Can Tricks Help Fix a Behavior Problem? YES!

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Tricks play an important role in behavior modification because tricks add options to your pet's behavioral repertoire. Matching Law is a behavioral principle that allows us to accurately predict an animal's choice based on the history of reinforcement for that behavior. Matching Law states that the probability of an animal performing a certain behavior is directly proportionate to the behavior's relative history of reinforcement, in other words how often that behavior has been rewarded. Adding behaviors that we like and prefer gives your pet more appropriate options to choose from, with a higher probability that he/she will choose these behaviors over undesirable behaviors in the future.

For example: 

A dog has a habit of jumping on guests to get attention (B1). The dog is taught a trick such as the "Sit Up" behavior shown above (B2). 

(B1) is reinforced once daily with accidental attention.

(B2) is reinforced with treats and intentional praise attention 2-3x more often than B1.

Because (B2) has a reinforcement history that is 2-3x that of (B1),  (B2) is 2-3x more likely to be performed over (B1). 

Another technique that trainers use is called Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior. It is a mouthful, but it very simply means that the trainer chooses to reinforce a behavior that is impossible (or extremely difficult) to perform at the same time as the nuisance behavior. In our example, the "sit up" behavior is incompatible with jumping. The dog must keep their hips and rear end on the floor in order to successfully perform the behavior, they cannot do this and jump on guests at the same time. 

By adding tricks to a behavior modification plan, we provide the animal with a repertoire of appropriate behaviors to fall back on, where each behavior has a reinforcement history that is proportionally more valuable than the inappropriate behaviors. This can greatly improve your success overall in diminishing a behavior problem. Used in conjunction with extinction, differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior is a wonderful technique for diminishing and even eliminating a behavior problem.

Extinction occurs when the reinforcement for a behavior is removed, making the behavior less likely to happen again in the future.

Back to our example again, if jumping on guests caused guests to remove their attention by ignoring the dog, the dog would become less likely to jump on guests in the future. With consistency and patience, the jumping behavior would become extinct allowing an appropriate replacement behavior to take its place. 

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA Founder of Simply Animal Training LLC, began her professional training career in 2008 after 11 years as a student in the equestrian world. Sara began as an assistant horse trainer and horseback riding instructor for JGarvey Horsemanship. During the following 4 years she learned the ins and outs of positive reinforcement training, behaviorism, and operant conditioning. In 2013 Sara formed an equine training business known as Equestrianism. In 2014 Sara became a leader with the Local 4H where she taught children to use clicker training with numerous other animals including pigs, sheep, chickens, and even small animals. In 2014 Sara Joined forces with Root Dog Training LLC as a dog trainer, where she learned to translate her knowledge of learning theory and behaviorism, to the unique behaviors of canines. Sara is proud to continue offering Animal-friendly Force-Free services to pets and owners of all kinds. Sara is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed from the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, and a Canine Life and Social Skills Evaluator with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Sara is constantly advancing her education in animal training and behavior through continuing education, certification, and college courses.