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Pet Column: Why dogs find certain behaviors rewarding

Barking is considered a self-rewarding behavior. Photo provided by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider  

There are plenty of behaviors we wish our dogs wouldn’t do. Some behaviors are harder to “fix” than others, mainly because the behavior itself is self-rewarding.

A self-rewarding behavior is anything a dog does that’s rewarding in and of itself. Most of these behaviors are self-taught. They did something once and got rewarded so they will try it again in hopes of getting the same reward. This is why it takes time and assistance from a professional to put a stop to self-rewarding problem behaviors.

So let’s understand some of the most common self-rewarding problem behaviors and why your dog enjoys them.

1. Barking: Barking is the number one behavior I get asked to help correct. Barking feels good, it scares off the scary delivery person, it’s a job to do when bored, it gets your attention and, most of the time, it ends up getting you to bark alongside them. Wait, did I just say people bark with their dogs? Well, not in a literal way. People often end up shouting over their barking dog. The dog just assumes you’re barking with them. ”Stop barking! Stop it! Quite!” all sound like “Bark, bark, bark” to your dog.

2. Digging: Digging fulfills that basic survival strategy in order to acquire food, hide food, and for nesting. The hole provides a cool spot to lay in, hide their valuables, and possibly find something rewarding. It’s also fun, especially if your dog is bored.

3. Licking: Licks are cute, but why do some dogs insist on licking your face for minutes at a time? When a dog licks out of love for their human, they get a rush of dopamine. It’s a very direct route to feeling good. Some dogs almost seemed hooked on licking, it’s their way of expressing over excitement or nervousness and could be a sign of OCD. No matter the reason, licking provides a dog some form of relief.

4. Counter surfing: More often than not, there’s something rewarding up on tables and countertops. Food is the number one thing that lures your dog into counter surfing. It just takes that one time for your pup to learn “if I explore this surface, I may find food.” Since dogs are willing to gamble, they may try this over and over again, resulting in your dog becoming a professional counter surfer.

5. Eating poop: Nothing seems less rewarding than eating poop, but not to dogs. Poop, whether it’s their own or other animals, is full of leftover nutrients. Dogs may result to eating poop in order to get those extra nutrients. If your dog has ever been left to themselves to find food, such as being a stray at one point of their life or from running away, their natural instinct to find food can result in eating their own or another animal’s poop. And yes, they can acquire a taste for poop after trying it once.

6. Humping: Humping is rewarding because it’s used to establish social structure between dogs. It’s a way to express excitement and of course, used to procreate. It may be embarrassing to us, but for them it is used for all kinds of self-rewarding purposes.

7. Jumping up on people: Jumping is rewarding because it gets a person’s attention. Dogs are masters at reading our facial expressions and what better way to see our face than to jump up on us while getting our attention, even if it’s us scolding them.

Knowing the reasons why your dog behaves the way it does is the first step to finding a solution. Have patience and learn the art of redirection, environmental management, and teaching an alternative behavior. There is no one size fits all fix to these problem behaviors, so it’s best to seek help from a vet behaviorist and/or a dog trainer. That way you get an individualized plan catered to your dog’s specific needs.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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