Published on January 10, 2022 in Communication Newer post   Older post

If you’ve trained your dog, you know that “positive reinforcement” is a key concept in teaching your dog to do the things that you want – and hopefully to stop doing the things that you don’t want. For example, if you ask your dog to “come” and you reward him wildly when he does, he is more likely to come to you. If he doesn’t come initially, and when he finally does you yell at him for being slow to do it, guess what? Your dog isn’t going to think coming to you is such a fun activity.

Even when we’re not trying to teach our dogs, we are. And sometimes, they teach themselves! When your dog does something and gets a reward, he is more likely to do it again. What about when that reward is the logical outcome of his actions? Same result! For example, if your dog loves desqueaking a new toy, every time he succeeds in getting that squeaker out, that’s a reward. So he’s going to do it again and again. If you’re worried about him swallowing a squeaker or making a mess, then don’t give him the toy, because he’s probably going to desqueak it every time if that’s what makes him happy. My point is that your dog is learning what behaviors get a reward whether you’re trying to teach her or not. Just like kids, your dog learns lots of things through trial and error that you don’t intentionally teach him. They’re really smart!

Case in point: Beau learned to open doors with a handle/lever. It was probably an accident the first time it happened. He was probably jumping up to scratch a door that had something he wanted on the other side, like me, randomly hit the lever, and the door popped open. Yay! There’s Mom!

I realized that he knew how to open doors when some friends stayed with me. We kept their dogs upstairs in the guest room when we left the house and put Beau in his crate. When we came in, I’d open Beau’s crate door and he’d run to the guest room fast as he could, hit the door lever, and their dogs would run out. Positive reinforcement. Hit the lever and dogs come out! Amazing!

Yesterday, I left the house while a contractor was working. He didn’t know that I’d left my keys in the house, and locked the door when he left. He locked the deadbolts except for the door he exited from out the back. Without the key, all he could do was depress the button and close the door. When I got home, I was locked out. (I just moved here and hadn’t yet hidden a key anywhere.) I stared at Beau from the other side of the glass and said “open the door!” “Jump up and open!” I don’t know that he had a clue what I was saying, but he knew that what he wanted – me – was on the other side of that door. He hit the door lever and the door popped open. Voila! No need to call a locksmith!

Here’s the bad news. He knows how to open a door and he’ll do it indiscriminately if what he wants is on the other side of the door. That means I have to be smarter than my dog, which isn’t always easy. If it’s important that Beau not get to what’s on the other side of a door, I better make sure he doesn’t. One of the doors leads out to a little balcony from which you can access the roof – and he figured that out too! He popped open the door and got up on the roof of the house a while back. He thought it was great. I was having a heart attack trying to lure him back into the house while he ran all over the roof.

Dogs learn what we teach them, and they also learn what experience teaches them! So remember, sometimes you better be smarter than your dog to keep them safe!

What has your dog taught himself to do?

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