See My Successes; See My Failures

I wrote in my first post that one of the things I have to offer the world is a window into my mistakes as a beginner trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

So today I’m going to show you something that didn’t work with one of my other dogs, at least not how I expected it to. I think it may be very helpful to some people, as I made an extremely common error. I don’t enjoy these pictures and videos of my dear little Cricket showing stress signals, but perhaps publishing them can help some other people and their dogs.

Counterconditioning Failed?

This post is for all the people who “tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work.” There are myriad mistakes people make with this procedure, but mine was one of the most common.

When she was about 14, I started giving my little old dog, Cricket, a treat every time just after I picked her up. I did it for the rest of her life. How come she didn’t start liking being picked up? That’s how it works, right?

The concept of desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) is that we pair the scary thing, called the trigger, with something the dog loves, like some meat. That’s the counterconditioning part. Whenever the dog perceives the trigger, out comes the meat. The desensitization part means that we start with a version of the trigger that isn’t scary.  That’s right. The procedure progresses much more quickly if you start with a non-scary presentation. This usually means farther away (sometimes very far) but there are other ways to dilute the intensity of an exposure, depending on what exactly is triggering the dog’s fear.

With a dog who is scared of moving cars, for instance, you could start at a large distance away from the cars. You do the pairing thing when cars come by until your dog not only isn’t bothered by the cars, but starts looking for them because they predict goodies. Then you would do the same thing a little closer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alternative if the big problem is the movement, you could start a bit closer with one stationary car, and have a helper drive the car, at first very slowly and for very short distances, in similar controlled exposures. The more details you can tease out about the fear, the better you can aim your graduated exposures at the trigger.

The following posts have sample lists of this gradual exposure process that is involved in desensitizing to a scary or unpleasant stimulus:

Are you back? Good. So, counterconditioning can be done without these gradual desensitization exposures but it is less likely to be effective. If you leave out them out, you will likely start at a point where your animal is already bothered by the trigger. Replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a positive conditioned emotional response can sometimes be done, but it takes a lot more time and may never be effective as when desensitization is involved.

My Case Study

So, to Cricket’s problem with being picked up. Take a look at this picture. I am reaching for her. Her body language shows classic stress. She is leaning back, away from me. Her ears are way back, almost 45 degrees from normal. Her eye is rolling and you can see the white (whale eye). She is doing a huge lip lick. Look at her tight little jaw muscles, too. And she is about to raise her right paw.

Cricket's feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

As I said above, I started giving Cricket a treat immediately after I picked her up, as soon as I had her in my arms. I was extremely consistent about it. Over time, her stress at being picked up abated **somewhat**. But it did not disappear.

Why Didn’t Counterconditioning “Work”?

The problem was that Cricket’s discomfort was not limited to the event of being picked up. You’ll see in the movie that she was visibly upset long before I touched her with my hands. You can see her stress response as I walked towards her and leaned over.  She even appeared to consider punching me with her muzzle when I finally grabbed her.

To properly countercondition a dog to being picked up, we have to use desensitization as well. We need to start with versions of the triggers that are non-aversive, plus we need to make sure we work on every aspect of the situation. If the dog is uncomfortable being approached, having a human stand close, and being leaned over and reached toward, each one of these needs to be treated with DS/CC, And all should start with a version that is not uncomfortable to the dog, that is,  under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Oops! But it Worked After All

The title of this post was actually a little tricky. My attempt at counterconditioning Cricket to being picked up didn’t work. She remained uncomfortable with being walked at directly, being leaned over, being reached at, and being picked up as long as she still had her marbles. (In truth, she stopped being bothered by these things when she had advanced dementia, but that was definitely not due to my counterconditioning attempt!)

However, something did get counterconditioned. Once again, the sequence was to walk over to her, lean down, reach out, grab her around the abdomen, and pick her up. Then I would immediately give her a treat. If I was carrying her for a while, I would give her another treat from time to time.

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I counterconditioned Cricket to being held. The instant the picking up process was finished, her head would whip around to look for her treat. And she remained quite happy with being held and carried around for the rest of her life.

Full Disclosure

I did realize what the problem was well before Cricket died. I chose not to try DS/CC on the other triggers because by that time, I already had to pick her up and carry her probably a dozen times a day. One of the principles of successful DS/CC is that you do the pairing every time the action is performed; you never perform the action without the treat. Also you work on one action at a time. That simply was not feasible. But I was faithful with her treat after being picked up. Her discomfort abated somewhat, and she was already anticipating her treat when she was in the air, coming up to be held.

It was a lesson learned for me though, and Zani, whom I may need to pick up a lot as she gets older (we are working on it now), will profit from it.  Another lesson for me was start early with all husbandry behaviors!

Whenever we think the science doesn’t work as predicted, examining our own actions and techniques is a great place to start.

Anybody else have any educational failures? Man, dog training is sure like that for me. The dogs are like little maps of all my mistakes!

Related Posts and Resources:

I will be making a movie in the future on the specific topic of counterconditioning a dog to being picked up. In the meantime you can get an idea of the first steps of a handling protocol from this movie of mine, or this movie by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners about teaching a dog to wear a muzzle. Neither video is an exact match for how we would start out if teaching a dog to like being picked up, but you can get the idea of starting at the very beginning, rather than lumping all the steps together.

For more resources on desensitization/counterconditioning, see my DS/CC resource page.

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Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog body language, Handling and Husbandry | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Let Rats Decide

Wait a minute! I thought this was Eileenanddogs! Well, just for today, it is Eileenandrats.

I write a lot about dog body language in this blog.  I discuss letting animals have a say in how and when they are handled and touched. I talk some about how to perceive their answers through observation. And I have shown, in my most popular post of all time, dogs communicating “yes” and “no” about whether they want to be touched. It’s a mini lesson about body language as well as a proposal that we let the dogs decide whether they want to be petted.

So you can imagine I was delighted to come across Gwen Lindsey’s work on rat body language and giving rats the chance to say yes or no to handling or other actions. She discusses the issues on this page, Let Rats Decide When, and has a lovely video on the same topic (embedded below). Gwen is the owner of the website JoinRats.com, a site that is chock full of advice for people who have rats as pets.

Small Animals

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

In the dog training community, it is still a fairly foreign idea to let dogs have a choice about being handled. They are legally only property, and to some people that seems fine and natural. Others of us don’t think it is fine, but even so, can still carry around the underlying assumption. It can be hard to shake off.

So if it’s that way for dogs, what might people’s attitudes to very small pets be? Not only are most of them much easier to force our will upon, simply because of their small size, but they don’t have the historical partnership with us that dogs do. And I think most people have kind of a rough assumption that any pet smaller than a cat doesn’t have much of a personality, and that we just don’t need to concern ourselves with what they might want.

I hope Gwen’s video can persuade people otherwise. It certainly was a revelation to me, seeing how her rats interacted with her. It’s the same difference that crossover dog trainers start to see in their dogs. I have always loved my dogs, thought they were brilliant, and appreciated their personalities and quirks. But they blossomed after I started to use positive reinforcement and desensitization/counterconditioning to “converse” with them. It added a new dimension to our relationships, and added freedom to their lives in ways that were visible in the smallest elements of their body language. 

