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Momentum in Behaviour Modification and Training

As most people know, we run many Behaviour Consults and Training Lessons both here at Kurrajong NSW, all over Australia and we also run Distance Learning Packages (correspondence courses) on various disciplines and this article is to cover the importance of momentum or continuous forward movement in training.

First to understand how change takes place in a dog, change toward better behaviour or worse behaviour is driven by Hedonic behaviour and that it is the driving force of all training and behaviour modification. Hedonic behaviour is the default principle that Hedonists (that’s us and our dogs) operate on. Hedonist means pleasure seeking – pain avoiding.

With this in mind, we can see how training arguments from the various training camps, the positive only vs. the so called negative trainers stem from. When looking from a purely results based, non emotional or scientific basis, it becomes pretty evident that applying an aversive stimulus has no greater power than a positive stimulus, and vice versa, all things being equal.

For many years people have been trying to cure learned/known/habitual behaviours with the use of a positive stimulus (reward), this has proven difficult and or ineffective as most times the behaviour they are trying to prevent or stop is rewarding to the dog, in other words, just completing that behaviour is as rewarding as the positive stimulus being offered. In these cases, the only achievement is failure.

On that note, many people have used an aversive stimulus to stop unwanted behaviours and found success, and they have continued to apply that same theory to training everything. The end result is a dog that may do what is asked, but lacks motivation.

See my article here for some more information.

If we take a step back and look at this situation in terms of rewards and aversive to generate change, it becomes evident that having both options at your disposal is beneficial. Think of it from this point of view, if your dog is pulling on the leash, and each step he pulls he is getting closer to his goal, whatever that may be, pulling is rewarding.

But is the pulling getting worse? Usually unless the dog is getting bigger, no. The dog isn’t getting more and more motivated to pull harder, it just maintains the same level of enthusiasm. This is because the reward of pulling is still there, but it is not varying or changing, in fact it is the same. It falls into the category of an anticipated reward.

Anticipated or expected outcomes are not motivating, they are satisfying.

Outcomes that exceed our expectations are motivating (rewarding) and outcomes that fall below our expectations are de motivating (aversive).

Think about going into a restaurant and ordering a meal, the meal comes out in the time you expected, tastes average or as expected and costs what you expected. It may satisfy you but would you really recommend this place to others, will you ever be excited to go back and taste those average flavours?

How about if you went and sat down in the same place the following week, the management had changed and the meal was out in half the time, the taste was sensational and the price had dropped… How would you feel?

The week after that you go back and take some friends, who knows what has happened but they forgot your meal, you re order and it takes a ridiculous amount of time, of course the meal is horrible and they have upped the price…

The better and less than expected outcomes will drive you to an action, the first to tell others how good the experience was and the second to complain and tell others how bad it was. When the meals were average, you took no action…

How this applies to dog behaviour is that allowing an outcome that is as expected, will not have any effect on the dog, whether it is an as expected negative stimulus or an as expected positive stimulus, it won’t trigger a necessary component known as behaviour plasticity.

Behaviour plasticity is the de stabilising of a known behaviour, without behaviour plasticity, no new learning will take place. I have a saying that I often ask people to finish for me, it goes “practice makes ———-> permanent, not perfect”.

This refers to Hedonic behaviour that will mean that no behaviour change will occur without applying Hedonic pressure, a greater positive stimulus or a greater negative stimulus.

When I design programs and supply them to people, we need to continue to tune the programs because it won’t take long before the outcomes to a dogs behaviour begin to be predictable by the dog, this means that whether your supplying a negative or positive stimulus, if it becomes predicable it will begin to lose its effect.

People often refer to this in training as plateauing, in behaviour work it is often referring to as the dog is regressing. In reality momentum has stopped because Behaviour Plasticity is not being produced simply because your using the same strategy you were weeks ago.

We pester and push people here for updates an in many more serious cases we advise follow up consults and visits, the sole reason for this is to ensure that momentum if continued until the behaviour we need to see is permanent. A plateau is a good thing when it is under desirable behaviour.

When I see people want to take some months of training and try and restart, this commonly fails as when you restart, the same moves that started progress 6 months ago are now expected outcomes and the don’t have an effect on the dogs behaviour.

Plan to be able to spend the time it takes to reach your goals, if you’re working with us or another Behaviourist, communicate with them and encourage program tuning so you can keep momentum going.

If you are advised to attend a follow up, do so, in all cases it will be in your best interest, I have seen dogs start off very well in programs, the owners who had been asked to provide follow up and attend a follow up consult didn’t as they were happy with the initial results. Not long after things begin to spiral and the training had to be started all over again, this time the progress come with a lot of resistance from the dog who was waiting for the owners to give up yet again.

Do yourself a favour and keep momentum going, it will pay off in the long run…

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