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Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Persistence Payout


Anyone who owns a dog is familiar with “the stare.” And as an evolutionary technique, it’s a damn efficient one—most people give in to it, many without even thinking. The moment your dog comes to live with you, he starts learning about you. He’s a veritable researcher, taking note of your body language, your tone of voice, your tics and fidgets. He can’t understand the vast majority of the things you say, but he learns pretty quickly that some behaviors he exhibits Always Work, some Never Work, and a few Sometimes Work in order for him to gain the resources he desires.

Some of the behaviors he learns to employ to get a resource are quite adorable, and they play into our connection and love for the dog, meeting many of our needs. These are the behaviors that Always Work in terms of the dog getting resources we dole out (food, treats, petting, playtime, access). For instance, the outdoor-focused dog who stands by the door and when you look over at him, he does this cute spin-around-and-bark-twice-thing that always makes you laugh, or at least smile, and usually talk to him in a happy voice as you run open the door to let him out.

That spin-bark is a learned behavior, consistently reinforced with rewards. It’s like a soda machine, because it always pays out. And while the barks may be slightly annoying at times, the cuteness factor of the perfectly-executed spin usually overrides any annoyance you might have with the trick.

The dog has learned that he can make you do something he likes by performing this series of behaviors in this specific context. And let me be clear: this is not necessarily a bad thing; letting the dog out has advantages, of course, and the dog who lets you know that he needs to go out to do his business is more helpful than the dog who just pees in front of the door if you haven’t noticed him standing there.

So, both human and dog benefit from this purposeful manipulation.

Of course, there are some ways in which the dog uses behaviors to manipulate his humans that are not beneficial to the humans, like barking at people to demand that they pet him, shoving gross, dirty toys or balls onto them to force a game, barking and jumping on his humans to demand food or treats. These demands are generally ones people find unpleasant (and they call us to fix). Some annoying behaviors are just annoying (barking/whining), and some can be downright dangerous (e.g. sliding between our legs as we are walking, or jumping up/putting teeth on people).

Fixing these behaviors begins with the owner agreeing to stop rewarding them: with attention, petting, food, or a door opening to the outside (many people don’t even realize that they have been inadvertently teaching the dog to continue these unruly shenanigans by responding to them). When these behaviors are rewarded, the dog learns that they either Always Work, or Sometimes Work. If we want them to stop, we have to make sure they Never Work from here on out.

(As you probably know, while this advice is 100% true, it’s not always easy for mortals to follow—because, well, people love their dogs and they mistake ever-ready indulgence for showing love.)

So what happens is this: the dog starts to learn that certain behaviors Sometimes Work.

And that is a lesson that we, in most situations, do not want pet dogs to learn. (Cue “Jaws” theme here.)

Allow me to pivot momentarily to get to the reason I decided to write this post. I am a fan of the Washington Post’s advice columnist[1] Carolyn Hax, who is a brilliant advice-giver and always makes me want to be a better human being; she understands nuances of behavior and how to tell people what they need to hear with straightforward kindness while avoiding platitudes.

She responded to a letter a few days ago and it was spot-on. A letter writer (LW) had complained about a “friend” who kept asking her to do unreciprocated favors constantly, and would get really surly (and push and push even harder) when she occasionally said no, so LW would end up hemming and hawing and finally giving in and doing them anyway, to “keep the peace.” (Yes, as I read this letter I literally screamed, “you are training her to breach your boundaries! Stop doing that! Also, she isn’t your friend.”)

Hax replied, with way more restraint than I, “you will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence,” and my nucleus accumbens lit up like a Jumbotron.

We want the dog to know, definitely, which behaviors Always Work, and which behaviors Never Work.

When we refuse to reward a behavior most of the time, but occasionally give in to the dog’s barking, jumping, pawing at us or putting teeth on us, whether it is for our attention, or food, or play, or access to an area or item, we are teaching them to be more persistent in their efforts to gain that thing by using that behavior.

Basically, the dog thinks, “it won’t always work right away, but there’s a good chance that if I keep at it, it will pay off for me eventually.”

Persistence in a working dog is like a steering wheel in a vehicle—you have no “drive” without it. You want a persistent border collie herding your flock of sheep, a persistent cattle dog herding your cows, a persistent police dog chasing a suspect, a persistent hound dog following a scent. All of these dogs are bred to stay with a task and not give up if it becomes too difficult, or because they got distracted.[2]

But a pet dog with a lot of persistence who exhibits “bad” behaviors consistently can be a pet owner’s nightmare. Most people who acquire a dog will be much, much happier if he doesn’t score high on the persistence scale because that dog will just be easier to own and train and live with.

“You will never get ‘peace’ by encouraging persistence” applies so much to pet dogs that it’s uncanny.[3]

We encourage persistence in the dog when we withhold reward for a period of time before delivering it. (Yes, this works for behaviors we do like, too—but we are focusing on negative behaviors for now.)

Let’s say Boopsy is barking at you for attention while you are working on your computer. You are deep into your spreadsheets and you are able to tune her out for a while. (Last week, you were jumping up as soon as the barking started, but you’ve realized the error in that.) You ignore. The barking continues, and it starts to grate on you. You know you shouldn’t address it, because any attention from you at this point—even just a glance in her direction--will count as a reward. But it’s now driving you insane. You also know that yelling at her to stop Never Works (for you), and the only way to turn off the din is to get up and give her a toy to play with, or pick up her leash.

Whichever of these you resort to will not matter, because both send a message: bark at the human long enough, and eventually they will cave.

Conversely, if the barking for attention never works, the average, not-bred-for-persistence pet dog will give up that behavior after a few tries, and it will be Problem Solved.

(Unlike people, dogs stop doing things that never work for them. They stop much sooner if the behavior has never, ever worked than if it used to work but now does not work.)

And, next time, if you get Boopsy a bone to chew or a toy to distract her before she starts barking, when she is actually calm and is just watching you from her bed a few feet away, she learns that being calm and watching her human will pay off. Problem Solved, AND new behavior learned.

Ignoring behaviors you do not like that are designed to get your attention will stop when they do not, in fact, get your attention. But ignoring these behaviors for a period of time and then rewarding them by giving in will actually strengthen them! Whoops!

If it’s a behavior you enjoy, it doesn’t hurt the dog, and you aren’t one day going to change your mind and want to put an end to it, no problem. Strengthen away!

But if you want a behavior to stop, you never want the dog to learn that “persistence pays.”

My best advice? Figure out which behaviors are beneficial to you and the dog, and strengthen them from the beginning, purposefully; and decide which behaviors you do not enjoy that do not serve you or the dog, and make sure they never get rewarded in the first place.



[1] Do you pronounce the ‘n’ in this word? Or do you say, “colum-ist”? I think most of us say “columNist,” but…why? We don’t say “columN.”

[2] A well-bred working dog doesn’t get distracted away from the work—he lives for it. The work is the reward.

[3] “Never” isn’t really the right word here, because you can actually put persistence to your advantage with the “stay” (and other helpful) commands.