it like that. Gavin would have learned over time that dropping the yummy bone ay mommy’s feet, makes it go away.

What Jackie has done is inadvertently put Gavin on the slot machine (variable ratios) schedule of reinforcement. The battles between them always end in Jackie’s paying out a jackpot. Sometimes it takes ten bone drops, sometimes it takes a hundred bone drops, but it always ends with Gavin being paid off. Gavin knows that with each pull of the slot machine lever, he is that much closer to hitting the jackpot.

Jackie could still use both methods mentioned earlier to end this behavior. In the first instance it might take days for the initial stand off to result in Gavin giving in. He would end up coming back from time to time to offer the bone drop again, and if Jackie were to give in just one of those times, the behavior would come back with a vengeance and even stronger than before. She could also just use the negative punishment method and take the bone away when he drops it, but she’s just too much of a softie for that; and besides, as she puts it, they wouldn’t want to deprive me of a good chuckle!


Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha