Accidental Punishment

The various outcomes of our shaping sessions, punishment notwithstanding

Can you guess which dog got accidentally punished during a shaping session?

I charged straight into a positive punishment scenario by accident recently.

I’ve been somewhat in the training doldrums lately, probably because I am putting so much energy into finishing my book. I have several training activities that I fall back on when I don’t have much energy. They are fairly unchallenging for me (read: I can’t mess them up too badly) but still fun for the dogs. Even those have been hard to do lately.

But the other day I had some time and energy and decided to play a shaping game with each dog. We don’t shape that often, but they all enjoy it, and it gives their minds a good challenge.

Two of the dogs, Summer and Zani, used to have a default backing up behavior that they would offer in excess whenever I set up shaping games. This was my fault: my shaping setup resembled my backing up setup too much. They had similar setting factors, if you want to get technical about it.  I managed to get the dogs unstuck a while back with some carefully arranged object interaction sessions. (It’s easier to get the idea to go forward instead of backward if there is something to go forward **to**.)

So I decided to set up an object interaction session again. I set out a target stick, a plastic lidded box, and a laundry basket with a plastic dumbbell in it. I put the plastic box on top of one of their mats so it wouldn’t skid around.  I had an idea of a behavior for each dog, but was also willing to decide on the fly if someone did something unexpected.

Clara’s Shaping Session

Clara’s session was easy. The dumbbell in the laundry basket was for her: she loves to pick things up. I stood about 15 feet from the array of objects and it took Clara only a few clicks/treats to get over there. I stayed at a distance. This helps the dogs learn that the reinforcement zone is not always right on me, and also sets me up to practice my treat tossing.

It didn’t take much to get Clara over to the basket and looking in. The basket wanted to skid on the floor so I did go over there and brace it, at which time Clara was happy to put her two front feet in. Then I shaped her into picking up the dumbbell. This is normally very easy, but it was a slight challenge with her front end in the basket and back end out. A good time was had by all.

Summer’s Shaping Session

Summer is my super-duper shaper, which is interesting since she is my crossover dog. Crossover dogs are often reluctant to offer behaviors, but what can I say? Summer got over it. And turned out to be a creative genius when it came to thinking up stuff to do. But this session didn’t require a virtuoso performance. I shaped her to go to the target stick, which I had put behind the other stuff. She still got to it in a minimum of clicks. I needed to make more of a challenge, so I put the stick in the laundry basket with the dumbbell. She needed to hop in the basket to nudge the stick, and that she did. She’s great about getting in things.

Zani’s Shaping Session: Punishment Happened!

You knew it would be Zani, right? My easy dog/problem child.

So I had intended the plastic box for her. She’s done quite a bit of perch work and enjoys it. No big deal. We messed around a bit: she investigated the target stick and the laundry basket. Finally she noticed the box. She was directly facing me, with the box between us, and put her two front feet up on it. Yay! Click, toss the treat. Then she got on again! Ditto. On the third time, I had a sudden thought to treat in position rather than tossing the treat to reset her. So as she was placing her feet on the box, I charged right over there straight at her. She’s my pressure sensitive dog. She backed off the box in shock and scooted backwards, though she did collect the treat I had hastily thrown.

I retreated back to my area, but would she approach the box again? Nooooo. So I quickly went back to rewarding other behaviors. About 15 treats later, she was willing to go to the box again. I didn’t charge at her. It took about 5 more treats to get her putting her feet on the box.

Wanta Play Behavior Analysis?

Four quadrants of operant conditioning

Four processes of operant conditioning

OK, here we go. We could do at least two different analyses, because not only did a behavior decrease with positive punishment, but a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too! I’ll leave that one as an exercise for interested commenters. Let’s go over the punishment.

We always start with the behavior that changed. What was it? Zani putting her feet on the box. Increase or decrease? Decrease. Can we identify why? Pretty sure it was my running full tilt at her. Why did she put her feet on the box in the first place? We were having a shaping session and there was a box there. So the ABC looks like this:

  • A. Antecedent: There’s a lidded box on the floor
  • B. Behavior: Zani puts her two front feet on top of the box
  • C. Consequence: Eileen abruptly runs straight at her
  • Prediction: Zani putting her feet on the box will decrease

Did the behavior decrease? Oh yeah it did! Zani loves to get on things and has been reinforced plenty for it. She had just gotten in the groove of offering “box” behaviors but stopped offering them after I charged at her and didn’t interact with the box again for quite a while. That’s a decrease. There was also a decrease in her behavior in general. She got tentative and ever so slightly shut down after my barging into her space.

