Talking Dog Column

Learned behavior explains response to various stimuli

By August 25, 2015 No Comments

By Lisa Moore –

Why is it that some everyday occurrences around the house cause our dogs to react wildly, but others are ignored? For example, anytime there is a knock at the door or a ring of the doorbell, your dogs probably go a little nuts, but flush the toilet for the fourth time during the day, and nobody moves.

Of course, the answer lies in what happens when the doorbell rings vs. when you flush the toilet. Dogs are quite perceptive and it doesn’t take them long to figure out what triggers are followed by something exciting.

This behavior is not hardwired into the dog’s DNA; it is learned behavior, or a conditioned response (usually barking) to a conditioned stimulus (doorbell or knock). The dog learns through repeated exposure that when the doorbell rings, you jump up and open the door to reveal a person on the other side. The dog learns to join you in responding to the stimulus, in his own loud, often irritating way. The dog also recognizes that the sound of a flushing toilet does not foretell anything of interest, so that sound is generally ignored.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dog do nothing but lie quietly, without so much as a cue from you, when he hears the doorbell or knock? Do these magical creatures or canine geniuses truly exist? You might be surprised to learn that you can quite easily teach your own dog to literally do nothing in response to that particular stimulus, and it doesn’t involve fitting him with earplugs.

Your dog hears the stimulus (doorbell/knock) and watches your unwavering, predictable response (going to the door and opening it) often enough to form his pattern of behavior. To rewire, or change the dog’s response to the stimulus, he needs to hear it a lot more often and learn a different response.

Here’s what I do with every new dog that joins my family: I begin by ringing the doorbell or knocking on the front door around 50 times per day, divided into five sessions, lasting around three minutes each. Usually the new dog already has a conditioned response – barking – on board. I could just keep repeating the process until the barking faded away completely, but I don’t have that kind of time. So, I introduce a behavior that is incompatible with barking while the doorbell/knock can be heard. I throw small bits of treats all over the floor. While the dog is eagerly searching for and eating each of these little goodies, he can hear the stimulus, but can’t possibly bark and eat at the same time. Since the reward of hunting cookies is stronger than the barking behavior, the silent cookie hunt continues.

Over the next few days, as the barking behavior begins to fade due to lack of practice, I make the cookie hunts less frequent, while the number of times the stimulus is heard remains the same. Once I’ve attained my goal (silent dogs, unresponsive to the doorbell/knocking), I tune it up once a month, by spending five minutes repeatedly knocking or ringing the bell.

This process is called habituation and is a common and simple form of learning. When exposed repeatedly to the stimulus, your dog will reject it as irrelevant and will ignore it. This process can be applied to a host of other undesirable responses that your dog has developed, and it can be ridiculously easy to do.

Does your dog go bonkers each time you attach his leash in preparation for a walk? Simply snap his leash on and off repeatedly over a period of days and watch the behavior fade. Does he spin and squeal each time you open the cupboard that contains his treats? Repeatedly open and close it for a week or so and take note of the rapid decline of his once frenzied response.

Perhaps the best part of this process is that it allows you to create behavior that you like in a fun and positive manner. Suppose you choose to yell at, spank or scold the dog every time he barks at the door. At most, you’ll have some success at limiting the barking (as long as you continue to penalize it), or your dog will quickly decide it’s safer to remain at a distance from the door, out of your punishing reach, and still bark his head off. Why tell our dogs “No!” for the hundredth time with little result, when we can teach that terribly intelligent creature in a fun and easy way? This is just another example of positive or reward-based dog training; far more powerful, productive and fun than shortsighted punishment techniques.

Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.