Self-rewarding behavior in dogs, what about it?

Self-rewarding behavior: Stealing foodYour dog learns behavior without you realizing it

You may think that your dog only learns through what you practice with him. If you follow a course with your dog, you teach your dog behavior (consciously). But your dog doesn’t just learn what you teach him. A dog can learn from you (also unconsciously) and from others in your area. In addition, your dog also learns through behavior that is self-rewarding for your dog. You could say that your dog also teaches itself behavior. What’s up with that?

Photo: Stealing food is a self-rewarding behavior. This behavior is guaranteed to provide a reward for the dog.

What is Self-Rewarding Behavior?

Self-rewarding behavior literally means that the behavior your dog exhibits is rewarding for him. Without you giving a reward for it. Without you knowing it, your dog is teaching (itself) behavior. Why? Because it benefits him. So you have little influence on this. In that sense: if you are not aware of this principle and you do nothing about it, the behavior will become stronger and stronger. This means your dog will repeat the behavior, probably more and more often and with more persistence, as long as it remains rewarding.

What makes this behavior successful (rewarding) for your dog?

For each type of self-rewarding behavior, there is a reason why this behavior is successful for your dog. The common denominator is that the outcome of the behavior is one positive outcome is, for your dog. And that no one is involved in this, except your dog itself. So always think about the result of behavior, through the eyes of your dog.

Reward in the form of food

Your dog steals food. From the table, from the counter, or from the trash. You can punish him for this, but that is always afterwards. The reward of the stolen food can be so great for your dog that he accepts the punishment afterwards. The same principle can arise if your dog eats off the street, or poo from dogs or other animals. As long as he’s successful, he’ll keep doing it.


Another reason for self-rewarding behavior are hormones that make your dog feel good: the happiness hormones. Endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Each of these four hormones provides a special kind of happiness.

This gives a dog chasing something a feeling of euphoria through dopamine. This is very self-rewarding and even addictive for your dog. So there is a good chance that he will repeat this and that this behavior will become more intense with time. Don’t blame your dog.

Self-rewarding behavior: chasing

Photo: Chasing is a self-rewarding behavior for many dogs. It gives them a nice feeling (dopamine).


Behavior in which others play a role

As soon as someone else is involved in the behavior, such as a person or, for example, another dog, we no longer speak of self-rewarding behavior.

However, your dog can also learn behavior in these situations, without you playing a (major) role in it. So this is good to know and recognize.

Examples of behavior that gets worse quickly:

  • Does your dog bark at the mailman?
  • Does your dog fall out at other dogs, people, etc.?

Chances are that this behavior is for your dog serves a purpose. Namely: chasing away what he barks or lunges at. At the postman, this behavior is always successful for your dog. When falling out to other dogs and people, often too. As soon as your dog notices that he is successful in this way, someone keep at a distance, the reason for repeating this behavior makes a lot of sense. This behavior often gets worse over time (because of this). Your dog will show more often and intensify. So that it becomes even more successful. As it were, your dog practices this behavior over and over again and (in his own words) gets better at it.

How do you influence this behavior of your dog?

In principle, you have no influence on the behavior itself and the learning principle. That means, if you don’t do anything about it, your dog will continue and repeat this behavior over and over.

Get started with unwanted behavior

In the first instance, it is important to understand why your dog has learned certain behaviors. Is it because his behavior is self-rewarding? Or do you or does someone else (unknowingly) play a role in strengthening your dog’s behavior?

In order to change behaviour, you will therefore have to know ‘which buttons to turn’ to change the relevant behaviour.

You can register here for free for a course in which you learn to exercise more control over your dog’s behavior.

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Dog taskCredits

Written by canine behavioral therapist Judith Fick

The Dog Task courses are aimed at changing and improving your dog’s behavior: If you have a question about your dog’s behavior or training, please feel free to contact us at info@honden

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