Meredith Dempsey CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Your behavior is probably different in your favorite restaurant than it is while getting a cavity filled at the dentist. This is because environment drives human behavior; it does for dogs too. Humans and dogs are both constantly learning from feedback from their environment. Our brains are making rapid connections with how different sights, sounds and interactions make us feel. Does my phone ringing mean my friend is calling? Is that woman looking at me because she wants to talk to me? After we decide how we feel about something in our environment, we react with a behavior. I am going to answer my phone so I can talk to my friend. I am going to avert eye contact from the woman because I do not want to talk to her.
When clients reach out to us for training, they usually want to decrease undesirable behavior in their dog. I often reverse engineer the logic of environment driving behavior to provide the quickest solution. I also do this with dogs that I foster from Shelby Humane Society.
Rewards-based training relies heavily on setting the stage for desirable behavior. For example, say we want to train our dog to walk nicely on leash without pulling. We must be very intentional about how our training environment is set up to increase the chances of our dogs performing the behavior that we want so that we can reward them for it.
For dogs learning a brand-new skill, like no pulling on walks, a good training environment should have minimal levels of distraction. If a dog is pulling (undesirable behavior) when they pass other dogs 10 feet away (distraction in the environment) and we want to decrease the leash pulling, the quickest treatment for this behavior is to take the dog for a walk where there are not as many dogs (removing distraction in the environment). Through heavy reinforcement of the desired behavior (our dog walking loosely next to us), the dog will become more fluent at this new behavior, and we will gradually add more and more distractions to the training environment until it simulates the environment the undesirable behavior was first observed in (a crowded street). Except now, we have a dog that is no longer performing the undesirable behavior (pulling); rather, the dog is performing the reinforced desired behavior – an enjoyable walk!
Changing the environment is an easy, effective, and fast way to change your dog’s behavior for the better. It is magical to witness in the dogs I work with — my own dogs, my client’s dogs, and my beloved fosters from Shelby Humane!