Turning "No" Into "Do": Reducing Unwanted Behaviors Using Positive Reinforcement

Let’s say you’ve just arrived for your first day at a new job. You walk into your new office, where you find a computer on a desk. “Oh, I know what to do with that,” you think, and push the space bar to wake up the screen.

Your new boss strides into the office, looking angry. “No!” he shouts.

What exactly didn’t he like? Should you never press the space bar again? Was this just the wrong time to press it? Does he not want you working on the computer at all?

How do you feel about your new boss?

And what do you do now?

Dogs encounter this scenario pretty much every day. They do things that come naturally to dogs, like chewing on stuff, eating stuff, peeing on stuff, barking at stuff, or chasing stuff. And when we catch them in the act, as often as not, our response is to yell “no!”

While this sometimes interrupts the behavior, it probably won't prevent it from recurring again in the future. And if the dog finds the interruption scary, he may begin to hide the behavior from you in dismaying ways–say, only peeing behind the couch, or only chewing things if nobody is looking.

Behavior science tells us that the best way to reduce unwanted behavior is to replace it, not suppress it. In other words, once you’ve figured out what’s reinforcing your dog’s behavior, you’ll want to teach him a more acceptable way to get it—or if that’s inadvisable, something he likes equally well.

Note: I say reduce unwanted behavior, not eliminate, because once an animal forms a habit, it can’t be magically erased. It can, however, be overridden by a new habit. (For a fascinating long-form read on the subject, pick up The Power of Habit by New York Times science writer Charles Duhigg. Here’s an excerpt describing how he tackled his own habit of buying a cookie every afternoon.)

The main components of a plan to change behavior are:

1) PREVENT THE BEHAVIOR. The old adage “practice makes perfect” also applies to unwanted behavior. Another word for “perfect” behavior is habit—a routine that the brain doesn’t even have to actively think about any more.

Prevent habits before they form. If it’s too late for that, start by removing the dog from the circumstances that trigger those routines. Gates, crates, exercise pens, leashes, and visual barriers are tools you can use to set a dog up to do something you like better.

2) DON’T REINFORCE THE BEHAVIOR. If, despite your best efforts at management, the behavior happens, and you can control whether it “works” or not, try not to let it work. For instance, if your dog jumps on you for attention, and you don’t like that, don’t reinforce the jumping by giving him attention.

To a dog, who doesn’t speak your language, looking at him, laying hands on him, and saying “no” to him can all constitute attention.

Instead, try to respond as little as possible for 3-5 seconds. Maybe step aside to make it easier for the dog's feet to hit the floor. Watch for a behavior you like better, and then reinforce that, or give the dog a cue for an easy, acceptable behavior that you can reinforce with attention, treats, and/or play.

3) TEACH YOUR DOG WHAT TO DO. Using positive reinforcement, train a behavior that’s incompatible with the one you don’t like. The good news is that you may already be halfway there: the uses for simple behaviors like standing, looking at you, sitting, hand targeting, and settling on a mat are endless.

Once your dog is performing the new behavior quickly and enthusiastically in a number of benign settings, you can incrementally introduce it into the problematic context. You can even do it in such a way that those same circumstances begin to trigger the new behavior instead of the old one: e.g., the approach of a person becomes another cue to sit, or the sight of a squirrel becomes a cue to check in with the handler. The tougher the conditions, the more important the incremental part is.

The video above is just one example of replacing an unwanted behavior with a desirable one. Pablo, a 3-month-old doodle, had started to run into the entryway when his owners went out to answer the door. The outer door opened to the street, so we wanted him to stay in the apartment. Rather than punish him for running out, we taught him to go to a mat, with the door "ding" as the cue.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.