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!
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
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!
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.
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.
Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:
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!
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.
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?
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?
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.
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.
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?)
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.
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 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.
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!
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.
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.
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:
(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.
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 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
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.
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.
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!
Misconceptions about R+ Training (a compendium)
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
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.
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.)
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!
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
Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.
Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.
Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.
So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?
When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.
Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.
Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.
If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.
Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.
Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.
Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.
So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus. Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.
Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and the trainer is often touting it as a success story.
So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.
Here’s what it could look like.
Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?
I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.
In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.
In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.
My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.
My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?
Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.
Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions. The tape on the wall is in a tight area. I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.
So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.
But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.
So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?
That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.
Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:
It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!
The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.
Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”
A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.
What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.
Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?
Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–scienceofbehavior.com
The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.
Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump. Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.
When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:
The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.
Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans,
she is extremely neophilic, that is, 1)An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label. she is fascinated with and drawn to investigate anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.
So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)
I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.
Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.
I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here). I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.
I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.
The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.
So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?
When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.
If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!
I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?
Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:
bootleg (n.) “leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.|
Back in Spring 2013, I wrote two posts about practical issues with multiple dogs that were both quite popular.
A Secret for Training Two Dogs delineated a trick I learned about how to train one dog to wait quietly, unconfined, while another is actively trained.
The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination is related to the first, in that it described how I taught my dogs their unique cues for individual releases. If you train more than one dog, and they are waiting quietly as mentioned above, you need to be able to tell one that it is her turn, right? And the others need to ignore that cue and wait for their own. I taught the individual release cues following the guidelines of errorless learning (which I refer to as reduced error learning, following the terminology lead of Dr. Susan Friedman).
Both of the above posts had movies attached with real life training.
At the end of the movie about teaching individual release cues, I was still working with the dogs one at a time, but I promised to show more as we improved. By this time, almost two years later, I use these cues virtually every day.
It seems that stays, boundary training, and releases are trendy “show-off” exercises right now. So I’m going to show off a little, but I also want to direct people to the idea of using positive reinforcement to train these very useful behaviors.
As it happened, I taught the releases with almost pure positive reinforcement. There was a tiny bit of extinction, for when the dogs made wrong guesses, but I minimized that as well.
In today’s video I am showing the end behavior as I use it in my house. If you want to see how I trained it, click on the blog names above.
I would love to see a proliferation of positive reinforcement based videos of individual releases and boundary training with happy dogs. Anybody else up for it?
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com