Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

Papers blowing

What will it take to turn the fan off?

I read the following online the other day:

People shouldn’t object to the use of negative reinforcement! It’s just stuff like washing my hands when they are dirty or drying them when they are wet. What’s wrong with that?

This is a fairly common defense of using negative reinforcement (R-) in training. The defender points out that R- is common in life and trots out a benign-sounding example or two.

Here’s a quick review of the definition of negative reinforcement:

In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of, a stimulus.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

Dr. Susan Friedman remarks in her Living and Learning with Animals course that negative reinforcement may be the most common learning process of all. Think of all the times we scratch an itch, shift in our seats, take off or put on clothing to be more comfortable, and perform other small movements, almost unconscious, that relieve discomfort. Not to mention the larger, more obvious instances when we escape or avoid things that are bothering, threatening, or hurting us.

(Throughout this post I am using the convention of describing certain scenarios involving aversives as negative reinforcement. However, keep in mind that we never know whether any reinforcement process has occurred until we see a behavior increase or maintain.)

Hand washing is a good example of the day-to-day kind. The analysis looks like this.

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on my hands
  • Behavior: I wash my hands
  • Consequence: No more dirt on hands

Problem solved. Negative reinforcement doesn’t sound so bad then, right? Why should I and others argue against using it in training?

Natural vs. Contrived Reinforcement

Instances where we take action for our own comfort with a behavior that removes the aversive are called natural or automatic negative reinforcement.

Natural reinforcers are events that follow spontaneously from a behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

The “event” in the hand washing case is having clean hands. It follows spontaneously from washing them.

However, when a trainer uses an aversive in training to reinforce specific behaviors, it is no longer natural negative reinforcement, because she has inserted herself into the process. This version is called contrived negative reinforcement.

Contrived reinforcers are events that are provided by someone for the purpose of modifying behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

No longer does the human or animal necessarily respond with a behavior that directly relieves her discomfort.  The trainer decides what behavior is required to stop the aversive stimulus. It may be something completely unrelated to what the natural escape response would be. The important thing is that the trainer uses the aversive by putting a contingency on escaping it. 

My dogs love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They come in when they get too hot.

Clara and Zani love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They get off it it’s too hot. 

This post was born the other day when I watched Zani hop onto the chaise lounge in the backyard, take a couple of steps around on it, and hop off again. It was 100 º Fahrenheit out and the vinyl was hot to the touch. Clara approached it and I pulled out my camera, expecting her to jump off as well. Instead, she settled down and stayed there for six minutes, getting up not out of apparent discomfort, but instead because Summer barked at something. I realized I wouldn’t have known that Zani would be more sensitive to the hot plastic than Clara. See #4 below.

Important Differences

Equating contrived, training-centered negative reinforcement with natural negative reinforcement is inaccurate.

In the movie I demonstrate five differences between the two. In contrived negative reinforcement:

  1. A third party controls access to the reinforcer and can set contingencies on escaping or stopping the aversive stimulus.
  2. The animal doesn’t generally escape the aversive one time and get to move on and do something else. The trainer usually reapplies the aversive, exposing the animal to it multiple times.
  3. The trainer forces the animal to stay in the area. She will generally prevent the animal from performing the natural escape response that would end exposure to the aversive. For instance, gun dog trainers who teach a force fetch with an ear or toe pinch often have the dog tethered very tightly on a bench. People who use negative reinforcement in exposure to triggers usually have their dogs on leash.
  4. The trainer can’t know exactly how much discomfort she is causing the animal. She has interrupted the natural sequence for the animal of “feel discomfort–do something about it.” She may cause the animal to endure a much larger magnitude of the aversive than it would have in natural negative reinforcement.
  5. The behavior required to escape the aversive can be anything at all. The animal often has to figure it out while in the presence of the aversive.

In the movie I show an example of a natural negative reinforcement scenario with a very low-level aversive stimulus. Something you wouldn’t think twice about if it happened to you. Then I show what happens when that low-level aversive is applied in a contrived negative reinforcement scenario. 1)By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.

I’m keeping this post short because most of the juicy stuff is in the movie. Seeing is probably more effective than reading.

 

Link to Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement movie for email subscribers.

I haven’t discussed the fallout from the use of aversives in this post. I do in several other posts and pages.  (Yeah, I know, I usually won’t shut up about it.) But do take a look at the movie and consider how you would feel about the person who had the remote control in her hand.

Related Posts

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Share Button

Notes   [ + ]

1. By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Negative Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

The Gravity Game

Clara holding ball

Clara has always loved playing ball. She enjoys chewing balls up and chasing them in equal measure. When she was a pup and adolescent it was a joy to watch her shape herself into quite an athlete, in her drive to chase down and catch the ball more quickly.

She gives her all to it, hurling herself down the hill through my yard. She has never had a ton of stamina, so often we are done very quickly. I let her have her ball only when we play with it and for a short time afterwards, because of her interest in chewing it up. So she has invented various ways to keep the game going longer without wearing herself out.

One of those ways ended up being the Gravity Game.

Clara under the porch steps

Clara under the porch steps

She has always liked to hang out under my back porch steps, and started taking mini-breaks there during our play. She soon discovered that if she let go of the ball while under there, it would roll out. Then, Silly Human might roll it back to her. That was Gravity Game 1.0. Then one day, Silly Human failed at her job. And Clara discovered that without intervention, the ball would usually roll down the hill. She could then play a mildly entertaining game of fetch all by herself. That was Gravity Game 2.0. You can see Gravity Games 1.0 and 2.0 in the video immediately below.

 

Link to Gravity Games 1 & 2 for email subscribers.

