My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!

 
zani-standing-at-st-johns

Don’t panic. This is a common problem and it often has a pretty clear path to a solution. Most important: you can still use positive reinforcement based training. It is not a dealbreaker!

I write a lot about how we can help dogs address life-limiting fears by performing desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s always important to keep the dog in her comfort zone (under threshold) when doing any kind of exposure work. One of the ways people assess whether a dog is comfortable in a situation is whether she will take food. This is an imperfect method since some dogs will keep eating food when they are starting to get upset. But it’s a start.

But if a dog refuses food, she isn’t necessarily afraid. There are other common reasons this happens. In this post, I’ll mention the possibilities and recommend a fix for the most common one.  

How Do I Tell the Difference?

It is vitally important to know whether your dog is refusing food because he is scared, excited, has a medical problem, or is more interested in the environment. I’m sorry to say that I can’t answer that for you and your dog in a blog post. At the end of the post, I’ll include some body language resources. For some dogs, it can be hard to tell. If your dog refuses food when away from home and you are not sure why, you should get help from a positive reinforcement based trainer. If she refuses food more generally or it happens suddenly, a vet visit is in order.

The suggestions in the rest of this post pertain to dogs who refuse food in new, interesting situations but are not scared or ill. That scenario is also what you will see in the embedded movie.

The Common Culprit: Competing Reinforcers

Let’s say you have trained your dog to respond to a few cues in your living room. Perhaps you have trained “sit,” “down,” “target,” and “stay.” Maybe even walking on leash. You decide to take the show on the road and take your dog to a local park. You bring some good food and your clicker if you use one. 

You get your dog out of the car and cue him to sit. But your dog is at the end of his leash, straining to smell something on the ground. You cue him again. Nothing. He doesn’t even seem to hear you.

You wait about five minutes. He is scanning, sniffing, and straining at the leash. But as it happens, you finally get a little scrap of attention from him. You click the eye contact and start to offer him something yummy. But at the sound of the click, he turns away and starts sniffing again.  He ignores the food completely. Or if you get it into the vicinity of his mouth, he lets it fall out.  

This is perplexing. At home, your dog is a real food hound. He will do anything for food and loves his training sessions. What’s happened? 

If your dog is not afraid, what has likely happened is that there are competing reinforcers. That means that there are things that are more attractive to him right now than the food. New places are thrilling to many dogs. Novel odors! New things to see, like dogs, other animals, or even people! These can all overpower the attractiveness of food.

We can’t decide for our dogs what is the most enticing thing in a particular moment. Often it’s something other than what we are offering.

Small black dog sniffing the ground near a tree .She is wearing a harness and is on leash. She often refuses food if there are good odors available.

Guess what is most reinforcing to Zani right now?

Show and Tell

I emphasize in this blog that I am not a professional trainer. It’s obvious from my dogs’ leash walking. Zani, who is featured in today’s video, actually has the best leash manners of all my dogs. But only when we are in my own neighborhood or somewhere else familiar to her. I don’t take her new places often enough for her to succeed in that situation (see below about practice!). So when I take her somewhere new to give her a little adventure (as opposed to training), I use a harness. I do let her pull me around somewhat. But I still reward richly for loosening the leash, offering attention, or walking at my side.

She does those things intermittently. But she won’t always take the food. So in the video, you’ll see her “ignore” my marker and just continue along. Sometimes she’ll turn for the treat, then decline it. You’ll also see her take treats after a nice behavior as well. (Hey, it wasn’t all bad!)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Sorry about Zani’s clunky, mismatched getup. This was an unplanned outing and she was wearing a borrowed harness. 

What To Do About It

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. A keyboard player doesn’t start her studies by playing Liszt or Rachmaninoff. She starts with simple pieces. She works on scales. She attempts harder things gradually, usually under the tutelage of a teacher. If she is going to be a performer, she also widens her playing experience gradually as well. She plays on different types of pianos. She plays in different settings and for different groups of people. She learns to handle herself in lots of different musical situations.

Likewise, taking a dog who has practiced behaviors only at home (and maybe in only one room of the house) to a park and expecting perfect performance is like taking the first year piano student to Carnegie Hall, aiming her at the stage, and saying, “Knock ’em dead!” 

She’s not ready. And neither is your dog.

Instead, teach your dog behaviors in your living room. Then in your kitchen. Then in a room with an outside view. Then on the back porch if you have one. Then in a boring part of your back yard. Then in an interesting part of your back yard. Then on your front porch. Then in your front yard. Then a few steps either way toward your neighbors’ houses. (I have a friend who had a big van with some open space in it, and she taught her dog to perform all of his behaviors in the van! How cool is that?)

You can also practice asking for your dog’s attention as part of her “getting out of the car” routine. Also even going out your front door. Both of these are common times for dogs to get excited and unreachable. 

Be generous with the reinforcement. You are gradually introducing competing reinforcers, so yours needs to be good. 

When you do get to the park, set her up for success. Pick a time when most people are staying home. Go to an area where you can practice on a parking lot or the pavement before you venture into more exciting areas. If you do mat training, bring the mat. Help your dog practice getting out of the car and straight onto the mat. Keep the first lessons short.  

Get the picture? Work up to it. Set your antecedents. 

