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Internal Reinforcement

Dog owners are oftentimes given the advice to ignore their dog’s bad behaviors until they go away. The concept behind this idea is that if a dog is not given positive reinforcement through operant conditioning than they will cease to display that behavior.

This can be effective in many cases as denying a dog a reward will utilize negative punishment through operant conditioning and can be used to stop that bad behavior from continuing. This advice falls short however when a dogs behavior is giving it internal reinforcement.

Internal reinforcement is when a dog’s behavior is self-rewarding even if outside factors are not rewarding the dog’s behavior in the moment. Owners who deal with dogs that display behaviors with internal reinforcement are left wondering why the advice of ignoring the dog is not working.

These owners are usually on their last legs and are ripping the hair out of their head trying to find a solution to their problematic dog.

“Behaviors that are internally reinforcing can be extremely difficult to change.”

Almost any behavior that a dog displays has a form of internal reinforcement. A dog who is barking enjoys the act of barking and so they are being rewarded even when someone ignores them. A dog who jumps on counters is still getting the enjoyment of jumping.

A dog who chases a cat around the yard is getting the thrill and excitement of the chase which is igniting the dogs prey drive. A dog who paces out of anxiety is being rewarded by the movement that they are producing which keeps them in that state of distress.

These are all examples of everyday behaviors that dogs display that are internally reinforcedBehaviors that are internally reinforcing can be extremely difficult to change.

Oftentimes, dogs that are permitted to do such behaviors, develop a habit of doing so and can almost become addicted to those behaviors. Behaviors such as these are a large contributing reason why dogs are dropped off at animal shelters as the owners have given up trying to ignore the dog’s behavior.

The longer a dog continues creating a habit by doing these behaviors that give internal reinforcement the longer it takes to help the dog break the habit of displaying that behavior.

Soon owners realize that ignoring the behavior is ineffective and that a different approach needs to be taken. The second most common advice people are given when trying to deal with these behaviors is to distract the dog with a reward so that they do not do that inappropriate behavior.

The problem with this advice is that not many rewards are going to be more important in the dog’s mind than the behavior that they are doing. Take for example a dog who is anxiously pacing, they will not want to take a reward as they are in a stressed state of mind and they will want to continue to pace as that is currently relieving their stress.

“In order to stop behaviors that are internally reinforcing to dogs, owners must be proactive rather than reactive with their training.”

Another example would be of a dog who chases a cat, even if you have the tastiest treat on hand, a dog’s prey drive, once kicked in, will not easily be turned off. This is because the internal reinforcement of the behavior itself is more rewarding than the reward that the human has to offer. 

In order to stop behaviors that are internally reinforcing to dogs, owners must be proactive rather than reactive with their training. Owners should look for loading behaviors prior to the dog displaying the undesirable behavior that is internally reinforcing and stop that behavior from happening before the dog escalates over threshold.

An example would be a dog who barks in his kennel when the owners walk into the room, the loading behavior that the dog displays prior to barking would be the dog sitting up or standing up in the kennel and getting excited.

By utilizing known obedience commands owners can guide their dogs into a more appropriate behavior, such as telling the dog to lay down, before the dog has a chance to display the behavior that is internally reinforcing.

Oftentimes there will be moments in a dogs training where they do not listen to a known obedience command as they are so fixated on trying to display the behavior that provides internal reinforcement. In these instances, corrections can be given in order to reinforce the obedience command and prevent the dog from displaying the behavior.

By preventing the dog from doing the behavior that is internally reinforcing the owner can break the cycle and prevent the dog from being rewarded for doing the behavior that is Internally reinforcing.

It is extremely important that the owner is very consistent with preventing the behavior as the dog can get intermittently reinforced which will increase the dog’s chances of displaying an extinction burst.

Having known obedience commands trained and ready to use in situations where a dog may display a behavior with internal reinforcement is key to successfully curbing the dog’s habit. Continually exposing the dog to various environments while doing obedience training will help desensitize the dog and help them develop social neutrality.

These things along with clear communication, boundaries, and structure set forth by the owners are crucial to helping stop a dog who continually displays unwanted behaviors due to internal reinforcement.

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