Why is it called “positive” punishment? Remember that positive and negative in operant learning terminology refer to whether a stimulus is added or taken away. In this case Eileen charging at Zani was an added stimulus.

So How Bad Was It?

Positive punishment is the learning process that we pretty much try to avoid at all costs. So how hard should I be knocking my head against the wall?

As usual, we ask the dog, and we do this by observing her response. Did we see side effects? Referring to the list on my post “7 Effects of Punishment,” we probably got small doses of # 1, avoidance, and #4, apathy. It remains to be seen whether we will see any avoidance of me outside of training, but I could easily see her getting sensitized about my approaching her. During the session I saw a decrease in behavior from her in general, which could fit under #4. Luckily, this was only over a brief period. Zani started offering behaviors again, and then was getting back on the box willingly (i.e., no pressure from me) within about two minutes. Susan Friedman points out that when an animal has a large reinforcement history and “trust account,” the animal can typically handle life’s little unpleasantnesses well. So this probably wasn’t a horrendous tragedy.

On the other hand, I have worked very hard to pair my approaching and entering Zani’s space with good stuff since she is sensitive to body pressure. We play games where I invite her to enter my own space as well, especially when I am standing up directly facing her. That’s just hard for her, polite little dog that she is. So chalking up another “Eileen is a boorish clod and she scares me sometimes” experience was not ideal. Even just that one time may set us back just a bit in the work I do to make her comfortable with me. In other words, there is a good chance that there is some fallout of the avoidance type, though it may be subtle.

The side effects of punishment listed are generally overt behaviors. There’s also the basic issue that it can scare or hurt an animal. Whatever the animal’s behavioral response, that’s not a good thing.

So how to think about this? I don’t think being alarmist is helpful. Yes, I punished my dog, but it’s over and done with and wasn’t a tragedy (even from Zani’s point of view, I’m pretty sure, which is the one that counts). But neither do I think this is the kind of thing to brush off.  It set us back just a little bit. Zani might be a little extra wary with me in certain situations for a while. I’ll have to work that much harder to make approaching her in various ways into a happy thing.

Accidentally running up in my dog’s face is not something most people would design as a deliberate punishment. People who do use positive punishment in training would probably be amused that I am even classifying it as such. But one of my points is that even such a benign-sounding action can have fallout. Why use punishment to decrease one behavior when it will simultaneously create problems with others? You are left always trying to fill a leaky jug.

And Zani, though sensitive, has a pretty solid temperament and is used to my ways. What if I had been working with a fearful dog or even one who was new to me? A mishap like this could have meant a setback of days or weeks.

Anyone want to share their own accidents? I’m not asking for true confessions about deliberate aversive use. Plenty of us have those in our histories. Let’s talk about that another time. I’m more interested in the boo-boos. I bet I’m not the only one….

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Sink or Swim: 8 Ways You Might Be Flooding Your Dog

Frightened white and cream colored dog under table

Photo credit Yee Tong Loh on Flickr (see license below)

Thank you to Marge Rogers, Debbie Jacobs, and Randi Rossman for discussions regarding this post. The point of view expressed and any mistakes are solely my own.

The journey of becoming a positive reinforcement-based trainer sometimes seems like an endless stream of goodbyes to methods I once used. Goodbye prong collar (yes, I used one). Goodbye collar pops. Goodbye pretending to eat out of my dog’s bowl before she did. (Yep!) Goodbye forcing my dog’s butt down if she didn’t sit. Goodbye making my dog back up by walking into her space. Goodbye waiting out my dog endlessly while she got frustrated, trying and trying a behavior that once gained her a goodie.

But those aren’t all the goodbyes. There’s a whole n’other set of them having to do with something called flooding.

Flooding is a technique that is aimed at reducing a human or animal’s fears. (Besides being a behavior modification method it can also be done by accident.) It is an exposure protocol. It consists of keeping the animal in the proximity of something it is afraid of but can’t harm it, for a duration of time without the possibility of escape.

Thomas Stampfl invented the protocol of flooding as a psychotherapeutic technique for humans in 1967, although Freud and Breuer described something similar in the 19th century. 1)Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895). It can be effective, and is still sometimes used, although there have been ethical concerns about it all along. But humans can give consent, and can choose this method in full knowledge and understanding of what is going to happen. Dogs can’t.

