How to encourage positive interactions between your child and dog via operant and classical conditioning
Operant conditioning is one of the most powerful techniques that can be used to shape the behaviour of children. Interestingly, this is also the method on which the Gentle Modern Method of Dog Training is based. When people come for private dog training, they often ask if we train children too!
Operant conditioning refers to the process of reinforcing a behaviour to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. A reinforcer is anything that is rewarding to the person who receives it. A reinforcer may be either positive or negative.
Positive reinforcement involves the presentation of something pleasant to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. For instance, if a child receives a gold star for neat writing, this increases the likelihood that the child will try hard to write neatly in future. In this example the behaviour is writing and the reinforcer is the gold star.
Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of something unpleasant to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. Negative reinforcement is rarely used to teach humans but is common in the type of dog training that utilises choker chains.
Negative reinforcement must be preceded with either a punishment or a threat of punishment. Punishment may also be positive or negative.
Positive punishment refers to the use of an unpleasant action that is designed to decrease the likelihood that an undesirable behaviour will occur e.g. smacking a child. In dog training, jerking a dog on the neck with a choker chain is a positive punishment designed to stop the dog pulling. When the dog stops pulling, the choker chain goes slack, removing the pain and pressure on the neck. This is negative reinforcement - it removes something unpleasant (pain) and thus increases the likelihood of walking without pulling in the future.
Negative punishment refers to the withdrawal of something desirable and is designed to decrease the likelihood that an undesirable behaviour will occur e.g. the withdrawal of T.V. privileges for children or the withdrawal of social attention for dogs.
Two types of reinforcement and two types of punishment
Reinforcement (positive or negative) increases the likelihood that a certain behaviour will occur in the future. Punishment (positive or negative) decreases the likelihood that a certain behaviour will occur in the future.
The terms positive and negative refer to whether your actions involve presenting something good (e.g. praise for children, food for a dog) or removing something bad (e.g. stopping smacking a child or slackening the choker chain for dogs)
Logically it is always much more efficient, enjoyable and humane to show a child or dog what you expect them to do, then positively reinforce their behaviour, than wait for the child or dog to make an error in order to teach them by using punishment and negative reinforcement.
Primary and Secondary Reinforcers
Like any animal, much of what humans do is the result of operant conditioning. However, unlike other animals, much of how humans behave in Western societies is the result of secondary reinforcers such as money, appreciation, praise or evaluations in school or at work. Animals respond primarily to primary reinforcers such as food but also to secondary reinforcers such as praise. In Australia, most people have more than enough food to survive and hence other rewards take on more value. In addition, rewards acquire their value because in the past they have been associated with other reinforced responses. For example we know that money can buy food and clothes and that good marks in school mean that we are more likely to get into our course of choice at university. Because we have this knowledge, we work hard to earn money, not because it is valuable in itself, but because we can trade it in for things that we need and desire. Some rewards are not like this, but have what we call “intrinsic” value. That is, we value them in themselves, not because we can use them for something else. A good example of this is appreciation and thanks from others - we value appreciation because it makes us feel good about ourselves and our achievement, not because we can trade it in for something else.
Many reinforcements have individual relevance - what constitutes a reinforcement for one individual may not be a reinforcement for another. However, some reinforcers are universally valued. One of the most powerful universal reinforcers is praise. I am sure you can think of many occasions when you were happy to receive praise for a job well done, whether it be from your boss or from a friend. Praise affirms that we have done something well and makes us feel confident about trying to achieve further goals. Praise from parents, siblings and friends is a particularly effective method of shaping the behaviour of children and can be used to help your child interact positively with the family dog.
Positive reinforcement relies on a desirable behaviour occurring before it can be reinforced. This raises the issue of what to do if the desirable behaviour is not occurring at all! For instance if your child is responsible for taking your dog for long walks to ensure enough exercise but refuses to do so, you need to wait until a behaviour that approximates the desired behaviour occurs and reinforce this. This is known as shaping, a technique in which successive approximations to the desired behaviour are reinforced until the desired behaviour is achieved. In this example, you would need to wait until your child takes the dog for even a short walk (e.g. to the mail box, around the block or to the local shop) or even throws the ball for the dog, and then immediately reinforce the child. The reinforcement may be a positive comment like “Fido really seems to enjoys it when you take her for a bit of a walk or give her some exercise”.
