Why do dogs obey commands? You ask your dog to sit, down, stay and heel and your dog readily complies. You even ask your dog to perform cute tricks that generate plenty of “ohhhs” and “awwws” from your audience of family, friends and neighbors and your dog is happy to perform all of them. We often tend to assume that dogs obey commands just because we have trained them to do so, but this is an over simplistic explanation. Instead, let’s delve deeper into the science behind some basic principles of behavior that cause dogs to repeat desirable behaviors.
Dogs Seek Compensation
Dogs are often thought to obey commands just to please us; however, as unromantic as this may sound, just like us who get paid for our jobs, dogs are seeking some form of compensation when they perform behaviors, whether it’s under the form of praise, food or attention. According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, dogs do what they ultimately do because that’s what works for them, so when they perform a behavior they’re doing so not just because it makes us happy, but also because their behavior yields some form of reward such as a belly rub or a treat.
The Power of Reinforcement
When we train our dogs, we want desired behaviors to put roots and become likely to occur again. As when caring for a plant, in order to create fertile grounds for the behavior to put roots and establish, we need to provide some form of nourishment otherwise the behavior will get dry and extinguish. This nourishment that fuels behaviors is provided under the form of reinforcers. Mary Burch and John Bailey in the book “How Dogs Learn” define a reinforcer as “any stimulus that, when presented following a behavior, causes the behavior to be more likely to occur again in the future. Translation in doggy language? “Give me a morsel of food when you’re eating at the dinner table and you’ll see me begging again and again each time you’re eating at the dinner table.” Yes, reinforcers work for both desirable and undesirable behaviors, so pay attention on whether you are watering more weeds than blooms!
To Each Their Own
Not all reinforcers are created equal when it comes to dogs. While for one dog, treats may be very reinforcing, to another dog playing a game of tug or chasing birds may be equally, if not, sometimes even more reinforcing. It’s a good idea to experiment with a variety of reinforcers to determine which ones work best for each individual dog. For example, to a dog who loves to fetch, tossing the ball may be a powerful enough reinforcer to evoke the dog into bringing the ball more often in the future, while to a dog who could care less about fetching, it’s likely not.
Also, consider context. Food may be highly reinforcing when a dog is hungry, but if you take your dog to classes right after dinner, food may lose its appeal and your dog’s performance may be poor that night. Reinforcers may be under conflict too at times. You may like to normally use a game of tug to reinforce your dog’s performance, but outdoors your dog may rather go sniff and mark that bush in front of him, which lowers the value of the tugging reinforcer. So as a general rule of thumb, consider that it’s possible that what you think is reinforcing is really not from your dog’s perspective.
Category of Reinforcers
Reinforcers can be divided in two categories: primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are stimuli that are related to biology (they meet the dog’s physical needs) and require no prior learning to appreciate. Food, water, shelter from the elements, etc. are examples of primary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers, also known as conditioned reinforcers, instead are stimuli that are not related to biology and therefore require learning in order to appreciate. To make a secondary reinforcer valuable, it needs to be paired with a primary reinforcer.
For example, if you pronounce the words “good boy” and follow those words every time with a treat (pairing), your dog will soon learn to associate your words of praise with good things. After having acquired a strong reinforcement history, the secondary reinforcer (praise) can be used by itself every now and then, but be very careful. It’s critical to continue to pair a secondary with a primary part of the time if you want a totally reliable behavior, cautions Patricia McConnell in her blog “The Other End of the Leash” as she discusses what trainer Ken’s Ramirez stated in seminar she attended in Worcester MA.
The Reinforcing Quadrants
When training dogs, the goal is to make behaviors that we like become stronger and increase. So if we want a dog to obey commands, we must make sure we use reinforcers correctly. There are two ways to make a dog likely to repeat behaviors we like: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. In positive reinforcement, we add a positive reinforcer, a stimulus that, when added after the behavior, it makes the behavior more likely to occur in the future. So if we want a dog to sit by giving him a cookie the moment his rump touches the floor, we are making him more likely to sit in the future. Positive reinforcement training is therefore a fun, happy way to train and can help increase the bond between dog and owners.
Negative reinforcement is another way dogs learn to obey commands. Many people often confuse it with punishment when it is not. In negative reinforcement, we remove a negative reinforcer, a stimulus that, when removed after the behavior, it makes the behavior more likely to occur in the future. Back in time, dogs were for a good part trained the force retrieve, which involved pinching a dog’s ear until he picked up an object that was later used to retrieve. Because the painful ear pinch stopped the moment the dog picked up the object, you can bet the poor dog was more likely to pick up the toy next time!
A Word About Aversives
In order to apply negative reinforcement, you have to do something perceived as unpleasant, as the animal must do something to stop the unpleasant thing, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist and author, Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt. The term “unpleasant” is appropriate here, as negative reinforcement doesn’t necessarily mean the removal of something painful. For example, removing a dog-reactive dog from an uncomfortable psychological state (such as being around other dogs) the moment he performs a non-aggressive behavior such as looking away, can be a form of negative reinforcement.
However, as mentioned, negative reinforcement requires something unpleasant to occur, and the unpleasantness can range from barely mild to very painful. Even though the unpleasant stimulus is removed once the desired behavior occurs, there are risks for side-effects because negative reinforcers are aversive- as they involve something that the dog wants to avoid. Just as the individual dog determines what constitutes a positive reinforcer, the individual dog also determines what constitutes a negative reinforcer. This means that to the person training, a negative reinforcer may appear mild, when to the dog it may be perceived far more aversive than thought.
Therefore the use of negative reinforcement comes with risks for side effects such as fear, confusion, resistance, passivity, not to mention, spillover associations, where anything occurring within the training environment, including the trainer, risks becoming distasteful or disliked, explains world-known behavioral biologist and author Karen Pryor. For this reason, positive trainers try to avoid it or use it sparingly and carefully, being extra watchful in reading the dog’s body language for early signs of stress.
Command or Cue?
As dog training has evolved as a discipline, more and more dog trainers have stopped using aversive techniques popular decades ago and have been embracing methods based on positive reinforcement. This shift has consequently led to the emergence of new terminologies. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, the term command means “to direct authoritatively, to exercise a dominating influence over.” Usage of this term may have reflected the militaristic training methods popular decades ago, with a “do this or else” attitude.
Trainers who use positive reinforcement are more comfortable using the term “cue.” A cue is simply “anything that excites to action, a hint or a guiding suggestion.” And since the dog is not given a command and threatened to perform a behavior “or else”,the term “obey” has been replaced with comply, or conform, to a request. While usage of these terms may just sound like a matter of semantics, there’s a deeper influence when using these terms.
Trainers are now waiting for the desired response, rewarding it and thinking over strategies to make the behavior more likely to occur; whereas before, failure to obey to a command resulted in a dog who was corrected and possibly labeled as headstrong, stubborn, or even worse, “dominant.” As we have come a long way in the science of dog training, there’s no longer reason to command dogs, dogs deserve to learn humanely, not through pain or fear, concludes certified dog trainer Helen Verte . This is what ultimately leads to strong, enthusiastic responses and happy partnerships between owners and dogs– without having to forcibly command dogs to get them to obey.
Did you know? When a behavior is rewarded every single time , it’s said to be on a continuous reinforcement schedule. Whereas, when it’s reinforced only some of the time, it’s said to be on an “intermittent reinforcement schedule.” While a continuous schedule works well in the initial stages of learning, once the behavior is performed quite fluently, it’s good practice to shift into giving a reward every now and then.