Skip down to “How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?” if you don’t want to read about animal experiments involving shock.

Something similar to flooding was performed on animals in the 1950s under a different name. At that time researchers were looking for a way to cause animals to “unlearn” a conditioned fear. Here’s how it worked. They taught some dogs that a certain tone predicted an electrical shock to the floor of the cage. But there was a way for the dogs to jump to another area of the cage where there was no shock. So the dogs learned to jump to the other side of the cage when the tone was played. In the next phase, the scientists kept periodically playing the tone, but it was not followed by shock. But the dogs didn’t know that. They jumped to the other side of the cage when they heard the tone, and kept on doing so for many repetitions. This is one way that scientists learned that avoidance behavior can be very, very persistent.2)Domjan, Michael, The Principles of Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, 2014): 280-81.

In further experiments, this time with rats, they taught the animals that the tone predicted the shock, letting them learn to jump to the other side when the tone sounded. Then when the shock was discontinued they prevented the animals from jumping to the other side. This is called response blocking or behavior blocking. They prevented the avoidance behavior by inserting a barrier to prevent access to the “safe” side of the cage. So the rats were subjected to the tone that had come to predict a shock (but didn’t anymore) and had no way out.

The result was that the rats’ escape response extinguished much more quickly. The association of shock and tone was broken.3)Schiff, Robert, Nelson Smith, and James Prochaska, “Extinction of avoidance in rats as a function of duration and number of blocked trials,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology (81: 2, 1972): 356. Note that during the response blocking period the rats were not being exposed to the actual aversive stimulus (shock), but to the conditioned stimulus (tone).

How Does This Apply to Our Lives with Dogs?

When flooding is described in casual conversation, it is usually something like the following.

What if I were deathly afraid of spiders and you locked me in a room full of them and didn’t let me out?

That describes flooding perfectly. But because the image is a bit fantastical, I think we don’t always relate flooding to the mundane things that happen to our dogs, sadly with some regularity. Debbie Jacobs of points out:

Almost anything that someone does to a scared dog that involves a leash or confinement could constitute flooding.

People who foster, purchase, or adopt an extremely fearful dog usually need to confine him to a house and yard for his safety. Just think about it. If he is fearful of people, in a much more mundane way he is in the room full of spiders 24/7 and can’t get out.

Puppies and fearful dogs seem to be the ones who are most often flooded through deliberate training techniques. Here are some of the common training suggestions that we should probably think twice about.