Possessing and Chewing the Ball

Clara doesn’t play Gravity 1.0 or 2.0 that much anymore because we have developed other ways for her to keep her ball longer in the yard in between sessions of my throwing it. I’ll be writing about those new activities in a future blog. But I have always let her carry her ball in the house after we finish playing, and Gravity 3.0 was born inside.

The photo shows why Clara gets possession of her ball only for short time periods.

A red rubber ball with many chew marks and pieces missing

The reason Clara doesn’t get to have her ball all the time…

That ball is several years old, so that damage is from many sittings. But still, the longer she has it, the more rubber will disappear, either onto the floor or down her gullet.1)That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.

Sharing the Ball

There is so much I appreciate about Clara. This new indoor game highlights the fact that Clara, as focused as she is on balls, is not overly “guardy” of them. I have never seen her snarl or even give a hard look at either of the other dogs, should they wander close or play with one of the balls. Granted, they both defer to Clara’s ownership of a ball when she has it, but still, she isn’t ugly about it.

More than that, I love that Clara trusts both Zani and me to return the ball to her in Gravity 3.0. Clara knows that she only gets the ball for a limited time after we come in the house, but the game makes it worthwhile for her to release it periodically. I have a predictable routine for taking the ball away from her (she gets a dab of peanut butter), and I don’t ever do it in the middle of a game.

The New Game: Gravity 3.0

Clara is already accustomed to Zani “helping” retrieve the ball. You can see that in this old movie of Clara and Zani’s Team Retrieve, and also the movie in my blog post “What You Reinforce Is What You Get.” Gravity 3.0 is perhaps a spinoff from the team retrieve as well, but one where Clara gets to hang out in a corner and have gravity, Zani, and me do all the work! It fits perfectly that she would develop this game to take place when she is tired from dashing around the yard.

The more I think about it, the funnier it is. Clara has pulled a role reversal. She has taught me to play fetch! She drops the ball down a step, and Zani and I return it to her. Zani, as usual, has figured out a way to get paid for an activity.

From years of observation, I am fairly certain that one of the main reinforcers when Clara plays ball is the physical sensation of catching the ball in her mouth. So in Gravity 3.0, she gets to chew and mouth the ball, she releases it for a few seconds, and then she gets to catch it again. What’s not to like?

What games has your dog taught you?

 

Link to Gravity Game 3.o for email subscribers.

Related Posts and Movies

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

 

Share Button

Notes   [ + ]

1. That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.
Posted in Play, Toys and Play | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

It Was Coming Right At Me!

 

Silhouette act 2

Backlit silhouettes may look pretty strange to dogs. (Photo credits at the bottom of the page.)

I am so interested in how dogs perceive things, and how they notice differences that we don’t, or that we take for granted. Those differences can matter to them a great deal. An example of that was the focus of my recent post, “Intruder in the Yard!,” about Zani’s response to a landscape timber in my yard that had rolled out of place.

Clara, with her feral puppyhood, appears to discriminate between people to an extreme. She socializes with a few people besides me now, but each person has behaviors Clara is comfortable with, and everybody’s list is different. One person might scuff a foot while standing next to Clara, and Clara won’t even appear to notice. Another might do so and she will startle. And even though she can walk through crowds of people now, she’s most comfortable if they move along. Let someone slow down and start to focus on her…well, let’s say that that is not on her list for most strangers. Frankly I don’t know how she keeps up with her rules.  They are extremely detailed.

This week I learned a new “detail.” Though I expect for her it was a large and important difference.

Real-Life Training

Every week Clara and I take two lessons. (I am very lucky to have a great trainer and friend who has worked with Clara since she came to my life.) One of the lessons usually takes place on the road. I have posted about Clara’s many trips to a shopping mall, and how that was the place where she started to step out of her wariness with humans.

Recently we have been going to a park along a river. It has many walkways and pedestrian bridges. We go for long walks among joggers, bicyclists, walkers, other dogs on leash, and lots of kids, all of which Clara has handled with aplomb.

Last week, though, Clara’s paw pads got sore from an allergic reaction just a day before her lesson. We decided to take mats and watch people go by for an hour.

Our teacher brought her young border collie, who recently made Clara’s Dog Friends list. (The Dog Friends list has a speedier application process than the Human Friends list.) We found a shady spot to set up. The spot was on a sheltered sidewalk that was in a low-lying area. There were three different approaches, two of which were stairs coming down. The dogs settled on their mats.

Here They Come!

After we had been there for about 15 minutes, a man who had been exercising walked down the steps and straight toward us. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and headphones (which Clara is normally quite used to) and was walking slowly. “BOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. I leaped up and we moved a little, but she alarm-barked off and on until he went by. She was responsive to me and not out of her mind, but not happy with that man. We discussed the ways he might have been different from what she was used to and decided to stay where we were. It was a quiet weekday morning, and the odds were in our favor that that would not happen again.

Then along comes a woman in a jogging suit along the same path. She was equally alarming to Clara.  She came slowly down the stairs toward us, then stopped and started doing stretching exercises in our vicinity. “BOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. The woman was about 20 feet away from Clara, which is usually plenty for Clara’s comfort. She happily passes pedestrians at touching distance when we walk. But this woman had already startled her, so this was not OK.

The woman stayed so we left. We moved to a different sidewalk where the approaches were rather curved and there were no steps coming right at us. And it’s a good thing we did, because immediately another man went to the area where we had been and started doing exercises that looked like fast motion Tai Chi. Luckily Clara couldn’t see him from her mat. We did OK for a while. I made sure she didn’t get up and be able to see the man, who was now doing a squat walk. Mercy! (Everybody who has a dog who is bothered by people doing odd things should do some prep work for that one!)

A woman came our way and visited with the young border collie while Clara watched happily and ate spray cheese. But then a woman headed in from the other direction using a cane.  Clara has been around several kinds of mobility equipment, and quite frequently, but this didn’t seem like the day to ask her to do that. And the squat-walking man was turning the corner and I was worried he was coming our way. We called it a day.

