By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

At a seminar at For Your K9 in Melrose Park a couple weeks ago, British trainer Kay Laurence recommended that we rethink “sit” as the gold standard for a well-trained dog. When we ask a dog to place its hindquarters on the ground to prevent it from doing some other behavior, she argued, we are squeezing “positive” training into a traditional mindset. Making the dog sit for everything is every bit as antiquated as making the dog walk on your left because you carry your firearm on the right.

Don’t care what “mindset” your training is squeezed into, so long as it works? Well, Laurence is practical as well as dog-centric, and added that when we teach an unnatural behavior, it will require more maintenance (read: continued reinforcement by the trainer) over time. And for many dogs, in many situations, she argues, sitting is an unnatural response. It “goes against the grain.”

This section of her talk brought to mind the psychology paper “The Misbehavior of Organisms” by Keller and Marian Breland. The Brelands, graduate students of B.F. Skinner, had left academia in 1947 to pioneer the use of operant conditioning in commercial animal training, and by 1961, when they wrote this paper, they had trained some 6,000 animals across 38 species, including “such unlikely subjects as reindeer, cockatoos, raccoons, porpoises, and whales.” Their company, Animal Behavior Enterprises, would go on to train more than 15,000 animals representing more than 140 species for entertainment, corporate, and government purposes, as well as consulting with zoological institutions and amusement parks. Whatever you think about the use of animals for such purposes, it’s clear they knew how to teach animals to do behaviors.

In “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” though, the Brelands wrote about some situations they’d encountered where behaviors rooted in animals’ “food-getting” skills had gotten in the way of the ones they were trying to train. In my favorite example, a raccoon taught to drop coins in a bank had trouble letting go of them, especially with multiple coins:

“Not only could he not let go of the coins, but he spent seconds, even minutes, rubbing them together (in a most miserly fashion), and dipping them into the container.… The rubbing behavior became worse and worse as time went on, in spite of nonreinforcement.” Nonreinforcement from the trainers, that is—the raccoon no doubt got something out of it.

Nobody really needs a raccoon to understand how to save money, but deciding what we want the dog to do, instead of behavior x or y, is the core of problem solving in modern dog training. And if we keenly observe dogs—both in general and as individuals—as well as the behaviors they choose when they are allowed to choose, we sometimes find that there are better options than the standard “obedience” repertoire suggests. And by “better” I mean that they may both make the dog happier and require less maintenance on our part.

I just want to make very clear that I’m not talking here about some of the concepts often described in popular culture as “natural” dog behavior. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what dogs do “in the wild,” much of it derived from outdated study of wolves in captivity. In almost no case is it useful to attribute dog “misbehavior” to a quest for dominance or to pack behavior, especially when it pertains to relationships with humans. By and large, most things dogs need to learn in order to live with us successfully can be achieved by arranging the environment to minimize reinforcement for unwanted behavior while maximizing reinforcement for what we want.

What I’m talking about is thinking differently about what it is they need to learn.

The dog training community at large seems to be thinking about facilitating (or as Kay Laurence put it, “channeling”) vs. suppressing behavior lately. One recent, gorgeous example appeared last month on the blog Eileenanddogs, where Eileen Anderson wrote about “bootleg reinforcement,” or competing reinforcement that undermines training.

Bootleg reinforcement can range from a treat inadvertently dropped by the trainer to interesting odors wafting by on the wind to the relief of an empty bladder. For the Brelands’ raccoon, something about the sensation of rubbing two coins together apparently qualified.

Anderson was having a problem with a behavior she had reinforced in order to stop her dogs from doing something else: All three dogs had been taught to lie on their mats just outside her mudroom so that they wouldn’t all crowd into the small space near the back door. But one of them, Clara, kept getting off the mat in order to cross the threshold and sniff her.

Rather than punish Clara, which would damage the relationship she had carefully built with this formerly feral pup, or even trying to raise Clara’s pay for staying on her mat, Anderson observed what the reinforcer was for Clara’s unwanted behavior and decided to figure out an appropriate way she could give it to her.

“The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to ‘get on the mat for a cookie’ vs. ‘take a sniff and get some novel odor,’ would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations,” Anderson wrote. “And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

“So—what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal?” This wouldn’t do with “behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?”

And … hey, no spoilers here! Visit the blog post for a video of Eileen’s elegant, dog-centric solution.

Even at the Brelands’ Animal Behavior Enterprises, where training was strictly business, this approach paid off. In “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” they write about a popular exhibit in which a chicken would turn on music by pulling a loop, then step onto a platform to scratch “vigorously” (at the rate of about two scratches per second) for 15 seconds.

“The popular interpretation of this behavior pattern is that the chicken has turned on the ‘juke box’ and ‘dances,’” wrote the Brelands. But “the development of this behavioral exhibit was wholly unplanned. In the attempt to create quite another type of demonstration which required a chicken simply to stand on a platform for 12-15 seconds, we found that over 50% developed a very strong and pronounced scratch pattern, which tended to increase in persistence as the time interval was lengthened.… However, we were able to change our plans so as to make use of the scratch pattern, and the result was the ‘dancing chicken’ exhibit described above.”

The takeaway? Even the pros—and perhaps especially the pros—know when to go with the grain.