The 4Rs for Better Behaviour: Reinforce the Right Response Religiously

Our dogs, and all animals for that matter, are learning about their environment and the consequences of their behaviour 24/7, not just during formal training sessions.

This means that every interaction your dog has with you, other people and other dogs, as well as all their previous life experiences, shapes their behaviour and the way they view their world.

Although we don't always have control over the environment and all the consequences that reinforce our pet's behaviour, there is much we can do to shape it for the better...

Here I'm reinforcing Lenny with treats and praise for shaking on cue

How to get better behaviour

Animals repeat behaviours that pay off; that have a desired consequence (also called a "reinforcer"). Reinforcers are not necessarily treats, rather they are consequences that strengthen (or increase) behaviour. This means that any behaviour (good or bad) that maintains or increases in frequency must have reinforcement value to the animal or else it wouldn't continue. Dogs that jump up on people is an example that comes to mind and a behaviour that's easily prevented (learn how here).

If you want better behaviour from your dog (or other animal), don't take good behaviour for granted! As pet owners we tend to do this a lot! When our pets are calm and relaxed we ignore them. Then we give them attention (e.g. tell them off) when they do the wrong thing.

Lenny LOVES pats and attention - effective reinforcers for him

What we should be doing is what I call the 4Rs: Reinforce the Right Response Religiously. This simply means noticing when our dogs (or cats or birds etc) are offering behaviours we want to see more of (e.g. being calm and compliant or any other behaviour you like) and reinforcing that behaviour generously and frequently. The more often a desired behaviour is reinforced, the more likely that behaviour will be repeated in future. That's how behaviour works! But there's a catch - you must choose your reinforcers wisely and you must be consistent!

Reinforcement effectiveness

Not all reinforcers are equal and lots of factors influence how effective and valuable different reinforcers are to an individual (you can learn more about reinforcement effectiveness here).

The important thing to understand is that just because you think something is reinforcing for your animal doesn't mean that's true. It's the learner who decides what's reinforcing, not the trainer. Experimenting with different reinforcers (e.g. food, toys, attention, pats) can help you determine which ones are most effective for the individual animal you are working with.

Lenny also loves tug - a great reinforcer for some dogs

Go practice the 4Rs!

So now that you understand the importance of not taking good behaviour for granted and instead reinforcing the right behaviour religiously, go and give it a try! You'll be surprised by how quickly you can get great results when you consistently reinforce behaviours you like.

Dr Kate :)

Dr Kate Mornement is an Applied Animal Behaviourist & Consultant who runs Pets Behaving Badly in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow her on Facebook or subscribe to her blog here.

This blog post is part of the 2018 Companion Animal Psychology #Train4Rewards blog party. Click on the button below to read lots of other great blogs on animal training...


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