What Were the Differences That Day?

There were quite a few, and I have an opinion about what added up to trigger Clara into alarm barking. Here are the differences I can identify.

  1. Clara had a tender foot.
  2. We were with a younger, smaller dog whom she didn’t know as well (Clara is usually more relaxed when a doggie friend comes along).
  3. We were in a low-lying area with people coming straight down at us. The angle was unfamiliar.
  4. The people approaching were in shadow, somewhat backlit.
  5. The people stopped or slowed when they got to the bottom of the steps rather than proceeding along.
  6. The “crossroads” area where we were didn’t have a clear path; it was a largish paved area where people might hang out rather than continue briskly through.
  7. There was no demarcation between where Clara was lying and the rest of the sidewalk. When she would lie on her mat at the shopping center we were usually on grass right next to a sidewalk, but this was different. There was no visible boundary between Clara and the people coming through.
Clara being a tourist on a happier day

Clara being a tourist on a happier day (if a bit hot)

I honestly doubt whether the tender foot contributed to her lower threshold for reactivity that day. And we’ll never know whether she would have been more comfortable with her usual dog buddy (a personable and confident rough collie). But I think all the other things I mentioned about the setup basically added up to “threatening,” especially numbers 3, 4, and 5. People coming straight down at her, in shadow, then slowing down or stopping.

Ever since she came into my life as a 10-week-old pup, Clara has been sensitive to being trapped. I think the layout contributed to that, and the angle of approach and backlighting sewed it up.

But these are just my best guesses. I may have missed something else entirely. Time will tell.

Was This a Catastrophe for her Training?

We won’t know whether Clara got more generally sensitized to people until the next time we go out. If this incident had happened earlier in Clara’s training before her many positive experiences, it could have caused quite a setback. But I doubt that will be the case. By now she has had hundreds of hours of graduated good experiences being out in the world with people of all types, doing all sorts of things. So in the face of all that excellent history, this was probably but a blip on the screen.

It was a good reminder to me that although my dog has come such a long way, I would do well not to take her usual relaxed and happy affect for granted. There are still things that might upset her more than I expect them to, and I can’t always predict them.

What’s the weirdest human activity your dog has gotten accustomed to? Squat walk is going to be our new challenge. I don’t know if we will ever work up to being at the bottom of a hill and have people come down at us, though!

Related Posts

Photo Credit: The silhouette photo is copyright © Francesco Scaramella. Used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. I altered the photo by cropping out a second figure.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                     eileenanddogs.com

Share Button
Posted in Discrimination, Fear, Generalization | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Fireworks Time!

I updated my fireworks post and put it onto a permanent page, since it applies to several holidays. Right now we have Canada Day and U.S. Independence day both coming up.

You can access the post below!

6 Ways to Prepare your Dog for Fireworks

Summer cheese 2

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Share Button
Posted in Fear, Management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Not All “Choices” Are Equal

Two paths diverging

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shout-outs to Companion Animal Psychology for the post, The Right to Walk Away” which covers the effects of offering that particular choice in animal experiments, and encourages us to apply the concept to our animals’ lives. Also to Yvette Van Veen for her piece,  “A” Sucks “B” Stinks What Kind of Choice is That? , which definitely has some “rant” commonalities with this post of mine.

We positive reinforcement-based trainers often point out that our dogs have the choice not to participate in a training session. I think giving the animal “the right to walk away” is a good and humane practice. I also believe it’s only the first step of consideration of our animals’ self-determination.

Trainers who exclusively use aversives to train employ the language of choice as well. Shock trainers will say that the dog “is in control of the shock” and that the dog has a choice. In that case the choice is to comply–or not. Neither of the choices yields positive reinforcement. But these trainers too can honestly claim their dogs have choices.

Most of us would say that theirs is a pretty strained use of the term, “choice.” It’s a very stacked deck, and even the best option–successful avoidance–is not a fun one for the dog. But using the definitions of learning theory, neither of those situations–the positive reinforcement-based trainer giving the dog the right to leave, nor the shock-only trainer–would qualify as giving the animal a “free choice.” 

I’m going to argue here that limiting choices is intrinsic to the process of training an animal, whatever method we use. It’s the nature of the process. And it’s actually not “choices” or “no choices” that define a method’s humaneness.  It’s what kinds of choices are available within the structure we set up that determines how humane it is. 

We all stack the deck.

When anyone talks about giving their animal choices, I believe we need to ask questions.

  • What can the animal choose between?
  • What processes of learning are involved?
  • Is an aversive stimulus a focal point of the choice making?
  • What choices are ruled out?
  • Will the choices broaden later in training?

Not all choice situations are equal, and I think we need to knock off the instant happy dances anytime a person mentions “choice” in reference to training. Instead, I think we should ask, “What are the choices?”

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

How many times have you read one of the following instructions in a positive reinforcement group or forum? They are often addressed to new trainers, or trainers with puppies.

  • Be sure and begin your training in an area of low distraction.
  • Control other possible reinforcers.
  • If you can’t get the dog’s attention, start in the bathroom with the door closed and wait him out.
  • Don’t let the dog practice undesirable behaviors.
  • Watch out for bootleg reinforcers!

All of those are about limiting choices by removing the availability of reinforcers. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we do that. But there is no contradiction here. As trainers using primarily positive reinforcement, we are in the best position to look at the ways that this kind of choice management affects our dogs’ lives, and examine the ways we can move forward to a more choice-rich environment for them.

The Desirability of Choice

Many experiments have shown that animals and humans prefer having multiple paths to a reinforcer, and of course options for different reinforcers as well.

This is from a webpage that describes one of the important experiments with animals regarding choice. The experiment introduced some interesting nomenclature.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, “Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons.”