I had pet rats in my teens and twenties. I was very fond of them, and good to them.  But at that time no one talked about enrichment or training for small animals. I know that my rats associated me with good things, but I could have built such a better life for them, and had such a better relationship, had I known then what I know now. They could have blossomed. too. Ahh, for do-overs. 

For now I hope some of you out there will enjoy, as I do, the happy, trusting rats in this movie.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I know there are some folks out there (and rats or other small animals) whose lives will be changed if they see this video. So please feel free to share it, either directly from this URL or by sharing this blog.

Gwen has tons of great information on pet rats on her website but is also revamping a lot of things right now. Another really nice page of hers for rat owners who are new to training their rats or enriching their lives is Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.

I bet some of you have a lot of questions. Gwen can be reached by email here, and will also answer questions in the comments section below.

I am hoping to find some rattie lovers out there among my readers!  

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Did it Work? Cognitive Fallacies when Assigning Causation
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

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  • What does it look like when a rat says, "I don't wanna!"
Posted in Handling and Husbandry, Rats as pets | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

tan puppy on a brick walk. She is leaning back and down, and her tail is tucked and her ears are back

Clara the Wild Puppy

When I started this blog, I assumed that I would write a lot about Clara’s training. Clara burst into my life as a 10 week old feral puppy, and her socialization window was in the process of closing by the time she came to me.

I slipped in that window before it shut and was fully accepted and trusted. But she growled at all other humans, even at that young age. In general, she related to them as a wild animal would, with huge wariness of any movement on their part and no tolerance for their proximity.

I have been working with a wonderful trainer and friend, Lisa, since those early days, playing catch-up on Clara’s socialization.

Contrary to my assumption about the blog, though, I have actually written very little about what we have done, and I have taken almost no videos of that work.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and tail wearing a pink harness. She is lying down and looking up at her handler with a pleased look and relaxed open mouth. Her tail is wagging, clearly even in the still.

Clara on the sidewalk at the mall

Our sessions took all of my awareness to do the job well. Because Clara’s socialization window had closed, we used the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to address her fears and change her emotional response to humans to a positive one.

This is a tall order with a a dog with a lot of the habits of a wild animal.  Both my trainer and I had to be very vigilant to always keep Clara in the zone where she was happy and comfortable, but getting graduated exposure to humans and our world. This was new to me and difficult. The careful work demanded that we protect her from sudden environmental changes and overly interested humans. It took an immense amount of concentration, and I was often exhausted afterwards. Wielding a camera would have been out of the question.

Not to mention that even with all that effort going into it, video of the actual socialization would generally have been completely undramatic. When things went as they should,  it just looked like a dog hanging out or strolling around, seeing people from various distances, and getting a lot of food. That is what desensitization and counterconditioning look like when the dog is under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The dog can perceive the trigger (the potentially scary thing, in this case, a human) but at a distance or a presentation that in some other way is diluted such that it isn’t scary.

If the dog is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, she will likely look and act uptight in various ways. And if she approaches her threshold for reactive behavior, her fear will become obvious. Our goal was generally to keep her below both of these thresholds, in a space where she was happy and comfortable.

I do so wish that I had video documentation of how far we’ve come. What with all the videos I have shown with her looking like a normal dog in her interactions with me, I know that you readers out there have a very incomplete picture of Clara.

So I dug up some photos. I have never, ever deliberately set Clara up to react, but I do have this set of video stills from the one time ever she was badly scared in my home. Sorry they are mostly blurry. She was on the move.

There, she looks a little more “wild” in those photos, doesn’t she? I’m rather proud that I don’t have any more accidental footage of her reacting, because those reactions were hair-trigger and very easy to provoke. But one of our goals was to keep them from happening and we did very well. Credit goes to my teacher for that.

The Steps To Get There

Here are some of the many gradual steps it took to get Clara to her current comfort level, both outdoors at the shopping center, and inside one store with some kind help from friends.

Many people reported that my post that delineated a desensitization/counterconditioning plan of graduated exposure to crawdads was very helpful to them in understanding the exposure process in DS/CC. You can look at the following lists as a typical “dog version” of such a list. Humans were Clara’s crawdads (actually quite a bit worse than crawdads are for me)!

Note: These lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Every dog and situation is going to call for different actions.

List of Graduated Activities Out and About At the Shopping Center

  • We walked around the parking lot on the periphery of the shopping center. Clara got very high value treats (canned salmon dog food in a tube) at the sight of any human.
  • Clara practiced relaxing on a mat in the parking lot.
  • We ventured into the ends and quiet areas of the (outdoor) mall. Clara’s comfortable distance from humans was about 60 feet at the beginning. Farther if they were in groups or included strollers, wheelchairs, children, or people clothed in an out of the ordinary manner. It was a big deal if she had 5 or 6 sightings in an hour.
  • We sat on a bench in a quiet courtyard playing open bar/closed bar (DS/CC).
  • We worked all of these activities very VERY gradually to closer proximity to humans.
  • Simultaneously we started training some operant behaviors when she was well within her comfort zone. Rather than looking at strangers, looking at me, looking at strangers, looking at me, we taught her to take a look, then give me some more extended eye contact. Not forever, but enough duration to prevent the back and forth thing. Later we added a default down. For about a year, this was her go-to behavior when she saw humans. (It’s hardly necessary anymore.)
  • We started hanging out in busier parts of the shopping center, for instance sitting on a bench outside the enclosed area of an outdoor restaurant watching the people (fenced in people!).
  • We practiced passing people on the sidewalk (still doing classical conditioning).
  • We faded the classical conditioning as she chose other activities she enjoyed, such as sniffing after a person had walked by or exploring.

We also worked on an explicit relax behavior for when there was little going on, for which I reinforced her for putting her head down and relaxing in other ways.

List of Graduated Activities at the Gourmet Dog Treat Store

We also spent time during most sessions working on going into a particular store. This work was going on simultaneously to the outdoor work. Clara and I would first wait about 50 feet away while our trainer went to the store to determine whether the “coast was clear.” We were in a place where we could retreat another 50 feet if I saw that the situation might get too intense. Then we embarked on the following steps.

  • Going to the front door of a dog treat store when there were no people nearby (none!) and getting a cupcake that the owner had placed outside the door for her
  • Standing a little ways back from the front door as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Standing at the front door of the store as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Taking the cupcake from the hand of the store owner as she stuck it out the door (Note: being fed by strangers is not a necessary or recommended step for many dogs, and especially not too early in the process.)
  • Coming into the front of the store for the cupcake, then leaving
  • Coming farther into the store. Getting a cupcake and also exploring.
  • Starting to get cupcakes cut up in pieces (for more iterations and more extended contact), from someone in the store.
  • Spending more time in the store; but retreating to a back room before Clara got uncomfortable if customers came in.
  • Classically conditioning being “approached” by employees (soft body language from the humans, no eye contact).
  • Playing with a toy in the store.
  • Matting in the back of the store (rather than retreating to the back room) when some customers came in. We had to make a snap judgment about people as they came in. Safe or not safe?
  • Playing targeting and petting games with the employees as she got her cupcake.
  • Strolling around the store on her own.

