The tricky business of spotting the rewards that cause dog (and human) habits


I recently had an awkward moment with a client about his new rescue dog. The dog doesn’t come when he’s called, and the owner insists that the only way he can get the dog’s attention is if he ignores him. Thenhe suddenly becomes clingy. The conversation that followed went something like this.

Me: “It’s possible that he likes when you’re not paying attention to him. Maybe, to him, the absence of your vigilance is a reward.”

Him: “No, that’s not it.”

Me: “Well, if a behavior keeps happening, it means that it is being rewarded in someway. Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to happen again.” 

Him: “Not in this case.”

Me: “This isn’t my own personal theory. This is the science of behavior. If your lack of attention isn’t the reward, it’s possible it’s the cue. Maybe when you stop paying attention, it signals to him that he should investigate what you’re doing.”

Him: “But this isn’t just when we’re doing training, it’s all the time.”

Me: “Training is happening all the time! Every time your boss pays you, he’s bettering the chance that you’ll show up for work the next day. If he didn’t pay you, you probably wouldn’t show up. That’s training. If a waiter is rude to you, you may be less likely to go back to that restaurant. That’s training, too.”

Him: “Fine, but still, that’s not the case here. Every dog finds attention rewarding.” 

Me: “Not so. Dogs are as idiosyncratic as we are. Some dogs find being in their crate rewarding, others find i punishing. Some find it rewarding when a human stops touching them, or when another dog stops approaching them. Rewards aren’t always obvious. I mean, some humans are rewarded by things involving whips and chains, right?”

Sometimes, when I’m discussing dog training, the conversations reach this kind of weird point if I try to show the overlap between human and canine behavior. So, I shut up there. And we spent the last few minutes cueing the dog into sits and feeding him string cheese silence. Truth is, I don’t know why the dog is clingy sometimes and not other times. But I do know something about dog habits. And I know that there’s actually a lot of overlap between our habits and theirs, which means we know more than we think we do about how to control canine behaviors.  Take, for instance, the area of rewards — a major factor in habit formation. In this excellent video, Charles Duhigg, author of the The Power of Habit, dissects the rewards that were involved in causing a habit that led him to gain eight pounds: Taking an afternoon break from his desk to go buy a cookie. Just like with dogs, habits are just behaviors that reoccur because they’ve somehow been rewarded. Duhigg learned that his cookie habit wasn’t really being rewarded by getting to eat the cookie. The reward was something else that happened to occur at the same time as his cookie consumption… In the case of my client, the reward he’s experiencing might just be something that just happens to coincide with moments when the owner is not paying attention to him. For instance, might think your dog is rewarded by you patting him on the head when he sits next to you, but really the reward is that he’s getting to sit near your crotch, which is full of interesting smells. Or, you think the behavior of him kissing you is rewarded by your love, when really it’s rewarded by the opportunity to lick croissant crumbs from your mouth. My point is: Who knows! But keeping your eyes peeled to try to figure out what’s rewarding to your dog is a good way to start to investigate how you can change behaviors by manipulating the the rewards.  Of course, not all behaviors are reinforced. Some are punished, and are therefore less likely to occur again. Indeed, that’s the definition of punishment: It tends to make things stop happening. Like, if you have a dog trainer who is not buying the idea that your dog is an aberration whose actions cannot be codified by the rules of the science of behavior. That might make you not want to work with that trainer again. The behavior of training your dog with her would therefore be extinguish. Ah well. But that doesn’t mean training would stop. Because behavior is happening all the time. And there’s nothing we can do about it. I need a cookie.


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