Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 

Control over your environment

Author: Kay Laurence
Having control over your immediate environment functions as an effective reinforcer.
Having no control has the opposite effect.
Dogs spend their entire youth studying us for their first degree. Some become quickly proficient and continue to study for their Masters in People Management.

Studying their environment is a strong, instinctive behaviour, necessary for survival and constantly reinforced by the opportunties presented. Dogs need acute observation skills, memory and scenting abilities. They need to be able to notice very slight changes in their environment and be able to predict patterns of the prey and their predators. Small wonder that if they share a bedroom with you they can tell when you are rousing from your sleep by noticing the increase in your movements or recognise the alarm going off. They can see the excitement in your actions when you are planning to go out, or pack the suitcase.

We become key elements in their lives. We control their food, what they have, how much they have and when they have it. We control their exercise, and very often regular stimulation through training or games. We give them security and a sense of belonging to a group – all instinctive needs in most dogs. Being able to manage this powerful element in their lives is going to pay off – be reinforcing.

Improving your control over the immediate surrounding is reinforcing because in many dogs, and people, we see the behaviour increase or maintain.

Perhaps the dog is lying in the doorway of the kitchen and with some difficulty you have to walk around them to leave the room. Firstly, visualise your behaviour of walking from kitchen to sitting room without the door blockage. It would be upright, confident, relaxed. With the dog in the way you have to move more carefully, perhaps apologetically: “no, please don’t get up”, your balance is altered, you lose some relaxation. The dog, by being in this position and not moving, has managed to change your behaviour. It is not what your behaviour has changed to, the apologetic tippy-toe, but that a change has occurred.

Some dogs would NEVER notice, but those studying for their Masters will be writing notes.  These very small, micro events can become so reinforcing that they begin patterns of more significant attempts.

This sounds rather like the dominance chestnut. I do not think dogs desire to dominate us, but discover through accidents, excellent observation and memory skills that they can manage us, often to their own benefit, and sometimes because any response is better than no response. The outcome of the manipulation is often irrelevant, the dog in the doorway gained nothing from not moving, but the process of successful manipulation is highly reinforcing. We can inadvertently reinforce dominating, or managing behaviour. Unfortunately the other side of this coin is the reinforcement enjoyed by the person who likes to be managed.

The key to avoiding subtle management is to make it appear like it was your idea all along, or practice indifference.

Not many of us deliberately try to teach our dogs to be dominate or be over managing but our desire to care for our dogs can be misread and the dogs can quickly develop an understanding that they are the centre of attention, and pretty much have all they desire. You may be the carer, but you can quickly turn into Staff by not paying attention to your own behaviour.

Having no control over what is happening around you can leads to a variety of different stresses. It may be displayed with frustration, over-arousal or depressed behaviours.

You can plan to use your attention, or your laughter, as a reinforcer for so many of the tremendous behaviours that puppies offer you and shape their life long reactions.

This pup is learning by studying what the other dog is doing


I am in the enviable position of living with multiple dogs and I have been studying for my Dog Masters Degree for many years. I was also lucky to have a father who took every opportunity to reinforce my instinct to learn. When presented with a query from me: inevitably “why?”, I never heard the term “because I said so…” I was given, at times, an excruciatingly tedious, explanation with all the bells and whistles,  which actually served the same long term desire – do what you are asked, and now.

I have also been lucky to be able to watch some exceedingly gifted trainers with their puppies and youngsters and one element I frequently see is the reinforcing power of mirroring. One dog will do something and the other dog will copy them or mimic. Speck collects a toy to run down the garden, all the others do the same. It is difficult to work out the reinforcer for the mimicker, but something must but be in operation there as the behaviour is well maintained. This also happens when people mimic the dog. A puppy starts to react excitedly – we react the same way, the pup rushes over to see that leaf  and we react in the same way. The dog gets excited at arriving at the park, and we react in the same way (the excessive amount of hollering, anxious flustering movements, are interpreted by the dog as mimicking their state of arousal).

Any time you are mirroring, deliberately or unintentionally, it needs to be thoughtful and considered. The action of mimic will serve to reinforce the behaviour. Anxiety, arousal, interest, indifference, these can all be exaggerated by your mirroring reactions. Another friend of mine is a keen tracker, and with every new pup, without resorting to going along in the field on her hands and knees, she mimics the pup’s behaviour of sniffing along tracks on the ground, showing great interest and focus. Another friend super-keen on obedience, always makes eye contact with her pups when they make eye contact with her. All her dogs spend many hours focussed on her – and it arises from just this reinforced “bud” as puppies. I have great friends or great resources?

When your actions are mimicked by the environment, other dogs, or people it can be a subtle and powerful reinforcer. No food needed!

Exercise : Being observant and asking questions

Q: Have you ever discovered that your hand is patting the dog and you have no recall of intiating this behaviour?

We relax, begin to read the paper, enjoy a cup of tea, and the spare arm has been employed in a deep ear massage.

Of course they can take advantage of unemployed arms, but make a note of the subtle cues that we responded to: the head inserted under the resting hand, the chin resting on our leg, the stare at the last piece of toast.

The dogs will have discovered when we are most vulnerable to these hints, and practised them regularly, and sure it gets reinforced, this is part of living together.

Q: Who suggests it is time for dinner?

Q: Who suggests it is time for a walk and that it is a necessity and must happen NOW?

Being manipulated is fine provided the outcome is appropriate and you are aware of it.

Dogs will quickly learn who is easy to acquire a tummy rub from, and who is usually too busy. They discriminate between the important people in the house and the activities they are doing.

Q: Your dog runs up to you with bright, shiny eyes alert and eager to engage you – do you think you could really not mirror that enthusiasm?


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