How to forge a Poke-A-Bot
Or, Pestering Prospers when Paid
Cream is now a playful and active 11-year-old retired racing sled dog. She came to us when she was two years old, right out of a competitive racing kennel. She was, in sled dog terms, 'skittish.' She didn't like interacting with us, she didn't like approaching us. She pranced away, ducked her head, flew upstairs if we looked at her - all the hallmarks of an anxious dog.
As Cream aged, she got a variety of nicknames, including CreamBot. When she was four or five, she started poking us with her slender nose, and the Poke-A-Bot was born. Having an anxious dog initiate contact is such a big deal that we would immediately lavish her with praise, and pet her in the way she likes - a good scratch on her chest and neck. We noticed, much to our delight, that she would poke us more and more.
And more and more.
And then she started to poke our guests. Our shocked amazement that she poked a guest would always prompt them to shower her with affection. It felt special, having an anxious dog with such a colourful history poke you so determinedly. As a bonus, she seemed to get the most enjoyment from poking parts that were, in human terms, a mite irreverent.
Poke-A-Bot is a perfect example of how humans foster a dog's behaviour, intended or not. We trained Cream to poke us by reinforcing it - "paying" her - with something she likes. We inadvertently followed all the rules of reinforcement - we waited until she performed the behaviour of poking, then immediately afterwards we coughed up reinforcement. And true to the laws of animal learning, nose touches increased. As time went on, the poking was easier to ignore, so we only paid attention to the firmer prods. You guessed it: the firmer prods soon replaced the tentative bops.
If You Pay A Pestering Poke-A-Bot, Pestering Proliferates.
The moral of the story is, if your dog is pestering you, you are likely paying it somehow. Teach your dog to do something else to get that reward instead. If you're stumped, call a pro. We are here to help.