Rewards and side-effects- part 2

My father often says something rather wise: you get what you pay for.

In the case of the exasperated dog trainer from last week’s post, we saw a pretty good illustration of this idea. She rewarded her dog for refraining from bad behaviour for 3 seconds, and that’s what the dog continued to do. They had established a behaviour chain: misbehave + wait 3 seconds + get a treat + repeat.


Helper Dog (from has her own methods of behaviour modification.

Behaviour science got her into this mess, but fortunately, behaviour science can get her out. [DISCLAIMER] I’m not a professional dog trainer, but here’s how I would address a situation with any sort of critter or person who had this type of problem with reinforcement:

#1 Catch ’em being good (before they have a chance to misbehave)

If you are finding that you’re stuck in a behaviour chain, look for those opportunities before the misbehaviour even starts. If this dog owner were a friend of mine [I am not currently taking dogs as clients], I’d say the following:

  • As soon as you approach the difficult situation, before you even let her off the leash, give her that treat.
  • Give her an easy command (if possible) and then give her a treat again.
  • Get a little closer to the difficult situation, and give her a treat if you see her hesitate.
  • Basically, reward the heck out of every non-example you can get, gradually increasing the level of difficulty.

#2 Sttrrreeettccchh it out

The despondent pet owner seems to have been given some bad advice. There was no plan offered for gradually increasing expectations and gradually reducing the rewards (behaviourists would call these shaping and thinning, respectively.)

Instead of waiting 3 seconds and delivering the treat, the dog owner could

  • wait 5 seconds,
  • then 10 seconds,
  • and dialing up the wait-times as much as possible, a little bit at a time.

This doesn’t solve the problem of the behaviour chain (i.e., the dog initiates the problem behaviour because she gets a treat for stopping), so here’s what I would suggest:

  • first, wait 3 second take a step back, then deliver the treat
  • add some more steps, and maybe an easy command, then deliver the treat
  • create more and more physical and behavioural distance between the naughty behaviour and the treat
  • in doing so, you break the behaviour chain, and the dog starts associating treats with the other steps.
  • Eventually it’s quicker just to run up to you and perform the usual array of tricks, but make sure the routine doesn’t get too difficult, because dogs (and people) tend to follow the path of least resistance, and will find the quickest and easiest way to get reinforcement.

I’ve used the example of a pet-owner, but humans have behaviour chains too, of course. They can be really tough to break, and you might see some really challenging behaviour if you try to switch it up too quickly. If you’re worried that you need to break a behaviour chain, and you’d like some support, I can help! Sign up here for a free 30 minute consultation.


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