Less yelling, more praise: reinforcing positive behavior at home

It was an ordinary Sunday morning.

I was sitting in the living room with the kids drinking coffee when to my utter shock and surprise, my husband got up and started cleaning. He rinsed dishes, took out the garbage, collapsed boxes and started a load of laundry.

It’s about time, I muttered to myself.

I share this story because in learning about behavior modification and positive reinforcement as part of the dog training challenge, I’m realizing just how much I rely on negative reinforcers at home.

I complain about dirty dishes or socks on the floor. I show my disappointment, I say no, make threats, or respond harshly. Tonight I had to make good on a threat and took away my daughter’s beloved blankie. She is crying and I feel like a horrible person.

They say you’re supposed to praise the good behavior and ignore the bad, but more often than not, I do the opposite. Here’s what I should have done when my husband started to clean up – I should have thanked him, given him a hug, or encouraged him to take an hour or two for himself. I should have said or done anything positive, but I didn’t. Instead, I ignored the good behavior.

Progress report: dog training with positive reinforcement

“A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again. Memorize that statement. It is the secret of good training.” So says Karen Pryor, author and founder of the clicker training method.

I’ve spent the past week using the clicker training method to teach my dog Murray some simple commands (the barking problem is proving to be much more challenging as it’s so closely associated with stress and anxiety – more on that in an upcoming week). The clicker allows me to signal to Murray that a positive reinforcer (bacon) is about to come. When he hears a click, he can start to understand which exact action will earn him the click and subsequent reward.

Clickers are an effective training tool because with one click, we can capture the desired behavior at the exact moment the dog offers it. That said, timing the click isn’t so easy. Sometimes I’m too early, sometimes too late, and other times I miss the cues entirely.

Here’s a two minute video of me teaching him how to “sleep”, i.e. lay his head down on the floor. Spoiler alert: he eventually gets it.


Using positive reinforcement at home

These very same behavior modification concepts can be used at home. No, we can’t click and treat our husbands, kids and coworkers (or can we?),  but we can use well timed reinforcers to encourage certain behaviors, like doing chores or eating vegetables, without the expectation of reward.

Similar to how we have to catch our pets performing all or part of a specific action, we have to catch our “learners” performing the behavior we want, and then quickly reinforce it with praise, a sweet treat, a dollar etc. For example, finishing dinner earns my girls one marshmallow. Picking up toys gets them smiles and high fives.

Again, timing is crucial. If a little girl starts cleaning her room and we lavish the praise before she finishes, we are reinforcing the starting of but not the completion of the task.”In general, giving gifts, promises, compliments, or whatever for behavior that hasn’t occurred yet does not reinforce that behavior in the slightest,” Pryor says in her oddly titled book Don’t Shoot the Dog, so we have to be conscious of how we reinforce the trying (effort) as well as the doing, especially with kids.

Jackpots and variable reinforcers

Thankfully, we don’t have to keep offering rewards forever, only in the beginning. Pryor explains that in the learning stages, we need to give a lot of reinforcers. Then, “in order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability…it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.”

This is the idea of variable reinforcers. A little praise here, a treat there, sometimes nothing at all. And then, surprise them with a jackpot prize that’s ten times as awesome. In other words, I can stop giving my kids marshmallows when they finish their dinner, but once in awhile, at my discretion, I can randomly give them four. The unpredictable nature of the rewards, Pryor promises, is enough to keep the good behavior flowing.

When you do nice things for me, I do nice things for you

That’s what I’ve been telling my kids recently when I feel the urge to respond to the negative behavior. I hope they can internalize this idea of “doing good to others and good will come back to you” because, in essence, it is the foundation of behavior modification through positive reinforcement. The good old golden rule.

Alas, the dog training challenge has turned into a home training challenge. I want to infuse more positivity into the household and ease off on the scolding, threatening and snarkiness. It’s a tricky process to figure out – knowing which behaviors to reinforce and how and when to do it. But I hope that with time, practice and patience, the desirable behaviors will slowly begin to happen more and more… and more.