Getting Rid of Unwanted Behavior

In her book, Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training, Karen Pryor explains eight ways to get rid of unwanted behavior.  They are as follows:  Shoot the Animal; Punishment; Negative Reinforcement; Extinction; Train an Incompatible Behavior; Put the Behavior on Cue; Shape the Absence of Behavior; and Change the Motivation.


The first 4 methods use unpleasant or negative consequences (Shoot the Animal, Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, and Extinction).  The second 4 methods use pleasant or positive consequences (Train an Incompatible Behavior, Put the Behavior on Cue, Shape the Absence of the Behavior, and Change the Motivation).  All of the approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and most behaviors will respond best to a combination of approaches.  Not all methods will be equally effictive with every behavior.


Negative Approaches:


Shoot the Dog:  Um, yeah, we don’t want to do that!

Advantages:  The dog will never exhibit the unwanted behavior EVER again.

Disadvantages:  The dog will never exhibit ANY behavior ever again


Punishment:  An aversive event follows the behavior causing a decrease in frequency, duration, and/or intensity.

Advantages:  A quick suppression of behavior, which tends to be very rewarding to the owner.

Disadvantages:  The suppression of behavior might be temporary; can cause an increase in anxiety or stress; can cause avoidance; can cause the behavior to become an owner absent problem; could damage the relationship between the dog and the owner; might manifest as a different and equally unwanted behavior.  When punishment doesn’t work the first time, we often escalate it.


Negative Reinforcement:  Something unpleasant is removed when the behavior stops.

Advantages:  A quick suppression of the behavior, once the contingencies are understood.

Disadvantages:  Since it uses aversives, it uses punishment (and so ditto to the above identified disadvantages).  Punishment is applied when the behavior begins (an aversive event causing a decrease) and when the behavior stops, the aversive stops (negatively reinforcing the behavior).


Extinction:  All reinforcement of the behavior stops.  Since the behavior is no longer reinforced, it goes away.

Advantages:  Extinction can be a very easy method to implement.  You don’t have to DO anything.

Disadvantages:  Self-rewarding behaviors are not affected by extinction.  Some behaviors are difficult to ignore.  It is not always an easy method to implement consistently.  When it is not consistently implemented, the behavior can become reinforced on an intermittent schedule.  This serves to strengthen the behavior.  An extinction burst might occur.  This involves an increase in the behavior that is temporary IF one is able to stick with the program; but if the owner doesn’t stick with it the behavior can become worse.


Positive Approaches:


Teach an Incompatible Behavior:  Example:  A jumping dog is taught to sit or run for a toy.

Advantages:  The dog learns something that is pleasing to the owner.  This ends in rewards for both (great for the relationship).  It is usually easier for a dog to do something else than it is to stop doing something.

Disadvantages:  It will take some time and commitment to train the dog.


Put the Behavior on Cue.  Once the behavior is on cue, the dog will perform it on demand.

Advantages:  The behavior tends not to happen unless it is cued. Once the behavior is put on cue, it is possible to teach the dog to stop the behavior on cue.

Disadvantages:  It will take some time and commitment to train the dog.


Shape the Absence of the Behavior.  Reward the dog for not doing the behavior; catch him being “good.”

Advantages:  The mindset of the owner must change for this to be successful.  This means the owner will be recognizing the good things the dog does and so will tend to be more positive toward the dog.  Excellent for improving relationships.  Also an effective approach.  Behavior that is rewarded increases, behavior that is not reinforced goes away.

Disadvantages:  Might be a challenging adjustment to change to the necessary mind set.  Takes good observational skills and timing.


Change the Motivation.  A very effective method as if one is no longer motivated to engage in an unwanted behavior, one does not.

Advantages:  If the motivation changes to engage in a pleasant alternative, all win.  It is a kind method, as it frequently removes a deprivation or other unpleasant emotional state.

Disadvantages:  One must be able to identify the motivation to effect a change.


Don’t Shoot The Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor is an excellent source of information for anyone wanting to change behavior in his or her dog, child, spouse, friend, co-worker, or self.



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