Positive Reinforcement: The Problem And Solution To Your Pet’s Bad Behavior


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

For most pet owners, their beloved animals aren’t perfect.  For some, this could mean an occasional “tinkle” on the carpet or a “gift” that is brought in from outside.  For others, however, pets could be out of control, destroying furniture, disturbing neighbors, and perhaps even endangering the safety of others.

Wherever you fall on the continuum of pet ownership, Dr. Karen Becker’s recent article in The Huffington Post will likely be of some benefit.  She gives a few tips to help you change your pet’s behavior for the better.  Dr. Becker center’s her tips on “putting your finger on triggers that set off your pet’s undesirable behaviors, and positively reinforcing new behaviors with constructive guidance.”

1) If your dog is an excessive jumper…like when you walk through the front door and your dog is bombarding you with attention, jumping on you and licking you to the point of inhibiting your own behavior.  Dr. Becker points out that, if you push your dog away while also petting or scratching him, you could actually be positively reinforcing the very behavior you want to decrease.    She recommends instead to send a clearer signal — if you don’t want attention at that particular moment then don’t give any attention to your dog’s behavior.  In short, don’t react.

2) If your dog barks excessively…like when you let him out into the yard, or when your dog sees the mailman.  Dr. Becker notes that if your strategy to cease the barking is to distract your dog with friendly attention or food, you could again be encouraging the behavior that you are trying to stop.  She recommends bringing your dog to a room in your house to keep the barking from distracting others, while giving minimal attention to your dog’s behavior.

3) If your cat scratches inappropriately…such as your drapes, curtains, clothes, etc… Since this case is likely not related to attention, Dr. Becker recommends substituting the inappropriate scratching with appropriate scratching.  For example, when you catch your cat scratching the comforter in your bedroom, you can remove your cat from the room and provide him with an appropriate object on which to scratch.

Please be sure to check out Dr. Becker’s full article here, for more details and advice.

Let us know about your pet experiences in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

7 Comments on "Positive Reinforcement: The Problem And Solution To Your Pet’s Bad Behavior"

  1. Indeed, positive reinforcement is the behavioral effect that causes problems, but the solution is what should have been done in the first place – a rational use of reinforcement and contingent punishment. Jumping up on people is a behavior strengthened in infancy. By the time it is problematic, it’s not going away by an “extinction” procedure. Additionally, extinction can trigger aggression and more exertion – the dog jumps even harder to get their expected reinforcement. Dr. Becker is a veterinarian, not a behaviorist. As for “positively reinforcing” new behaviors, that is also a canard easily contradicted with peer-reviewed and scholarly references from behavior analysis.

    ” Another way of suppressing unwanted behavior is to reinforce incompatible behavior. However, just as it can be difficult to teach a new behavior entirely through the use of punishment , it can be very difficult to suppress an old behavior entirely through the reinforcement of incompatible behavior. If reinforcement for the unwanted behavior cannot be completely eliminated, it will likely continue even if several new behaviors are established. Hence, the best formula for suppressing behavior involves reinforcing desirable behavior at the same time that one punishes undesirable behavior. Indeed, as has been pointed out earlier, punishment is most effective when an alternative reinforced behavior that is not punished is available. If, on the other hand, one provides an alternative behavior but does not punish the unwanted behavior, a concurrent schedule of reinforcement would prevail that would be expected to maintain both behaviors at strengths proportional to the amount of reinforcement associated with each behavior.” The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior, Axelrod and Apsche, Academic Press, 1983. This is by no means a unique citation. Here’s a quote from Nate Azrin – personal communication about a year before his death.

    ““Providing negative consequences is the fastest, most effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior. Far faster than developing stimulus control or teaching an alternate behavior. ”

    So, who are you going to believe – a medical doctor vet or two well-respected behavior analysts?

  2. While I agree that ignoring a jumping dog will lead to an extinction burst that could become dangerous, I do not condone punishment as an immediate recommendation with the use of animals. That is against the BACB ethical code, dangerous itself, and teaching alternative means of getting attention would be a more appropriate and ethical step than resorting to punishment. I had an aggressive cat that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time training to demonstrate alternative behaviors when she wants treats or pets (exactly 2 pets). During this time I had to be careful that visitors knew not to approach her, pet her, or let her touch them– a responsibility of any pet owner. Now she is able to approach visitors, sit and roll around on the floor with visitors in the room, and sit on the couch with me petting her continuously. I tried punishment (i.e., water spray, tap on nose, pushed off couch, stern “no”) following immediate acts of aggression paired with treats during times of nonaggression before I took ABA classes and it only made the problem worse by making her more aggressive. Punishment did make her run away quickly, which coincides with your point of a quick decrease in behavior, but it is not a long term effective strategy. While I don’t study ABA specifically for the treatment of animals, I would venture to say that any punishment serves to create a stronger learning history for punishment with animals than the learning history created by reinforcement.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think you probably meant to say ignoring is “aversive” rather than “punishment” as it was discussed here as extinction and not punishment. Punishment is a type of consequence and extinction refers to the absence of consequences.

  3. Caroline Papreck | August 2, 2015 at 4:04 am | Reply

    Gary, what are your thoughts on “The Least Intrusive Ef
    fective Behavior Intervention (LIEBI) Algorithm and Levels
    of Intrusiveness Table” as a process for making clinical decisions? Do you go by this sort of system when making the clinical decision to use punishment procedures, or do you use another process? I’m sure you’ve seen punishment used in unethical ways – what do you think can be done to help guide dog owners and dog trainers in making effective and ethical training decisions?

  4. Caroline, I think that any preference for other than solving the problem is an example of pretend ethics. The majority of dogs in this country do not see their first birthday. Innocuous behaviors like jumping up on people, especially children, is no less fatal than being hit by a car. Why would a doctor prescribe the “least invasive” solution if it is known not to be effective? Azrin pointed out a long time ago that the intensity of the punishment affects the inhibiting properties of the procedure. A logical person would examine the potential for observable harm and work backward based on efficacy. The “least invasive” mantra is all about the trainer. The dog is simply an afterthought as it’s death isn’t considered in the formula.

  5. One other point. The reason this issue is so widely misunderstood is because of the infusion of normative hedonism and Cartesian Dualism into behavior analysis a long time ago. A veterinarian causes pain, fear and damage as a regular part of saving a dog’s life. If a dog ingests an inedible object that causes a GI blockage, a vet will cut the dog open as the first resort for saving the dog’s life. If I can use a contingent punishment procedure (and I do it regularly) that prevents the dog from ingesting the object in the first place, the literally invasive breach of the peritoneum, risk of sepsis, serious pain after the surgery and potential death on the table is avoided. Which do you want, a video camera and a shock collar or a lovely surgical scalpel cutting the belly open? (or death) Why is the vet moral for doing the surgery but leaving the animal in continued behavioral risk of doing it again? Why is the trainer immoral for using miniscule pain to prevent the tragedy n the first place? Look up prophylaxis and you’ll understand the logic and ethics.

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