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.  Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

Another good article about the Catania experiments and other work on choice is, “On Choice, Preference, and Preference for Choice” by Toby Martin et al.

(In no way can this short post cover all the nuanced research about choice. For instance, abundance of choice has a downside, especially for humans. I am sticking to the issues of choice that are most applicable to the situations our companion animals find themselves in.)

“Forced Choice”

Note the definition of “forced choice” in the description of the experiments above. Nothing happened when the pigeon pecked the red key. The bird was not shocked or otherwise hurt. Forced choice was defined as a situation where only one behavior led to positive reinforcement (more correctly, a appetitive stimulus), and another behavior or behaviors led nowhere.

Having more than one behavioral path (in this case, multiple green keys to press) to get to the goodie was defined as “free choice.”

Now, think back to what we do in the early stages of training. Review my list above of the ways we remove “distractions,” i.e., other reinforcers. That type of training situation more closely resembles forced choice than free choice. The freedom to leave–especially in an environment that lacks other interesting stimuli–is not enough to designate a process as being free choice, at least in the nomenclature of this experiment and subsequent definitions in learning theory. But it’s a good first step.

Types of Choice

Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.

  1. Choice between different behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. See examples below.
  2. Choice between handler-mediated positively reinforced behaviors and nothing in particular. This is the typical “they can walk away” type of positive reinforcement training session.
  3. Choice between different positively reinforced behaviors with an aversive present.  This can happen in exposure protocols if the trigger is close enough that it is at an aversive level. The proximity limits the value of positive reinforcement, and, if the aversive gets too close, eliminates it, because of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
  4. Choice between enduring an aversive stimulus and performing a behavior that allows escaping it. Most shock collar training exemplifies this, as do operant exposure protocols that put contingencies on escaping the trigger.
  5. Choice between behaviors that are positively reinforced and behaviors that are positively punished. A training situation such as “walk in heel position, get a cookie; surge forward, get a collar pop.”
  6. Choice between behaviors that are positively punished and behaviors that get nothing in particular. This would be across-the-board suppression of behavior.

In all that I listed, even #6, the dog can be said to have a choice. But none of them, with the exception of #1, would likely be called “free choice” in learning theory nomenclature.

Clara stops to smell the roses

Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:

  • Desensitization/counterconditioning with the trigger at a non-aversive level. The leash or other barrier prevents or controls the choice of movement towards the trigger, but there are no contingencies on behavior within the area and multiple reinforcers may be available.
  • Shaping, which can offer multiple choices of behavior along the path to a goal behavior.
  • Reinforcing offered behaviors in day-to-day life with an animal. (I’ll write about this in my followup post.)
  • Training techniques that allow the dog to leave in pursuit of another interest. However, these as well do tend to have a final goal of another behavior.

Note that we are not talking about using a variety of reinforcers. That’s easy to do in training. We are talking about different behaviors leading to reinforcement. When you are focused on a training goal, that one is a lot harder to include!

A Word About Preference

Preference is not the same as choice, though they are related.

From a review article about choice:

Preference is the relative strength of discriminated operants Researchers often measure preference as a pattern of choosing.  –Martin, Toby L., et al. “On choice, preference, and preference for choice.” The behavior analyst today 7.2 (2006): 234.

Pattern is a key word. I may not like my green tee-shirt very much, but I will choose it if my red ones are in the wash. It is only by observing my tee-shirt choice over time, noting circumstances and performing a bit of statistical analysis, that my choices will indicate my preference (red tee-shirts).

Observing our pets’ preferences, and giving them their preferred items, is a good and thoughtful thing, but doing so does not necessarily involve their making a choice.

In addition, determining an animal’s preferences in a formal way can be more difficult than it sounds. But scientists are developing ways to determine choice in animals. The following article covers some of these:  Using Preference, Motivation, and Aversion Tests to Ask Scientific Questions about Animals’ Feelings.

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

I think that when we talk about giving dogs choices, or describe protocols that supposedly do this, we should consider two things. First what are the choices? Are there multiple possibilities for positive reinforcement, or are there choices between positive reinforcement and nothing, or only crappy choices?

Second, we should consider how we are limiting choices. Are the limitations temporary or permanent? Are there ways we can give our dogs ways to express their preferences and make choices in their lives with us? Even in training?

There is no barb intended for positive reinforcement-based trainers in this post. Giving the animal the right to walk away is revolutionary in the recent training climate. We are the ones taking that step. Sometimes it’s the most control we can give them. But I believe we can do more.

Part 2 of this post will include my attempts–successful or not so–in giving my dogs choices in different situations.

How about you out there? In what ways do you give your animals choices–in day-to-day life or in training?

Articles Mentioned

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Share Button
Posted in Behavior analysis, Operant conditioning, Training philosophy | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Dog Body Language Study: Intruder in the Yard!

Zani advancing

What is Zani so wary of?

My little dog Zani has so much personality, but it is rare for me to capture her feisty side on camera. She is almost certainly a hound/terrier mix. She has the softness and sensitivity of some small hounds, and can dole out appeasement signals as well as any beagle. I’ve shown her fearful side. But she is also a tough cookie. She holds her own in a household with two bigger dogs. She chases (and yes, kills) small animals. She tells me off sometimes. So when she was alone in the yard, alarm barking but not advancing on whatever was bothering her, I grabbed the camera. I knew it would be interesting.

The “not advancing” part was what clued me that this was something different. If there had been any sort of animal or human in the yard or close by, she would have run forward without hesitation. This was some other kind of threat.

It would be easy to make light of what it turned out to be. But you know, my little dog is brave. She weighs all of 19 pounds. It’s true that she didn’t start to approach the monster until I offered to go along, but she led the way. I do wish I could have had a view of her from the front. There is a section in the video where her body language gets a bit scary looking. It starts at about 0:46. I would get out of the way of any dog who was advancing towards me in that manner.

