Reinforce or Reassure?

Recently, I took a flight from Atlanta to New York City. I got on the plane and noticed that the person in the seat next to me had a black carry-on bag under her seat. Not long after the plane took off, there was a loud, ear-piercing, "YIP!" from the bag.

The dog owner quickly pulled the bag into her lap, unzipped it, put her hand inside, and starting talking to her dog. "I'm here," she said. "You're okay." The dog quieted and the bag was zipped and placed back under her seat.

A short time later, there was another startling, "Yip!" Again, the dog owner immediately scooped up the bag, unzipped it, and as before, petted the dog and told him he would be okay.

At this point, the behavior analyst in me started thinking, "Lady, please don't do that every time the dog yips or you will shape yipping and we will be in for a very long plane ride."

I'm so glad I kept my mouth shut and decided to watch and see what happened. The dog was fine.

How is it that the owner didn't shape up yipping behavior? I believe it had to do with the function of the behavior. If the dog had been yipping for attention and the owner reinforced it, we would have probably experienced the long yipful plane ride. But this dog seemed to want to know his owner was still there. Once she touched him, he was fine.

As dog owners, we need to know when to reinforce and when to reassure our dogs.