Inconsistent, ill-timed rewards

Yesterday was my second consecutive day working at the shelter as a SMART (Shelter Matchmaking And Rehab Training) team member. I was busy for 3 hours and left invigorated, and a little wiser about the daily challenges faced by shelter staff.

First I got to speak to a father and two small kids who want to come on Saturday mornings to play with the cats and dogs. I gave Dad some information on sanitary practices and suggested the kids bring their favorite books to read to the cats, maybe even to an occasional dog. This sort of calm, quiet interaction with children is a great experience for a shelter animal. Boredom is the number one stress among shelter animals and anyone with an hour to kill and a magazine to read can relieve boredom for a shelter animal by sitting and reading with them.

I spent an interesting half-hour speaking to 2 women who arrived separately and had the same issue. Woman 2 heard our discussion and said, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I have the same situation at my house.” Both women were married to truck drivers who spent 6 days a week, or more, on the road. The women lived alone with kids and dogs most of the time and enforced certain rules for the kids and dogs. When Dad returned, he wanted all the rules relaxed and everyone to “have more fun.” Both women were having trouble housetraining small dogs they had rescued past the puppy stage.

I shared with them my belief that most negative behavior from dogs comes from one of two errors in dealing with the canine brain:  1) inconsistent rewards and,  2) ill-timed rewards.

With inconsistent rewards the dog isn’t sure what behavior is desired by his leaders. For 15 days lying on the floor beside the bed is rewarded with kind words and gentle stroking, then Dad comes home  and puts her on the bed and makes a big fuss over her. What is the desired behavior? The dog is not able to make the distinction between everyday rules and Dad’s special day rules. For a week Mom enforces housetraining rules and, if the dog doesn’t potty in the yard she goes into her crate for awhile, then back to the yard. Then Dad comes home and doesn’t want the dog in the crate and suddenly housetraining is set back.

I use one of my workplace analogies to drive a point home. Say you’ve started a new job and your boss tells you “it’s important that you be at work by 8:00 a.m. when we open the doors.”  On the first day you’re right on time. He greets you with “Good morning.”  On the second day you get stuck behind slow traffic and arrive at 8:05 a.m. Your boss greets you with “Terrific timing! We’re open for business and we’re glad you’re here.”  On the third day your trip to work is right on time but you decide to spend 5 minutes getting a drive-through breakfast. Afterall, yesterday 8:05 a.m. was “terrific timing!” You arrive at work at 8:03 a.m. and are greeted by your boss, extending your pink slip. “Sorry, I told you when we hired you that arriving before 8:00 a.m. was important.” If, on the second day, when you were 5 minutes late, he’d giving you a warning instead of praise, you would have passed up the day 3 breakfast sandwich.

With ill-timed rewards the dog receives treats and praise but isn’t sure which behavior earned them. A great example is the dog being trained to stay, yet always rewarded by getting up from their stay and coming to their trainer. As an instructor my primary job is teaching consistency and good timing to my dog training students.

Both women I visited with were trying to be consistent in training their dogs. Dad would inject occasional inconsistency. The dogs were struggling to figure out the rules of the house and housetraining was taking much longer than necessary.

This happens occasionally in my own home! We have nine dogs, five of which are geriatric, retired agility and obedience dogs. They’ve earned a soft life, and much of my time is dedicated to making their last years as safe, healthy, and soft as possible. We still have rules, however, and “come” means “come” whether you’re a youngster in training or a 13-year-old retired dog. When I’m calling dogs and get ignored, mostly by my geriatrics, I’ll go to them and gently enforce the command, then praise them for coming.

Bud, on the other hand, will call dogs and then tell me, “Banner didn’t want to come in.”  WHAT?  “I don’t actually ask for Banner’s opinion when I call her into the house,” I’ll say. Man, has she got her daddy wrapped around her paw.

Perhaps guys just want to be the dog’s best friend. <g>

A shelter bright spot occurred when I introduced a potential adopter to a young dog I’d worked with the day before. We opened her cage and she stepped gently out, yawning and stretching, then assumed a position leaning against this stranger. She wasn’t acting as shy as she had the day before and created a really attractive presentation.

Another conversation at the shelter was with a young family who wanted to adopt a 3-month old labrador retriever they found in the adoption room. This pup was to replace a dog which had been stolen out of their yard. They wanted the pup but couldn’t afford both the dog and the vet bill for another week. They’d just begun their search, but the lab puppy was just what they wanted and he seemed pleased with them as well. The shelter was able to put a hold on him and reserve him for this nice, young family.

I also got to spend some time with the shelter’s “cat lady,” learning some interesting cat facts. She posted later to let us know that 2-3 cats were adopted yesterday. The shelter’s tally for the day must have been 4-5 adoptions.

Unfortunately, at noon, folks arrived with a litter of 11 unwanted mix-breed puppies born to their daughter’s dog. These pups had been born to a beagle-mix bitch who was left tied outside, even when in heat, and these pups had lived outdoors their whole lives. Though unwanted, they all seemed to like people and enjoy the food and warmth. When asked if they needed information on spaying the beagle-mix they responded, “No, we neuter all our dogs. They all came from here. Our daughter was just too lazy to do what she was supposed to do and we’re going to take care of that next.”

A few minutes later three young men arrived with two aged Great Dane mixes. Their mother had become ill over the holidays, had been moved to a nursing home and, after several days trying to find homes for her 11-year-old dogs they’d run out of options. They all had to get on with their jobs and lives. One son leaned over the dogs and gave them little kisses on their noses before leaving. Maybe the world needs nursing home annexes for occupants’ dogs.

Regardless of why the dogs arrived at the shelter, I tried to stay positive with the people, asking if they needed information on spay asssistance, and thanking them for bringing the dogs to us. It was nice of them to think of their local humane society rather than disposing of the animals in some other way.

Fortunately, our shelter works closely with other shelters and breed rescue. I’ve no doubt that the litter of puppies will be heading out before next weekend, finding fantastic homes in parts of the world with neutering laws. And the Great Dane mixes may be attractive to folks in breed rescue.

By the time I returned home, after just a few hours at the shelter, I had done the math.  Four or five out of the shelter, 13 into the shelter. I got to dispense a good bit of training information and had four people interested in reading the 2-minute dog training brochures. Worthwhile work, but I’m just starting. I’m going to just keep nibbling around the edges of the pet overpopulation problem, doing what I can to educate and assist.

This week I’m working on my next set of brochures, “2 Minute Dog Trainer agility foundation training.” These brochures will cover obedience-for-agility, pause table performances, unambiguous contact performances, weavepole entries, and distance work, among other topics.

Enjoy your dogs!

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One Response to “Inconsistent, ill-timed rewards”

  1. Carrie Says:

    Loved reading your blog and makes me think we should actually have a blog on our website to educate the public more on what happens in our shelters daily. Sometimes the math doesn’t add up in our favor, but important that you are there.

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