It’s Too Late, Baby, Now It’s Too Late (Dealing with Self-Reinforcing Behaviors)

Behavior is a product of consequence. Whether the behavior in question is desirable or undesirable, one of the first questions a trainer will ask is,...


Behavior is a product of consequence. Whether the behavior in question is desirable or undesirable, one of the first questions a trainer will ask is, “What is maintaining this behavior?” Many of the behaviors that people don’t like to see in their dogs are often reinforced inadvertently by the environment or the handler – pulling on walks, jumping to greet people, begging for food or attention, blowing off recall cues, resource guarding, barking to get out of the crate, etc.

Another category of behaviors that clients often seek professional assistance in modifying are what are termed as “self reinforcing” behaviors. These are behaviors which dogs do because they just like to do them, they’re fun. The list of self-reinforcing behaviors is quite long and varies widely according to individual and species. A few self-reinforcing behaviors include:

  • counter-surfing
  • inappropriate elimination, including marking, submissive urination, or excitement urination (soiling inside the house or crate)
  • digging
  • certain categories of barking
  • for some dogs, fighting
  • chasing prey
  • nipping
  • chewing
  • dissecting
  • mounting/”humping”

Many more common behaviors which are often self-reinforcing in dogs are listed here, in The Myth of “Normal” Dogs.

With unwanted behaviors which are maintained by reinforcement from the environment or the handler, a trainer may recommend teaching an alternative, incompatible behavior, reinforcing the absence of the undesirable behavior, or putting the unwanted behavior into extinction (the last technique generally works best for “demand behaviors”). These techniques may not work as well for the self-reinforcing behaviors – the tactics we use to address these generally include management, redirection to appropriate, alternative outlets for the behavior, and putting the behavior on cue and bringing it under stimulus control. Many of these self-reinforcing behaviors can even be used to reinforce desirable behaviors through the application of the Premack Principle, which asserts that high probability behavior (humping/dissecting/chasing prey/etc.) can be used to reinforce low probability behavior (sit/down/focus/etc.).

Perhaps the single most important aspect of dealing with self-reinforcing behaviors is preventing the dog from having the opportunity to engage in the behavior at all. An ounce of prevention, in these instances, is truly better than a pound of cure. Ignoring self-reinforcing behaviors will not work – the dog already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding. Every time they are allowed to engage in the behavior, they are being reinforced.

If your dog is a counter-surfer and already has all four paws on your kitchen table and has eaten half of a cherry pie (TRUE STORY! This happened to a friend of mine and the dog in question was an 180 lb adult male Saint Bernard – pink, chunky slobber flying everywhere), it is too late to teach your dog to stay off the table, because he’s already learned that getting on the table is TA (Totally Awesome, as fellow fans of “A Very Potter Musical” will know). You can punish him, reinforce him, whatever, and it will not likely change the frequency of the behavior.

If your puppy is nipping and has already been dragged through four rooms and two floors of your house, teeth firmly implanted in your pant leg, it is too late to punish or reinforce anything – the dog has already learned, at least in this session, that your pant leg is a fun, delicious, and exciting tug toy (TA). If your dog is running around the house with your 50 dollar panties hanging out of his mouth, the teaching opportunity has been missed (Panties = TA). If your dog is swallowing someone’s pinky finger, it is too late to teach “no bite,” (Phalanges = TA). If your dog has already consumed and left a yard deposit containing the squirrel she chased and ate earlier, it is too late to teach her not to chase, kill, and consume squirrels (squirrel chasing, biting, eating, pooping out = TA).

Preventing the dog from ever engaging in these self-reinforcing behaviors is no small task. It may involve keeping your counters clean of all edibles at all times during the training stages, and may always involve some level of lifetime management (gates, crates, etc.) when you are unable to supervise your dog. A single slip up may leave you back at square one, which actually happened to me before. My angel Saint, Monte, was a notorious counter surfer. We’d made great progress on the behavior through training and management. One day I had friends coming over for dinner – vegetarian chili and home-made cornbread. The cornbread was cooling in the oven with the door cracked. I quickly ran upstairs to grab a shower before our guests arrived. My hair was covered in shampoo, and I heard an awful clattering sound – the sound of a bread pan crashing on the floor, followed by the thunderous sound of my heart breaking, my cornbread was all over the place, I just knew it. Before I could even throw on my bathrobe, the entire pan had been consumed.

I’d thought I was safe. The loaf was in the oven, which Monte had never opened before. Master of invention that he was, it didn’t take him long to figure out that grabbing the hand towel on the handle would allow him to easily open the oven and empty it of its delicious (and forbidden, I do not feed my dogs corn!) contents. All it took was this one time, after months of successes, for us to be back at square one – we had returned to sniffing the counters, and now added the oven to the “List of Places to Potentially Find Free Food” (LPtPFFF).

If your dog is in the middle of enjoying the heck out of a forbidden yet self-reinforcing behavior, any teaching opportunity you may have had has long since passed. It is too late for prevention, training, or management. All you are left with is damage control – immediately getting the dog out of the environment. You can use a “positive interrupter” to interrupt and redirect the dog, but you will likely have to return to kindergarten and reimplement strict management protocols and go back to basics with your training/redirection plan. Here’s a nice video from friend, colleague, and Youtube superstar Emily Larlham (“Kikopup”) on “How to Stop Unwanted Behavior: The Positive Interrupter.”

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