Common Dog Training Suggestions that Can Comprise Flooding

  1. Feeding a fearful dog all her meals by hand. If you are ever in a discussion about how to help a dog overcome its fears of humans, someone is going to suggest this. It sounds attractive, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of work but it should be pleasant for both parties concerned, right? Wrong. We see it as demonstrating that we are nice and have the dog’s welfare at heart. But she may see it as being forced to be closer to the human than she is comfortable with in order to eat, in other words to survive. It is slightly possible that the outcome will be that the dog learns that people are not scary after all. But it is completely a gamble. The other possible outcome is that she becomes more sensitized to people and remains as scared, or gets even more scared. (With a non-fearful dog, feeding by hand can often build a nice bond between human and dog.)
  2. Staying in a fearful dog’s space. This is related to #1. When you can’t even get close to a fearful dog, some people will recommend that you stay in her space for long durations. Sit nearby while she (tries to) eat, or even just sit in a corner of the dog’s room for hours each day reading a book. We see this as “proving” to the dog that we will do no harm. The dog may see it as a scary situation from which she can’t escape.
  3. Passing the puppy. “Pass the Puppy” is an exercise that is common in puppy classes. All the humans sit in a circle, and on a given cue, pass their puppy to the person next to them. The puppy has no choice in the matter, and is either in forced proximity on the floor next to the person, or in that person’s lap, being forced to interact. When the cue is given again, the puppies are passed again, away from their owners. Each owner in the circle handles each puppy before she arrives back “home.”  A gregarious puppy who is interested in and comfortable with people might think this is fine. But for a shy puppy, this can be a nightmare. Again, it might work sometimes to wear down that fear. But there’s no guarantee. You might end up with a puppy that is more scared of people, and less trusting of its owner, than it was at the beginning of class.
  4. Going to a dog park for socialization. Dog parks are fraught with peril for many reasons. There may be inattentive owners who are socializing or using their phones. There is the issue of potentially aggressive dogs. Some parks allow all sizes of dogs together and endanger smaller or weaker dogs. But even if all these problems were solved, there is still the fact that a young or shy dog may not be ready for the overwhelming activity in a dog park. It’s a big cage, and there is no escape under the dog’s own power. (Dog parks are also specifically unsafe for young puppies because of transmissible diseases.)
  5. Going to a big pet supply store for socialization. Same problems as the dog park, but this time you have slick floors, lots of noise, overly-interested strangers and perhaps forced interactions with them, and other pets popping up from around corners, often not well controlled.
  6. Having strangers feed treats. This is also an extremely common recommendation for both pups and shy adult dogs. You are advised to take the dog out in public, find a willing stranger, and urge the dog to go up to the stranger so the stranger can give her a treat. This is another method kind of like “pass the puppy” that just feels right to us. All warm and fuzzy, and certainly the dog will come to like strangers because of the food, right? Not if she is nervous about people in the first place. Sometimes this method falls short of flooding, but is still not that great for the dog (or safe for the human!). If the treats are really good or the dog very hungry, the dog may well approach the stranger to get the food while still being very scared. This is often played out by the dog stretching forward, leaving her back end in the next county. This practice can even result in the human getting threatened or bitten, or the dog trying to take flight, when she “realizes” how close she is to the scary human and abruptly takes action.
  7. Not letting a scared dog leave an agility or obedience ring. I’m surprised this still happens, but I have seen it personally. There are some dogs who develop such bad associations with performance events that their main goal once they get inside the competition area is to get out. Unfortunately, even if the dog’s body language is screaming “fear,” this can be interpreted as an obedience issue. The dog is being “bad” and must be forced to behave. I have been a helper at a competition and had to block such a dog from running through the ring exit. I hated myself for being a party to the flooding, but of course it was not safe simply to let the dog out (alone) either. The kindly move for the owner would be to listen to the dog’s fears and help him leave. I have seen people try to salvage their doomed competition run while the dog is pressing against the people minding the gate.
  8. Over-exposing to noise. I wish I could say that this is not done anymore, but there is a horrifying and fairly recent video on YouTube of a so-called trainer doing forced noise exposure with a group of dogs. The dogs are all on leash with their owners. Firecrackers are set off, very close. The dogs are held in place, and you can see that most of them are scared to death. In addition to being prevented from escaping, some of them are actually punished for reacting. Even if the situation is not as dramatic as fireworks going off in dogs’ faces, it is easy to overwhelm them with scary sounds. Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta in this interview by Steve Dale describes a hopefully fictitious situation where someone takes a puppy right up to a train track to “experience” a train. So easy to do, such a bad idea. (She also explains how to properly expose puppies using desensitization and counterconditioning.)

Why Do We Do This?

I think there are two main reasons why flooding techniques can be popular. The first, in the cases of #1 and #3 above, is that some of them seem warm and fuzzy to us, the humans. It’s so easy for the dog’s anxious response not to get through to us. We are providing him with food from our very own hands! He is learning that people are nice! What’s not to like? (Plenty, says the scared dog.)

The second reason is the “face your fears” mentality. In this mindset (demonstrated most clearly in #7 and #8 above), the humans may realize that the experience is unpleasant for the dog, but they just figure the dog needs to get over it. The dog needs to “face its fears,” and long-term exposure seems to be the way to do it.  This method has a long history in both child rearing and dog training. I’d love to see it drain out of existence.

What to Do Instead

I talk about this in many other posts. But to borrow the language of Debbie Jacobs again:

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. (See my post Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe.)
  2. Use counterconditioning and desensitization to change the dog’s emotional response to things he fears. (See my page Desensitization and Counterconditioning Resources.)
  3. Teach the dog behaviors using positive reinforcement. (This whole blog is about that, but see Video Examples for Teachers.)

Other Resources on Flooding

Photo Credits

Link to dog under table photo | License to photo

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London: Hogarth, 1895).
2. Domjan, Michael, The Principles of Learning and Behavior (Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA, 2014): 280-81.
3. Schiff, Robert, Nelson Smith, and James Prochaska, “Extinction of avoidance in rats as a function of duration and number of blocked trials,” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology (81: 2, 1972): 356.
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You Don’t Have to Go Through the Door Before Your Dog!


You Don't Have To Go Through The Door Before Your Dog

When Annie Phenix of Phenix Dogs recently mentioned to me that the “door myth” is still alive and well, I got to wondering what that actually would look like. The advice to always precede your dog through the door is propagated by those who think the key to having a well-behaved dog is to be a good “pack leader.”  They also say to always eat before your dog. I had a guy recommend that after seeing one of my YouTube videos. How inconvenient is that? What a hassle!

