But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.

Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.

Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.

Summer over the threshold of stimulus aversivness

My dog Summer showing stress during an R+ training session. What can we therefore conclude about the learning process called positive reinforcement? 

The “Stressed-Out” R+ Dog

So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?

When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.

Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.

Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.

If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.

Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.

Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.

Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.

  • What I’m calling pressure could consist of anything in the environment, setup, or even mannerisms of the trainer that the dog would like to escape from. Is something too loud? Is someone pressuring the dog with his or her body? Is the dog being kept too close to something she is scared of? This type of problem comes from the unwitting inclusion of an aversive stimulus.
  • Likewise, accidents happen, as they can in any training. A trainer might step on her dog’s tail during a stay, but again, this is an aversive accident, not an integral part of R+ training.

So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus.  Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.

A Fair Comparison

Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and  the trainer is often touting it as a success story.

So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.

Here’s what it could look like.

  • Bad timing: Imagine popping a dog’s collar when she is heeling perfectly, in addition to popping her when she makes an error.
  • Changing criteria too fast: Imagine using duration shock to teach a dog to jump off a platform immediately after using it to teach her to jump on it.
  • Unplanned aversive stimulus: Imagine teaching stays using your hands to force a sound-sensitive dog to hold her position while a delivery truck with a no muffler drives by.

Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?

A Real-Life Example of the Results of R+ Training with Errors

I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.

In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.

In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.

My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.

My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?

Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.

Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions.  The tape on the wall is in a tight area.  I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.

So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.

Link to the Lumping video for email subscribers.

But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.

So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?

That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.

The Proper Rejoinder

Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:

It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!

The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.

Conclusions from Examples

Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”

A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.

What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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10 Responses to But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

  1. Thanks Eileen! The benefit of using R+ and desensitization and counterconditioning to work with fearful dogs that I appreciate is that once I have gained the trust of a dog, and if I do screw up somehow and put too much pressure on them or scare them, I have a better chance the dog will be willing to give me a chance to make it right. I don’t simply have to give them a reason to play “our silly games” as Bob Bailey reminds us, I have to make sure I haven’t been giving them good reasons to not want to get back in should I make a mistake.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Wonderfully put, Debbie. It is frankly so easy to scare or pressure dogs. I’m always glad to have a trust account built up. Because that stuff is gonna happen. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful and pointed article.

  3. Dogz says:

    Great article, I completely agree. One of my dogs would get overexcited fairly easily. When she was in compulsion training, she would bark nonstop whenever she got frustrated or excited.
    Now that I have more patience and no longer physically punish her, I realized recently that she barks literally 99.9 percent less than she used to. Life isn’t stress-free, but you can certainly avoid putting extra stress on your dogs.

  4. Sadie says:

    Wow, “24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown.” That seems like a lot. Isn’t there a R+ method of training that doesn’t require constant treats? I am a proponent of using the best method for the individual dog. That may be R+ or corrective training depending on the dog and his/her issues. One doesn’t have to tear the other one down or prove one is better than the other. It’s all about the dog and how he/she responds to each (although I don’t approve of shock collars under any circumstance). It’s unfortunate there is no accreditation required to be a dog trainer. Errors on the trainers’ part can be damaging, no matter what method is used.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Sadie,

      24 treats in three minutes is not a lot when training a brand new behavior. The training can move fast and furious and food is a potent way of telling the dog each step in the process that they perform correctly. That will often give you an animal who is willing to try stuff and offer behavior freely, working **with** you to figure out what you want–thus enabling very quick learning.

      My dogs need to eat, so using food in training has no down side for me. But to answer your question about an R+ method that doesn’t require constant treats–sure there are other methods! Here is a video where I am rewarding my dog in agility by letting her play in the garden hose. Summer Weaves for Novel Reinforcement. Here’s a favorite video of mine where one dog gets a toy tossed as a reward, and the other… well you just have to watch it. Sleet and Wren’s Amazing Double Trick.

      And there are about a gajillion agility and obedience videos on YouTube using tug and toys and reinforcers, and even one-on-one play with no toys at all. But food is efficient, it is a primary reinforcer, and it communicates very purely to the dog. Once out of the initial stages, one can get out of the “constant treats” phase–space things out and use life rewards. My dog came into the kitchen tonight and lay on her mat for about 25 minutes while I was working in there. I gave her one treat at the end of that. I didn’t “have” to give her anything, but I thought that was a nice thing she did. OTOH, tomorrow morning I’ll probably give her about 20 pieces of her kibble while she trims her own nails on a nail board.

      If you are in a position where you are deciding what the best method is for any individual dog, I urge you to learn more about positive reinforcement training.

      Also, please take a look at this post: 7 Effects of Punishment. It’s a list of the possible fallout from using “corrective training.” There is no such list of bad consequences of training with positive reinforcement. People try to trump one up now and then–which was the point of this post.

      Thanks for commenting. Good that you are thinking about these things.

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