Fetching Better Behaviour
What dogs can teach us about changing unwanted behaviours
By Michael Reid, Representative
Most of us have pets, and we love to show pictures and tell stories about how smart they are. I’ve heard it said that when the world is ruled by artificially intelligent robots in 100 years, they will believe that our current world was run by cats, based on their ubiquitous presence on social media.
But have you ever had an experience that made you wonder if you really were dumber than your dog?
My dog Saddie is the lovable type. She’s affectionate with all of us, and we receive a big show when we come in the door—a display worthy of a heroic return. We have that relationship with her in part because we feed her and give her treats to reward her for many, many different positive things.
Consequently, both parties (my family and our dog) are invested enough in our relationship try to work things out when there’s a problem. Sound familiar?
Well, the “problem” with our dog is that she barks up a storm when anything moves outside our front window. Yelling at her to “settle down” didn’t work. Barking is pretty ingrained for a dog, and I wasn’t sure if we could change that behaviour or not.
Then the lights started to come on for me when I remember how not long after we taught Saddie to play fetch, she switched it up and taught us to fetch for her. Yes, really.
This is what happened. After playing fetch a few times, she would jump up on the couch with her bouncy bone, drop it, and look us in the eye. At first, she would respond if we tossed it back and it landed in her vicinity.
But after that worked a few times, the rules changed. If we tossed it back, she would just keep looking at us. We had to put the bouncy bone on her paws before she would react. Then we had to put it straight in her mouth. And she would ever so gently take it.
I’ve never had a dog before, so this behaviour was hilarious and kind of shocking at the same time. It made me realize how many other ways our Saddie was training us.
We tried those behaviour modification principles our dog was using to teach us her fetch game (reward approximate behaviour, then reward more specific behaviour) on her barking. But before we could do that, we all needed to understand a shared goal.
The shared goal with the fetch game was having fun together. The barking, on the other hand, has to do with a very important job for Saddie: protecting the pack by sounding the alarm.
So, if we want to change her behaviour, we have to appreciate her need to protect us from danger. We have to make the effort to see what she is barking at; then, we can praise her for letting us know. The result? She stops barking.
Not only did Saddie’s behaviour change, but I now find the barking less annoying because I understand it from her perspective. Safety is a shared goal. And we ended up giving her more than just praise. We got her a stool to jump up on, so she has a better view of her territory.
Now she’ll get down from her stool as soon as we arrive, as if to say: “Over to you, pal. My job is done.” But she waits, looking us in the eye until we say, “good girl!”
Her bark still sounds unnecessarily angry to me. I will never be able to change that. But we are on the same team now, and it makes a big difference.
You probably know where I’m going with this.
Have you ever tried behaviour modification at work? In the union world, our number one job is behaviour modification.
Every time we file a grievance, we are asking for a different behaviour from a person in management. When we negotiate collective agreements, we are setting requirements for certain behaviours from owners and management—how we want them to pay us, or schedule us, or respond when we screw up—are all behaviours that we want to influence.
Just like how we train our pets, and how they train us back, people need positive reinforcements to change, and you must start with the best you have now and work up from there.
Focussing on the negatives doesn’t get you very far. In fact, if all you do is punish someone, they will see you as an enemy and engage in counterproductive behaviours like open resistance or sabotage behind your back.
Psychologists tell us that if we want to be successful at getting someone to do something different from what they are doing now, we need three positive reinforcements to balance every criticism or punishment. If you want to tell someone to stop doing something, you must reward them for doing the right thing at least three times for each correction, or you will hit that negative spiral of resistance and confusion.
Even well-meaning people just can’t understand what you are asking them to do without clarifications that point them in the right direction. The impact of your attempt to change their behaviour is optimized at six positive reinforcements for every correction.
So how well do we do on that score? They say a dog is an owner’s best friend, but is that because we treat our pets better than most of the people in our life?
We need to give people praise, and we need to do it often, specifically, and professionally. Being positive takes persistence and the courage to call out bad and good behaviour consistently.
How can we do that in the union world?