Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Screaming Child in the Grocery Store Syndrome"

We've all been there before. You're trying to get some shopping done when, all of a sudden, the distinct and shrill protests of a human child bring your entire experience to a grinding halt. Some kid in the store wants something and they obviously want that something yesterday. That kid might even belong to you. Either way, it's never a fun situation for anyone involved.

For anyone witnessing this dramatic event unfold, there is often a very common knee-jerk reaction to the tune of, "If that were my child I would give him something to cry about!!" It's natural. That type of thing tends to go right through a person, especially when it comes out of nowhere and we want it to stop right then and there. That is also the reason why many parents eventually give in and offer their child whatever he/she desires. Anything is better than subjecting themselves to the noise and embarrassment of a public tantrum!

Of course, this also means that the child will undoubtedly be repeating that performance next time around, and he'll likely be even quicker to do it. Many people don't stop to think about the fact that the reason the child is screaming and throwing a fit is that in the past, it has worked to his/her advantage.

This is the basis of many bad behaviors in dogs too. (Sorry to step on the toes of human parents who don't want their children compared to dogs, but I did mention in a previous post that this is about the psychology of all things smart... so really it's a compliment, right?)

The tricky part can be identifying the reinforcer when it comes to dogs. What is it that they want? What are you doing to accidentally encourage the bad behavior? If it's attention and you're yelling and screaming or pushing the dog away physically, that could be the problem. Even "negative" attention is better than no attention at all to many dogs. In fact, some dogs end up getting extremely excited/playful when you lose your cool. So, step one is to eliminate whatever is reinforcing your dog to continue the undesirable behavior. If he's a jumper and you usually raise your knee or push him away, put your hands behind you and actively ignore him until all four feet are on the floor. If you've got a dog who barks out of frustration or because he wants attention, make sure you never acknowledge him until he's quiet.

Obi thinks tantrums sound fun!
Another tricky aspect of this problem is that most dogs (or kids!) will exhibit what's known as an "extinction burst" before they finally give up on throwing a tantrum (barking/jumping/whatever it is your dog has learned to do in an attempt to get something he wants). In other words, it can easily get worse right before it gets better. If something has been working for you for quite some time and then suddenly stops, you're going to try extra hard to get it to work again. There are endless examples of this in our every day life so we can't really fault our dogs on this one. If my internet stopped working right now I'm pretty sure I wouldn't just say "oh well" and head for bed. I'd make at least some attempt to check the router and the modem. I'd probably even get pretty angry and frustrated before finally throwing in the towel. It doesn't take much reinforcement for intelligent creatures such as ourselves (and our pets) to repeat a behavior. Be honest. If Facebook crashed you'd probably try to refresh the page at least a few times (and for some of you us, several times a minute) before accepting that it was gone. That is a classic extinction burst.

Just as important as not giving in to bad behavior or tantrums is teaching your dog an acceptable way to get what he'd like to have. If he's jumping for attention, implement a strict "all four on the floor" rule. Actively ignore him unless he has all four feet on the ground. For dogs barking for attention, give tons of it for something that he naturally does quietly such as bringing a toy over to you or even just making eye contact (great for increasing focus as well). My human nephew learned from an early age that kindness and consideration goes a long way with me when we're in a store together. I've always rewarded him for being considerate and polite in those situations and as a result, have never had a problem. 

So, if you have a dog who has found a clever yet obnoxious method to get his way make sure to follow these steps:
  1. Identify what your dog actually wants, keeping in mind that it could be something you, as a human, perceive as undesirable.
  2. Never allow your dog to have the object (or action) of his desire if he is exhibiting undesirable behavior.
  3. Teach your dog an acceptable way to acquire what he wants.
Remember to be consistent and calm and you'll be surprised how quickly these rules can turn things around once you get past the initial extinction burst. Also, make sure everyone else in your household is on the same page so that no one is inadvertently undoing your training.

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