You Know What Happens When You Assume?

By Allie Bender

We talk a lot about consequences in animal training. Consequences are the reason that an action continues or discontinues. We give dogs treats for sitting to get the sitting behavior to occur more frequently in the future. I learned at about 7-years-old that metal continues to be hot after a fire goes out; my touching hot metal behavior has significantly decreased. Desirable outcomes encourage behaviors to occur more frequently while undesirable outcomes encourage behavior to occur less frequently (that’s not 100% accurate – stay tuned for a future post on this – but it’s close for our current discussion).

Understanding consequences is vitally important to changing behavior. I personally have said some variation of the following about 22384728394 times, “The reason your dog is continuing to jump on you is because you’re rewarding the behavior by doing x. Instead, ignore your dog: no talking to, touching, pushing, or even eye contact for some!” As trainers we understand that we can manipulate or change the consequence to change the frequency that a behavior occurs. It’s the basis of dog training.

Sounds easy, right? So why does this sometimes not appear to work? Are some individuals immune to the laws of behavior science? Nope. Here’s the thing: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing and punishing. That statement is so important I’ll say it again: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing and punishing. When we manipulate consequences, we are making an assumption about what the learner decides is reinforcing and punishing in that moment. And some of the time we’re wrong! I was reminded of this yesterday when working with a new client and her dog, Nellie.

Nellie (or Nellie P, which according to her mom is her rapper name [and instantly made me love her mom]) is an incredibly cute little Chihuahua mix (50% Chihuahua per a DNA test) with wispy, wiry black and tan hair and the makings of a white mohawk on her forehead. Pretty much the cutest. (How could I forget to get a picture?!)  Nellie’s mom adopted her a couple months ago and while she’s made fantastic progress since coming home, she’s living up to the name “Nervous Nellie”. She’s primarily fearful of new places and new people and can be skittish around her new family, especially with hands and movement.

In our session we started working on hand targeting to start addressing her fear of hands. Nellie’s mom placed her hand on the ground face up (the least threatening position we could do) with a treat between her fingers. When Nellie investigated the treat and touched her nose to mom’s hand she’d mark with “yes” and place a piece of freeze-dried liver on the ground in front of her. Nellie had previously declared her love for freeze-dried liver (food preference test) so we thought we were rewarding her. But after about 4 touches Nellie wouldn’t hand target. What’s up with that?

By definition we had punished the behavior. Behaviors that are punished decrease. Period, end of story. But we were treating with something she loved! We were rewarding her! Right? Remember: only the learner decides what’s reinforcing and punishing in that moment. To Nellie, the act of moving a hand towards her to give her a treat was more aversive than the treat was desirable. It was akin to a rattlesnake bringing a cupcake to a human. Yeah, cupcakes are awesome, but not when delivered by a rattlesnake. We were punishing her by how we were treating her and thus her behavior decreased. Nellie’s mom and I went back to the drawing board to determine how to actually reward her for hand targeting. We changed the mechanics of the exercise; the behavior came back and we were back on course.

Instead of blaming the dog, calling her stubborn, blaming the value of the treats or the human’s skill set, I had to take a step back and objectively look at what Nellie’s behavior was telling me. Her behavior was telling me that we were punishing her for hand targeting. I made an assumption surrounding the consequence and I was wrong.  And we all know that when we assume, we make an ass out of u and me. Sorry about that, Nellie.

2 thoughts on “You Know What Happens When You Assume?”

  1. Brings to mind one time when I was walking my normally great on-leash dog but that day not so much. He—all 110 lbs of him—was pulling like crazy. I ASSUMED he was trying to kill me. I ASSUMED he was being stubborn, &c. When we got home he ran immediately to the back door, and I ASSUMED he was repentant. But the boy urgently needed to poop. (First time I realized he never poops on walks!) Now I know I wasn’t looking for the behavioral signs, I was too busy assuming. #lessonlearned

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