Results

So, those were the steps. What does it look like today?

Earlier in 2014 we hit a milestone in our socialization work. In May 2014,  we were able to start walking freely anywhere in the shopping center. We could walk right by people. They could walk straight at us. Clara  associated their approach with good things, but had gone beyond that. It was more like she started taking them for granted in the ways that socialized dogs might. I stopped giving her food every time we saw one.

I think what made me “get it” that the picture had changed for her was that she actually got less centered on me and started really enjoying the environment. One of her biggest pleasures became checking the pee-mail in the shopping center, with or without a dog buddy. I want to emphasize that this was not stress sniffing. It was sniffing with a purpose; she was happily following scent wherever it took her.

I have put together most of the video footage I have of her socialization process up to this point into a movie. As I mentioned above, there is very very little from the early days; what you will see is practically all I have.

Also,  the camera work is poor. It’s not easy to film a dog while holding a leash and having treats at the read, particularly in the bright sun where you can’t even see what you have in the frame. I’ve edited out most of the parts where I didn’t even have her in the picture. (I finally realized that this was a situation in which shooting vertically made more sense. I was more likely to be able to get most of the dog and some of her environment!)

Hopefully, the footage gives a tiny window into the results (if not the process) of DS/CC. Once more, credit goes to my teacher. I would not have had the skill on my own to go slowly enough, read the situation well enough, or decide what activities to try next.

If the lack of loose leash walking raises questions in your mind, check out my post When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara at the Mall: The Movie 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Limitations

You can see what a good time she is having in the video. What is not as apparent are the limitations on the situation. In the interest of transparency, here are some of them.

  • Her comfort level is partly specific to that particular shopping mall, although we recently started going to new locations and she has done great. It has been amazing to watch the classical conditioning generalize to other situations and locations.
  • She is more comfortable when our trainer is there.
  • She is more comfortable when a dog friend is there.
  • She is very curious about people, but she still may be bothered by some assertive (rude) behavior from humans: walking straight at her, locking eyes, saying “Oh, how sweet.”
  • We are starting to work on exposure to leashed dogs. She is not particularly inclined to dog reactivity, but she has almost zero experience meeting leashed dogs because we previously had to completely avoid the humans on the other end of the leash.

There are always more challenges, but I now have a dog whom I can take places and have her be very comfortable. More so than many non-feral animals, since she has had so much experience with such a variety of people and situations.

Joy

The last  few months have been among the most exciting in my dog training life. To see Clara walking down a crowded sidewalk, tail wagging, following whatever most interests her, is purely joyful. As it also was recently when we were on a walk in the country and solitary man popped up from over a hill ahead, approached, and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes. Clara stayed relaxed as he approached (his sudden appearance and approach would have have been startling to many dogs), watched him and wagged as he talked to us, and finally lay down on the pavement beside me until we were finished talking. Priceless. I hope you can enjoy this with me.

Coming Up:

  • Let the Animal Decide
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring> Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

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World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

What should a dog trainer be willing and able to tell you about his or her techniques? And how valuable is it to get that information in clear, concrete language?

Renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson has put a lot of thought into this. We live in a world where dog training is a completely unlicensed industry, and it’s total chaos out there.

There are a dozen euphemisms for what is commonly known as an electric shock. Some trainers make positive reinforcement approaches out to be extremist.  There is plenty of talk of packs and wolves and being a leader, but sometimes little specificity about what these “leaders” do.

When asked about their methods, trainers who employ punishment and negative reinforcement often throw up verbal smoke screens about it. Some may talk about magical leadership powers that can solve problems all by themselves and will insist that they do nothing to hurt, scare, startle, or coerce the dog, claiming knowledge of the Magical Attention Signal  that works without having any consequences. Others will admit to using “corrections.” But many such trainers who use them claim they do not constitute punishment, while arguing that such things are necessary for the dog’s safety.

This latter is unlikely to be true. There are trainers all over the world who can train behaviors to fluency and solve behavioral problems without those corrections. I think it would be a huge step in the right direction if trainers who used methods such as  throwing things, kicking, poking, and hitting dogs, and of course “special” collars, would simply say so, and not hide between the buzz word of “positive.” Using aversives in this day and age is a choice, not a necessity, and that is what many trainers do not want people to know.

Jean Donaldson has developed three questions for consumers to ask prospective trainers before ever handing over their dog’s leash to them. The purpose of asking the questions–and continuing to ask until one gets a straight answer–is to insist on transparency of methods from anyone who purports to be an expert on helping a four-legged carnivore live in close proximity to, or even as a member of, a human family.

The Questions

Three questions

So these are the questions:

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

Informed Consent

Ms. Donaldson has also proposed that trainers describe their methods specifically, and inform the consumer of alternatives in written consent statement.

Here is a sample consent statement from Ms. Donaldson, quoted with permission. This is what a statement from a trainer who used a prong or shock collar exclusively might look like if they were truthful and transparent.

I propose using pain and fear to motivate your dog. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are X, Y, Z.

There are alternatives to what I propose. You could employ food, play, access to smells and patting as motivators. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are A, B, C. You could also seek the opinion of a veterinary behaviorist. Our goal is that you are fully informed before consenting to any dog training or behavior modification.

When I first heard these words in her webinar, I got the shivers at the boldness of the statement. Nobody says, “I propose to use pain and fear to motivate your dog.” But it shouldn’t be bold to suggest that at all, if it’s the truth. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to ask for–or be confronted with–with honesty from all trainers.  Can you imagine if the norm for discussing a medical procedure with a doctor were that she deliberately withheld possible side effects, didn’t tell you of alternatives, and wouldn’t be specific about what exactly she was going to do? And that there was no code of ethics or regulatory body to prevent that?

The Video Transparency Challenge

John McGuigan, the Glasgow Dog Trainer, took Ms. Donaldson’s three questions and started a challenge for all trainers to answer them in a video.

So below I’m featuring a video that I believe does this well, and I’ll switch to a new one every week or two. You will get to hear from many different trainers who actually do use “modern, evidence-based, humane methods,” to use the language from the poster above.

Featured Video

The section between the asterisks is a separate, embedded page.

***********************************************************

Today’s featured video is from Carolina Rocha of Brazil.

 

Blog post about the Transparency Challenge and where it came from.

The share buttons on the next line are for this mini-page with the embedded video.

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***********************************************************

OK, we are back on the main page now.

Direct link to the video page for email subscribers.