The other amazing thing to me is how fast she piloerects–and then how fast the fur goes down again when she determines that all is well. Here’s a nice piece by Karen London on Piloerection–do you think Zani counts as “confident” according to her observations? Thanks to Julie Hecht for a mini-discussion about this too.

I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I did. There’s so much more to observe than what I noted in the video.

How about your dogs? What scary things have they conquered?

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Related Posts and Pages (featuring the adorable Zani)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Share Button
Posted in Dog body language | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

“Good Sit!”

Summer Zani sit stay

Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.

  1. What part of speech is the word, “Sit”?
  2. Then, what part of speech is the same word if we say, “Good sit!” afterwards?

That was a trick.

If we were talking to a human who speaks the same language we do, the first “Sit” could be an imperative or command verb. The second “Sit” would be a noun.

But neither of those, while grammatically correct, applies to training a dog. Dogs are not humans. “Sit” is something else entirely to them.

In dog training based on positive reinforcement, “sit” is a discriminative stimulus. To the dog it is not a word. It is not English. It is not eligible for grammatical analysis. It is an antecedent, in this case a specific sound that comes to indicate that reinforcement is likely available for the act of sitting. (I include the word “likely” because sometimes we don’t reinforce every single sit.)

Examples of other discriminative stimuli for dogs are hand signals we give them, auditory cues such as whistles, and all sorts of things in life that act as cues that certain behaviors will be reinforced. These life events are not necessarily deliberate actions by us, and may not even be known to us. I wrote about some in my post called, “16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real).”

So if “Sit” is a discriminative stimulus, what is “Good sit”? I’ll get there. First I need to talk about this problem with words and meanings.

I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

We humans have an enormous problem to overcome when we use words as cues. When we hear the sounds that comprise the word “Sit,” in whatever language we speak, we can’t divorce the meaning of the word “Sit.” We generally pick verbal cues that are descriptions of the behaviors they apply to. Convenient for us, but unfortunate for the dogs. We can’t help but think they understand the cues as language.

Sometimes we pick more colorful words for cues for our amusement or because the standard word is inconvenient. My friend Marge’s cue for her dog Zip to sit is, “Senta,” the Portuguese word for sit. “Sit” was too close to his name, plus she didn’t want to spend his life sputtering out, “Zip, sit!” And although he’s a Portuguese Water Dog, she didn’t pick “Senta” because he innately understood it. He doesn’t. She picked it because it’s fun, clear, and didn’t resemble any of her other cues.

I have a couple of fun cues. I use “Yoga” to cue Zani into the bow position (downward dog, get it?). I use “Rewind” to cue Summer to do a funny little backwards crawl/scoot. But hey, I’m a human, so I still hear these as words, with meanings. Not just a group of sounds. (And of course, the “funny” part has to do with their meanings…just can’t get away from that, can we?)

The Curse of Knowledge

This inability to get the meanings of words out of our heads on behalf of our dogs is an intra-species example of the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to a situation where someone who knows something (in this case the human) can’t imagine not knowing it. Here is a link to a good synopsis of a famous study, “tappers and listeners,” about the curse of knowledge.

In the tappers and listeners study, one person in a team of two would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners could guess correctly only about 2.5% of the time. But get this: the tappers predicted that the listeners would know the answer 50% of the time.

The tappers heard the song in their heads as they tapped, and couldn’t put themselves accurately in the place of the listeners, who were only hearing tapping. Even the most empathetic of us can’t turn off the songs in our own heads.

In dog training, we are the tappers and the dogs are the listeners. It’s worse though, because not only do they not know all these meanings and subtexts that are there for us, they are not capable of knowing most of them. Yet they read situations so well and are typically so attuned to us that they give the impression of knowing these things in the same way we know them. They have their own geniuses, but it is not likely that any dog understands language and grammar as we do.

By the way, I am not the first to tell about the “tappers and listeners” study with regard to some characteristics of dog training. Kathy Sdao describes it and even demonstrates it in her DVD “What Not to Err.” My friend Marge incorporates it into her orientation for beginning clicker trainers.

“Good Sit!”

OK, I finally made my way back around to this phrase. You can easily find dozens of websites that instruct you to say, “Good sit!” after your dog sits. Probably some of you have been instructed to do that. I have. I was told the following by an obedience instructor: “You should say, “Good sit” after your dog sits so they will know what it is they did right.”

This assumes that the dog can follow the leap from “Sit” as a noise meaning that sit will be reinforced, to “Sit” as a noun, modified by “Good.” This makes no sense. It only makes sense in our twisted world where verbal cues unfortunately have meanings that correspond to the actions we attach to them.

Here is an example that I hope demonstrates the faulty logic of “Good sit.”

The starter's pistol is a discriminative stimulus.

The starter’s pistol is a discriminative stimulus. Photo credit: Stewsnews on Flickr. License at bottom of the page.

The starter’s pistol going off is a discriminative stimulus for people who run track. It indicates that pushing off the starting block and starting to run will likely be reinforced. So please envision this. A runner is practicing her starts. Today the coach is using a real starter’s pistol so she’ll get used to it. The coach fires the pistol, and the runner makes an excellent start. She runs a few yards, stops, and turns back. The coach says, “Good…” and BANG! fires the pistol in the air again. The runner startles and says, “Why did you fire again? I’m not ready! I’m not even in the block.” The coach says, “I was telling you that you made a good…” BANG! and fires the pistol one more time.

With this example, we can clearly see that that the cue is not the same as the action. The coach means to tell the runner that she made a good start. **BANG** is not a description of the action of start. It’s just the cue that indicates a certain action will be reinforced. Likewise, “Sit” is the noise that indicates to a dog that sitting will be reinforced. It does not somehow “mean” that action to the dog.

