Friday, July 15, 2011

The Psychology of All Things Smart (We're all stupid...)

Ever wonder why your pet continues to do something that always ends up getting him into trouble? Maybe he counter surfs or tears into the trash or poops on the living room floor? When you walk in the door does your dog have that "guilty" look on his face that lets you know for sure that you're going to find something you don't really want to see? Why would your pet do something that negatively impacts him in the end?

Here's a better question: Why do you do that very same thing?

How many times have you splurged on new shoes or books or video games that you really didn't need knowing very well that it would ultimately come back to bite you in the rear end? Maybe you procrastinate until it results in having to stress yourself out by pulling something together at the very last minute? I know people who have made far more life-altering choices than those even though they knew very well that the consequences would be dire. What's worse is that this can become an endless cycle that leaves you asking, "When will they ever learn?"

Those impulsive habits are reinforcing us as we do them. Even though humans do easily have the capacity to actually sit back and weigh the pros and cons of a situation, we will often disregard the cons until the impending consequences can no longer be ignored. That moment when you are spending money on something frivolous or the moment when your dog (well, hopefully it's the dog) is pooping on the floor feels very rewarding. This type of thing happens all of the time.

With any intelligent being, the rules of "fixing" this problem are pretty much the same. If your dog is digging in the trash, don't expect him to stop just because he should know better. Make it impossible for him to do it to begin with by removing the temptation (think of a dieter who knows that eating cake is a bad idea and decides that it would be much easier to just keep cake out of the house completely...trash can be considered dog cake for sure). And let's just be honest, it's pretty cruel to put cake in front of someone's face when they can't have any! Put the trash in a place where the dog cannot get to it and the problem is solved with very little stress.

Did someone say CAKE??

In my last blog post, I touched on the subject of potty training and pointed out that the biggest reward in that scenario is often the dog getting the opportunity to relieve itself. If your dog is not fully potty trained (or has regressed) and you are not limiting his freedom until he's back on track, then he's being reinforced for pottying in the house simply by doing just that (unless you are there to catch him in the act and verbally correct him).  As dog parents, cat parents, or even human parents, we are often in a position of having to "save them from themselves." Make sure that they have every opportunity to get it right and eliminate the chances of them practicing the bad behavior.

Thankfully, this same idea works the other way around. If you see your dog doing something you like, make it a positive experience for him! Immediately and enthusiastically say "Yes!" and offer a treat or a quick play session. Make sure he has plenty of chances to relieve himself outside or let him sniff interesting patches of grass if he's walking on the leash particularly well. Rewards and reinforcement are everywhere, it's just a matter of spotting them and creating an environment and training regimen that encourage desireable behaviors.

Many other factors come into play when modifying bad habits but I just wanted to take a moment to share this point of view. Humans are pretty good at comparing their pets to themselves but it's rare that I see that happen where it really counts. We are quick to believe that they've done something out of spite or because they're holding a grudge but usually stop short of the concepts that can actually help us shape behavior. Keep an open mind, strive to communicate to your pet clearly, and continue to learn all that you can so that you understand why animals do the things that they do.


  1. Kali had a habit of peeing on the bed or the couch (remember that?) even though she had been outside just recently. While I still have no idea why it started, we did manage to catch her in the act of it ONCE during the past two years we've had her. That, in addition to keeping her out of the bedroom and the living room without supervision for about a year, seems to have helped her drop the habit. Which is fantastic because now both of us work, and she's learned how to jump the pet gates into the living room. But I don't come home to pee on the couch!

  2. That is awesome! Little things like catching them in the act and then not giving them a chance (or many chances) to get it wrong really do help in the long run.