Shaping can also be used to overcome children’s fear or anxiety in the presence of your dog. For instance, if your child is afraid to go near the dog, you can initially reinforce her for just being in the room with the dog. Once she becomes accustomed to this situation, you can reinforce her for successively moving closer to the dog and eventually touching it. It is important in this situation that the dog remains calm (e.g. lying peacefully or perhaps even sleeping to begin with if the child is very nervous) so that the child feels comfortable and safe at all times when the dog is present.
Shaping is also useful for helping your child to learn how to train the dog. For instance, your child may initially practice a certain hand signal (without the dog being present) but not quite get it right. To begin with you would praise a hand signal that moved in the right sort of direction and then successively praise attempts that got closer and closer to the perfect signal.
A few more facts about reinforcers:
1. Reinforcers such as praise are most effective when they immediately follow the behaviour that you wish to reward.
Intermittent reinforcement produces longer lasting behaviours than are produced from continuous reinforcement. Ignoring behaviour tends to extinguish it. Sometimes parents tend to ignore children when they behave well, for example, feed the dog, but respond when they behave badly, for example, forget to feed the dog. Unfortunately we are all guilty of this at times! This has the effect of rewarding the bad behaviour via giving attention, and eliminating the desired behaviour by ignoring it! We tend to do the same thing with dogs, for example by paying attention to them when they bark or scratch on the door and ignoring them when they are lying quietly!
What does this mean for teaching your child to help look after your dog?
Parents need to reinforce desired behaviours immediately after they occur. It is also useful to explain to your child why it is good that they perform a certain behaviour. For instance, if it is your child’s job to groom your pet you may say “you did a great job of grooming Fido today, she looks great!” Or, if it is your child’s responsibility to ensure that your dog always has fresh water you might say “thanks for always making sure Fido has water; it is great for me to know that I can rely on you and don’t have to worry about it myself”.
If your child helps out without being asked, it is always important to take note of this and to say thanks! Remember not to take your child for granted; children don’t like this any more than adults do!
2. Reinforcer does not need to be provided each time the behaviour occurs, in fact it is not desirable to reinforce a behaviour constantly. It can be a difficult balance, knowing when and when not to reward your child. To some extent you will need to take your cues from your child. If he or she appears to be tiring of certain activities, it may be a sign that you are not providing sufficient reward. As well as praising your child for a job well done, children also appreciate the occasional material reward. This may be a gift with a card saying “thanks for all your help” or being taken out to do something that the child enjoys but doesn’t get to do often.
3. The exception to the “intermittent reinforcer” rule is giving pocket money. Obviously, if you promise to give your child a certain sum of money for performing certain tasks, then you need to be consistent in applying this arrangement. The reinforcing power of pocket money can be increased by reminding your child how they have earned the money (e.g. “here is your pocket money for the week, you have done a great job of grooming Fido).
4. If your older child forgets to do their bit in caring for the family dog, but this happens infrequently, it is best not to make a big deal out of the issue. Keep in mind that we all get busy, tired and forgetful, and that none of us are immune from slipping up from time to time! If it often useful to draw attention to the issue in a way that illustrates understanding rather than criticism. For instance you may comment that “you must have been very busy this week as I noticed that you haven’t had time to groom Fido - would you like me to do it for you or will have you time in the next few days?” Most children will respond positively to this type of comment and will try and get the grooming done when they can. And, if they indicate that they are too busy, then your offer to help will make them feel supported rather than that they have failed. Even if you have to do things yourself from time to time, in the long-term, children are much more likely to behave responsibly when they are treated with respect and understanding, rather than with criticism.
Offering to help your child with their tasks if they are tired or busy also role models good behaviour and teaches them to do the same when you need a bit of help.
Watching out for overjustification
As discussed above, positive rewards can increase the likelihood that your child will engage in desired behaviours. However, while this principal pretty much always works when training your dog, there are some circumstances under which it may not work for children. Sometimes when a child engages in a task or activity because he or she enjoys it, rewarding this behaviour can actually lead to a decline in the activity.
Much experimental work has demonstrated this phenomenon. In one famous experiment conducted in the 1970’s, pre-school children were given certificates as a reward for drawing pictures with felt-tipped pens. In the short term, this had the effect of leading them to spend more time engaging in this activity than those who were not rewarded with the certificates. However, when the certificates were no longer given out, those children who had previously received the reward, showed a marked decline in their use of the felt-tipped pens, to a level well below that of children who were never rewarded. This decline in a behaviour is called the “overjustification effect” because the reinforcer provides an unnecessary justification for engaging in what was already an enjoyable behaviour.
