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Training Concepts #1: Neutral/No Consequence

Although some dog training concepts seem a bit technical and jargony, they can still be really helpful! I will try to break down a few of them so you can keep them in mind and use them as needed. First up:


“Neutral consequences tend to reduce frequency of behavior.”


What this means:


We all know that “good” consequences (treats, praise etc) tend to make behavior increase in frequency, which is why we use them so often! And “bad” consequences (time out, etc) tends to decrease unwanted behavior. But what happens if there is no consequence – the dog does a behavior, and nothing at all happens?


Many owners are terrified of this – “he’s getting away with it!” “I don’t want him to think that’s acceptable!” But in actual training terms, a truly neutral or no consequence tends to have the same consequence as a punishment in that the dog is less likely to do the behavior next time. It’s usually far better with much more lasting consequences to let the dog try something and see for itself that it won’t work – this way, the dog usually will not try again.


Dogs (and most other living creatures) will always expend the minimum effort required, so if a particular behavior or effort has no effect, the dog will not persist with the behavior. For example, if a dog arrives in a new home with a propensity for counter-surfing (jumping on the kitchen counters to get food.) Perhaps at his old house, this behavior was frequently rewarded because there was often food available to steal. But at this new house, there is never food on the kitchen counters, because the house is dog-proofed. The dog might jump up multiple times to check for food, but it will never find any. There is never a “reward” (found food) for the jumping up. Finally, the dog stops trying. The owner never had to interrupt the jumping up, provide time outs, reward for not jumping up, or do anything else. The behavior stopped because there was never a reward, so the dog gave up and stopped trying to do it.


This can, however, backfire if you think there is no reward to the dog for a particular behavior, but actually there is one. This happens all the time for boredom barking. The dog barks, and the owner thinks “I won’t reward that barking with my attention” and ignores the dog. This is all well and good and will work if the dog was truly barking for attention. But what if the dog was barking because it was bored, and the barking was fun? If that’s the case, then the barking is being rewarded by being fun, and the training plan to “ignore the barking” won’t work, and will actually make it worse! So be very careful with this concept, and make sure that the behavior you don’t want is not accidentally being rewarded. 


You should also keep this concept in mind as you wean the dog off rewards. Neutral consequences tend to reduce frequency of behavior, so if you repeatedly recall your dog off enticing distractions, and then ignore the correct behavior, you will likely make the dog begin to consider whether or not to even bother next time. So don’t “drill” (repeat over and over) behaviors without reward; bring rewards back if you are specifically practicing in a set-up training session, and when you are outside training sessions use commands only as you need them and reward with praise.


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