I am having a frustrating problem with my doctor’s office. The desk staff just doesn’t seem to be able to do their jobs well recently. Messages are slow to be returned or don’t get returned at all; available appointments can be many days in the future; I might sit for an hour in the waiting room.

My husband says, let’s find another doctor’s office. I’m very reluctant to do that. Why the different opinions?

I have been seeing this doctor since 2005. He saved my life when I had a dangerous rare illness. Most of the times I’ve seen him, he has fixed what was wrong with me.

My husband has been seeing this doctor since 2009. He also had an unusual illness, but he isn’t convinced it was diagnosed accurately or treated effectively. Most of the times he has visited this office, he has not been satisfied with the results.

Reinforcement happens when the results of your actions are so good that you want to repeat whatever created those results. You shop at a store for the first time, find something wonderful at a bargain price; you were reinforced for shopping at that store. You want to go there again.

But what if the next time you shop there, you can’t find anything you like? Will you go back a third time? It’s a toss-up.

You had a very small reinforcement history with that store – just one good experience. What if this store was one where you have shopped dozens of times, with dozens of good experiences, and then you have one bad experience? Will you go back? Probably so, because you have built up a strong reinforcement history with that store. Most of your experiences there have been good, so you are willing to cut them some slack for one bad experience.

I have a strong reinforcement history with my doctor’s office. I have been going there for eight years, with most of my experiences being positive – and one of them was extremely positive. My husband has been going to that office for four years, and fewer than half of his experiences have been positive. I have built up a strong reinforcement history with my doctor’s office. He hasn’t.

So what does this have to do with our puppies?

We are building reinforcement histories with everyone and everything we interact with, all the time, and so are our dogs. I’ve never seen an eight-week-old puppy who was afraid to go to the vet’s office. That puppy has no reinforcement history with the vet’s office yet. If his visits are painless and involve play and treats, he might always look forward to visiting the vet. But if most, or all, of his visits to the vet involve more pain (shots, surgery) than pleasure (treats, play, painless visits), he will start to fear the vet’s office.

Think of it as putting money in the bank. Every good experience is a deposit; every bad one a withdrawal.

It’s very important to remember that when we get a new puppy, that puppy has no reinforcement history with us at all yet. That is why young puppies have no real ‘bond’ with us and would merrily go off with any kind stranger. It takes time to build a reinforcement history. Your puppy needs months to learn that you are consistently the provider of good things in his life and only very rarely does anything negative come from you.

I’ll talk more about this in future posts. Meanwhile, start building that reinforcement history with your puppy!

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