Frankly, I can keep this in my head only for short periods. It slides away so easily.

It’s Not Harmless

Some might say, OK, it doesn’t mean what we think it does, but it doesn’t hurt anything to say it anyway. Well yes, there are worse things. But using, “Sit” as part of a praise phrase is not a desirable practice.

First, you are repeating the cue when the dog is already doing the behavior. This dilutes the one-to-one pairing of the cue and the action, diminishing the power of the cue. It also adds more chatter to the training session, creating more verbiage for the dog to sift through to try to catch words that might be cues. Or to learn to ignore them. Finally, I believe we need to do everything possible to understand the dog’s point of view. Choose cues thoughtfully. Make sure they all sound different. Use them consistently, and only for that purpose. What if, instead of words in English (or your own native language), you had to use a randomly assigned color flash card or a complete nonsense phrase for every cue? Wouldn’t they be kind of hard to remember? That’s the position our dogs are in. They have to use brute memory on cues.

That last reason is the big one. Saying, “Good sit!” every once in a while or even regularly does little harm to the dog in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I do half a dozen things to my dogs that are more confusing than that. The harm is to us as trainers. It keeps us entrenched in the belief that dogs understand language the same way we do.

If you are going to praise, far better to say, “Good!” or “Good girl!” or “Good dog!” And to say the same thing consistently. If you say it regularly before you give the treat, you are also building up a nice little conditioned reinforcer. But that’s a post for another day!

Related Posts

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

License for starting line photo.

Link to original starting line photo.

 

Share Button
Posted in Behavior analysis, Cues, Dog training hints | Tagged , | 25 Comments

Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.

Summer air scenting keep 3

Summer air sniffing

Hey. You know that thing that seems like the perfect solution to problems with your dog when walking on leash? It’s not a free ride after all.

Let’s say you are a beginner trainer struggling with teaching loose leash walking. Your dog is very tuned into the environment, and the thing he is most interested in is sniffing. So when you ask for advice on the Internet, it is pretty much guaranteed that several people are going to chime in with the same suggestion: use sniffing as the reinforcer!

It sounds perfect, right? Sniffing, i.e. access to odor, is a powerful motivator for most dogs and an obvious candidate to use for reinforcement. But unfortunately for us amateurs, it takes some finesse to use it. I know this from hard experience.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that if you release a dog to sniff, you need a way of getting him back. He has already told you with his behavior that access to sniffing interesting odors is massively interesting, more so than the treats in your pocket. So if you let him sniff, then what? You have the same problem you had to begin with, only worse: your dog is all excited about the environment and can’t focus on the task of leash walking.

If your dog is a beginner at this, the problem is worse. You are asking him to learn a difficult skill, keeping the leash loose and walking with you in a connected way. But you are also letting him run around sniffing with you following behind on a sometimes tight leash. How do you keep the criteria clear?

Most of the time a non-fearful dog’s difficulty with loose leash walking boils down to some of the following:

  1. The dog is too excited to focus on the difficult task of walking on a loose leash;
  2. The dog didn’t get enough practice walking at his person’s side in less interesting environments; and/or
  3. The item (food, toy) the trainer is trying to use as reinforcement doesn’t have enough value.
This is probably stress sniffing

Zani is probably stress sniffing

(I am excluding fearful dogs, because their issues can be different. Sniffing may not be for the purpose of information or entertainment. It can be a displacement behavior, a sign of stress. In this post I’m discussing dogs who are not anxious, just intensely interested in the odors around them. Be sure you know which it is for your dog.)

Let’s see if releasing the dog to sniff will likely solve the above problems.

  1. Dogs who are too excited to focus. If you get a few steps of nice walking on a leash from such a dog, and release him to sniff, will sniffing “get it out of his system” and allow him to come back to you, ready to focus and work? Probably not. If the dog couldn’t focus in the first place, allowing a sniff session will probably not fix that.
  2. Dogs who haven’t gotten enough practice in less interesting environments. If he didn’t get enough practice in your training room or back yard, a sniffing session is not going to magically give him the skills to return to you and have good leash manners.
  3. Dogs for whom the reinforcer is not sufficient. If your reinforcer was not strong enough to get the dog’s attention in the first place, how could it work to get him back when you have released him into happy sniff land?

What Happens When You Try It

Here’s what probably happens when you try the sniff thing without adequate background work. You get a few steps of nice walking, and then you release your dog to go sniff. You follow him around a bit. When you decide it’s time to move on, you say, “Let’s go, ” or a similar cue.

Your dog will keep sniffing. You say it again. Still sniffing. You finally pull on your dog’s leash to get him to come with you. Depending on how deeply interested he was in the smell, he may come now, or he may wait until you pull even harder.

If the environment is so fascinating, and you’ve cued him to go dive into it, how will you humanely get him back?

You might be one of the lucky few with a dog who thrives on doing stuff with his human.  One or two of these pulls from you and he’ll get it that he is supposed to quit sniffing and come back to you, and will do so in the future. But if you had that kind of dog, you probably wouldn’t be losing him to the environment in the first place, right?

Pulling him to you if he fails to respond is employing an aversive. Depending on the dog, it can vary from mild to extreme.

In positive reinforcement-based training, cues are opportunities for reinforcement.  We train so that there is no need for an “Or else.” And incidentally, pulling on a dog’s leash to enforce a “come” cue is exactly the behavior that was used in the graduate thesis from University of North Texas on so-called “poisoned cues.” The dog in the study responded in a completely different way to the cue that included the possibility of this type of forced compliance than to the cue that was trained with positive reinforcement only.