Commonalities of the Answers

It’s fascinating to me how much these videos can have in common, but also how every trainer’s answer has a different “flavor.” The most important commonality to me is that trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement based training uniformly mention continuing education. In response to the third question, many will say that there are probably not any less invasive methods than what they use, but if they are out there, they want to know about them. They state that they are always educating themselves and learning more. Some mention that if they feel that a case is beyond their skill set, they will consult colleagues or even refer the case on, just as a family doctor might refer a patient to a specialist if she had a certain type of medical problem. This kind of honest self-assessment is a strong indicator of competency in my opinion. The truly skilled know their skills and are honest about both their breadth and limitations.

You will also hear almost all of them state that if a dog makes a “mistake” when working on a training task, it is their mistake, not the dog’s. This is not some romantic woo. It is the literal truth. It is up to the teacher to set the pace and difficulty of the learning for the student.

The video of my own answers to the Transparency Challenge can be found on the following page: My Training Philosophy.

Further Information on Transparency

This blog post from Pawsforpraise, Finding the Right Dog Trainer: Harder than You Think, delineates some more of Ms. Donaldson’s thinking on the questions consumers should ask prospective dog trainers. In her webinar “Out of What Box?” she further detailed her thinking on this, suggesting that trainers put the plans in writing for clients, informing them of the methods they will use, the risks and benefits, and whether there are alternatives. The webinar was a discussion on the development of standard operating procedures in pet dog training. Here is a link that describes the webinar, and here is a link to register for and purchase the recorded version.

And how about we all add to the information out there? This is a call to all trainers, professional and amateur, to think through and answer these questions for themselves. Publish your videos, graphics, or written answers online.  Be transparent, and challenge others to do so.

Coming Up:

  • Socializing a Feral Dog
  • Let the Animal Decide
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work” (almost done!)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube. 

List of Previously Featured Videos

Sonya Bevan of Australia

 

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  • Transparency in training is the word of the day!

Meeting the World (Puppy Lesson 5)

Zip, please meet the world. World, watch out, here comes Zip!

Zip on the table at the vet's. He spent the whole time working on some sticky treats that were placed on the table. He wanted to get up there again!

Zip on the table at the vet’s. He spent the whole time working on some sticky treats that the vet smashed onto the table. What a great idea! He wanted to get up there again!

In a way, this should be Lesson Zero, since Marge has been socializing Zip from the very start. Also, socialization is in a class by itself. The impressions puppies get when very young, particularly in their first three months of life, will create their world view and affect their temperament and attitudes. This world view is infinitely harder to change later. Dogs can learn training and games for their whole lives. But if their early impressions of the world are negative, or they are not exposed to our human world during the socialization window, they will be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives. (I have direct experience with this, having a dog who grew up in the woods.)

Marge is socializing Zip with skill and care, with consideration of both his physical and emotional safety.

Don’t Keep Them Home

Many people still follow outdated advice to keep their puppies sequestered during the early months of their lives because of the danger of infectious diseases.  While it’s true that precautions should be taken to protect pups while their immune systems are still developing, the sad truth is the following:

Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

Let that be our call to action to get puppies out and about in a safe and positive way. Puppy classes, handling, and other socialization activities correlate positively with good behavior and retention in the home.

The following position statement (the source of the above quote) has appropriate information about balancing puppy socialization with protection from contagious diseases. I’ll cover some practical suggestions about that as well.

American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

What Does Socialization Mean?

There is a good summary in the position statement:

Veterinarians specializing in behavior recommend that owners take advantage of every safe opportunity to expose young puppies to the great variety of stimuli that they will experience in their lives. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization 

Let me emphasize the word “safe.” This refers not only to hygiene and protecting puppies’ immune systems. It also covers the type of exposures that are appropriate for puppies.

You will see in the movie that Zip is observing the world and experiencing new environments, with direct, deliberate associations by Marge with pleasurable experiences like great food and play. Remember how Marge taught Zip that she was fun and that learning was fun? In today’s clips, which represent a tiny percentage of her daily work with Zip, she is teaching him that the world can be fun.

Zip watching some student athletes. Note the rug--and the spray cheese!

Zip watching some student athletes. Note the rug–and the spray cheese!

We see him at a retirement home, at the sports fields, the bookstore, a strip mall, a parking lot, the lobby at the vet office, and the hardware store. And Marge says, don’t forget to build good associations to the car, too!

She is also doing preemptive work. With puppies, we don’t generally have the luxury of going out and doing strict classical conditioning separately on every possible thing they will encounter.  We don’t have a tractor day, a bicycle day, or a mailman day, when all other stimuli retreat. But when you have a blank slate, you can take action that will either head off possible negative associations to sudden events (management) or, if you are lucky, work towards creating a positive association. For instance, you will see Marge give Zip a slurp from the food tube* when a car goes by or when another dog fusses in the vet office. She does this as soon as he perceives these things and does not wait to see if he reacts. In formal classical conditioning one would probably wait a couple of beats before causing the food to appear, and have more controlled exposures. We don’t always have that luxury in real life, but often with puppies we don’t need it.

When we are consistent about the general pairing of sudden events with goodies, the dog can get both the classical association (a motorcycle–great, that predicts salmon!) and the operant behavior (I think I’ll reorient to my human to help that salmon along!). 

A Note on Hygiene

Common sense will take you a long way here. One way pups can get exposed to infectious diseases is through the bacteria present in dog feces. If you take your pup to a class, make sure that the hosts of the class use disinfectant cleaners before the class, as suggested in the position statement above. When doing socialization on the road,  people can minimize a pup’s exposure to pathogens by setting it down on a rug when in public. When the pup is very small, it can be carried, then placed on a mat or rug for minimal exposure (see the sidewalk picture above). Later on when you let the pup walk about, steer him away from unknown animals (obviously!), trash, and feces. And avoid dog parks, where all three of these are generally present.

What Is Marge Not Doing?

There are also some things that people assume fall under socialization which have hidden force in them (flooding), and can really backfire. This happens a lot with puppies and fearful adult dogs with perfectly well-meaning humans.

So what don’t we see? We don’t see a bunch of strangers petting Zip. We don’t see him being lured up to children to get treats from them. We don’t see a “pass the puppy” exercise (where puppy owners sit in a circle and hand the puppies around to each other).  All of these scenarios can create or exacerbate fear, as the puppy is put into strange situations with insufficient control over the scenario and insufficient support from his owner.

Let me repeat: leading puppies or shy or fearful dogs up to strangers to have the stranger give them a treat is a really bad idea that unfortunately has made its way into the cultural mythology about “how to introduce dogs to people.” Here’s why not to do that. 

Zip has indeed met plenty of people and kids (not covered in this video). This was done in a controlled way, one at a time, and performed with lots of breaks. Marge herself handled the food and/or toys until Zip was entirely comfortable with the person. 

What’s The Goal?

People naturally have different goals with their dogs. Since almost every dog will be handled by a vet and will meet strangers in its lifetime, exposure to different people and careful handling are both beneficial in the formative weeks, the so-called socialization window. But dogs don’t have to be social butterflies. As dogs grow older and their temperament becomes apparent, many will not want to interact with and like every human (or every dog) they meet, and they don’t need to.

