There are several techniques available when it comes to altering the behaviour of a dog. The most common ones are habituation, extinction, desensitization, counter-conditioning, and shaping. One behaviour modification method that is not recommended is flooding, because it tends to worsen the situation. Although punishing an animal can be periodically used, there are varying levels of success, and most people really don’t understand how to punish correctly. The only way that punishment can be used effectively is for it to be continually delivered, used at the beginning of the behaviour, and be forceful enough to put an end to the unwanted behaviour. Most punishments are not delivered in a timely manner or are not suitable for the situation.
Behaviour Modification Techniques
A majority of the techniques used to alter behaviour are quite simple to learn and can be successfully used to prevent the abnormal behaviour from occurring. However, they need adequate and constant time and energy to be invested. The basic philosophies of some of these techniques have been reviewed below:
Habituation is a simply a straightforward form of learning where the animal doesn’t get any rewards. It is where an animal stops or reduces its reaction to a particular stimulus, due to constant or extensive exposure to that stimulus. A good example is horses that are placed in a paddock close to the road. At first, the horses may be startled and flee whenever traffic passes by, but with time, they get used to the cars and ignore them. Keep in mind that a dog habituating to one sound doesn’t automatically become used to other sounds. Habituation is very different from failing to react to stimuli due to tiredness, sensory adaptation, or illness. Habituation typically has long lasting effects. On the other hand, if an animal is periodically exposed to a stimulus that could be dangerous such as a predator, without being harmed, habituation will not occur. For this reason, scientists conclude that reactions to harmful stimuli are genetically ingrained and are resistant to habituation.
Reinforcement is any experience that raises the probability of the recurrence of a specific behaviour. This reinforcement can be either negative or positive. A positive reinforcement during training causes the dog to associate a good link between the behaviour and its results. A dog will display certain behaviour more and more if it knows that the outcome will be positive i.e. a reward will be given. On the other hand, a negative reinforcement is a bad experience that serves to aggravate the behaviour when it is removed. Squeezing a puppy tightly may be unpleasant for a puppy, and the hold is only relaxed when it settles down. In the end, the puppy comes to associate the releasing of the hold with the behaviour.
Second-order reinforcement is when signals are used from afar in order to hint to the dog that a reward is forthcoming. There are commonly used words and signals that serve as second-hand reinforcers, such as whistles, hand signals, ‘good boy’ and so on. Combining these signals and words with a prize like food or petting will tend to bring about similar reactions that the primary reward would. For example, to reward a dog for good behaviour, a clicker can be used in conjunction with patting on the head. By associating the clicker with a reward, the dog can be controlled and trained from afar, as the clicker now becomes a reward for the behaviour. Although the popularity of positive and clicker training have soared, it is still possible to train a dog efficiently without resorting to second-hand reinforcement. The use of a clicker during training requires regular practice and perfect timing. In fact, there are cases where the improper use of clicker training has resulted in worsening of problem behaviours, rather than helping to modify the dog’s behaviour.
Spontaneous recovery is somehow related to habituation. In this case, a long stretch of time between experiencing a stimulus to which it had habituated, and re-exposure to the said stimulus causes the dog to react. Think of a puppy trying to get its owner’s attention by barking. Every time the owner tries to silence the dog, it simply barks some more, because it is getting exactly what it wants…..attention. Even attention that isn’t positive is still rewarding for the puppy. The most efficient solution is to ignore it consistently, until it stops barking. However, this behaviour may spring up again without warning. This is why it’s called spontaneous recovery.
Conditioning is an association between the stimulus and the corresponding behaviour. A good example is Pavlov’s experiment. A dog that is hungry will drool (behaviour) whenever it is shown food (stimulus 1). Then whenever food is shown, a bell is also rung (stimulus 2). After a while, the dog will begin drooling simply at the sound of the bell, even if there is no food around. This is what is known as conditioning, where the dog now associates the sound of the bell with food.
Extinction is reaction that ceases whenever the reward isn’t presented. Think of a dog that is constantly jumping on people to receive attention. The dog will simply continue doing this if the people it jumps on pat its head. If the patting of the head ceases, the dog realises there is no reward and thus stops jumping on people. It is important to note that even sporadic petting will reinforce the jumping behaviour. A dog’s ability to resist extinction of the behaviour is dependent on how valuable the reward is to it, how long it has gotten used to it, and doubt of whether the reward has been permanently removed. This resistance to extinction can also happen if the reward presented was quite valuable to the dog, or it was closely connected to the behaviour.
There is usually such a powerful connection between the reward and the intensity of the behaviour, such that the behaviour you are trying to put an end to increases in rate and strength during the initial stages of extinction. To put it succinctly, the behaviour you are trying to eradicate gets worse before it gets better. However, it is imperative that you don’t give up, as this will only make the process harder. The dog will figure out that by working harder to frustrate you, it can negate the extinction.