Change Unwanted Pet Behaviours Without Punishment
Have a pet that is seemingly disobedient or difficult to manage? Are you at your wits’ end because scolding and punishment did not work? Like people, pets need to understand rules and boundaries on appropriate ways to behave – or risk annoying the people and other animals around them.
There are behaviour modification techniques available to help a pet re-learn the rules of interaction and home living, without resorting to punishment. Let us explore one science-based training technique that is very effective at changing bad behaviours into good ones.
“What Do I Want My Pet To Do?”
This technique is often referred to as the “differential reinforcement of alternative behaviours” or “response substitution”. It is based on the concept of giving a reward (something that your pet wants or likes) when your pet behaves in a desired manner (the alternative behaviour).
The reward is a form of reinforcement: the pet associates the reward with how it behaves, and thus encourages it to behave the same way more often. Fundamentally, it is about asking “What do I want my pet to do?”, instead of “How can I stop my pet from doing it?”. The goal is to replace unwanted behavioural responses with desirable behaviours.
Usually a pet behaves or acts in a certain manner in response to a stimulus. You can teach it to behave in a way that is incompatible with the unwanted behaviour, when the stimulus is presented. What does that mean? The alternative desired behaviour should be an action that, when performed, makes it hard or impossible for the pet to behave in the undesired manner.
How to Behave in the Desired Manner
For example, a dog may jump up in excitement to greet the owner when he or she comes home. If the jumping action is not desired, the dog can be taught to sit calmly when the owner walks through the door. As it is not possible for the dog to jump up and sit at the same time, the desirable behaviour (sit) is incompatible with the unwanted behaviour (jumping).
A prompt can be introduced to remind or signal the pet to perform the correct behaviour. The prompt may be something physical such as food, or a hand gesture, then followed by a sound such as a click or marker-word (e.g. “Yes!”) when the correct behaviour is performed. This should be done just before it has the opportunity to perform the “wrong” or unwanted behaviour. Then reward the pet for the correct response by providing a high-value positive reinforcement such as a tasty treat or praise.
If the pet continues to perform the unwanted behaviour, refrain from scolding or punishing it. Instead, turn away and do not respond to the pet, as the response could be a form of reinforcement for the behaviour. A dog jumping to greet its owner could be motivated by attention from the owner, even if it is negative attention (e.g. scolding). As such, scolding may not have any effect and can even make the problem worse!
In summary, this is the process in the example above:
Current situation (Dog exhibiting unwanted jumping behaviour)
Plan to teach dog alternative behaviour
Owner at door > Dog jumps up in excitement > Dog gets attention/petting/scolding from the owner (positive reinforcement)
Owner at door > Dog jumps up in excitement > Dog gets no attention from owner (no reinforcement)
Owner at door > Dog is prompted to sit with a gesture/click/word when all four paws are on the ground before jumping up > Dog gets a tasty treat (high-value positive reinforcement)
Practice Makes Perfect
Once the pet learns that behaving in a certain way earns itself a reward of pleasurable things like tasty treats or attention from the owner, and what it used to do (the unwanted behaviour) no longer receives any reinforcement, the behaviour will start decreasing in frequency and/or intensity. Work hard at doing this over and over again as this helps with learning – remember that practice makes perfect!
Rewarding alternative behaviours is especially effective for teaching a pet what it should do (desired behaviour), instead of teaching it what it should not do (unwanted behaviour). This is a much more straightforward way for the pet to learn good behaviour, being something we call “errorless learning”.
In a “trial-and-error” approach, a pet must undergo several repetitions of receiving both positive and negative consequences before it learns what the correct behaviour should be, and this process is likely to take even longer. Rewarding alternative behaviours is more welfare friendly because aversives (unpleasant or uncomfortable stimuli such as physical punishment) need not be used when training the pet.
In many cases of unruly or rowdy behaviours, punishment is not necessary since good behaviours can be effectively reinforced to replace bad behaviours. To successfully resolve any problem behaviour, understanding the scientific concepts of how learning takes place will help you in applying these concepts effectively. Do seek help from a qualified dog professional if the problem is serious and/or becomes a safety issue.
If you are interested in adopting a pet, please remember that getting a pet is a lifelong commitment. Do consider the responsibilities of being a good owner before you get one. To find out about the pros and cons of adopting an animal, check out this article and learn more about the adoption process here.
Want to know more about your pet’s behaviour and what your pet might be trying to tell you, read this. And bust some myths about some commonly misread pet behaviour here to get a better understanding of what your companion animal is actually thinking!
You can also contribute towards the Animal & Veterinary Service’s animal-related programmes through the Garden City Fund. Find out more here.
Visit NParksSG, our refreshed YouTube Channel that serves as a one-stop repository for close to 300 video resources, which includes videos on making pet treats or pet care tips. It also provides you a platform for existing and future digital outreach including DIY gardening and related crafts, virtual tours of our green spaces, and livestream events.
Chong Qi Ai is a manager with the Animal & Veterinary Service. She has a Masters degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare and a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. As an animal behaviourist, she studies how animals interact with each other and their environments, applying this to her work with the goal of improving the welfare of animals in her care. A typical day at work involves socialising, training and rehabilitating animals. She is also responsible for developing new programmes, initiatives and policies to improve animal lives and help them integrate better into communities.
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