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“Don’t Shoot the Dog”

Monday, March 13, 2017 14:31
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“Don’t Shoot the Dog”

When I was a youngster I spent a good deal of my summer vacations on my grandparent’s farm.  The summer after my undergraduate work, I was eager to visit the country homestead once again.  When I arrived, I discovered that there was a family crisis in progress.

Grandpa’s dog and hunting partner, Rusty, an Irish setter, had taken on a very bad habit in his old age.  Rusty had begun breaking into the chicken coop and eating eggs.  Now, the phrase “egg sucking dog” was one of the worst things that could be said in Northern Iowa.  To our ears it was a profanity vulgar enough to make women gasp, and could easily start a fight if hurled at another person in anger.  Iowa farmers knew there was only one thing to be done with an egg sucking dog; you had to shoot it and the sooner the better.

You see, Rusty and Grandpa were old friends. I had been with them many times as we flushed up pheasants from Grandpa’s corn fields after the harvest.  Grandpa sure didn’t want to shoot Rusty, but he knew it needed to be done.  Once dogs start raiding a chicken coop there is no way to cure them.  No matter how many times you beat the dog, and no matter how many times you patch the latest hole they have dug under the wall into the chicken coop, they doggedly (forgive the pun) keep sticking their noses under hens and stealing eggs.  The “egg money” was Grandma’s private income so you can imagine how she felt about the problem.

With the inexperienced confidence of youth, and a brand new “expertise” in the behavioral sciences, I told Grandpa that I thought I could “cure” an egg sucking dog.  After all, I had read B. F. Skinner’s work with dogs and operant conditioning. I wanted to at least have a chance to save Rusty’s life, and save Grandpa the seemingly inevitable, heartbreaking chore.

The theory is very simple. One observes the subject animal, in this case Rusty, doing something the right way, and then reinforces the desired behavior. The reinforcement cycle starts with some action on the part of the trainee (in Skinner’s language, the operant). Operant conditioning is therefore always dependent on behavior. So, we have:

  1. dog does something (operant behavior)
  2. dog gets food (positive reinforcement)

Besides, I knew that these farmers almost always applied negative stimulus after the behavior had become a habit, thus reinforcing the very behavior they were attempting to eliminate.  So maybe a different method might work.

There was considerable pressure to accomplish what I had told Grandpa I could do. That pressure amplified when Grandpa went into town and told the farmers who gathered at the coffee shop across from the hardware store that “My grandson, the psychologist, is going to cure Rusty so I don’t need to shoot him.”  You can imagine the skeptical attitude of Iowa farmers being told that there was a cure for egg sucking dogs.  By this time it was too late to tell Grandpa that I had never actually tested this theory, and I wasn’t sure it would really work.

When I had confidently and foolishly announced to Grandpa that I could cure Rusty, I didn’t even have a plan ready.  So I began to think.  How could I get Rusty to not go into the chicken coop, so that I could then reinforce the behavior I wanted?

I frequently come up with solutions to vexing problems while in that state of mind somewhere between sleep and wakefulness that I call “la la land.”  Lying there in bed in my Grandparent’s farm house, listening to the occasional sound of livestock, and cars more than a mile away on gravel roads, I had a eureka moment.  I had a plan!

The next morning I broke open six fresh eggs and put them in Rusty’s bowl right at the door to the chicken coop. Here is a principle to remember:  Sometimes in order to get the changes going in the right direction you need to do something good for the bad dog.  Rusty came along and noticed the eggs.  I can imagine his dog brain doing this self talk, “Eggs.  Right here.  I don’t even need to eat the shells. And I don’t have to put up with those hens pecking at the top of my head. This is a good thing.” He quickly lapped down the eggs and sauntered off for his nap.

The following morning I did the same thing. I put the eggs a few feet away from the chicken coop, toward the back porch of the farmhouse where Grandma usually fed Rusty.  The next day I again moved the bowl closer to the house, and added some dog food to the eggs.  Every day I moved the bowl closer to the porch, mixing more dog food and fewer eggs. By the time the bowl reached to porch, it was all dog food and no eggs. Rusty had again become accustomed to looking for his food at the back porch of the house, and never again went into the chicken coop.

Please remember this; it is important.  If you reinforce behavior that moves you toward a desired goal, and ignore the old behavior, you will change.  It is that simple!  Looking backward will keep you backward.  Looking forward will move you forward.

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