Instead, you can actually train your dog behaviors that keep her safe and that fit into your human life.

I looked for a video of the “going through the door first” thing though because it actually sounds darn inconvenient. I did find a couple of videos of people slamming doors in dogs’ faces to teach them not to go out until released, but I didn’t find a video showing the final behavior of the human marching through the door first, victoriously dominant.

Why It’s Silly

Dogs do what works. Their behavior is driven by consequences. When they perform behaviors that bother us (any behavior actually), those behaviors are being reinforced somehow. Somewhere there is a consequence. Removing that consequence and helping the dog build acceptable alternative behaviors through positive reinforcement can change undesirable behaviors.  The door business is silly because it has no direct relationship to the bulk of dog behaviors that bother us. Going through the door first will have no effect on, say, the dog digging holes in your garden or chewing the furniture. Though repeatedly slamming a door in a dog’s face could certainly make her wary of you.

My Dogs’ Door Behaviors

Using training methods from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (Door Zen), and a concept I first read in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed (the dog reorienting to the handler after crossing any threshold), I’ve trained my dogs to wait nicely at any door, go out when released, and immediately turn back to me for further instructions (and generally a treat). If for any reason I need to go out first, my dogs simply sit and stay where I’ve asked them to. But for me, the mechanics of holding a leash and opening and closing a door generally work out better when we are both going out if I send the dog through first.

Addendum 9/4/15 A few comments about the post have prompted me to clarify a little.

  1. I don’t mean that anybody’s dog **has** to go out first.
  2. There are some situations where it may not be **safe** for your dog to go first.
  3. The point is to teach the dog behaviors that help you both be safe and suit your situation. You get to choose these for yourself rather than taking them out of a rulebook.

Link to the dog door manners video for email subscribers.

In the video, you will see that all the dogs take a look around after going through the door and reorienting to me. That’s fine with me; only fair, don’t you think? Interestingly, Summer in particular has always been very vigilant and a bit of a worrywart. If she didn’t have something to do after going out the door, she would just stand there and scan until we got moving. It’s very good for her to have something else to do besides that.

Teaching Door Manners

This is not a tutorial post; I’m going to leave that to the experts, since these behaviors are so important. Here is a very thorough video by Emily Larlham on teaching safe door behavior. She doesn’t teach a reorientation after going through the door per se, but takes many steps to ensure that the dog is not crazy with anticipation when going through the door. Check out especially her thoughtful treat placement that directs the dog’s attention in a helpful way in each scenario.

Door Manners: Dog Training–Emily Larlham

Do you teach your dogs door manners? How do you do it and what are they?

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How To Train Your Dog to Stand Using Capturing

Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle and tail, stands with her hind legs slightly stretched back. She is standing in front of a wooden fence and gazing into the distance.

Pretty Clara at 7 months old in an untrained stand

When people consider how to teach a dog to stand, they usually envision the action of standing up. They focus on getting the dog up on their feet from a sit or a down. But that’s the hard way to start, especially since by the time most people get to training stand, they have reinforced the dog a billion times for sitting or lying down. But most dogs also stand, right? Unless a dog is very old or has a physical problem, she probably stands frequently. We don’t have to start by reinforcing the transition from sitting to standing. We can start by giving her treats while she is already standing! It’s a great way to jump-start a nice stand on cue.

I learned this method from Sue Ailsby, and if you want to see a video of her doing it, here is the link: Stand Duration and Examination.

But if you want to see how well it can work for a much less experienced person, check out my video below.

Methods for Training Stand

The positive reinforcement-based method one sees most often in “how-to” videos about stand is easy but has a real problem. It’s a luring method. It consists of holding a treat in front of a sitting dog’s nose and pulling it forward until the dog stands up and takes a step or two to catch up with the treat.

Most dogs will do this, but the problem is that you are teaching the dog to walk forward, not to stay in position and stand. This is extremely undesirable if you are teaching competition behaviors. Even if you are just teaching it for fun, or teaching it as part of a physical rehab program, like I am, having the dog move forward every time can be a nuisance. Another problem that comes along is that you can easily reward motion, so that’s what you get. It’s often not clear to the dog when to stop moving. You get “the creep.”