I write frequently about my formerly feral dog Clara, and will soon be publishing an update on her own–extended–socialization process. I missed her socialization window, so for several years have been doing a slow-motion version of what Marge and many others do with their puppies. Interestingly, Clara is showing herself to be a curious and extroverted dog. I think she would have been extremely people-friendly had she not been raised feral. I take that into account when considering my goals with her. Given the chance, she probably would have been a social butterfly. So, belatedly, I’m giving her that chance. Our activities would be a bit different if she weren’t turning out to be so gregarious. 

Likewise, the video is not a tutorial on how to socialize YOUR puppy.  Each puppy is an individual and has different needs.  This video provides a sampling of how Marge is expanding Zip’s world beyond the confines of her house.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Got any good socialization tips? People can always use good ideas about this.

Coming Up:

  • World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge
  • Let the Animal Decide
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work” (almost done!)

The Previous “Puppy Lessons”

  1. The First Thing to Teach Your Puppy
  2. The Second Thing to Teach Your Puppy
  3. Impulse Control, Impulse Control, Impulse Control
  4. Puppies Need an Off Switch!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

* Marge and I both use food tubes for high value treat delivery. We use Coghlan’s tubes, which can be bought at REI and other places online.  I’ll do a whole blog  on food tubes and what to put in them one of these days. You have to get the right consistency. Most high end pâté style canned dog foods (not chunky) work well. 

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Posted in Dog training hints, Enrichment, Handling and Husbandry, Puppies | Tagged | 5 Comments

Rest in Peace, Dr. Sophia Yin

I cannot add anything to what has already been said so eloquently of the tragic, untimely passing of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. In her honor I am posting two of her helpful handling videos and linking to Steve Dale’s tribute to her.

Dr. Sophia Yin’s Loss is Profound–Steve Dale

Low stress method to turn a dog on its side:

Link to the dog video for email subscribers.

Low stress handling of a feral cat:

Link to the cat video for email subscribers.

 

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Dr. Yin, we will miss you and your brilliance. Many animals thank you for enriching their lives and helping them feel safe.

 

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What Does Shower Mold Have to Do With Dog Training?

Am I really reaching today, or what? You be the judge!

There is a series of articles in the behavioral psychology literature that questions whether the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is important.*

These papers are often quoted by people who seem motivated to rehabilitate negative reinforcement, although the papers are generally more about nomenclature, and not whether or not negative reinforcement is humane.

Before we go on, here are a working definition of negative reinforcement and some examples:

Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Examples are: the buzzer of your alarm clock goes on until you get up and turn it off. You get rained on until you open an umbrella. A dog’s ear is pinched until she opens her mouth to accept the retrieve object.

Negative reinforcement can be involved in something as trivial as scratching an itch to something as serious as running for one’s life from a predator. There is a huge range of severity. It’s not all about pain.

When we consider dog training, we need to make a distinction regarding handler mediated negative reinforcement and automatic reinforcement. Stepping in and putting a behavioral requirement on the removal of an aversive is different from the myriad ways that dogs take action in their own lives to remove an aversive, be it mild or extreme.

Finally, there are some borderline cases where it is hard to determine whether the process involved is positive or negative reinforcement.

That is what I’m writing about today.

Borderline Cases

The classic borderline case is the thermostat. When it’s too cold and you go adjust the thermostat by two degrees, are your actions reinforced by the subsequent pleasant feeling of warmth, or the relief from the uncomfortable cold? People use the borderline cases to support arguments made in favor of doing away with the distinction between R+ and R-.

Those who like to argue that negative reinforcement is “not so bad” also like to bring up this example, even though it is not particularly typical of reinforcement scenarios.

I ran across one of these ambiguous situations recently in my own life and am going to share and analyze it here. Let’s see whether the fact that it could go either way makes the negative reinforcement any more benign.

Blue and white checkered tiles

Tile photo credit–Wikimedia Commons

Personal Example: My Shower

I am an indifferent housekeeper at best. I am prone to clutter, and tend to barely keep up with the dog hair on the floor and the dirt the dogs track in.

I have a bit of a problem with mold in my house, and my shower had recently gotten pretty bad, such that even with a thorough cleaning I couldn’t get it to look nice. I have tried several times in the past to change my behavior about that, but failed.

So when it got moldy again about four months ago I made a thoughtful plan and tried again. First I threw out and replaced my shower curtain liner and in-tub mat. I scrubbed the shower and tile and sprayed it with bleach. I did this repeatedly over the course of a few days until it was beautifully clean.

Then I thought about antecedents and reinforcers regarding the shower cleaning behavior and made a plan to maintain the shower and keep it clean.

I purchased two kinds of shower spray: one with bleach and one without. Both claim to keep the shower clean just by spraying on. (Bear with me. I’m not much interested in the details of housecleaning either, but they are relevant here.) My goal was to arrange antecedents to make the desired behavior as easy to maintain as possible.

I then adopted a loose schedule of using the cleaner with bleach a couple of days a week and the less noxious (but also probably less effective) one a few times a week. I wasn’t sure exactly how much would be necessary to keep the shower clean, but was ready—gasp—to do something every day if I had to.

So far I have kept up–it’s been a few months now–and the shower/tub is sparkling clean.

Question: What is Maintaining the Behavior?

Shower stall with white tile and a white curtain pulled aside

Shower photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is it negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement?

Let’s map out our possible contingencies. We are talking about a reinforcement scenario (not punishment) because we are increasing/maintaining a behavior: spraying stuff on the tub and tile.

 Positive reinforcement version

  • Antecedent: Schedule says it’s time to spray down the shower with cleaner
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Shower looks and smells pleasant and clean

Negative reinforcement version (avoidance)

  • Antecedent: There is the threat of mold in the shower
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Thread of mold is relieved

So which scenario is it, and does it matter?

Can We Tell By Observation?

First, let’s think about whether there is any way that a person observing my behavior would be able to tell. Is there a special way to apply shower spray that indicates one’s motivator is to prevent mold? Or is there an indicator that one loves the look of a sparkly clean shower?

Behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement tend to be minimal. The person or animal tends to do the very least he or she can do to get the result. I believe this has shown to be true in the workplace, and can also often be observed in dogs that are trained using aversives only.

As Aubrey Daniels says:

Positive reinforcement maximizes performance, while negative reinforcement gets a level of performance that is just enough to get by, just enough to escape or avoid some unpleasant consequence.–Bringing out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels

In the case of the shower, could we tell by watching? If we observed my behavior over time we could note whether I sprayed the whole shower or just the parts that tend to get moldy. We could also note whether I made efforts to determine the minimum amount of work it takes to keep a shower clean (or mold-free) using the methods I chose.

Also we could try to tell whether I took any enjoyment out of the clean shower. Do I go out of my way to admire it? Do I polish parts of it to make it extra sparkly?

But since I’m a human being with many possible motivations, I think it would be a little difficult for an onlooker to tell what is driving my shower cleaning behavior. I may use minimal efforts because I want to save on cleaning supplies or I like to make a game out of efficiency. When I look at the shower, I may be looking for flaws, not admiring my handiwork.

