Dog on the Couch

2016-08-11 06:00

Hi Susan, Surely my dog should do what I want him to do because he loves me, not because I bribe him?


Hi Tanya, I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Our brains have a natural reward centre, which is a survival mechanism. Habits and behaviours are learnt and remembered if they are rewarded, or avoided if not. You might have observed that monkeys and birds, for example, will frequent a place with food, and bypass a barren area.

Many wild animals are now so successfully taught using positive reward-based methods that they willingly accept medication and veterinary attention. Training involves linking a behaviour to a reward, repeated again and again in order to make the behaviour a positive memory, and then gradually phasing out the reward. Additionally, the reward centre releases feel-good chemicals when activated in such a way.

You cannot expect a child to do something unpleasant such as tedious homework or chores just because he or she loves you. But you can expect your child to get into the right habits if completion of the homework is rewarded with reasonable time to watch a television programme or go out and play with friends. Treats or sweets offered by vets and doctors, respectively, have the purpose of making the positive experience more rewarding in order to counter the negative treatment such as an injection. Of course this is a method of establishing a desired behaviour pattern.

Most humans work for a financial reward and this is what gets people through the drudge of working life. If people didn’t benefit in any way, how many people would carry on working? Only those who have a very strong dedication to a cause that they find important will work for no financial gain, but unfortunately not many have sufficient love of work for its own sake.

Once your dog learns a behaviour, sporadic reinforcing should be sufficient to maintain it. If you require something of a dog when he happens to be enjoying running around madly or enjoying some other pleasurable activity, you have to make it more worthwhile for him to come to you, by offering an even better option. This is not bribing. It is conditioning a required response.

Rewards are what motivate people and animals to keep on trying and learning.

Thank you for an interesting question.

- Susan Henderson© (accredited animal behaviourist)

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