Learning through Conditioning: How to Stop Begging Dog Behavior

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Learning Through Conditioning: How to Stop Begging Dog Behavior

You sit down for hot delicious dinner. Your mouth salivates as you cut into your thick, juicy steak. As you’re about to eat your first bite you hear a small, innocent whimpering sound. You look down. There, at your feet, is a little dog looking up at you with puppy eyes, just begging for scrap… or two… or three.... You give in and drop your little companion a treat, only to have the begging continue again. Does this scenario sound familiar? If you’re like millions of other dog owners out there you’ve probably experienced a similar situation.

My dog, Rocky, is a persistent beggar. He’ll sit and stare at first, watching me with his big pug eyes while I eat, quietly “begging” at my feet. If that doesn’t work he’ll start whimpering, quietly at first, then louder. If that behavior doesn’t get him some food, he’ll step it up a notch and start pawing at my legs. On a few occasions he has even began jumping and barking, changing from a begging behavior to outright demanding! If I give in, and drop a scrap or two for the little guy, he’ll just start the cycle all over again. This gets annoying in a hurry, and leads me to yelling at the dog, telling him to “Go away and stop begging!” Despite all my shouts and pleas, he doesn’t listen. He continues on with his begging behavior.

But what causes this unpleasant behavior? And who is really at fault here, Rocky or me, the dog or his “master.” After learning about B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, I quickly realized that I am at fault for my own dog’s behavior. According to Skinner, “behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened),” (Mcleod, 2007, p6). Each time I gave my pug a scrap from the table, or let him lick a plate clean, I was reinforcing his begging behavior. Without realizing it, I was essentially telling...
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