When I was pregnant, I asked Kirsten to come and help us get our dogs ready for life with a baby. At the time, we had 2 beautiful rescue dogs and one of them was anxious. Kirsten came and gave us some great information as well as a few exercises that we could start doing with the dogs. Just as we were wrapping up our session, she said “Remember to notice and reinforce when the dogs are doing something right!” I rolled my eyes as I thought to myself “Really? I’m not worried about what they are doing right; I’m worried about everything they are doing wrong!” But because I love rules and instructions, I jotted everything down and started doing the exercises she had taught us.
It didn’t take long before I made 2 surprising observations:
1. My dogs didn’t spend nearly as much time doing “bad stuff” as I thought they did; and
2. The more I noticed and reinforced great behaviours, the more I got great behaviours.
It was really interesting to see that my dogs were actually good almost all of the time. I guess the bad behaviours just stuck out more because they were annoying/embarrassing/aggravating. Know what I mean? I spent so much time focusing on those behaviours that I was really missing out on all the awesome stuff they did.
The more I noticed the good behaviours, the easier it was for me to reinforce them. The frequency of these behaviours increased significantly. Even more interesting was that I was so wrapped up in focusing on the good stuff that I stopped paying any attention to other behaviours. Many of those behaviours actually extinguished themselves because I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. Those behaviours simply stopped “working” for the dogs so the dogs stopped doing them.
Kirsten calls this little game of noticing all the good stuff “ISpy” and it is, hands down, one of the best things that I have ever learned to do. It is extremely effective in dog training and is pretty powerful in other relationships, too. Because I am human and flawed, I sometimes get annoyed and frustrated at my husband and son. Since I have yet to develop the capacity for infinite patience, I use ISpy to help me focus on the good. Instead of getting caught up in all the stuff that is driving me crazy, I try to think and talk more about what is going right. This inherently improves my relationships because my family spends more time hearing me talk about good stuff instead of hearing me be critical. Seriously. Try this.
Don’t you find that dog training (and people training!) tends to focus almost exclusively on the problem behaviours? I got caught up in that and forgot the simplest rule of behaviour: behaviours that are reinforced will be repeated. Start noticing the amount of effort you put into dealing with “problem” behaviours versus the amount of effort you put into noticing fantastic and appropriate behaviours. If I were a betting lady, I’d bet that considerably more attention is being paid to the exact behaviours you wish would go away. Pick a few great behaviours you want your dog* to do more and start to play I Spy with these behaviours today. You’ll be amazed at what happens!
*spouse, in laws, kid, neighbour, boss, co worker, whoever!
When you start to look for behaviours to positively reinforce, instead of looking for things to criticize and correct, it dramatically changes the way you look at others AND yourself. It feels good to give positive reinforcement and feedback, to watch for good things, and let people know that you noticed and appreciated what they did.
Reinforcing others becomes rewarding (aka: reinforcing) for you! You begin to look for ways to be kind and to reinforce others quite simply because it feels good to do it. It makes you feel good (there’s the reinforcement!). The increase in your behaviour of reinforcing others shows that the reward for doing so has now become reinforcing for you. Remember, a reward can only be considered reinforcing if its delivery increases the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. Some people might say this is selfish behaviour; being kind to others because it makes you feel good. Fantastic! There’s nothing wrong with that. You deserve to feel good and be surrounded with happiness!
Did you know positive reinforcement results in changes in brain chemistry? This change in brain chemistry can affect behaviour favourably especially when you consider that both you and the learner are being reinforced. In children, studies have shown favourable responses in behaviour and also in character development when they are taught using positive reinforcement. Powerful stuff!
In the 1950’s, James Olds at McGill University was doing studies with rats when he discovered that there is a central neural system (reward system) that mediates reward, reinforcement, and pleasurable experiences. Studies on human beings also revealed similar findings; stimulation in some parts of the brain, specifically areas of the hypothalamus, produces pleasurable feelings. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is strongly involved with the reward system of the brain. Dopamine is released in areas of the brain as a direct result of pleasurable or rewarding experiences, like food or sex or positive reinforcement. When we have higher levels of dopamine, we are more likely to feel happy and motivated to achieve goals. Dopamine also helps us to learn and retain new information.
So you see, there is an actual chemical reaction in the brain resulting from positive reinforcement that increases the probability that a learner will repeat a behaviour that was followed by a pleasurable experience. Every time you reinforce your learner, you BOTH benefit from this predictable chemical reaction.
Consider for a moment how much easier and pleasant life would be if you were not fighting to make things right all the time and having to correct and fix relationships with your child, spouse, or pet. Sounds pretty nice, right? Good news. You can have this. There is no time like the present to get started on an easier, kinder, and more pleasant way of life!