Dog training lessons learned from watching Girls

I am a dog trainer. But I mostly work with people. They’re the ones with the checkbooks — and they respond very well to training.

Dog trainers like myself aren’t interested in the aggressive punishments of and “whispering” of Cesar Millan and his ilk. He deals in voodoo; we work with science. Behavior can be molded using smart rewards, good timing, and subtle manipulations of the environment. This is not unlike the way in which powers larger than us are molding our behaviors all the time (hola, banner ads, government, Oprah, Apple…). It all falls under the umbrella of behaviorism, the philosophy-cum-psychology which was first outlined by B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century and touches on everything from neuroscience to economics to art to puppy class.

Consider, for instance, the relationship at the center of the first season of the HBO show Girls: Hannah and her bad boyfriend, Adam.

Step One: Figure out what’s reinforcing

Do you know what your animal likes? And what he finds punishing? This is super important, and usually pretty easy, but it does require some investigation. We need to pinpoint appropriate rewards in order to effectively reinforce behaviors that we want to occur again. On the flip side, punished behaviors are less likely to happy again. Revoking the rewards can be used as a form of punishment.

Thing is, sometimes rewards (and punishments) aren’t so obvious. Of course, most of the time, they’re pretty easy to guess. This is what makes reading online dating profiles so boring. Pretty much everyone likes food, money, friends, sex, sleep, and Louie. Dogs generally like sausages, cheese, and Kongs filled with peanut butter.

But there are some dogs who prefer to eat carrots and blueberries, or poop. And humans are even more idiosyncratic. Part of what makes us each special unique snowflakes is that no two people find the exact cornucopia of things punishing/rewarding. And something normally rewarding might be a punishment if given at the wrong time or by the wrong person. For instance, Hannah probably normally enjoys having her breasts touched, but not by her creepy senior citizen boss.

So what does this foundering 20-something Brooklynite like? The main thing she seems to find rewarding is attention–so much so that she daydreams of how much of it she’d get if she were to contract HIV. Some things Adam finds rewarding: going shirtless, getting off to the fantasy of a young girl clutching a Cabbage Patch Doll, and peeing on his girlfriend. Stick that in your treat pouch.

Something to keep in mind about treats: we usually try to give the smallest dosage possible. With a dog, that might mean a piece of hotdog smaller than your fingernail. Kind of like the way most bosses deal with employees: They’ll pay as little as they can get away with.

Step Two: Deliver rewards with effective timing

Too often we give rewards and punishments too late or too early, too often or not enough. We use rewards as consequences to reinforce behaviors we like in order to up the chances the behaviors will occur again (this is learning by consequence, or what’s called Operant Conditioning, or Skinnerian Conditioning). We also sometimes use rewards to try to create a different association when we’re introducing something unpleasant (this is learning by association, also known as Classical Conditioning, or Pavlovian Conditioning). For instance, when Hannah’s parents tell her they’re through supporting her, they do it at a nice restaurant while she has her mouth full of pasta. This is not unlike when the vet gives your dog a treat at the same time she sticks a thermometer up his butt.

When teaching puppy owners, I often suggest owners present their dog with some tiny bit of food fifty times a day in order to reward behaviors they like. This will encourage the dog to keep doing those good things (playing with a toy in bed), and that will make for moments where they won’t also be doing the bad things (biting your ankles).

However, effective timing of rewards doesn’t always mean giving them with high frequency. You can actually often encourage a behavior by withholding rewards. Witness, for example, Adam’s treatment of Hannah throughout the first season: He is the king of the variable rate of reinforcement. He’s an asshole most of the time, but every now and then, he says or does something sweet. It makes Hannah keep coming back, like a lab rat pushing a food lever or my great aunt at the slots.

When we are getting just little bits of rewards only very occasionally, we can often end up putting up with crappy relationships for a very long time.  If I just stick in there a little longer, the really good stuff is going to come our way and it’ll make all the getting-peed-on times totally worth it. You know you’ve been there. It’s why people become actors and entrepreneurs. It’s why we see Adam Sandler movies. Nine times out of ten, you might be disappointed. But the next time might be the tenth time!

A fixed rate of delivery tends to leave us performing desired behaviors with much less alacrity. Like the unchallenged worker who gets paid every Friday regardless of how many hours she spends on Facebook, versus the sales person working on commission. Of course, we see the result of this rate of reinforcement in romantic relationships: Witness Hannah’s BFF Marnie’s feelings about her sweet-and-wonderful-all-the-time boyfriend, Charlie. (Spoiler alert: She dumps him).

Step Three: Set boundaries within which your subject is likely to succeed

With dogs, using a crate is an effective way of setting up boundaries, and many behavior problems are more easily solved by managing boundaries cleverly than by trying to change behaviors. Dog drinks out of the toilet? Keep the bathroom door closed. People actually pay me to come to their homes and tell them this stuff.

A dog who is in a crate when you can’t monitor him is a dog that is not going to chew on your coffee table when you’re not looking. If chewing on your coffee table is rewarding to him, then every time he does it makes it more likely he’ll do it again in the future. So it’s better to prevent that opportunity. A leash and a fence are also good management tools: They make it so you don’t need to teach your dog not to run in front of cars.

Photo by gdngt6 / Flickr

Hannah’s management of Adam does nothing towards encouraging the behavior that she wants (him giving her loving attention). Like so many young women, she is so afraid of losing him that she is willing to let him treat her however he pleases. The result is that his actions go completely unchecked. It’s like a client of mine who worried her Yorkie, also named Adam, would not love her if she kept him in a “cage.” So, Adam the Yorkie ran loose in the apartment, leaving her carpets constantly soaked in urine. Every time he did it, it felt good to him, and therefore just upped the likelihood he’d keep doing it. Everytime Hannah lets herself get trampled upon by Adam the Boyfriend, he’s only encouraged.

Understanding how to encourage desired behaviors through the mindful use of rewards can result in clearer communication and more enjoyable moments spent with all the loyal, warm, eager and empathetic species that we allow into our homes. Indeed, what is “love” but a kind of blanket term to describe the way we feel when we have a surplus of those moments in our lives, be it with people who have wagging tails or hairy chests or both?



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