But I know which it is!

So Which Is It?

What is driving my behavior is the threat of mold. I hate it. I remind myself to notice how nice the shower looks, but that is an incredibly weak reinforcer for me.

Even though I have worked out a system with minimal effort and virtually no elbow grease, I HATE having to spray stuff to maintain the clean shower. There is no pleasure in it for me, before or after. I am continually trying to figure out whether I can skip a day, or two, or maybe leave off the bleach version for a while. The situation is doubly frustrating because I feel like I can’t mess up, because if the mold comes back even a little bit, it will be that much harder to eradicate. So I don’t even know where the boundary for “minimal” is, but I am sure trying to find it.

This is almost a purely negative reinforcement scenario for me.

Application to Dog Training

I have previously written about two situations in which it could be hard to tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement in dog training. One is when training with food if the dog has been deprived. The behaviors that allow a starving dog to eat are negatively reinforced as her hunger is assuaged. Likewise, a game of hiding from your dog could involve either positive or negative reinforcement.

However, I think the most common situation where positive and negative reinforcement can be confused is when dogs are said to work for praise. Yes, you read that right. Compared to food and play, praise is a very weak positive reinforcer for most dogs, and often non-existent unless it has been deliberately paired with a primary reinforcer and/or the bond with the human is very strong. More often praise is a safety signal, a sign from the human that, “You have done the right thing and I am not going to hassle or pressure you anymore.”

So we may think our dog is working “for the joy of a clean shower” when she really is working to escape the mold. And, unlike humans, dogs tend to be a little more obvious about how happy they are with an interaction or a method, if we can just learn to pay attention.

Take-Home Lessons

Even if it is a negative reinforcement scenario, cleaning the shower is one of those fairly benign sounding applications. Perhaps I sound like a pretty spoiled person to be complaining about it. I know that I am privileged for that to even be on my radar as a problem, for sure. But you know, when searching for photos to use with this post, I got grossed out. And even though I found a couple of moldy tile pictures on Flickr that would be permissible to use, I ultimately decided against it because they were disgusting. I didn’t want icky pictures of mold on my blog.

I have been describing an “automatic” negative reinforcement process. My own actions directly remove the aversive, the threat of mold. How would I feel if someone used the threat of mold to get other behavior from me?  Easy answer. I wouldn’t like them very much. Especially since I am so easy to please with food or money, grin. Really, why on earth would someone want to use a threat instead?

These kinds of analyses of everyday activities are helpful to me. I hope they are helpful to others, and I hope I didn’t overshare. I have contemplated trashing this post several times, but then I thought perhaps it would help someone understand negative reinforcement just a little better. When one is first learning about the processes of learning, negative reinforcement methods can sneak in, seeming like magic. Look, I didn’t have to hurt my dog or give it food either! That’s one of the main reasons I write about it so much. It can be quite insidious.

Got any personal negative reinforcement stories?

Coming Up:

  • World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* This is the first in the series of articles I mentioned. Even the last part of the title indicates that the paper is about nomenclature and not excusing negative reinforcement.  Michael, Jack. “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things.” Behaviorism (1975): 33-44.

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Puppies Need an Off Switch! (Puppy Lesson Four)

So how many of you with puppies out there wish sometimes that you could flip a switch to turn them off, just for a little bit? Catch your breath, do the dishes, sit down for just a minute?

I have it on pretty good authority that most of the puppies would also appreciate having an off switch, too! Just as human babies can get all wound up without knowing how to come down on their own, puppies get overwound too.

Some of the advice that gets passed around is off the mark.  Owners of high-energy dogs are told to exercise them more and more to burn off the energy. Every time the dog leaves the house it’s for a rousing run or play time. While stimulation and exercise are vitally important, taken by themselves, they can actually exacerbate the problem of being wound up. The dog rehearses a pattern of arousal.

That’s why learning to relax and settle is an important life skill. Marge is really good at teaching it, in my opinion. She teaches “relax” as a behavior, just like teaching sit, down and come. And it’s a win/win for puppy and caregiver.

Black and white parti-colored Portuguese Water Dog puppy in a bright blue plastic kid's pool. The dog is on his stomach with his back legs stretched out straight behind him.

Zip takes relaxation to a whole new level

Resources

There are many, many resources for this. A lot of what Marge does with her dogs, including what you will see with Zip, is from the work of Leslie McDevitt (Control Unleashed, Control Unleashed– The Puppy Program, Control Unleashed Seminar DVD) and Dr. Karen Overall.

Lots of other trainers have methods for teaching this behavior, too.  Sue Ailsby teaches it in her Training Levels program.  Nan Arthur has a method in Chill Out Fido, Laura VanArendonk Baugh has a whole book about it, and Emily Larlham has some videos. I have some resources here in the blog as well. You can search the blog under “1,000 Treats” to see Clara’s progress in relaxation. 

The goal of all of these methods is far beyond just getting the dog to stay still. It is to teach the dog to chill out and relax.

From Practice to the Real World

Being able to recover and think through increasing levels of arousal can be taught. Most people play with their dogs and puppies without breaks. But breaks allow the puppy to reset, and to learn how to transition between different states of excitement and arousal. They also can keep the pup from going over the top. 

In the movie, you will first see Zip relaxing in a non-challenging situation. Then Marge transitions him back and forth between relaxing and getting up to play.  Marge works with lots of puppy owners, and has them start with play increments of 5 seconds (one banana, 2 banana, up to 5.). Reset/relax, then start again. Gradually increase duration and difficulty.

At 1:06, watch Zip’s right front leg. He is not just lying down; he is relaxing his muscles. Later you can see him also change his breathing when asked to relax. I’ve watched the movie several times, and keep seeing other aspects of the relaxation.  In the last tug session, between the 2:00 and 3:00 minute marks, Zip is growling–a symptom of high arousal for him. You can see how hard he has to work to control himself when Marge asks him to release the tug and relax. “Ohhhh I wanna bite that shoe……but I won’t.” This is yet another version of impulse control.

Take note as well, how Marge reinforces Zip for the relaxed behavior. She is using food rewards, delivered with soft body language right to his mouth. Nothing active, no tossing treats. This is in contrast to the active play with the toy during the “up” states.

The final part of the movie shows a real world application. You can’t see it in the movie, but while Zip is chilling on the floor at the animal hospital, there are two very active toddlers and another dog nearby. This is where you can see yet another benefit of playing tug with a puppy (with a rule structure such as Marge uses).  Environmental stressors can also bring about an aroused state. A dog doesn’t have to be jumping around to get over-excited. But playing tug has helped Zip learn how to “come down” from that state, and his lessons carry over beautifully to the new environment.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

 Just like last time, this is another lesson on how to teach a puppy not to do something using positive reinforcement-based training. Notice all the things Zip is not doing?

  • Biting
  • Running around screaming
  • Stealing the toy and running away
  • Leaping up to investigate the other dog or the kids at the vet

All because Marge has “filled in the blanks” with desirable behaviors, and is teaching Zip at a very young age how to calm down.

