Two Granddaughters, a Pug, a Stuffed Toy Chicken, and Behavior Management

The other night I had the great pleasure of babysitting two of my granddaughters, ages 9 and 11. As we tried to play a card game on the floor, their pet Pug rudely kept using our playing field as his playing field. He would arrive in whirl, impish expression on his visage (or so I interpret) as he held his stuffed chicken toy in his mouth, and completely rearrange the cards on the floor in front of each of us. This was more upsetting to the girls than to me (because I, as usual, was losing and figured I could only gain from having to re-start the game).  My elder granddaughter whisked up the toy and tossed it into the other room. This had a shorter-and longer-term effect on the beast.

In the short term, mission was accomplished. He would tear off across the room after the (from his perspective) escaping chicken. We then could continue our game for a few minutes of relative quiet while he severely thrashed the chicken about for the crime of trying to escape his clutches.

And then there was the longer-term effect. He inevitably tired of thrashing his prey and seemingly longed for another romp with the chicken instead.  The best way to accomplish this, based on his experience, was to revisit the playing field, setting the entire process just described into play again. And that is exactly what happened.

My granddaughter had a great idea for managing the pug’s behavior the first time she tossed the chicken far away from us. It was a combo of changing the environment and reinforcing alternative behavior to standing in the middle of our card layout. The former was accomplished because the chicken was no longer in our faces; the latter because the opportunity to fetch the chicken is a well-established reinforcer for Pug. We do the same thing with small children and adults who are making pests of themselves: we call it finding something to distract them.

The problem came when she threw the chicken the second time, thereby reinforcing bringing the chicken to her. Infants often play the same game by dropping items from the high-chair onto the floor for parents to pick up and return to them. Reinforce behavior and it becomes more likely. I certainly am not blaming my granddaughter for the Pug’s disruptive persistence - we all do exactly the same thing when we ourselves are distracted by the behavior of others. But what might we all have done to allow the game to continue?

Unfortunately, after a few rounds of toss and fetch, many people simply punish the behavior with a swat on the bum, something neither my granddaughters nor I would even consider.  We might enforce a time out, though, by either closing the door with the Pug on the other side or putting him in his crate until the game ends. Or we could move the game to a table (nahh...too much trouble, and we all like being on the floor).  We also might have taken a break, played fetch with him until he was sated on the fetch activity (doesn’t take too long with this guy). Or, we could even continue to play fetch while playing cards by only tossing the chicken when he is calmly seated on the perimeter of the game playing field. … Bingo!

The general principle of reinforcing alternative behavior is a powerful one indeed. Eliminating unwanted behavior often boils down to this. The skill is in figuring out what alternative behavior to reinforce, and how to do it. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.