Pulling on your dog’s leash to get him to walk with you is aversive but not the end of the world. It probably happens to most trainers at one time or another. (It’s a good reason to attach the leash to a harness rather than a collar.) But if it happens most every time you cue the dog to go sniff, you are shooting your training in the foot. Dragging your dog around is one of the problems you were trying to solve to begin with.

The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice

The solution is straightforward, if not exactly easy. You need to practice not only the loose leash walking in less stimulating environments, you also need to train the heck out of your “return to me” cue with positive reinforcement. And you will need to reinforce it on walks, at least some of the time. You can’t leave the food at home.

Elderly Cricket's sniffing on walks was no problem

Elderly Cricket’s sniffing on walks was no problem

It can be difficult to emulate the real life scenario of an enticing odor. If you are in a low-distraction environment, there probably aren’t many novel odors there. So there’s a gap between practicing the cue when your dog is standing around with not much else to do, and practicing it when he is enticed by something.

actually succeeded fairly well with this with Zani, my little hound mix, and now I’m practicing with Clara. Some of you will remember my post on when not to work on loose leash walking. I’m pleased to say that Clara handles being around people and dogs on walks so well now that we have “graduated” from counterconditioning and are working on loose leash walking.

Allowing my dog to get what she most wants is important to me. Here are some of the ways I worked on our “Let’s go” cue. I bridged the gap between low-distraction practice and real life situations in several ways. You can see these in the movie as well.

  1. I started off by practicing indoors with Clara both on and off-leash. She learned to reorient to me when I cued, “Let’s go!” I often turned and ran after giving the cue, both to make it both more challenging and more fun.
  2. I have a closed-off room in my house that contains dog food, chew toys, and other interesting stuff. Odor heaven. In training I allowed Clara to go in. After a moment I called her out and reinforced her generously for walking away with me.
  3. I put synthetic rabbit pee on a piece of cardboard and taped it to the floor. Clara got a reward if she responded and left it at my cue. (You’ll see in the movie, though, that it was only enticing the first time. That was a lot of trouble to go to for just one repetition.)
  4. I scattered kibble on the floor or ground, let Clara start eating it, then gave her the “Let’s Go!” cue and rewarded generously when she left the kibble behind. This is a good corollary to what we are asking dogs to do when we ask them to leave enticing smells.
  5. And that leads to–Zen (“leave-it.”) Any kind of leave-it exercise is good practice for this.

Someone is sure to suggest sending the dog back to the odor or out to sniff again as a reward. That’s a great thing to do–sometimes. But you can’t use it as a reinforcer every time with most dogs. If you never reinforce at your side, you risk gradually sucking the value out of walking with you. Nope, most of us just can’t get away with leaving the food or toys at home.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

One More Decision

If you watch dogs who are having a good time sniffing, they don’t just stand still and put their heads down to the ground for a moment. They follow where the odor takes them. If free to do so, many dash back and forth, run, walk, back up, make sudden u-turns, and stop just as suddenly. Our dogs are generally much faster and more agile than we are. As long as your dog is on leash you will be in the position of having to curtail some of the fun. How far into the neighbor’s yard may he go? How close can he get to their cat? You will have to assess how much these limitations frustrate your dog, and make sure that using sniffing as a reinforcer under these conditions is worth it to him.

Anybody have any sniffing odor as reinforcement stories? I’d love to hear about them.

Related Movies and Posts

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Share Button
Posted in Dog training hints, Positive Reinforcement, Scent work | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

Positive reinforcement-based training is subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Many people genuinely don’t understand how it works, and others seem to deliberately misrepresent it. Some of these misunderstandings and misrepresentations are very “sticky.”  Misunderstandings, straw men, myths–call them what you will, but they are out there and they are potent.

Here are six that are quite common. There are many more out there. For example, I didn’t even hit on “dogs trained with R+ are obese” or “R+ training only works for tricks and easy dogs” or “R+ training is bribery.”  But the following six illuminate some common misunderstandings about positive reinforcement-based training.

  1. Positive reinforcement-based training is permissive. I believe this one is a true misunderstanding for a lot of people.  Before I started studying learning theory, I certainly would have had no clue how one could use positive reinforcement as part of a training plan, for instance, to get rid of an unwanted behavior. All I could imagine was someone passing out cookies for good behavior. It seemed like a good recipe for chaos. What would one do with a cookie if the dog did something “bad”? What I didn’t know was that positive reinforcement-based trainers not only reinforce desired behaviors, but also have several humane techniques for interfering with the reinforcement for unwanted behaviors so that they don’t pay off for the animal. These include antecedent arrangement, reinforcement of alternative behaviors, and in some cases negative punishment. Positive reinforcement-based training, especially when applied to behavior problems, takes careful thought and planning. It is precise, deliberate, and the opposite of “let’s all hang out here in happy fairy rainbow land.”
  2. Naughty dogs

    Will this behavior fade away if I just ignore it?

    Positive reinforcement-based trainers just ignore bad behavior. The one also brings a very bad image to mind: a doting pet owner letting her pet  jump on grandma, countersurf, and go through the trash. But the truth is quite different. What we actually do about unwanted behavior is to 1) prevent it from happening in the first place; 2) teach the dog something acceptable to do instead;  and occasionally, 3) punish it using negative punishment. We know that ignoring reinforced behaviors doesn’t make them go away. But to make things a little more complicated, there are two situations where “ignoring” is used in training. One is when training new behaviors and/or associating a verbal cue with a new behavior. In these cases, if the dog makes an error, nothing happens. We do not treat. But in these situations we are not dealing with some habitual, harmful behavior that is getting reinforced some other way. It’s just a wrong guess in a guessing game. The other situation where ignoring might be used as a part of a training approach is when the animal’s behavior is being reinforced with attention. But even in that situation we would not use ignoring by itself.

