Many dog owners struggle with their pets’ bad habits, but do not want to punish them. Differential reinforcement offers another option.
How to replace dogs’ problem behaviors using differential reinforcement
Many dog owners struggle with their companions’ problem behaviors, but do not like the idea of punishing their pets. Fortunately for pet parents, differential reinforcement swaps bad behaviors for better ones without the need to scold your four-legged friend.
Differential reinforcement is a complex name for a relatively simple concept: By replacing problem behaviors with more desirable actions, you can reduce bad behaviors in pets. This is done through positive reinforcement of incompatible behaviors, or actions that cannot take place at the same time as the undesired habit. By rewarding the more desirable action, you make it easy for your pet to choose the preferable behavior, reducing bad habits without ever needing to punish your pet.
To start differential reinforcement of other behavior, it is crucial to pick a replacement behavior that cannot take place at the same time as the unwanted habit. For example, if your dog is prone to jumping on guests as they enter your home, you may choose the “sit” command as your alternative. Start your pet’s practice in a quiet spot with very few distractions and no other people. As he begins to master the alternative commend in this setting, slowly add distractions to his training. You can do this by practicing in your backyard, during walks, and even in a dog park. Eventually, when you feel confident Fido has mastered the command, you can practice in the scenario that triggers his problem behavior.
Begin this phase of training with your dog on a leash to help maintain control over the environment, as allowing him to continue a problem behavior only reinforces the habit. Likewise, even negative attention such as scolding can be a reward to some pets, so avoid reinforcing any unwanted actions as much as possible. In the example above, this means asking guests to turn away and not acknowledge your pet if he begins to jump on them. Instead, ask your dog to sit and as soon as he performs the command, reward him with treats, praise and attention. This will be especially effective if you use high-value treats such as meat or cheese during the early stages of training.
As with any training, practice makes perfect. It is common to experience setbacks as you introduce the alternative behavior in trigger situations, so be patient with your pet. It may take more than a few attempts to achieve the desired outcome, so do not push your pet too hard during any given training session, as you and your dog will both lose focus and become frustrated. Over time, your companion should learn to seek the reward rather than repeat bad habits, replacing problem behaviors with more desirable actions.