It is Unwise to Say, “Just Ignore the Problem Behavior!”

Ignoring a problem behavior is just one part of the equation; at the same time, an incompatible or alternative behavior must be reinforced

Ignoring a problem behavior is just one part of the equation; at the same time, an incompatible or alternative behavior must be reinforced (c) CanStock Photo/websubstance

By Niki Tudge

Last week, while perusing my Facebook news feed while I drank my morning coffee, I came across a link to a blog advocating for force-free dog training methods.  This short blog had a video link which was showing a dog trainer punishing a dog for a problematic behavior. In summary, the positive reinforcement trainer was quoted as saying “encouraging the behaviors we want and ignoring behaviors we don’t, is the correct and positive way to train your pup without using physical force”.

I always try to read blogs and articles from a dog owner perspective. A perspective that probably has little, if any, knowledge of learning theory or the principles we base our dog training on. If I were a dog owner and I read the aforementioned blog I would wonder, do I ignore my dog’s jumping, snapping, growling and pulling?  How is that going to work? What am I actually accomplishing? I would think that I would be doing less to help train my dog than I am doing by “correcting” them. Why would these ‘force-free’ methods be more effective than the methods I am currently using?

I think many of us say to our clients “encourage the behaviors we want and ignore behaviors we don’t” as shorthand for the full rationale and reasoning behind why we should not punish our dogs. However, I think we risk doing a disservice to our own credibility and our positive reinforcement based training methods and protocols by using this shorthand approach. How many of us actually expect or want our clients to ignore inappropriate behavior? We know that in many situations this is just not possible and therefore the client is inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. Or a worst-case scenario can be that a behavior that used to work for the dog in terms of accessing a reinforcer now no longer works and this creates frustration that can lead to a similar behavior with more intensity or a prolonged and more intense version of the same behavior.

With a recent client I visited, who had a young dog that was jumping very intensely, was now at the peak of its jumping and nipping at clothes and long hair. The owner said, “he just used to jump and we were advised by a trainer not to correct him any longer, just ignore the behavior”.  From the result of this ‘shorthand’ understanding it was clear the owner needed further explanation and some tools to deal with this behavior.  So let’s not take short cuts in our communication. Yes, with a problematic behavior we want to remove the reinforcement contingency but we also need to redirect or reinforce an incompatible or alternative behavior while we put the problematic behavior on extinction. Our methods are credible, effective and empowering. Let’s be the same in our client communication so they truly understand the rules of the game and we don’t dilute the power of our methods by giving our clients only half the story.

About the Author

Niki Tudge PCBC-A AABP-CDBT AAPB – CDT is founder and president of the Pet Professional Guild, www.petprofessionalguild.com, The DogSmith, www.dogsmith.com, a national dog training and pet-care license, and DogNostics Career College, www.dognosticselearning.com, and president of Doggone Safe, www.doggonesafe.com. She has business degrees from Oxford Brookes University, UK and has achieved her DipABT and DipCBST. Recently, she has published People Training Skills for Pet Professionals – Your essential guide to engaging, educating and empowering your human clients.

Niki@petprofessionalguild.com'

About Niki Tudge

Niki is the Founder & President of The Pet Professional Guild. Niki is also the founder of DogNostics Career College and The DogSmith a national licensing company for dog training and pet care company
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2 Responses to It is Unwise to Say, “Just Ignore the Problem Behavior!”

  1. anne.mcwilliam@ahlstrom-munksjo.com' Anne says:

    I totally agree. I am one of the confused dog owners who is trying to help my dog, Kizzie. Since I was so confused about how to help (after consulting a “professional”) I came up with my own method. Probably all wrong but I had to do something… I give her a treat and lots of praise if she sees another dog and does not lunge or bark. I know she is fearful and so my rationale is to give her a connection between an experience that is negative with a positive one.

  2. As a pet owner, I’ve been told before to “ignore his bad behavior” when what was really meant was “stop rewarding his bad behavior.” There is a vast difference between these two approaches, but if a dog trainer isn’t explaining the difference to the pet owner, he is perpetuating the problem. Using “shorthand” is fine when two trainers are discussing techniques, but that same shorthand becomes dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced pet owner. Professionals should always explain, explain, explain to their clients to ensure there aren’t misunderstandings!

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