If you have been following this blog for the past two weeks, you know Jack, the black lab puppy who is owned by a retired couple. Jack is a trouble-maker for sure, but his behavior is still within normal limits for a puppy of his breed and age. This week, we are exploring the final part of the plan-teaching: reinforcing desirable behaviors and ignoring negative behaviors.

I read an excellent parenting book some time back called The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. Yes, my daughter is strong willed. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the…

Anyway, Dr. Kazdin proposes that parents should find the “positive opposite” of the behavior that they want to correct and then teach and reinforce that behavior instead of always focusing on punishment. I absolutely love that idea because that is what I recommend to clients all of the time. And that is what we are going to do with Jack.

The negative behavior is stealing and chewing the owners’ possessions. We have already set in place boundaries, reduced his ability to steal by closing off doors and picking up the house, taught him how to get attention, and increased the level of enrichment exponentially. Now, we have to find the positive opposites of stealing so that we can teach those to Jack.

Positive opposites of stealing:

  1. Give items back to your owner instead of running away.
  2. Choose your own things.

Teach Jack to give things back to his owners by teaching him to "drop it."

  1. Jack’s owner started by tossing a toy onto the floor right in front of him.
  2. When Jack picked it up, she immediately offered him a treat right at his nose. He opened his mouth to get the treat and she said “drop it,” praised him, and handed him the treat. Then she picked up the toy and tossed it again to repeat the entire sequence.
  3. They did this over the next week innumerable times. Finally, Jack would drop the item when he saw the owner’s hand coming toward him. They were ready for the next step.
  4. The owner set up the same situation as before, but when Jack picked up the item, she said “drop it” first and then reached for the toy. When Jack dropped the toy, she handed him a treat. This is where the real change occurs. Jack is learning to respond to the verbal cue instead of the sight of a treat in the owner’s hand.
  5. Over the next couple of days, the owner worked with Jack until he no longer needed the hand motion to respond to drop the toy.

Now, the owners have a way to get things from Jack when he picks them up.

Teach Jack to find his own things and pick them up.

  1. With Jack watching, the owner rubbed a treat on his favorite toy to make it smell good.
  2. Then, she hid it in plain sight.
  3. She then directed Jack to "find it."
  4. When he found the toy, he also got a treat.
  5. Over the next week or so, the owner made the finds more and more difficult, hiding more toys in harder to reach places — always rewarding Jack when he found the toy.

Finally, the owners had to stop reinforcing Jack for stealing or chewing their things. Whenever Jack would pick up something that he shouldn’t have, the owners were directed to simply ignore him. If they had to get the item from him, they could tell him to drop it. This way, Jack would never get to engage in a game of chase with his owners over their prized possessions.

A strange thing started to happen, Jack started to pick things up and bring them to his owners for a treat. My previous dog, Sweetie (aka the best Rottweiler of all time), used to do the same thing. I thought that a couple of slobbered socks brought to my lap was very cute so I never did anything about this behavior. However, Jack’s parents were a bit more stuck on cleanliness so I instructed them simply to NOT reward this behavior. Ignore it. It will go away.

So, that is the story of Jack. A normal, Labrador Retriever puppy who is highly energetic and whose parents are not. In the end, it all worked out.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Mmm tasty fish! by Mike Duigou / via Flickr