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Negative Reinforcement

Posted 9/13/2012 11:40am by Julie Hurst / Roy Brubaker.

Thursday, Sept. 13

The use of affirmation to reinforce desired behavior works really well for both children and dogs, but still I am prone to react negatively to undesirable behavior and, as predicted, the outcomes are ... more undesirable behavior. Monday morning as the girls were packing their book bags just minutes before the bus arrived, I was telling Riley what time I would be picking her up for her eye doctor appointment when I noticed she wasn't wearing her glasses.

"Where are your glasses?" I asked.

"I dunno" she shrugged.

"Well, you're the only one who wears them." I said, my voice rising with my eye on the clock. "Think Riley.  We need those glasses for your appointment."

The next several minutes quickly deteriorated into a frantic, failed search followed by a phone call to Grammy to confirm they had indeed been left there, and a subsequent stern lecture on responsibility with a few guilt-induced reminders that now we'd have to add nearly twenty minutes to our already tight schedule to pick up the glasses before the appointment. I was frustrated, Riley was feeling bad, and Frances was silently waiting for the bus. 

Our morning exchange did not go unnoticed by other members of our farm family. When I stepped on the porch to say goodbye, no dogs were there to greet me.  I knew immediately that hearing our raised voices and sensing my frustration, they had run off to quieter territory; Pip to the Klines to visit Tippy and Mac to the Geedy house on the hill where treats and other friendly animals were there to greet him. Now I was really angry; not at Riley or the dogs, but at my inability to stay calm and avoid this.  I had just added another possibly long task to my busy morning. 

I suspect the dogs are conspiring together on behavior modification for their people.  Negative behavior brings negative results for hopefully positive ends.  When the bus pulled away, I soberly blew Riley a kiss and mouthed "I'm sorry".  She blew a kiss back at me, smiled, and waved.  Thankfully the dogs were exactly where I suspected they were.

That night I told Roy about my morning; confessing that the dogs' point was well taken; best to clear out when the air turns tense with strong emotions.  Roy had a story that echoed my own. While moving sheep fence with the girls the other night he too got frustrated with their giddy distraction that slowed down his progress and after his cross reprimand to the girls, he too found the dogs had split, compounding his evening work. 

Mac and Pip like their world to be orderly and calm.  Sheep or cattle out of place and they are at work to right the situation, sometimes whether we want them to or not.  Human behavior is not so easily corralled, but their methods are proving effective.  We cannot ignore the fact that they have run off.  Our neighbors are gracious, but who knows when Mac will come across a dog in heat and an owner who is not pleased to see him.  And then there are the roads.   So we are learning to modify our tone, take a deep breath, consider the consequences; all those things we've known since childhood and still need to learn and re-learn.