How about you all? Does your puppy have an off switch? Also, any guesses about Lesson Five? Because we have left out something BIG!

Coming Up:

  • World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge
  • What Does Shower Mold Have to Do with Dog Training?
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

The Previous “Puppy Lessons”

  1. The First Thing to Teach Your Puppy
  2. The Second Thing to Teach Your Puppy
  3. Impulse Control, Impulse Control, Impulse Control

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

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7 Effects of Punishment

Here are seven documented possible side effects of the use of punishment, negative reinforcement, and of aversives in general.

  1. Escape/Avoidance: If you hurt or scare your dog, it will likely try to avoid you, the places you frequent, and whatever else it associates with the hurt.
  2. Operant Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, it may hurt you back.
  3. Elicited Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, it may hurt your other dog or your kid.
  4. Apathy: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot, it may become apathetic and not do much of anything.
  5. Conditioned Suppression/Learned Helplessness: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot unpredictably, it will live in a state of fear and also may not do much of anything.
  6. Injury: If you hurt your dog you could cause it injury. 
  7. Reinforcement of the Punisher: If you hurt or scare your dog regularly, your actions will easily be reinforced and become habitual. On the occasion that your actions don’t work to interrupt or decrease behavior, you will tend to escalate the hurt.

These are the things you risk if you use pain, fear, force, coercion, intimidation, or even startling to train your dog. The effects are not limited to training “tools” such as are featured in the picture below.

Not all of them will happen all the time. But they are all possible, and we can’t know ahead of time which dogs (and which owners) will be strongly affected by the use of aversive methods.

That’s the short version. For scientific references, check the resource page described and linked below.

Prong collars, air horns, squirt bottles, penny cans, and throwing bags

Some aversives used in dog training

Introducing the Aversives Resource Page

Here it is:

Danger sign homemadeFallout from Use of Aversives in Punishment and Negative Reinforcement: A Reference List

This resource page cites articles, most of them classics from peer reviewed journals, on the above types of fallout. It is provided for people who need or want to investigate the original sources.

Most types of aversive fallout are so well documented that the reader can check out the original article and follow a cascade of research following it.

Besides classic sources for the above effects, I’ve listed the main studies that document side effects of painful or scary training for dogs, and also a couple of other important references. Like many of my projects, the page is ongoing.

If it is helpful to you, please share it. If I have left out something important, please let me know!

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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Posted in Escape/Avoidance, Fear, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, Training philosophy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

I think it’s so interesting when someone says that.

Every so often I hear or read a confident claim from someone saying that desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) wouldn’t work on them.  They seem offended at the very idea that food would help them overcome their fear. The nerve of anyone to even mention it!

Actually, I can relate just a little. Maybe the idea is a tiny bit threatening. So many of us hold our individuality near and dear.  Americans especially, I suspect, are taught (conditioned, hah!) to view conditioning as some kind of mechanistic insult to our personhood. It evokes scary thoughts of self-serving mind control as in Brave New World.

But could any of us really be immune from associative learning and respondent conditioning? Do the processes of learning apply to us or not? Are we really such exceptional super-humans that we know in advance that a method that operates in a fairly predictable psychological and physiological manner just….won’t?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shoving Cookies

a handful of vanilla sandwich cookiesTo start with, the phrase about “shoving cookies” signals either a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of the process of counterconditioning/desensitization. The claim usually goes something like this:

You could shove all the cookies at me you want but it wouldn’t make me feel any better if I were trapped in a room full of [spiders, clowns, snakes, etc.]

I could end the post right here and just say that’s a straw man argument, because it is. But I’m interested in what’s behind it, so I’ll keep going.

Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and non threatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counterconditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesirable response with something that evokes a desirable emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.

So of course if the process were started with a full-blown exposure to the scary thing, those cookies probably wouldn’t do much. Cookies wouldn’t help a person who is already scared out of their wits. However, that scenario is not DS/CC. The desensitization component ensures that we never start at such an over-the-top exposure.

What’s This About Starting with a Low-Grade Exposure?

Performing desensitization/counterconditioning when addressing fears ensures that we start with a low intensity, manageable form of the scary stimulus. This is done for at least two reasons. One is ethics, and the other is efficacy. I have discussed the ethics issue in my publications on thresholds. Since we can’t explain to animals what we are doing or get their “buy-in,” there are issues of consent that are not present with humans. It is more ethical to start with a non-traumatic exposure to the scary thing.

But the second reason, efficacy, applies to humans as well as other animals, and this is why the quote above about creepy things vs. cookies doesn’t cut it. We start with a tiny, controlled exposure to the scary thing precisely so that the emotional reaction to it doesn’t overpower the positive response to the pleasant stimulus we will use for our counterconditioning.

The anxiety-producing stimulus must be presented at a low enough level that the parasympathetic nervous system response to food (or specifically for humans, the practice of trained relaxation or other internal technique) is stronger than that of the sympathetic nervous system’s fear response. (See Behavior Therapy Techniques: A Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses, by Joseph Wolpe.)

Pavlov’s Work as an Example

Let’s compare classical conditioning, which doesn’t usually necessitate desensitization, and counterconditioning, which usually does. We can use Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs as a starting point.

Pavlov’s dogs learned via respondent conditioning to salivate when a sound, probably a bell, immediately preceded the delivery of food. They most likely did not have any negative association with the bell to begin with; it was probably a neutral stimulus. Because of the bell being paired as a temporal precursor to food, the dogs’ physiological response to food (including salivation and other internal preparation of the GI system) transferred to the sound of the bell. This straightforward classical pairing changed the dogs’ simple auditory response to the bell to an appetitive one, apparently without a hitch.

But what if there had been a dog who was deathly afraid of the sound of a bell beforehand? When the bell rang, the dog’s sympathetic nervous system would have kicked in, with a cascade of biochemicals and physiological responses. Just like for the person in the room full of spiders, snakes, or clowns, that situation would have provided a strong competing response that would inhibit the ability to relax or respond to even the yummiest food.

Depending on the order of events, the dog could even get reverse conditioned, and the fear triggered by the bell could get associated with the food. Likewise, the person in the room full of spiders being showered with cookies may not want a cookie again for a long time.

So for the bell-fearing dog and the spider-fearing person, we would use desensitization in addition to the counterconditioning. We would start with a very dilute, weak exposure to the scary thing. Then the seesaw would drop on the side of response to the conditioning stimulus being the more powerful process at work.

This is also why we use something like steak and not kibble when doing counterconditioning on dogs. We take every opportunity to get the strongest positive response possible.

So again, our people with their off-the-cuff denials are not describing DS/CC at all.

Let’s explore how DS/CC is typically done with a human.  I’ll volunteer for the thought experiment.

My Phobia: Crawdads

A reddish orange crawdad (crayfish) is in some green plants and facing the camera. Its eyes and antennae are facing straight forward. This photo could be used as a step in desensitization/counterconditioning .

