I’m getting ready to discuss one of the most common reasons why undesired behaviors continue to exist. Yes, this even happens with some of the animals I train and consult with in changing behavior. Ready? Intermittent Schedules of Reinforcement. “So what does that mean?” you may ask. Let me explain.
There are several words I won’t use around here and two are ‘bad behavior’. What does bad mean or look like? It might not be ‘bad’ for the animal. It could mean ‘fun’ for the animal. What I may consider bad, another may consider fine. It is for this same reason why I will not use the words ‘good behavior’. Instead I use the words ‘desired or undesired behavior’. It is desired or undesired by me. It obviously serves a purpose for the animal but I may not want it to exist. If I don’t want it to exist, I want to find out what purpose it is serving for the animal. Once I discover that through a series of elimination and observation, it is easier for me teach the animal an alternate behavior that delivers the same consequence or purpose for the animal.
If the dog digs, why is it digging? For its own enjoyment? This is a common behavior issue. Many people don’t like their yard littered with holes. What else is there for the dog to do in the yard? If there is no other way for the dog to have fun, why wouldn’t it dig? Is digging a bad behavior? It is often labeled as ‘bad’ because it is undesirable by us or an inconvenient to us.
What does the dog like to do that is an acceptable behavior for you? If it doesn’t have one, you can teach it one. One idea would be to teach it to forage for its food. Foraging is working for its food. Foraging can be applied in many ways. Through toys is one way. Give your dog some toys. What? Your dog doesn’t like toys? Think again. Your dog may just not like the toys you are giving to him or her. The value of the toy is always decided by the animal, not us. Our role is to identify these levels of interest in toys. I have a digger in my household. I also have two barkers. Both behaviors are undesirable by me, in most circumstances. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to let them out in the yard. I’m going to find what purpose those behaviors are serving and then redirect the behavior so it has a desirable purpose for me and for the dog. Teamwork! We both share this household. I want to make it pleasurable for both of us to live here.
Another common example would be the instance of the screaming parrot. Why is the parrot screaming? What purpose does it serve? Frustration? Wanting attention? Lack of enrichment, as stated in the example above? Is that behavior bad? I know it’s probably undesirable for the people living in the house. It may be frustrating for the bird as well if he can’t communicate the concerns or needs. If attention is the reason the bird is screaming, find another behavior, such as whistling that the bird already knows how to do. Then reinforce the whistle with attention. In the beginning it is most effective if the alternate behavior is reinforced 100% of the time. This is also known as a Continued Schedule of Reinforcement. The hard part is paying attention to when the alternate, desired behavior is given. I know, I see it happen all of the time.
In the beginning of the behavior modification plan, if you forget to reinforce the alternate behavior of whistling, the bird is likely to quickly revert back to the behavior that has a history of bringing reinforcement. This is also called Resurgence. As I stated above, the hardest part is paying attention to when the desired behavior is exhibited. If we miss that opportunity and the bird quickly reverts back to the scream, we’ve missed an opportunity. It is likely that the undesired behavior has to happen again for us to realize we’ve missed
that opportunity. If you then turn and tell the bird to be quiet, then you have just reinforced the scream, communicating to the bird that the scream does bring desired consequences. This is why the behavior exists in the first place. The behavior serves a purpose.
When a desired or undesired behavior is reinforced once in a while, this is what is called an Intermittent Schedule of Reinforcement. Here is an example of both instances above. Each time you’ve let your dog in the yard, you have also provided it a couple of foraging toys and interactive toys you’ve already identified that it enjoys engaging with. The next day your kids come home from school and let the dog out without the toys. The dog looks around for the toys. They aren’t there and it starts to dig. The digging is reinforced once in a while. This will keep the behavior of digging very strong.
You’ve being reinforcing your parrot’s whistle every time the behavior has happened by walking into the same room and whistling back. You go visit your parents for the day on Saturday and your bird keeps whistling for interaction. Your spouse doesn’t pay attention to this desired behavior. The parrot reverts to what has worked in the past and begins screaming. After about ten minutes of screaming your spouse runs into the room with the parrot yelling that they can’t take it anymore. This may have conveyed to your parrot “Ah, I now need to scream for ten minutes to get attention.”
Intermittent Schedules of Reinforcement can keep desired and undesired behaviors very strong. Don’t forget, these Laws of Behavior work on more than the animals we consider pets. It works on children and spouses as well. There are a few approaches I will use in modifying a behavior issue with the animal. I often have to share and inform the people in the house as to why I am doing what I am doing and why. If they want peace and a beautiful backyard, they will likely participate. When I consult on-line with a client about a behavior issue, I try to get the whole family to attend if I can. I will use positive reinforcement with the children and the spouses during the consultation. When I can get the family to work as a team and identify the alternate behavior, the reinforcer, and any intermittent schedules of reinforcement, that is when I know this behavior modification plan is likely to be very successful. In almost all of my consultations I will explain to the person(s) I am consulting with “These are the situations in which to look for. Listen, your parrot just whistled. Hey, did your dog just walk up for interaction?”
If you are looking for help or suggestions with a behavior concern, identifying why a behavior exists, or providing enrichment for the animals in your care, take a look at our list of services. We help many people and their animals on-line in countries all over the world. If you have questions on our services or which is best for your behavior concern, feel free to contact me.