Dr. Tynes welcomes behavior questions from veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
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Several of my clients have dogs that are on a weight loss program, and they seem to be compliant in following their individualized
feeding instructions. However, many clients tell me that their dogs beg for food all the time. How can I help my clients correct
or prevent this behavior in their dogs?
A. Begging is one of those problem behaviors that is easy to fix in theory but harder to fix in the real world since some important
laws of learning are at play. But clients can take steps to stop this behavior.
FACTORS AT PLAY
The first thing we all need to help our clients understand about their pets is that animals perform behaviors for specific
reasons. Animals tend to repeat behaviors that get rewarded and not repeat behaviors that are not rewarding in some way. This
information can be challenging to put to use if it is not clear to us why an animal finds a particular behavior, such as barking
or chasing cars, rewarding.
(Photo by Gregory Kindred)
However, it should be clear to everyone why begging is rewarding—it usually results in getting something delicious to eat!
Therefore, the instructions to the owner have to be, "Stop giving the dog food when it begs." If your clients are like mine,
they will say, "But Doc, we tried that, and it didn't work!" When pressed for further information, they will explain that
when they tried to ignore the begging and not give in, the pet simply became more persistent—maybe it began to whine or bark,
or maybe it just continued to sit and stare until the owner could no longer ignore those "beautiful brown eyes."
No matter what the cause, most people finally give in and give the dog some food. The dog has now learned that if it is just
persistent and does not give up, something delicious will be forthcoming. Two important aspects of learning psychology are
evident here: the power of intermittent reinforcement and the extinction burst.
Intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful forms of reinforcement there is. It can be an extremely useful tool
in dog training. When trying to teach an animal a new behavior, it is most effective to reward or reinforce every time the
animal displays the desired behavior (called continuous reinforcement). Once the animal has learned a behavior, if you want the behavior to become resistant to extinction, you should begin rewarding
intermittently. You are then acting like a slot machine; the dog continues to display the behavior because it never knows
when or if it will be rewarded for the behavior. With this method, the behavior becomes very firmly established.