Book: Teaching with Reinforcement 


Author: Kay Laurence
Interaction, or being social, is an instinctive behaviour, a primary or natural reinforcer. Dogs are not cats. They inherit a very strong desire to integrate and live co-operatively with other dogs, people and sometimes other species.
My experience of street or village dogs is insufficient to assess whether they co-exist with people as a useful resource or need to be with people. I have meet several dogs rescued from a similar background, and with the exception of one all enjoyed, and chose, the company of people. Probably that was the behaviour that made their selection and expensive rehabilitation worth-while. There are dogs that find interaction with people non-reinforcing and I would suggest that they come under specialised care where interaction becomes a learned and continually reinforced behaviour. For most normally reared and raised pet dogs interaction with the people in their lives is a primary reinforcer.

The type of interaction can be varied and have different impact. Baby puppies at 3 to 4 weeks of age do not like to be picked up unless they have a reinforcing association with the behaviour. But they do like the scent of human skin and faces, even before they begin to eat food. I lie on the floor on my stomach and allow the 3 week old pups to sniff my face and very quickly they begin to lick. This is often one of the first situations that stimulates a tail wag. Later when they are comfortable with being held and picked up the face licking can be used as a reinforcer for being picked up. Many dogs throughout their lives like to get close to our face, and even become specialists in face washing. It is a potentially usable reinforcer when used with caution for these dogs.

Licking a face is not a learned behaviour but an instinctive behaviour and part of later development of the desire for approval, this does not appear until about 5-7 weeks. If 3 week old pups are faced with a strange adult dog they behave very cautiously, crouch and return to their bed. At 6-7 weeks they greet the similar adult, through the puppy fence, with copious amounts of submissive approval-seeking behaviour. Many turn upside down, or show the inside of their back leg, lick their lips, whine, and may even urinate. This is the beginning of the development of their social skills. It would be dangerous to expose pups under this age to adults except their mother. If the learning of the approval seeking skill is underdeveloped, the only skill the pup has from their experience is to crouch and try to hide. You can begin to see that a rich learning environment appropriate to their developmental stage is essential. Pups that loose adult dog contact with early weaning, and then only interact with siblings may never develop approval seeking behaviour.

Pup seeking approval by rolling over

Pup seeking approval by face licking

Pup seeking social approval by sitting
Having opportunities to socially interact is extremely important and reinforces the primary instinct. If a dog is reared without much contact with other dogs, their instinct to socially interact becomes focused on people, similar to the Border Collie instincts becoming fixed on balls instead of sheep. How you allow these self-reinforcing instincts to develop and the patterns they are associated with, are extremely important to the way the behaviours are carried out for the rest of the dog’s life.

A puppy will greet with excitement when recognising their family, particularly if this coincides with the end of solitary existence. Two elements adding to the massively reinforcing moment: the end of solitary existence (they do not know you are going to return) and the re-bonding with their social pack. If you only greet the pup after they have been to the garden to pee, then this is the reinforcing pattern that will be established. My preferred choice when returning home is to let the dogs into the garden as soon as I arrive, and once they have slightly calmed down, become relieved that the pack is back together again, then I greet them individually. If I try to greet as soon as I come in the level of arousal exceeds their abilities for self-control, and Gordon Setters jumping to eye level is more than any enthusiast should endure. I try to avoid both reinforcing events occurring together, and on some occasions in order to vary the routine I have returned, but not entered the house, dealt with other matters around the property and then greeted the dogs. The greeting was much more manageable. By establishing the pattern as pups, our social protocol becomes more strongly reinforced at every repetition.

All of the small elements of interaction can become strong reinforcers. If you enjoy playing with your dog, not only does the dog get reinforcement from using the instinctive hunting behaviours but also your focus and attention. Being the centre of your attention is highly reinforcing. Unfortunately the dogs’ lifelong instinctive behaviour to learn and study us, leads to many different patterns of attention seeking evolving. Mabel achieved her first People’s Master by removing my attention from the computer. As a pup she would tap the door to be let out, and coincidentally as soon as the door tapped, I stopped what I was doing and responded to her. Another example of the cluster of behaviours being reinforced – and not being able to be sure which behaviour the reinforcer attaches itself to. She still did the same behaviour at 12 years old, or when I had my attention on visitors. At all other times she will wait with the others for a Door Open opportunity but my inattention triggers the door tap, reinforced by the attention.

I often sit with visitors at the kitchen table who are hesitantly wondering if after the 15th tap “do you think she may want to go out  ….?” Once she settles by the door I go to open it, we observe through the window – she takes one sniff of the air, turns around to come straight back in. “aah..”

Hmmm … somehow I was “managed”.

Face proximity can be reinforcing when appropriate and safe. Tess is not over aroused and she reaches to meet my face.

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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