What obedience people like, and so do I, is the so-called kickback stand. Kickback means the front feet stay put and the rear feet kind of snap out and into position. It’s very cool and snappy looking. See more on that below.

The kickback stand can be started by luring, but it’s a little tricky. Sue Ailsby describes the process, and it consists of moving the treat backwards along the dog’s jaw line until she can’t reach it without standing up. You can read about it in the old Training Levels online. It’s about 3/4 of the way down this page: Training Level TWO.

Agility great Susan Garrett teaches a stand with hand targeting, and it’s quite fun. It’s a little more active than some people might want, though: Train Your Dog to Stand On Cue!

You can also shape a stand, or capture one. I love capturing behavior, and it turns out that it’s easy to capture a stand, as long as you capture the right thing. Just capture “standing around” first, not “standing up.” That’s what my video covers.

Check out the sequential stills of Clara’s “kickback” stand in progress and see that her two front feet stay planted, and her head stays very close to the same position. Can you tell that luring her head forward would not have gotten the same behavior?

Clara stand 1

Clara stand 2

Clara stand 3

Capturing a Stand

So here’s how I did it. The video includes my very first session. I had never taught this to Clara before.

Catch your dog standing still. Start to rapid-fire treats into her mouth. You can click or not. I used a mouth click. If the dog moves any foot out of position, stop. As soon as she stands still again, start up the rapid fire.

I did two short sessions of this over two days, heavily reinforcing Clara for standing still. Immediately following the second session, I stopped treating and waited. You can also see this on the video. Since stand had stopped paying off, she offered a sit. Still I waited, just looking at her. “What, no treat for sitting?” asked Clara. “I guess I’ll try the thing I recently got 50 treats for.” And she stood up. Rapid-fire treats recommenced.

So that’s how we started getting the action of standing up, after Clara had already gotten lots of reinforcement for duration standing.

If your dog is less accustomed to taking the initiative in training sessions and offering behavior, this process may not go so quickly. But as my teacher says, dogs notice exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got a treat. If you treat your dog enough in a standing position, then move her out of that position, she’ll eventually move into it again.

After we did this a few times, I started cuing Clara to sit and gave her one little treat when she did. That made it clear to her that that was the starting position, and made it easy for us to alternate back and forth between sit and stand. Then when she stood up, I gave her multiple treats.

The way I got the kickback stand was to have her standing right in front of me. She had nowhere to go but backwards. If Clara weren’t comfortable being that close to me, I would have chosen another way. For instance, I could have used a front foot target, as Marge Rogers does in this video. (She’s teaching sit, but it’s the same concept: keep the front feet locked down.)

Finally, after Clara had several days of practice, I cued her to lie down instead of sit, then waited. (This part is not shown on the video.) She moved into a sit. No treat, and I cued her to lie down again. A couple of these, and she figured I wanted her to move into a stand from lying down, without an intermediate sit. Also not shown in the video is generalizing the stand to different positions, such as when she’s at my side.

Note: A kickback stand is a physical skill. It can take a while, especially for dogs who lack rear end strength or awareness. Their first attempts are not likely to be pretty. My dogs worked it out over time without any additional intervention from me (I taught Zani a kickback stand as well). It may be different for your dogs, and you may need some advice from a trainer. My focus in this video and blog is to show you how to get started by reinforcing a dog for standing still. Where you go with it is up to you!

Link to the stand capturing video for email subscribers.

My purpose in teaching Clara to stand on cue is that we are working on some rear end strengthening rehab work (under the supervision of a qualified vet) in the wake of her bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Standing repeatedly from a sit or down is one of those exercises, and so is a duration stand while I manipulate her legs. I have recorded all her exercise sessions and hope to put them together into a blog in the future.

In the meantime, I hope this method of Sue Ailsby’s is fun and helpful for some other folks.

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Teaching a Dog to Back Up


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But It Worked for My Dog!!

Worked for who?

Who did it work for, again?

What happens when someone shares a “success” story about training with aversives? Here’s my response to a commenter who did so on one of my previous posts.

A Parable

Once there was a woman named Reva who had a serious health condition that needed intervention. Her intexagog was inflamed and could rupture any day. Reva looked up intexagog specialists in the phone book. She found Dr. Bleppo, who had an ad that was both slick and reassuring, and picked him. She made an appointment. He was a likable guy and radiated competence. He said sure, he could fix her intexagog right up and she would be fine again.