In these situations, the child (or adult) comes to see the activity as work rather than play. The difference between work and play is that work is something that is done, at least in part, for an external reward, whereas play is something that is done for the intrinsic value that it provides. This is not to say that work does not provide intrinsic value as well - many of us get significant satisfaction from our work - just that play is all about pure fun, while work may involve doing some things that we don’t particularly like in order to achieve an external reward.
The main lesson that we learn from these sorts of experiments is that children do not always need to be reinforced for engaging in activities that are already rewarding and pleasurable in themselves. This is particularly relevant to looking after the family dog since this is an activity that a lot of children enjoy, and because it is an activity that we want children to view as play rather than work. Children receive a multitude of intrinsic rewards for example, unconditional love and companionship from developing a relationship with the family dog. Unfortunately, even though your child may love your dog to death, this does not necessarily mean that they will remember to feed it every day!
The best way to avoid the overjustification effect is not the reward the child with physical rewards for behaviours that they already appear to enjoy. For instance, if your child enjoys walking the dog, it would be better not to pay him or her pocket money to perform this task. However, you can still provide verbal reinforcement by, periodically, commenting how much the dog enjoys it when the child takes it for a walk (e.g. “Fido looks very happy but tired – she loves it when you take her for a walk”). Similarly, if your child enjoys training the dog, you can praise him or her when the dog learns a new task (e.g., “I see that Fido can shake hands now, you have done a great job of teaching her that!”).
Knowing when to reinforce your child and what reinforcer to provide can be a tricky business and requires some judgement on your part. In summary the best rules of thumb to follow are:
• determine what sort of activities your child enjoys doing with your dog
• try and allow the child to take some responsibility for the things that he or she enjoys (e.g. walking, grooming, training)
• don’t give your child physical rewards (e.g. money, toys) for engaging in these enjoyable activities – the intrinsic reward is enough
• use praise instead – children always enjoy being told that they are doing something well!
• try and focus your praise on both what the child is doing (e.g. “you are becoming a very proficient dog trainer” as well as what the dog is doing (e.g. “Fido is getting very good at sitting and staying” or “Fido looks great – it must be your weekly grooming that keeps her looking so well”).
Classical conditioning occurs when one stimulus comes to be associated with another because they tend to occur at the same time. The most well- known example of classical conditioning is that of Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov discovered this process almost by accident when he was studying digestion in dogs. Pavlov already knew that dogs salivated when food was placed in their mouths - this is a reflex response. Over time, Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate before they received the food. What he realised was that certain signals (e.g. the sound of the food being prepared) alerted the dogs to the fact that they were about to be fed and caused the salivation. To study this further, Pavlov began to introduce other stimuli, such as ringing a bell, before he fed the dogs. To his surprise, Pavlov noticed that soon the bell alone was enough to make the dogs salivate; no food was necessary. Pavlov called this response a conditioned response.
When considering the importance of classical conditioning in building a good relationship between your child and dog, it is important to realise that emotional responses can become classically conditioned to occur in certain situations. For instance, if parents complain and argue about the dog every time the dog is around, then the children may develop a negative association between the presence of the dog and feeling upset. Similarly if parents focus all of their attention on the dog when going for a walk, then children may associate the dog with feelings of being ignored and left out. Conversely, if parents devote all of their attention to the children and ignore the dog, then the dog may develop an association between the presence of the children and feeling left out. This is particularly important to remember if you bring a new baby home.
To avoid these problems, parents need to ensure that children and dogs develop positive feelings about each other. This can easily be achieved by creating pleasant environments where both the child and the dog associate each other with feelings of being valued and having fun. It is also important to encourage your child and your dog to interact. As discussed above, encourage your child to take on the responsibility of helping to look after the dog by doing something that both the child and the dog will enjoy (e.g. walking, feeding, grooming, training). Encourage your child to play with the dog by throwing a ball or giving them some money to buy the dog a new toy.
The bottom line is that kids and dogs are usually great together and often develop extremely fulfilling relationships with minimal involvement from parents. In most cases, all it takes is a few simple measures and you can sit back and let the natural bond between kids and dogs work its magic.
Dr Catriona Ross & Ruth Weston
Excerpt from Kids & Dogs which you may purchase via https://www.gentlemodernschoolofdogtraining.com.au/Our-Books