A crawdad ready to get me. Also called crayfish (the formal name) and crawfish.  (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I spent a lot of time playing in a murky creek as a kid. Crawdads creeped me out.  I was afraid of being pinched by one, underwater where I couldn’t see it. I felt like they were ugly and sneaky. And I was also really, really grossed out by the dead ones I would see sometimes. They would be in the still, shallow water, and have algae and murk on them. I would think they were alive, just lurking, until I moved the water around them and they would slowly disintegrate. Ewww!

However, crawdads are just not all that dangerous. They generally are not going hurt you very badly, especially if you leave them alone. Certainly they are not as potentially harmful as bumblebees (which I don’t fear abnormally) or the non-poisonous snakes I had as pets. I believe I was pinched by a crawdad one time. It was completely underwhelming. I felt this little pinch on my big toe, and then it was gone.

The comparative harmlessness of crawdads makes my little phobia a perfect candidate for DS/CC. There is no ethical problem with making me comfortable around crawdads, as there would be, for example, with escaped convicts or bears.

Let’s Make a Plan

So how would we really go about addressing my irrational fear of crawdads with desensitization/counterconditioning?

First of all, we have many more options with humans than with animals (on this page is just a sampling of the many things that have worked with humans). We don’t have to use “cookies,” although we certainly could. With humans, we can often evoke a competing emotional state by using imagination/cognition or a physical activity. There are lots of things one can use.

Now, the idea of cookies (especially chocolate ones) is enticing, but what if I got full too fast? Satiation can indeed be a problem. And all that imagining or virtual reality described in the resource list sounds like more work than I feel like doing. So, my first choice for a tool to use for my own counterconditioning is that potent secondary reinforcer for humans: money!  How about if some rich person funded my DS/CC by arranging for me to be paid $50 every time I perceived a crawdad in any form, proceeding up a desensitization hierarchy? (I’m actually already thinking about how I would go around looking for crawdads.)

To do it properly I would need to establish a hierarchy of exposures, so here is what I came up with. In real life I would do this in consultation with a knowledgeable psychotherapist, who would also monitor the sessions to gauge the exposure levels and my response.

Steps of Graded Exposure to Crawdads

Each iteration of each step will pay $50, with the option of adjustments by the supervising psychologist.

  1. Read a story in which crawdads are peripherally mentioned.
  2. Write the word “crawdad” myself on a piece of paper. Note that this might be a good first step for the people who write posts about how DS/CC couldn’t work for their fear, since they have already shown that they can write about it. In contrast, there are people with phobias so severe (emetophobes come to mind) that they can’t even stand to see the word that is associated with their phobia.
  3. View a cartoonish picture of a happy crawdad.
  4. Look at these silly crawfish guys at Mardi Gras.
  5. Play with this adorable plush crawfish. (I actually want one!)
  6. Read an educational piece about crawdads and their importance in the environment like this one, but without the pictures.
  7. View a realistic still photo of a small, clean crawdad (remember the part about murk–I’m trying to avoid that).
  8. (Steps 8a, 8b, 8c, etc) View a variety of photos, gradually including bigger crawdads and murkier environments. No movement yet.
  9. Watch a video like this one that shows a small crawdad moving around in a crystal clear tank.
  10. Watch more videos, gradually increasing numbers of crawdads, movement, size, and murk.
  11. View, in person, a single crawdad in a tank, such as in the setup in Step 9.
  12. View more crawdads in tanks, raising criteria with movement, numbers, and intensity as with the photos and videos.
  13. Put my hand in a tank with a baby crawdad for it to investigate.
  14. Do the same in a tank with several babies.
  15. [I'm leaving out steps of deliberating touching juvenile or adult crawdads because going that far is not necessary for my needs and could hurt the crawdads.]
  16. Listen to the song, “Crawdad Hole.” I originally had this as an early step, since it’s a very pleasant tune, but then I actually listened to the lyrics, which include a whole bag of crawdads breaking and the crawdads scooting back to the lake en masse. Oops! Imagining multiple moving crawdads was too intense for an early exposure, but is probably OK about now.
  17. Go explore a creek (something I love to do, by the way) where there are known to be crawdads, but stay on the bank.
  18. Go back to the creek and actively look for crawdads (probably won’t find any). Just for fun, the fee has just gone up and I will get $200 if I see a real crawdad in the wild.
  19. Sit by the creek with my feet dangling in the water. Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.
  20. Wade in the creek (with footwear if appropriate). Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.

I would get paid for each iteration of any one of these tasks. Under the care of the psychotherapist I could repeat tasks, or add interim steps as needed. (In case the potency of the $50 tempted me to linger unnecessarily on a particular step, the psychotherapist would observe me for possible “fake” responses, and would be free to make alterations in the protocol accordingly.)

For the sake of thoroughness, I added more steps to the list than would probably be necessary for me. You might want to note how many steps there were before the real life crawdad made an appearance. That is the beauty of desensitization, and why it’s really a shame that people misrepresent it.

If anybody wants to fund my project, please let me know!

Would it Work?

There’s the question. If I went through standard DS/CC of my crawdad phobia, would it work? Probably! Claiming to be exempt from this well documented process, whether happening naturally in life or in a protocol, is what’s pretty hard to defend.

Our bodies are wired to make associations. If we didn’t build these associations, we wouldn’t have many of the pleasures in life that we do. We do have to be a bit more creative and work a bit longer if we are “rehabbing” a stimulus with negative associations rather than a neutral one. Yeah, it seems kind of silly for the sight of a crawdad to predict $50, but if it did, I bet my feelings about them would change.  And with a bit of finesse, the added pleasure from mucking about in creeks without fear–access to pleasurable activities–would kick in as I weaned off the money.

To make one comment about dogs: I have watched that exact process with my feral dog Clara, and it is thrilling. For a long time, strangers predicted spray cheese. Now they predict comfortably hanging out with her dog and human friends, being able to walk up and give interesting people a good sniff, being able to go in completely new environments and explore without worry, and of course being able to sniff good pee-mail. She actually chooses these activities rather than hanging around for the food. She is free to choose environmental reinforcers. She was formerly prevented from that by her fears.

So I bet I could go from cartoons to plush toys to photos of itty bitty cute (really?) ones all the way up to the gnarly crusty crawdads hiding in the mud. This is not some kind of faith on my part. It’s in keeping with what I have learned that science says about the process, creating a protocol that is in keeping with what we know, and personal observations that are in concert with that knowledge.

Can One Resist?

You do kind of have to wonder whether the people who are adamant that it wouldn’t work would actually cooperate. Could one actually resist counterconditioning?

Stay tuned for a future blog on trying to resist respondent conditioning. There is an interesting story in the literature. But in the meantime, let me leave with some words by Dr. William Mikulas, a behavioral psychologist and also author of this cool book:

Counterconditioning of fear/anxiety takes place outside of cognitive control, so does not require cognitive acceptance or beliefs. But, of course, cognitive co-operation makes it much easier!!–Dr. William Mikulas, excerpt from personal email, August 2014

 

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are also issues of order and timing that would affect which response would “win.” We’re leaving them aside for now.

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Fear, Human psychology | Tagged , , | 13 Comments