Reva scheduled surgery. It seemed to go well. Her intexagog was fine, she was out of pain, and resumed her normal life. She started having mood swings, but didn’t put that together with the surgery. She thought maybe she had always experienced those and just didn’t remember correctly.

Whenever the subject of intexagogitis came up in discussion Reva always recommended the doctor who had operated on her. She heard some murmurings that maybe there were problems with his methods. She always responded, “But my operation was a great success!” Her friend Hector started having trouble with his intexagog, and she gave Dr. Bleppo a glowing reference. Hector contacted Dr. Bleppo on her recommendation.

But a few months after the surgery Reva found out from another specialist that the method Dr. Bleppo had used had an 80% rate of undesirable side effects. These had been well documented for years and the evidence the new doctor gave her was very strong. The side effects ranged greatly in intensity, from things like occasional tingling in the fingers to depression to damage of other body organs to death. They could appear immediately after the surgery or years later, especially if one maintained the after-surgery protocol Dr. Bleppo had recommended. The doctor hadn’t told her of any of this on the front end, just assured her of his experience and told her he could make her well again.

Even though Reva was one of the lucky ones–at this point she had only the mood changes to deal with–she felt betrayed. And now she knew that she might experience some of the other side effects later. She considered filing a complaint with the medical board, since Dr. Bleppo had acted wrongly in not informing her of these side effects and risks, or telling her of alternatives.

Hector had also gotten surgery from Dr. Bleppo, so Reva told him what she had learned. He reacted with hostility when she told him this news. He hadn’t experienced any side effects (yet). Hector continued to talk about what a wonderful, dedicated surgeon Dr. Bleppo was to all who would listen, and would bring up his own successful surgery as proof.

Dog Trainers

The world of dog training is rife with Dr. Bleppos. We don’t have a regulatory board to go to if they don’t inform us of the possible consequences of their actions, nor if they ruin our dogs with harsh methods. Most of us will move on to another trainer, but we may still not have the necessary information to assess trainers.

Training that depends on aversive methods such as prong or shock collars, intimidation, throwing things, loud noises or sprays of water or more noxious substances, personal pressure, or flooding (not letting the dog escape from a scary, painful, or uncomfortable situation) has risks. The possible fallout from these methods has been known and studied for decades and on many species. My posts 7 Effects of Punishment and Fallout from the Use of Aversives delineate the types of problems that commonly accompany the use of aversives. The latter post includes references to research. But the Trainer Bleppos either don’t know about the problems, they dis the science, or they actively keep this information from their clients.

Dog Owners

The world of dog training is also full of Hectors. Many of us have been Hector at some point. When dog owners make a financial and emotional investment in something, we want it to work. Generally, if there is any way possible to see it as working, we will do so. So the Hectors of the dog training world predictably pipe up in any discussion that is critical of aversive methods and give the example of their dog being fine.

Some dogs may be fine, or close to it. Someone with more ability to read dog body language than the person posting would likely see the behavioral responses to the use of aversives, but they might be subtle and the commenter can’t see them. Plus many dogs are very resilient and forgiving of humans. We have bred them to be.

So I can never say to a commenter who relates a punishment success story that her individual experience is wrong and her dog is not fine. Sometimes I will suspect that the commenter lacks the knowledge for a comparative assessment, or the punitive methods used might have been at a low level or she might have a robust dog. But it is not good argument to deny someone’s experience.

What I can say, and am saying now, is that sharing such an experience does not prove the method’s safety and is very damaging. Behind the one dog who seems OK are strewn many dogs who may not recover from damage due to punitive training. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but most of the positive reinforcement based trainers I know go around picking up the pieces for those dogs and their owners. So holding up the token survivor is sadly misleading.


There are some common misunderstandings whenever I bring up the problems with aversive use. I want to address a few before the comments start rolling in, grin. Whenever someone submits a comment on my blog supporting or recommending the use of aversives, I counter it. This is not because I am completely pure in my training, nor because I think aversives don’t work, nor because I think dogs should live completely sheltered lives. It’s because aversive success stories give people permission and encouragement to use aversives. Many people are searching for this permission. I’m not going to provide it here.

On the other hand, I don’t think people should hide such usage. I’m in favor of honesty, and honesty includes delineating the drawbacks and risks of aversive use, especially when describing an apparent success. If something is noxious enough to prompt avoidance, it’s probably noxious enough to create side effects. I addressed this in my last post, Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement, with an example of what might happen when one uses a mildly aversive stimulus repeatedly in a training scenario.

