The beauty of defaults

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Foster Galga Luz and Standard Poodle Phoebe offer a default down while Chrissi has dinner.

A default behavior is an uncued behavior – a behavior that your dog will show if she wants to communicate something to you, get your attention, etc.

If you don’t consciously select for the default behaviors you like, your dog will find her own defaults. This can lead to problem behaviors such as importunate begging at the dinner table, demand barking in the car, and attention barking/nipping/jumping for attention.

According to the law of effect, “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation” in the future. So if your dog gets attention by means of jumping up, he is more likely to do so again, when he wants to gain your attention the next time. If your dog gets a piece of your dinner after bumping your legs with his muzzle several times, he is more likely to bump your legs the next time you eat. And if your dog barks before you let him out of his car/box/kennel/room, he is more likely to demand to be let out by means of barking the next time: you’ve effectively reinforced a default behavior.

However, it’s much smarter to reinforce things you like and create the default behavior of your choice: when I’m eating or cooking, I will occasionally throw yummy scraps between my dogs’ front legs when they are lying calmly on the floor. As a result, no matter whether I’m at a restaurant or at home, they’ll lie down and wait patiently – they know that lying down calmly might make me share my food.

When Phoebe wants to be left out of the car, she will offer a sit – she knows that in order to make me open the door, all she has to do is sit down and wait for me to open it.

By means of consciously reinforcing the things you see and like (e.g. throwing treats/giving attention/starting a game of tug when your dog is lying on his mat/sitting down/standing still and offering eye contact), you will turn these uncued behaviors into defaults and have a well-behaved dog.

Phoebe has a default sit in elevators (we tend to ride crowded elevators to the seventh floor of an office building, and lying down would take up too much space – so I’ve been treated her every time she offered a sit in any elevator), a default down in subways, and a default eye contact when crossing thresholds (staircase/corridor, escalator/floor, elevator/floor etc.). This last one I reinforced because Phoebe tended to jump over thresholds (jump the last stairs from the escalator to the floor, jump over the last stairs of a staircase) or rush through thresholds (rush out of elevator door, rush out of front door). This can be uncomfortable for both of us in crowded situations (Praterstern subway station during rushour, crowded elevators, escalators and staircases), since she used to rush past someone else and bother them this way, or hit the end of the leash. I don’t like either of these two things to occur, so I had a PARTY! whenever she offered eye contact (which automatically makes her slow down and reorient to me) – and woo-hooo, now it has turned into a default! Phoebe’ll now happily turn around and offer her default eye contact whenever we hit a platform or end of staircase, when she touches the escalator “target” (metal ledge at the end of the escalator), or once all four of her legs have moved out of an elevator. All these behaviors make it more relaxing for both of us to navigate a busy world without needing lots of cues (I don’t need to ask her to heel or stop, and I don’t need to constantly watch her). I can talk to a friend, talk on the phone, text or simply relax, and Phoebe will neather bump into strangers nor hit the end of her leash – score!

In order to reinforce random defaults such as my dogs hanging out calmly in the apartment rather than obnoxiously begging, I always have a bowl with assorted treats next to me so I can reinforce whenever I see something I like. I don’t click for these calm duration defaults, but just throw treats between the legs. This way, they’ll have the treat and hold their position.

For the eye contact and reorienting defaults while walking, I will mark the instant Phoebe reorients to me with a click when training. (The click ends the behavior, and since we are out walking in an adventurous world already, I don’t mind using an “exciting” marker like the clicker.)

I recommend just treating for calm defaults where you want your dog to hold her position after being treated, and clicking for on-the-go defaults that don’t need duration. Personally, I don’t give cues when training defaults. I’m patient – my dogs will figure out a default I like on their own.

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