When Idgie was a baby I was terrified. I was scared to death of reinforcing unwanted behaviors. I had begun to understand the power of positive reinforcement and so I felt like I had to be careful with this power. I thought I had to limit her access to any reinforcement that didn’t flow through me, and that I had to be certain behaviors I didn’t like didn’t “work” for her. I didn’t come up with this on my own, I was heavily influenced by some very big names in dog training.
I did turn her into a dynamite sport dog. But she struggled being home alone, socializing with other dogs, and in most environments where she was basically left to her own devices. I put a head halter on her when she got old enough to want to bark and lunge at other dogs on walks. I waited her out any time she screamed in a crate. I didn’t let her play with other dogs when she stopped recalling from them. She didn’t have free access to toys in the house, she worked for every calorie she consumed (mostly through training) and I loved that I had a tiny puppy that ignored the world and walked next to me paying perfect attention anywhere we went.
A lot of people can get really great results with strict access to reinforcement. For me, the downfall of this way of thinking was my personal stress. When I watched my dog run zooms around a lake, ignoring me, rather than taking joy in her joy I worried that I wasn’t involved. I worried that I couldn’t call her off this lake if I chose (I couldn’t have).
A recent discussion about puppy barking (specifically, barking to be let out of a crate) reminded me of this itch I used to feel. This constant bother regarding the inevitable reinforcement of unwanted behaviors used to plague my life, and I think it plagues a lot of people’s lives. When we choose to ditch corrections we place all of our cards in the hand of reinforcement and then we stress about every single time reinforcement is flowing outside of our control, our doing.
Now, instead of focusing on eliminating unwanted behaviors by withholding reinforcement I focus on building desired behaviors with the reinforcers I can control. I generally let my dogs be dogs and I reinforce when I see fit. When they are doing something I don’t care for rather than asking “how can I be sure reinforcement is withheld?” I ask “what does the dog need, and how can I get it for them in a different way?”
For example, instead of ignoring a puppy that cries in a crate I will now not crate a puppy whose immediate needs (potty, food, water, attention) have not been met. Then I will stay near the crate. Stick my hand through the bars for comfort. Read to the puppy until he relaxes. He should learn that he will take a nap in the crate, and that the nap will come to him easily. When he is no longer fussy about it we will experiment with hanging out in the crate other times. I use an ex pen full of enrichment opportunities for necessary confinement. I no longer worry about reinforcing the vocalization and instead worry about what that vocalization is really asking for, and see if I can be sure that need is met.
This seems simple, and probably overly idealistic. It is not that I am perfect (far from it) but that my focus has shifted. I no longer stress about constantly controlling reinforcement. Instead I allow the reinforcement from me to flow freely and allow it to do its job. Felix was allowed to socialize freely with other dogs; he was allowed to run to his heart’s content with our other dogs and there was a time when he had to be on a long line any time we might encounter strange dogs because he found them so reinforcing. I kept paying him for listening to me, kept that reinforcement flowing between us, and now he is reliable off leash around other dogs, socially savvy, and a dream to hike with. I didn’t worry about punishing his interest in other dogs, or even about cutting off the reinforcement the other dogs provided. I simply worried about teaching him how nice I am to be around and listen to. It took time, but I got the best of both worlds; a dog that likes other dogs and listens to me in their presence.
So, what would happen if you stopped stressing about this? What would happen if you were just liberal with the reinforcers you can control, and let go of the ones you can’t?