When I was a youngster I spent a good deal of my summer vacations on my grandparent’s farm. The summer after my undergraduate work, I was eager to visit the country homestead once again. When I arrived, I discovered that there was a family crisis in progress.
Grandpa’s dog and hunting partner, Rusty, an Irish setter, had taken on a very bad habit in his old age. Rusty had begun breaking into the chicken coop and eating eggs. Now, the phrase “egg sucking dog” was one of the worst things that could be said in Northern Iowa. To our ears it was a profanity vulgar enough to make women gasp, and could easily start a fight if hurled at another person in anger. Iowa farmers knew there was only one thing to be done with an egg sucking dog; you had to shoot it and the sooner the better.
You see, Rusty and Grandpa were old friends. I had been with them many times as we flushed up pheasants from Grandpa’s corn fields after the harvest. Grandpa sure didn’t want to shoot Rusty, but he knew it needed to be done. Once dogs start raiding a chicken coop there is no way to cure them. No matter how many times you beat the dog, and no matter how many times you patch the latest hole they have dug under the wall into the chicken coop, they doggedly (forgive the pun) keep sticking their noses under hens and stealing eggs. The “egg money” was Grandma’s private income so you can imagine how she felt about the problem.
With the inexperienced confidence of youth, and a brand new “expertise” in the behavioral sciences, I told Grandpa that I thought I could “cure” an egg sucking dog. After all, I had read B. F. Skinner’s work with dogs and operant conditioning. I wanted to at least have a chance to save Rusty’s life, and save Grandpa the seemingly inevitable, heartbreaking chore.
The theory is very simple. One observes the subject animal, in this case Rusty, doing something the right way, and then reinforces the desired behavior.
dog does something (operant behavior)
dog gets food (positive reinforcement)
Please remember this; it is important. If you reinforce behavior that moves you toward a desired goal, and ignore the old behavior, you will change. It is that simple! Looking backward will keep you backward. Looking forward will move you forward.