For four months, Mindy ignored shoes in our house. I thought it was because I was carefully observing and reinforcing choice of her own toys, but actually it was because she was saving up all her shoe-chewing to unleash at once as she turned six months old.
Okay, actually there was a lot of training involved — I even would set up scenarios where she had to make a choice between a legal toy and a household object, and then I would praise and pet when she made the right choice. She got very good at searching out her stuffed dragon toy among hiking boots, for example. (Though in this particular pic she’d opted for a nap, instead.)
All that changed at six months, when developmentally she’s driven to explore and experiment more. And let’s be honest, impulse control takes a dive in our own species too as adolescence approaches! Now she’s developed a whole new fascination with shoes. Carrying them around is annoying, but sometimes she’s chewing on them as well, and that can’t happen, puppy, sorry. No shoes lost yet, but that’s not a road I want to go down. So it’s been a lot of picking up shoes and trading for shoes already collected by the puppy and redirection.
This morning, I heard the telltale thump of a shoe bouncing off the floor as it was carried (she’s a short puppy) and I called, “Don’t do it!” And she stopped and looked at me.
“I’m just going to have to confiscate it,” I said in a singsong voice. “Don’t do it.”
Behaviorally, this is one of those muddy areas to define. Did I punish the picking up of a shoe? Was my little singsong a Delta signal warning of impending negative punishment? I think these are very plausible explanations in this type of scenario, but I don’t think that’s what was happening here; there’s been nothing really aversive for Mindy. I suspect my voice simply interrupted her present course of action (“I found a shoe! I must have it!”) and gave her enough time to think of alternate reinforcing behaviors (“Oh, yeah, I have that new octopus toy”).
It’s kind of like me facing down a cookie. Do I mindlessly grab and eat it? Or, if I take a moment to think about it, would I rather eat the cookie or have something else, or save the calories for later? Nothing bad happens when I pick up the cookie, but I can consider other options.
And when she paused to consider, Mindy made the choice with a history of reinforcement. As she matures and gains more impulse control, that history should take over for reliable behavior!