  3. Positive reinforcement trainers believe that nothing unpleasant should happen in the dog’s life, ever, and they try to protect their dogs from all aversives. First, this is impossible. Mild to moderate aversive stimuli are around us at all times, and we–and our animals–perform loads of behaviors to avoid or lessen them. Perhaps the dog is too hot. That’s aversive. Perhaps there is a fly buzzing around her head. That’s aversive. Perhaps the dog has to get a shot at the vet. That’s aversive! The truth is that we avoid training with aversives, even with mild ones. As I’ve written elsewhere, if a thunder-phobic dog escapes into the house when it storms, this is called natural or automatic negative reinforcement. The dog is reinforced for running into the house by gaining distance from the thunder noise. The thunder is an unavoidable aversive in life. (I help my dogs deal with it in other ways besides mere escape.) But I would never put a loud noise into a training session and use a dog’s fear of it to get a certain behavior out of her. And as for major aversives (thinking vet visit again)–we do prepare the dog for them as best we can to make them less so. That’s the opposite of using their aversive qualities.
  4. Because of #3, positive reinforcement-based trainers will do things like let their dog run out in traffic so as to avoid jerking on his collar, or avoid any medical procedure that might “hurt.” This one is almost always a straw man. I’m pretty sure the people saying it and acting like they believe it really don’t think we would stand by in an emergency and watch our dogs get hurt. In an emergency we will body block or grab or tackle or apply leash pressure to a dog who is about to do something dangerous, just like any other normal human being who cares about his or her dog. Yes, this is using an aversive. But it is not part of a teaching scenario. Different behaviors are expected and needed in difficult situations. For example, a friend might ask me to use a needle to remove a sliver that she can’t reach. I would do this if asked, even if it might mean hurting her. But because I am willing to do that, it does not follow that I am fine with training her a new job skill by poking her with a needle every time she makes an error.
  5. Positive reinforcement-based trainers use punishment but just don’t know it (or just don’t admit it). This is silly. We are generally the ones who are trying our best to leave mythology behind and learn the science behind good training. But again, the claim can come from someone who just doesn’t understand what it is we are doing; someone who figures there just has to be punishment in there somewhere! Sometimes there is. And those of us who use negative punishment know when we are using it! But a common variant of this claim is, “When you train, you don’t always give the dog the treat. You are withholding the reward and that’s punishment, har har har.” Actually it is not. As long as there is no consequence to the dog’s wrong guess it is not punishment. It is extinction at work. Extinction by itself is no picnic for the dog either, but in general we don’t use it by itself. Usually another behavior or multiple other behaviors are being reinforced, and we help the animal make the transition to performing one of those instead. We also know and freely admit that certain tools fall easily into aversive use. It’s no news that a plain old collar can be used to hurt a dog. That’s why when we start using any gear on a dog, we use counterconditioning to help the dog build pleasant associations, and we teach the dog behaviors so as to minimize the chance of discomfort. This is the opposite of using the aversive properties of a piece of gear.
  6. Positive reinforcement-based training is just as stressful on dogs as balanced or aversive-based training. Training with positive reinforcement can surely be stressful. But as I’ve written elsewhere, the stressors generally have to do with lack of skill (errors by the trainer), or an added aversive situation that wasn’t planned. It is not sensible to argue that a method that consists of giving the dog food or playing with her when she performs a desirable behavior is as aversive as a method that depends on applying discomfort, pain, or intimidation.
Clara and trash

Surely Clara won’t get in the trash if I keep ignoring her, right?

The Commonalities

Every one of these points is focused on punishment or aversive stimuli. Clearly that is a sticking point in people’s understanding of positive reinforcement-based training. The claims also fit neatly into two categories. The first four misrepresent positive reinforcement-based training. They paint it in a ridiculous light and imply it is impossible or ineffective.  The last two blur the lines between positive reinforcement-based training and training that involves deliberate use of aversives.

In rhetorical terms, the first four are straw man arguments, and the latter two use the tu quoque fallacy in addition to the continuum fallacy. (Follow the links for definitions and examples of the individual terms.)

But as irritating as it is to read and hear these over and over, I try to keep in mind that they can be made from ignorance rather than malice. This is described nicely in the straw man link. Every one of us grew up in a culture that instructs us to use aversives to attempt to change behavior. The “cultural fog” around learning and behavior that Dr. Susan Friedman refers to makes us leery of reinforcement, and can cause us to equate it with mere indulgence or even moral corruption.

I am sure that many of the people who make these arguments are completely unfamiliar with the planning and precision that necessarily go into positive reinforcement training plans. I know I was. I got over it by listening to you folks out there who patiently explained the processes involved in positive reinforcement-based training. I hope you keep describing to the world what you do!

Related Page

Misconceptions about R+ Training (a compendium)

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Share Button
Posted in Behavior analysis, Critical Thinking, Positive Reinforcement | 24 Comments

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Dog and baby

Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. The problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, are hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs–don’t bite. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”–will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

OK–remember–we don’t have to be talking about your dog. But when you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him, hugging him, riding him, pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers, or just plain sitting too close to him, and you “Like” it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move with lightning speed if they feel the need to. If you are six feet away taking the picture and the dog has his face right up next to your baby…you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real Life Examples

A lot of people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some real quotes from real people–mostly parents–from real news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise–they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. –2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday… The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head.–2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years.–2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor.–2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened.–2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog.–2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue.–2015

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites don’t usually come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child was allowed to do it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners duly punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Maybe you simply can’t believe that your dog could get fed up one day and bite (probably after several warning signs that you might miss). Perhaps you’ve got the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

There’s nothing new in what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the one going around right now because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!

Resources

4/8/15 Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I really debated whether to include one, but finally did because I felt I needed an example of what I’m talking about. I hope the narrative I have written sheds a different light on this type of photo. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Share Button
Posted in Aggression, Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings | 61 Comments