Example: My Own Aversive Use

Here’s an example of how I talk about the implementation of an aversive. As part of loose leash training, I taught all of my dogs to yield to leash pressure with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. I pulled gently on the leash, and when they responded by lessening the pressure (moving towards the tension), I marked and rewarded with food. The first reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure, and the second was the food. Leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement.

Now, having a dog that will yield to gentle pressure is very handy. And teaching it is not usually likely to prompt a whole lot of redirected aggression or other dramatic side effects (with most dogs). Certainly not as problematical as something that hurts or pinches or applies heavy pressure. But when I look back on the videos I took, I can tell that it was just not fun for my dogs in the way most of our other training was, even though good food treats were involved.  This exercise put a damper on their enjoyment of training, and possibly a damper on their relationship with me. Why let that happen if I don’t have to?

So if someone were to recommend that protocol, what about the people reading about it who have dogs who would suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do? What about the fearful dogs who are just now getting used to being handled at all and are sensitive to proximity? There is possible fallout, even with such a mild aversive. So you will never see me tout its success or urge others to try it. Instead, if asked about my own experience, I’ll urge caution and describe the drawbacks.

Not every positive reinforcement method is right for every dog either, of course. And some include aversives accidentally in the way they are applied. Still, that is different from systematically and repeatedly using an unpleasant stimulus to get or suppress behavior.

To My Commenter

I’m glad your dog did OK after you used a trainer from a national franchise. I can tell he is a beloved family member and you care for him very much. I have a suggestion: there are at least two trainers in your area who use positive reinforcement based methods and have pledged never to hurt dogs in the name of training. They can be found by searching for trainers at your location on this list:  Membership list of the Pet Professional Guild. Both of them offer fun classes like agility and clicker training. Take your dog to such a class, just for fun. See how he likes it. Hopefully it will be a new and enjoyable experience for both of you.

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment | Tagged , , | 28 Comments

Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

Papers blowing

What will it take to turn the fan off?

I read the following online the other day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural vs. Contrived Reinforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important Differences

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

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

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

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

I’m keeping this post short (Edit: but see below) because most of the juicy stuff is in the movie. Seeing is probably more effective than reading.


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

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

Addendum About Natural vs Contrived–edited 8/30/15

I want to clarify some possible misconceptions about what I’m saying in this post.

I’m not saying so-called “natural negative reinforcement” is a good thing, and indeed I wish there were a better term. The naturalistic fallacy drives me crazy and I frequently write against invoking it (for instance in this related post about negative reinforcement). In the current post I am addressing the folks who use the existence of “natural negative reinforcement” to excuse training protocols of deliberate (“contrived”) negative reinforcement, and I’m doing that  by delineating the differences between them.

Neither am I saying that contrived reinforcement, in the case of contrived positive reinforcement, is bad.  Every manipulation we make of reinforcers (and punishers) is contrived, and that’s a major focus of my writing. Contrived positive reinforcement and earlier interventions on the Humane Hierarchy are the best things we’ve got. I wrote about that in another post: Not All “Choices” Are Equal

It can be hard to find the line of best fit regarding repeating information. I’m always learning as a writer and I blow it sometimes. But I am glad to make corrections if I have not been clear about something. That feedback is helpful and I hope readers will always let me know.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Negative Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

The Gravity Game

Clara holding ball

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

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

One of those ways ended up being the Gravity Game.

Clara under the porch steps

Clara under the porch steps

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


Link to Gravity Games 1 & 2 for email subscribers.

Possessing and Chewing the Ball

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

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

A red rubber ball with many chew marks and pieces missing

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

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

Sharing the Ball

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

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

The New Game: Gravity 3.0

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

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

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

What games has your dog taught you?


Link to Gravity Game 3.o for email subscribers.

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Notes   [ + ]

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

It Was Coming Right At Me!


Silhouette act 2

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

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

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

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

Real-Life Training

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

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

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

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

Here They Come!

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

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

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

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

What Were the Differences That Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was This a Catastrophe for her Training?

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

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

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

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

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

Fireworks Time!

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

You can access the post below!

6 Ways to Prepare your Dog for Fireworks

Summer cheese 2

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Not All “Choices” Are Equal

Two paths diverging

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

We all stack the deck.

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

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

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

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

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

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

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

The Desirability of Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forced Choice”

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

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

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

Types of Choice

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

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

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

Clara stops to smell the roses

Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

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

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

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

A Word About Preference

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

From a review article about choice:

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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