positive reinforcement

by Miss What's-Your-Name-Again?

Dear Children,

I understand that your teacher keeps the triumvirate of shitty kid candy (pixie sticks, nerds, laffy taffy) in his desk so as to reward you for good behavior.  I came to understand this when I had to bear witness to one of you do the following:

1. you notice your classmate’s shoe is untied

2. after first checking to see if I am watching, you ask said classmate loudly if he wants his shoe tied

3. not giving him adequate time to respond, you kneel over and poorly tie his shoe, as he quietly protests

4. you shove him out of the way as you barrel over to me, to report that you tied what’s-his-face’s shoe, and can you please have some nerds now.

Positive reinforcement land is a tricky one.  Let me tell you a little about my other recent run-in with positive reinforcement, because this has been a hot topic of discussion in my house of late.  And since I live alone, that means me talking to myself.

A little backstory: I own a dog that is, occasionally, very hard to love.  He’s stubborn, moody, fiercely independent, and holds a grudge like a motherfucker.  Much of my life is spent attempting to cajole, trick, entreat, and otherwise motivate my dog to do things that are entirely to his own benefit, such as: coming out of his crate and over to the goddamn door for his walks.  And let us be clear: he loves his walks.  It is the idea of compliance that he finds utterly repulsive- hence his refusal to come out of his crate, as he now knows it is one place from which I cannot forcibly retrieve him (after many attempts, I can safely say it is too small for full-size humans.)

Enter my dog trainer, who believes in positive reinforcement.  No, he tells me, it is actually in no way productive for me to tell my dog, “You know what?  You’re being really shitty right now.”  The trick is to catch him doing the right thing, and then handsomely reward him with praise and treats so that he begins to associate the “right things” with treats and effusive compliments.

So here’s what happened.  After a few weeks of handsome rewards for good behavior, the only change I have noticed is that my dog doesn’t give a shit about treats anymore.  It’s too easy, so he no longer cares.  He apparently came to the conclusion that the satisfaction of giving me the “fuck off” was way more rewarding than those little Trader Joe’s snacks that look like tiny pitas.

So now here’s how I get my dog to come to the door.  I have to pretend to drop the treat accidentally.  And it isn’t just the sound of the treat hitting the floor.  I then have to say, in my most convincing voice (all those acting classes are finally paying off,) “Oh shit!”  And THEN he comes running, to snatch up his ill-gotten gain.  I have to rely on my dog’s steadfast devotion to doing things I don’t want him to, to get him to do the things I want.

So what’s the deal with positive reinforcement?  Why did I eat three pixie sticks for lunch that day when I swear I hate pixie sticks?  And at what age do you finally become capable of effectively tying your shoes?  I guess it all comes down to knowing your animal.


Miss What’s-Your-Name-Again?