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Part 1: Chris Bach's Problem Solving Checklist

By Chris Bach and The Third Way – The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training

In August, Chris discussed her theory on “the function and strategy of problem solving”. This month Chris answers two very important questions regarding problem behaviors with pets:

1) “What owner expectation is not being met?”

2) “What is the dog expected to do about it?”

PROBLEMS ARE A FACT OF LIFE. Dogs are dogs! People are people! There are going to be differences in approaches to living. Many times the way a dog approaches life is very different than what his owner had in mind! The truth is that DOGS ARE PERFECT AT BEING DOGS. And a DOG IS PERFECT ONLY AT BEING A DOG. Having a dog means that people may have to CHANGE what they are doing or thinking because a dog cannot! A dog’s response can be modified, but a dog cannot change into a different dog or into a furry little human being.

PROBLEMS ARE EASIER TO PREVENT THAN THEY ARE TO SOLVE.
Most problem responses are learned and rehearsed by the dog on a VOLUNTARY basis. Therefore they are HABITS. Habits are very difficult to overcome. It is much easier on the dog and for the owner not to let a bad habit develop in the first place! Good guidance, management and a good education will prevent problems.

TO SOLVE A PROBLEM A NEW RESPONSE MUST BE TAUGHT AS A REPLACEMENT. A replacement response must be taught and proofed in a venue other than the problem scenario. Doing this will prevent “blocking” and assure that the dog is in the proper emotional state to learn something new. The new behavior must be incompatible with the old in every way possible. The cue, the response, the fixation point, and the consequence all should differ with the problem response. Once the new response has been proofed, it can be used to replace the problematic response. It is important that the problem situation be “set up”. That way the owner can control the situation and stop or remove the dog if necessary. The new response is then cued BEFORE the problem response has the chance to occur. This scenario must be rehearsed many times before a problem can be considered “solved”.

A DOG CANNOT LEARN WHAT NOT TO DO. A DOG CAN ONLY LEARN WHAT TO DO.
Do not set up a problem-solving program with the intent of getting a dog NOT to do something. Such as, don’t try to solve a greeting problem by attempting to teach the dog NOT to jump up on people. What “not to do” is infinite. For example, the dog could misinterpret the interference to mean things like “don’t look at people”, “don’t greet people”, or “don’t approach people”. The list could go on and none of these concepts are what the dog was supposed to learn. What to do is finite and offers the opportunity for reinforcement. Reinforcing a correct response is the most powerful way to influence a dog’s behavior. For instance, teaching a dog to sit and make Eye Contact to solicit social contact is a finite concept. And the correct responses can easily be reinforced. This way the dog will know exactly what to do when greeting people.

A PERSON CANNOT AFFECT A DOG’S RESPONSE UNLESS THEY ARE ABLE TO AFFECT THE DOG’S “COMMITMENT POINT” FOR THAT RESPONSE. It is TOO LATE to influence a response once a dog has already responded. For example, shooing a puppy off the couch once he is on it will not succeed in teaching him to stay off the couch. It teaches him that he can hop on at will and then just wait until someone cues him to get off. To teach a pup that the couch is off limits, he must be stopped when he is committing to approaching the couch. This can easily be done if he is wearing a “floor cord” and his Guide (owner) is supervising his every move.

GIVE THOUGHT TO THE CAUSES AND SOLUTIONS TO A PROBLEM BEFORE TAKING ACTION. NO ACTION IS BETTER THAN THE WRONG ACTION. The very behavior that is undesirable one moment may be an absolute necessity the next moment or under different circumstances. For example, sniffing may not be appropriate when a dog is on a sit/maintain. But when the dog is released and taken outside to relieve himself, sniffing will be a necessary prelude to eliminating. If the dog is afraid to sniff when on leash, getting his business done will be delayed.

Considering the future consequences of your actions is as important as controlling the consequences of your dog’s actions.

(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002. All rights reserved.