Self-Reinforcing Behaviors: What They Are and What You Can Do About Them
In positive reinforcement training, we talk a lot about how behaviors are reinforced, or strengthened, and how we can teach incompatible behaviors and reinforce them when problem behaviors arise. But what happens when a dog is getting reinforcement for problem behaviors internally? Do some behaviors happen because it feels good to the dog to do them, regardless of reinforcement available for incompatible behaviors? The answer, unfortunately, is yes! However, in my opinion, it's rare to find a behavior that is ONLY self-reinforcing, and therefore the vast majority of behaviors we see can be reduced or eliminated through a combination of positive reinforcement, management and enrichment.
Some behaviors do occur because they provide the dog with some kind of relief: that could be relief from frustration, anxiety, or natural urges such as the urge to lick, chew, dig, bark, whine, etc. There is some debate within the dog training world as to which behaviors should be considered self-reinforcing. For example, some list counter surfing or chewing on shoes or furniture as self-reinforcing. I personally would not include those behaviors, because if owners are doing a good job of making sure food is not left within reach of dogs, the urge to investigate counters and potentially steal food off them will go away if the dog is never successful at getting anything. Likewise with shoes, children’s toys, or any other items that puppies might like to chew on. It can be a little more challenging to prevent chewing on large pieces of furniture, but if your puppy goes in his indoor play pen with a long lasting treat (like a Kong filled with frozen canned dog food) when you cannot directly supervise him, he will not have access to that furniture.
What about barking, which is often cited as the classic example of a self-reinforcing behavior? Is barking a behavior that is 100% reinforced internally, and over which we have no control? I think we have to be careful in lumping barking into one behavior that is self-reinforcing. Barking occurs for a variety of reasons, and there are plenty of instances where the dog does get externally reinforced for barking. Whenever someone reacts to barking by looking at the dog, telling the dog to stop, etc., the dog is getting reinforcement (attention). So the dog learns to bark for attention. However, typically dogs that bark for attention are dogs that are not getting enough mental and physical enrichment (not getting their basic needs met). The basic urge to relieve boredom causes the dog to bark in the first place, and then the attention it gets from people (whether good attention or bad attention) reinforces it, as well as the relief from boredom. Likewise, dogs that are over excited greeters begin this cycle by wanting to engage with people on a face-to-face level (a natural urge to fulfill a social interaction), but when people respond by pushing the dog away, or scolding the dog, etc., the behavior is reinforced by the attention and the physical contact.
In this video, a five month old puppy engages in attention seeking barking. His mom had recently moved and also experienced the death of a parent. She was trying to provide him with all the enrichment a young puppy needs, but realized that her grief had changed her routines when it came to her pets, and they were probably acting out a bit because of it. Things that happen in life always compete with pet care, but sometimes we don't realize that it's our own behavior or change in routines that is causing a change in their behavior.
Licking, digging, and sniffing could all be considered self-reinforcing behaviors to some extent, but again, restricting the opportunity to do so is possible. For example, if your dog has a habit of crotch sniffing, you have options: you can click and treat your dog before they get close enough to do so, you can put your hands in front of the area, blocking your dog’s access (and ask visitors to do the same), or you can keep your dog on leash when visitors come in, or a combination of all of those! The same goes with digging: pay attention to your dog when he’s out in the yard, and reward him when he doesn’t dig, put wire down where he likes to dig, and make sure he’s getting all his needs met with mental and physical enrichment. If your dog sniffs people excessively, or stops to sniff every few feet on a walk, click and treat your dog when he’s not sniffing people, teach a hand target you can use to re-direct him when he’s sniffing too much, walk your dog a couple of feet away from grassy areas, if possible (being sure to build times in to each walk where you allow your dog to sniff for several minutes, releasing those natural urges. Sniffing is a natural behavior that your dog has a right to engage in at least some of the time!) If your dog licks himself excessively, he may have an allergy or other skin condition. Get him checked out at the vet to rule out any skin disorders, and use mental and physical enrichment to keep him busy, so he doesn’t have as much opportunity to engage in the self-reinforcing cycle of licking.
There is one particular kind of barking that comes to mind that can be driven exclusively by internal reinforcement, and that is reactive barking. Reactive barking is barking that happens when a dog sees or hears certain triggers, such as unfamiliar dogs or people in public, and is driven by underlying anxiety, fear, or frustration. Dogs that have very established patterns of reactive barking get so over threshold that they are totally oblivious to anything the owner is doing, and in those moments, they cannot receive any reinforcement from the owner. I would certainly categorize reactive barking as one behavior that is self-reinforcing at times. The good news is that even with this behavior, the moments when the behavior is the most self-reinforcing can be minimized by avoiding areas where there isn’t sufficient space to keep a good distance between your dog and its triggers. Couple this type of management of the dog’s environment with a sound program of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, so the dog learns to have a positive association with its triggers, and you can certainly reduce or even eliminate this behavior.
To summarize, there are few (if any) dog behaviors that are 100% self-reinforcing. There is almost always a component of external reinforcement that you have some control over. Identifying exactly where and how the dog is getting that reinforcement is the key to removing it, and to identifying incompatible behaviors you can reinforce to compete with that pesky self-reinforcing behavior. This requires careful observation of your dog when those behaviors occur. Consulting with a qualified and ethical professional dog trainer can assist you in sorting this out. And when in doubt, fall back on wearing your dog out with quality mental and physical enrichment, because a tired dog is a well behaved dog!
Leannah Fulmer, CPDT-KA