Expensive behaviors in dogs (or, I’ll give you up to $10,000 for your seat).

The world watched in disbelief on social media the video of a man being dragged off a flight when he refused to surrender his seat once being boarded on a flight home. The injuries he sustained were quite salient and the uproar that the event caused has given way to some airlines now offering up to $10,000 for volunteers to surrender their seat as a result of an over booked flight.
Would you have given your seat (and all the charade that comes with this) for $200? $500? …
You see, this is exactly why this (unlucky) passenger was not willing to give up his seat for what he considered a meager return for the inconvenience and the disruption this would cause to his life. In other words, the disruption to this passenger was seen as an “expensive” behavior. One that would require a reward to match it. The paltry offer from the airline was frankly not worth considering.
The same happens with our dogs. Their world also revolves around easy behavior and “expensive” behaviors. Another way of framing this very important fact of behavior and reinforcement is the typical saying of: “the punishment must fit the crime.” Same idea, but here we are focusing on the reinforcement (the reward). What do I get for doing “x”?
As the airline painfully learned, surrendering one’s seat is a VERY expensive behavior for most of us.
Dogs – and for that matter, all living beings formulated this same exchange: How much are you willing to give me for doing “that” or… WHY should I? This is what we would hear coming out of our dog’s mouths if they could speak our language. As I have explained in past blogs, dogs do what works for them. Period. This is by far not morally corrupt – it is just wired in their DNA, just like it is wired in ours.

 

 

One of the best kept secrets of influencing our dog’s behavior is to understand what behaviors are expensive to our dogs and which are more easily accomplished with less need for a reinforcement or a reinforcement of lesser value. The value of course, is always in the eyes of the beholder.
To cite a typical example: You want your dog to come to you, a VERY expensive behavior for most dogs, most of the time. Think about this: Here is your dog engaged in a doggy activity that fills his soul with purpose and happiness and now, and he has to come to you. If coming to you is achieved because you are insisting, cajoling or in some (other) way presenting an aversive to your pup as he reaches you, you, inadvertently just made the behavior of coming to you when called even more expensive for your dog.
We should be smarter, more generous and fair with our dogs, people. It behooves us to begin to acknowledge that we must pay for behaviors in relation to how expensive the behavior is for our dog. Here is a list of behaviors that are typically expensive for dogs:

1. Coming when called (stop engaging with what interests your dog at the moment you called him)
2. “Leave it” – Which strictly speaking is not a “behavior” as we are not really asking the dog to do something in particular but instead, asking him to stop engaging with something. However, as misconstrued as this is, having our dog disengage from the trash on the ground, another dog’s poop, your kid’s toy etc. is really something we all expect and desperately want our dogs to do.
3.  Not eating stuff that is within their reach on the kitchen counter or items related to food such as the plastic bag where we kept the cheese, hors d’oeuvre placed in the coffee table just before the guests arrive.
4.  Abandoning play with other dogs
5. Getting up from napping
6. Stopping on their tracks instead of chasing after prey or even the scent of prey.
7. Stop alerting – mainly by barking, at the front door or window when someone is at the door.
8. Abandoning a coveted resource such as a bone, toy etc.
9. Not chasing cars, cats, bikes, kids or runners- in short anything that moves!

The list my friends, goes on and on. Most of the behaviors above are hard for all dogs to perform. And they are particular behaviors that your dog might find to be really expensive but my dog will not.
The lesson here, (as the airlines have learned) is to first expect to pay when we make a request. We all want to be paid with stuff that is meaningful for us. Our dogs are no exception. Make it worth their while.
Second point, pay in relation to how difficult it is to execute the behavior. Consider also that they are all kinds of circumstances that make easy behaviors harder to execute.
For example: Your dog easily relinquishes to you a coveted resource, but now there is another dog in his proximity and your dog is not so keen on letting go of his precious resources because the other dog might snatch it away.
Remember: behavior never happens in a vacuum so we must be painfully aware of the circumstance in which we expect our dog to perform or “obey” – a concept that makes me cringe.
If we learn to pair handsome reinforcers for expensive behaviors suddenly we noticed that our pup is more able to comply with our ever demanding and never-ending requests. Paying appropriately produces great outcomes, because both parties are getting something they really want.
As you learn to be more generous with your dog and your dog is more successful in coming to you— to cite an example, the more you will see the behavior take place. What an amazing bonus for being fair and savvy!
And yes, in case you are wondering… ANY behavior that we want to see in our dogs (or children or spouse) must be reinforced in some way. When behavior is not reinforced it goes into extinction.
An interesting concept beyond the value of the reinforcer needed, is the frequency at which the reinforcer needs to be doled out in order to keep behavior strong and fluent.
Recap: here is your recipe for success:
1. Ask yourself: how “expensive” is the behavior I am asking for my dog? 2. What would make it worthwhile for him?
3. Rinse and repeat many, many, many times…
4. Witness your dog blossoming because you have become a generous and fair partner.