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How to Use Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

If your dog is sitting nicely, he cannot be chasing, jumping, lunging, stealing, or counter surfing.

If your dog is sitting nicely, he cannot be chasing, jumping, lunging, stealing, or counter surfing.

What Is Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior?

This training method has a long and somewhat incomprehensible name, but on closer look, it is easier than it appears. If you are an owner of a dog exhibiting some behavioral problems, you should be more than happy to learn about how differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior may benefit you and your dog. Let's take a close look and define the key words of this training method.


"Reinforcement," in the world of training dogs and science of learning, basically means that a response will tend to repeat in the future, and therefore, it will strengthen. What determines if something is reinforcing is the subject's response to it? Reinforcement is, therefore, subjective. A dog may find jumping on people reinforcing if the dog is given attention when he is standing on two feet and the dog enjoys and craves attention. The act of jumping up will thus repeat over time if people continue giving attention and fueling the behavior.

On the other hand, a dog may find jumping up not reinforcing if he is a bit aloof and dislikes having people too close to his face that pat him on his head. He may, therefore, jump up once and then shy away and stop jumping, because he is not really too comfortable in interacting with people this way. In this case, the jumping up is not reinforcing and will not repeat over time. The act of jumping up may actually extinguish because it did not bring results that the dog found pleasant.

Incompatible Behaviors

Incompatible behaviors are behaviors that clash against other behaviors. For instance, you cannot have a dog jump up and sit at the same time, you cannot have a dog heel and lunge towards other dogs at the same time, you cannot have a dog bite and lick out the content of a Kong at the same time, and you cannot have a dog greet and jump up at guests and go to his place and lie down at the same time. These behaviors are incompatible.

How Does This Method Work?

The purpose of differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior is to reduce a frequent, unwanted behavior without actually punishing it. Indeed, with this method you are actually reinforcing an incompatible response while reducing the likelihood of the undesirable one. This makes this training method humane and very effective. We will take a closer look on how to use this training method to our advantage.

The Four Rules

In order to implement differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior you must abide to the following rules:

  1. The reinforcer must be contingent on the presentation of the wanted alternate behavior (you reward the dog when he offers the alternate, incompatible behavior).
  2. The desirable behavior selected must be incompatible with the unwanted behavior (sitting is incompatible with jumping, going to a designated place is incompatible with rowdy greetings of guests, laying down is incompatible with begging at the table).
  3. The unwanted behavior must be prevented as much as possible from being rehearsed and reinforced (the more a behavior is rehearsed and rewarded, the more it establishes).
  4. The reinforcer must be salient enough to encourage the dog to engage in the incompatible behavior more and more (in other words, use high-value treats or other things your dog loves, especially during the initial stages of learning!).

A Guide to Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors

So how do you apply this training technique? It is very easy, and best of all, it can be used for basically any problem behavior. Let's say your dog gets too excited when guests come over and he jumps up at them. In this case, you may want to train a sit which is an incompatible behavior for jumping. A dog with four feet on the floor cannot be on two feet at the same time! So, how do you proceed? Here is a step-by-step guide that can be applied to many other behaviors.

1. Polish the Incompatible Behavior

Practice the sit command and make sure you polish this very well. Start asking this behavior in a quiet room, then move to any area with more distractions. Ask for the sit in the back yard and then on walks, and so forth. Make sure you reward the sit a lot initially. Make it a good habit to say " good boy or good girl" before delivering a treat. When you start fading treats, your dog will rely on verbal rewards to know he has done a good job. Once your dog sits reliably on request, you can move to step 2.

2. Make the Incompatible Behavior Salient

Equip yourself with high-value treats. While your dog knows the command sit well, you are going to add distractions and this may cause a setback in training. The use of high-value treats will make your dog more eager to sit despite having guests over. In this case, the promise of treats should override the need to jump and greet guests. The incompatible behavior will be more salient than the guests if your dog is food motivated. The dog is making a choice "should I go and greet the guests and lose the chance for getting yummy treats, or should I stick to my owner and receive a yummy treat for sitting nicely?

3. Set Up Your Dog for Success

Have your dog initially leashed. The less a behavior is rehearsed and rewarded, the more likely it will eventually extinguish. In this case, you need to do your best to prevent the jumping and many dogs when on leash tend to act a little bit more under control. With the leash on, you can always move away if things start getting a bit out of hand.

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4. Work Under a Threshold

If your dog appears to be too distracted by the guest and ignores your request for a sit regardless of the high-value treats, chances are you are too close to the guest and the guest is more salient. To reduce saliency, keep the criteria low initially. In other words, try to practice with the guest at a distance. Have a guest practice knocking and coming in and your dog is leashed and at distance; in this case he may be more likely to respond to your sit command so you can reward lavishly. Keep the rate of reinforcement high at this stage. Reward often with high-value treats. As your dog gets good at this gradually, move closer to the person. Tell the person to totally ignore the dog.

5. Reward Incompatible Behaviors and Ignore Unwanted Behaviors

Move closer to the guest and finally include the guest in your training, tell your guest to ask your dog for a sit and have the guest reward the sit by giving the dog attention. Attention is a life reward, the dog likes it without having been trained to like it; it is innate if your dog loves guests. If your dog jumps, tell your guest to turn their back to the dog or even leave. With time and lots of practice, your dog will learn that the incompatible behavior (sitting) now yields the wanted attention, while the unwanted behavior (jumping) yields nothing and even sends the guest away!

It takes some time for this to seep in, especially, if the dog has been practicing the jumping behavior for a very long time. The dog must basically learn the equation: sitting = attention, jumping = no attention. As opportunistic beings, dogs learn fast which behaviors are advantageous and which are not.

Expect Some Extinction Bursts

In other words, the behavior might temporarily get worse at first.

Why does this happen? Basically, if your dog was used to getting attention when he was jumping he may be wondering why not his jumping is not yielding any attention at all. The dog, therefore, thinks: "This is odd, usually I get attention when I jump, maybe I have to try harder!" Often this leads to a dog jumping with more intensity and possibly barking when you turn your back to him. If you are attentive though in ignoring the jumping and rewarding the sit, you should see a significant reduction in the unwanted behavior.

If at any time you notice any rough behaviors or aggression or if your dog has a history of being aggressive., please consult with a behavior professional.

As seen, reinforcement of incompatible behavior is something you should add to your dog's repertoire of training. It is gentle, effective training that best of all, allows your dog to make good choices and be set for success.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does one do on a daily basis to counter dog reactivity? We do daily walks, and not in complete training mode. Distractions are everywhere. We will often turn and go the opposite direction, but then someone or something pops up and causes my dog's reactivity.

Answer: Dog reactivity can sure be a challenge as it requires continuous scanning of the environment. If a large percentage of the walk is teeming with triggers, it may be worth walking in quieter areas at first and work on raw desensitization and counterconditioning. Afterward, once the dog is more comfortable, one may move to areas with more distractions and start differential reinforcement. You will likely need to have a dog behavior professional guide you through for safety and correct implementation.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 04, 2012:

Thank you Dubuquedogtrainer!

Dubuquedogtrainer from Dubuque, Iowa on June 03, 2012:

Excellent, Alexdry! Well-written, succinct and clear. Voted up!

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