Consequences drive behaviour

It’s a short little sentence but packed with meaning. We think about behaviour backwards generally. It’s easy to think that your made your dog sit by telling him to sit. You didn’t though.

I think about behaviour as probability at work, and it’s always about affecting probability in the future. Nothing you do now is going to change the behaviour that is happening now (or has just happened). What you are doing is potentially changing the probability of that behaviour occurring again in the future. Let me repeat that.

Nothing you do in the moment is going to change the behaviour that just happened.

That ship sailed. It already happened. That doesn’t mean that what you do doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite. How you respond is going to decide whether that behaviour is more likely to happen again in the future.

“Consequences: The cause that works backwards”

Susan M. Schneider

It’s the consequences that make behaviour happen (or not happen) and consequences happen after the behaviour. It’s a backwards relationship that changes the future.

This is powerful stuff. Suddenly you can free yourself from the confines of the now and change the future!

Want your dog to lie down in his bed more often? – just reinforce it when it happens. He’ll do it more often, you’ll get the chance to reinforce it more often, he’ll do it even more! It’s like a vicious circle but a good one.

Reinforce the behaviours you like and they will happen more often in the future. 

It’s a simple rule and one I strive to live for in all areas of my life. As far as my dogs are concerned it means that I have readily accessed (by me) reinforcers available at any time. So if my dogs engage in behaviour I like and want to see more of I can reinforce them for it.

Ruthless, relentless reinforcement.

That’s what I aim for with a beginner dog learning something for the first time. Whether that’s learning the house rules, or how to weave 12 poles for agility. Every single time they do something I like, it gets reinforced. The probability of them doing the things I like goes up and they spend more of their time doing stuff I like and pays off for them. As the probability increases more and more and the behaviour gets more reliable I change how much I reinforce and with what so that the level of reliability stays high. If I notice it starting to tail off all I need to do is make sure I’m reinforcing well enough to increase it again.

I’m no longer stuck with just hoping that my dog will do what I want and need him to do and gambling on the outcome. I can directly affect the likelihood he’ll do what I want in the future by responding appropriately now.

Of course just because something is simple it doesn’t mean it is easy. Sometimes you do need to make sure that behaviours you don’t like are far less likely to happen, and sometimes you need to stack the deck in your favour so that a behaviour is more likely to happen. It can help to be creative at times, or to have some guidance in how to change things.

There are also some things to avoid doing if you don’t want to reinforce things accidentally – more on that another time.

If you want high probability in your dog’s future behaviour and to learn how to stack the deck in your favour then my Behave! class is what you’re looking for.