Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 

Using an instinctive behaviour

Author: Kay Laurence
Instinctive behaviours are inherited and emerge under specific conditions.

They are not taught but can be adapted, shaped and enhanced (for example a dog working sheep)

8 week old pup playing with her mother, looking ferocious but actually having fun, strengthening their friendship and learning new skills.
Play in an example of an instinctive behaviour and is a natural (primary) reinforcer. It needs no previous experience to be reinforcing.

At about 6-8 weeks breed specific instincts can be seen emerging. Given the right developmental opportunities these behaviours get stronger every time they are practiced. On many farms young collies are allowed to practice and refine their skills on the free range chicken or ducks before moving to larger stock.

If the instinct is not developed along the usual route it can often find an alternative outlet. One of my Gordons pups that returned to me at four years old had no obvious birding instinct but can point a tennis ball at 6 feet and endure the fixation for over an hour. If she had the opportunity to develop the emerging instinct on birds, tennis balls would hold no attraction, but they make an excellent substitute that allows her instinctive behaviour to get strong and more reinforced. She shows an interest in chickens, but one bounce of the tennis ball and she returns to the behaviour that has the longest reinforcement history – working the ball. This reinforcement history is a key part of the puzzle, we can use it to our advantage.

There are a certain instincts common to all dogs, and some of these develop to our advantage and some are inhibited. Watchfulness, or on duty behaviour, is common, where dogs alert to unknown noises or threats. Chasing small prey, such as squirrels or rats; sniffing the tracks of critters; making a bed; running for the love of running, going into water to swim. Dogs with strong tendencies for certain behaviour were bred together to develop genetically diverse instincts. I can see that the Border Collie stalk is rooted in the same behaviour as the point of the Setters, they are both predatory instincts. But the Collies instincts are triggered by the movement of the prey, and the Setters by the scent of the prey. The strength of the reinforcement when using these instincts is so strong that both breeds will find substitutes to allow their instincts to flourish.

Common to the breeds we choose to share our lives with is the instinctive need to interact. Without it dogs would behave similarly to cats or other solitary predators, but dogs have been bred for their need to live with people, and for some dogs this is extremely strong.

When it stops being a reinforcer

Tiredness, both mental and physical can be easily covered by enthusiastic dogs. Puppies show they are tired with slower movements or simple fall asleep on the spot. Using instinctive behaviours, particularly learning to use them, is quite exhausting. Nature designed dogs to be able to “run on vapour”, particularly in the elements of the hunt behaviours. Feeling “a little tired”, does not catch the dinner, sleep can happen afterwards. This is acceptable on occasion but would cause physical and mental damage if this tired state happened on every training session. There would also be a less than pleasant association with the behaviour under training.

When using instinctive behaviours remind yourself to stop before the fatigue shows – by the time it is showing you have gone too far. Look out for the slightly slower reaction to your cues, markers and take up of the reinforcer.

Puppy Gordon Setter instinctively stalking from picking up the scent of birds.
Puppy Collie instinctively herding from wanting to control the movement of the other puppy.

Exercise : Being observant and asking questions

Q: Have some moments of hyper-excitement developed because of a stack of reinforcing moments all happened at the same time? 

Q: Where does your dog choose to settle once they see you settled ?Are they in view of you, by the door, or at your feet. Where is “their spot” ? 

Q: Have we become too enthusiastic to greet our dogs and caused them to become over aroused ?
Scattering a few treats to the floor as you come home can disrupt this excitement whilst you teach a more controlled greeting. 

Q: Is the opportunity to be social with your dog always reflected by the dog ? 
Dogs are generous and usual respond to our desire for affection, but we need to check this is a mutual choice.

Q: If a stranger wishes to socialise, or show affection, with your dog, is the situation their choice (their reinforcer) more than your dog’s?
You should also question whether this is a habit you want to build for your dog. Stranger-greeting is not a good blanket policy.

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