A word about house-training, natural reinforcement, and ice cream toppings.

When you feel the sensation telling you that your bladder or bowels are full, you go to the restroom to ‘relieve yourself’. That phrase is used because you are literally getting rid of (relieving yourself) of that sensation. That relief feels the same whether you’re using your own bathroom, or camping and have to pee or poop in the woods.

But what does this have to do with dogs, you say?

Everything!

Just like people, dogs feel a sensation when they relieve themselves. And, just like people, that relief is the same, whether they potty inside, or outside.

That sense of relief is a natural reinforcer (a reinforcer something that makes the previous behavior more likely to occur in the future). The behavior that is being reinforced is the act of emptying your bladder or bowels.

I know, I know, get to the point!

Ok, since in this instance, the reinforcer feels good, we’re going to call ‘it’ (that feeling of relief) a plain scoop of ice cream. (Almost)Everybody likes ice cream right?

So, disregarding the eww factor of humans relieving themselves in random places, let’s apply this to humans first. If you ‘get’ a scoop of ice cream every time you empty your bladder, no matter where you are, there’s no bigger payout for walking to the designated bathroom, so why bother? If, on the other hand, using the actual toilet gave you the ice cream AND hot fudge, your payout is bigger, more incentive to make that extra effort. You’d be more likely to make that trek to the bathroom.

You see where I’m going with this?

Yes, you could argue that people are different than dogs because they understand that if they pee or poop in the middle of a store, other people are going to see them, make fun of them, and it’s very unsanitary. And that’s exactly why we have to communicate in a way they understand. They don’t have that reasoning ability (and don’t care what other dogs think of them). They learn by consequences. Reinforcers are consequences.

Now to apply this to dogs:

For dogs, we’ll call the ‘relief’ a dry biscuit because I know someone will point out that dogs shouldn’t eat ice cream and hot fudge. Every time they pee, they ‘get’ a dry biscuit. They pee in the house, that’s a biscuit. They pee outside, that’s a biscuit. If they’re getting the same biscuit, why would they go all the way outside to pee? We have to add to that biscuit to make pottying outside more valuable than pottying inside. We can do this by giving a biscuit AND a game of tug, or fetch, or a nice walk where they can sniff to their heart’s content. Anything the dog enjoys. We can even go a step further: If going potty outside in the middle of the yard earns them a biscuit and game of tug, but going potty, outside, in one designated spot (so it’s easier to clean the yard), gets them a biscuit, game of tug, AND a piece of steak, then they’re likely to potty in that spot again because it had the biggest return on investment.

So, to sum it up, if you prefer that your dog pees and poops outside, add value to the behavior!

Of course reinforcement and higher payouts can be applied to other behaviors.

The reinforcer/payout (consequences) influences future behaviors.

If chewing the table leg gets them relief from teething, and chewing their soft squeaky toy doesn’t, they’re going to chew the table leg.

If sniffing the kitchen floor earned them just a couple stray crumbs, but surfing the counters earned them a loaf of bread, the counters will get more attention next time.

If pulling on the leash stops mom/dad from moving forward, but coming closer to mom/dad makes them move toward that awesome fire hydrant, they’re more likely to stay close to mom/dad in the future.

The key is to tip the scales in the direction you prefer. Be proactive. Set them up for success.

If you don’t want counter surfing, keep the floor interesting (enrichment toys, hidden dog treats, etc.), and the counters boring (supervise kitchen time, or put food away until you’ve taught your dog that the floors are more valuable).

If you don’t want them chewing your table, supervise and direct them to an approved chew toy, preferably before they even start chewing that table leg.

If your dog does something you don’t want, decide on the behavior you do want, and make it more rewarding than the undesirable behavior.

I hope this post brings you some relief from your dog’s unwanted behaviors!