CONSEQUENCE – The action or response that follows a behavior. The consequence determines whether or not the behavior will increase or decrease in frequency or intensity.
Without going into a full discussion of the quadrants of operant conditioning (which fellow dog geeks can find here: http://4pawsu.com/trainingmethods.htm), we can look at consequences this way:
If the consequence is something the dog wants, the behavior is likely to increase. Dogs do what works.
If the consequence is something the dog seeks to avoid or escape (aversive), the behavior is likely to decrease.
So, if you call your dog to you and he gets a food reward or a game of tug, and those are things he really, really likes, it is highly likely that he will come when called in that same scenario next time.
If, on the other hand, you call your dog to you and you scold him (because he got in the garbage that you left out again), it is likely that he will either not come to you or will come to you very slowly and reluctantly (decrease in intensity) next time you call him in that context.
Looking at consquences can also help us determine whether or not our behavior modification interventions are effective.
Let’s say, for example, that your dog can’t stop picking things up on your walks. Sticks, rocks, bottle caps, and worse. Each time he grabs an object, you say “Leave it!” and take the object away, thinking he will learn that he’s not supposed to pick up gross stuff off the sidewalk.
In order to determine what he’s really learning, we need to look at the consequences of your training program.
Does your dog stop grabbing objects on walks? If the answer is “no,” he’s not learning what you think you’re teaching.
When you say “leave it,” does he drop the object, or snatch his head away, trying to avoid you? If he plays keep-away, what happened? Consequences. You say “leave it,” which is followed by you taking away the cool thing he just found. The consequence of “leave it” is the loss of a valued item.
Rather than label the dog as stubborn or dominant (because he “knows he’s not supposed to”), look at the consequences and determine what you can change.
For example, give the “leave it” cue before your dog reaches for the object (this means you’ll have to give your dog 100% of your attention on walks for a while). If he responds, REWARD. If he doesn’t, you need more practice before he’s ready for the real world.
With enough repetition, “leave it” will no longer mean “you’re going to lose something cool,” it will mean “here’s an opportunity for you to earn something great!”
Now you have the ABC’s of behavior modification, called applied behavior analysis:
These three pieces can help you determine what triggers and motivates your dog’s behavior, but also whether or not the training strategy you are applying is having the long-term effect you want and, if not, what piece(s) you need to change to get success.