What's in it for me? New columnist offers advice based on the value your dog gets from behavior

CINCINNATI - We are pleased to introduce a new feature for pets and their families from Cincinnati's own Lisa Desatnik of So Much PETential.

I am so excited to be writing my first pet behavior column for WCPO. My goal is to provide you with clear, easy-to-understand information that will be helpful to you when it comes to setting yourself and your pet up for success.

I am a lifelong animal lover, having shared a home with so many animals from dogs to parrots to gerbils to a turtle and even a raccoon. And, up until about 14 years ago, I used to use the word "no" a lot. Don’t get me wrong. My pets knew that I loved them. They received plenty of affection, kind words, treats and play. But they also sometimes continued to do behaviors that I did not like or understand.

It was in my quest to find a better, more effective way to solve my own pet behavior problem that I discovered Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychologist at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of applied behavior analysis with the care and training of animals worldwide.

She taught me how to better understand the function of those problem behaviors, and how to solve them in the most positive, least intrusive ways. It was a real eye opener.

Seeing how that systematic approach has not only set myself and my pets up for success, but also strengthened our relationship, is the driving force behind my passion for educating and helping others achieve similar outcomes.

Through my columns, I will share information about behavior, learning and teaching.

"Getting" your pet

A common problem many people complain about is their dog’s super-excited greeting of visitors (and by super excited, I mean jumping, wagging his/her tail, possibly grabbing a hold of an arm in his/her mouth).

“I want him to stop jumping on people,” they will tell me.

If I ask what has been done to solve the problem in the past, some typical answers may include yelling at the dog, jerking the leash (if the dog is on leash), kneeing the dog, or "trying to ignore" the dog.

Let’s look at this a little more closely.

The first thing to understand is that behavior – any behavior – is simply a tool a living being uses to get a consequence.

Either the behavior moves an animal closer to something of value or serves to move the animal away from something aversive. In either case, if that behavior works to get a wanted consequence, then that behavior is going to continue or even strengthen. It is important to remember the animal is simply doing "what works."

Knowing this then, I ask:

  1. What is setting that behavior into motion to begin with? We call that an "antecedent."
  2. What is reinforcing that behavior? What is the immediate consequence to that behavior that is of value to the animal?
  3. It is the behaviors with strong reinforcement histories that are the ones animals will choose to do more of (if given a choice)?
  4. If a dog is continuing to jump on visitors, then we need to realize that the dog is getting something of value by doing that behavior.

Often times it is "trying to ignore’" that keeps a behavior maintained because it is that intermittent reinforcement that actually builds strong behaviors.

RELATED: Read more about intermittent reinforcement on my blog

Realizing certain behavior gets the dog something of value, simply trying to stop the behavior does not give him feedback to teach him what he can do instead to get that same value (or greater) of a consequence. Besides, punishment has so many negative ramifications. Next page: Changing behavior in three steps

I see behavior modification (in the most positive way) as a three-step process:

  1. Change the environment so as not to set the occasion for practice of the unwanted behavior to occur in the first place (practice builds confidence and fluency)
  2. Plan for modifying the consequences of the unwanted behavior if they do occur so as to not give that behavior value.
  3. Teach your pet that a different behavior can result in his/her getting the same amount or greater value of consequence as the behavior you do not want to see. In the case of jumping on visitors, there are so many options. You could teach your dog to sit at the door, to go to a mat or a crate, or to simply have all four paws on the floor as an example.

Teach that alternative behavior first separate from the greeting of visitors. Once your pet has value for that other behavior, then you can practice it with the greeting of visitors in a controlled environment where no value is given to jumping but lots of value is given for the wanted behavior.

More about Lisa Desatnik

Lisa Desatnik said she used "Look at me," training to remind her dog Sam what to do for this holiday photo shoot. 

Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. She is part of the leadership team for Dr. Friedman’s international companion parrot owner group teaching mini-lessons of applied behavior analysis.

Check out her blog and website. You can also connect with her via the So Much PETential Facebook Page, and follow her on Twitter and Google+.

MORE: New year, new pet? Local expert says reading doggy body language is the key to happy pooches, humans

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