Unintentional Learning: Does the Behavior Work?

Dogs constantly learn by discovering what behavior works.  They test and eliminate and add to the list of what behaviors get them what they want.  If a puppy is giving a treat every time she sits, she’ll quickly learn that the behavior pays off and will often offer a sit when unsure of what to do.

On the other hand, dogs can also learn bad behaviors because they work.  If your dog barks at you and you either pet her or even tell her to be quiet, you’ve just reinforced the barking by paying attention.

Consider the dog who barks at the mailman or UPS or Amazon delivery person until they get back in the truck and are out of sight. Dogs can bark at strangers approaching their home for a variety of reasons. And once the person leaves the dog most likely believes that her barking got the person to leave without ever coming into the house-what a successful effort! With the daily mail delivery, this behavior is rehearsed—successfully-every day. The dog has no idea that the mailman would approach, leave the mail or package and go away whether or not the dogs is barking.

So, how can you change the behavior of barking at people approaching the house?  Consider this:

Ask people approaching, including your mailman and delivery people, to show the dog and leave a biscuit with the mail or package.  You can leave an airtight container at the bottom of your steps or driveway for people so people can pick one up on their way in.  Soon, the mailman, delivery people and guests will signal a treat to your dog, which will change the way your dog feels about people coming up the walk.

You can unintentionally teach your dog other less than desirable behaviors by “rewarding” them or making them work for the dog:  Demand barking at family members for attention, jumping on people when they come in and even nipping to get attention.  Think about what behaviors work for your dog but don’t work for you and consider how you might be able to change them.

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