Better Food

High-value food is your friend when you are going new places with your dog. But it’s important to note that food is not a cure-all. You can’t just skip to a distracting environment and count on liver brownies to save the day. You and your dog will still need to work up to it. And some days, for some dogs–there just isn’t a high enough value food. Dogs are animals. We don’t live in a perfect world.

But It’s Her Walk!

That’s right. It may be important to you to offer your dog as much freedom as you can. You may want to give her time to acclimate and explore whenever you go somewhere new. But those goals are not incompatible with what I am describing here. My own teacher has encouraged me to see on-the-road training as a safety issue. I don’t have to have my dog’s attention all the time–far from it. But I need to be able to ask for it and get it.

Premack

Here is the place where someone is going to suggest the Premack principle. That principle says that you can reinforce statistically less likely behaviors (walking nicely on leash) with more likely behaviors (sniffing). After all, if the thing your dog wants the most is to sniff new odors, why not use that for your reinforcement? 

It can be done, but it’s more complicated than it sounds. If you are a beginning trainer and your dog is so entranced by odors that you can’t get his attention for love or money, how can you get him back after you let him go off sniffing?

I have two blogs about that:

I do use sniffing as a reinforcer for my dogs when we are on my own street and other familiar places. I have it on cue and it works pretty well. The second link above describes how I did it. But I rarely try it in a brand new place. Again, because we haven’t practiced enough for Carnegie Hall.

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Leave It: Not Just for Dead Men Anymore

The other day I was pondering the trend of talking about teaching “self-control” and “impulse control” in our dogs. I got to thinking about “leave it,” both the term and the behavior. I realized a couple things. First, the term “leave it” doesn’t pass the dead-man test. (I’ll get to that below.) Second, the behavior “leave it” is not just one, but several behaviors. Third, I realized that this combination of problems could present some difficulties when training.

What is your dog actually doing when she successfully “leaves it”?

You know what that means: I’m going to write about it!

Negative vs. Positive Descriptions

When describing how we would like dogs to act, how many times do we start with the word “doesn’t”? (Or worse, “shouldn’t.”)

  • The dog doesn’t counter-surf.
  • The dog doesn’t jump on people.
  • The dog doesn’t bark inappropriately.
  • The dog doesn’t pee or poop in the house.

You get the picture. And as people with a little (or a lot) of experience with positive reinforcement based training, you know what good trainers will do first. They will decide–and describe–what they want the dog to do. Like this:

  • The dog lies on a mat when in the kitchen.
  • The dog keeps four feet on the floor for greeting.
  • The dog barks once and runs to a family member when the doorbell rings.
  • The dog eliminates outside.

I could have made the second group of descriptions more specific and precise. You can consider them a rough draft. But with the descriptions I was taking the first steps toward something called operationalization.

Operationalization and Dead Men

Operationalization is an important concept in applied behavior analysis. To operationalize a behavior is to describe it in observable, measurable, objective, and specific ways. (That description is from this article about behavioral interventions with children, but most definitions are similar.) For some reason that is difficult for humans to do. We want to conceptualize and label things instead. The dog is being naughty; the dog is being dominant; the dog is getting back at us; the dog is acting guilty.

None of these phrases tells us what the dog is actually doing. And if we are going to observe, analyze and modify behavior, we have to know that.

When you operationalize behavior, you can’t define it as a negative or an absence of something. Attempting to define a behavior by what it isn’t fails the “dead-man test.” Ogden Lindsley coined this term in 1965 and you can read about it here: From Technical Jargon to Plain English for Application.1)Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.

The bottom line is that if a dead man can do it, it’s not a behavior. Look at my top list of problem dog “behaviors.” A dead man could do all those things.  For instance, dead men are really good at things like “not counter-surfing” and “not jumping on people.”

Attempts at behavioral descriptions that start with the word “doesn’t” usually aren’t real behaviors at all. They fail the dead-man test.

The dead-man test comes in handy because it clues you in to times when you are going down the wrong road. For instance, when discussing negative reinforcement, I have had people tell me that all other behaviors besides the one that’s being negatively reinforced are automatically being punished. For instance, let’s say I have dirty hands. I wash them. My hands are now pleasantly clean and washing was negatively reinforced. Having dirty hands was aversive to me and I removed that aversive via washing. But my correspondent wrote that also, “not washing hands” was positively punished.

Whoa! What does “not washing hands” look like? Ask a dead man. He’s doing it right now. If there is no behavior observed and described, we can’t identify punishment occurring. (By the way, there could have been positive punishment in this scenario. But there’s not enough information in my description to know.)

Exploring “Leave It”

And that brings me to “leave it.” We tend to think of “leave it” as being a single behavior. We casually define it as the dog not getting that thing that we don’t want it to get. But wait! “Not getting the goodie”? That doesn’t pass the dead-man test.

When we talk about “leave it,” we actually may be talking about one of several behaviors. Watch this video of baby Clara learning “leave it” (a.k.a. Zen in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) She does great, despite some poorly timed markers on my part. But what behavior is she learning?

Link to the puppy video for email subscribers.

When we teach Zen or “leave it,” we usually mark and reinforce the first thing the dog does after she stops mugging and licking the hand. So I marked (late, but it worked) when Clara pulled her head back. I then dropped the treat, and she got it off the floor. The very next time around, Clara pulled her head away and looked at the floor. Clever pup. And that’s the behavior I reinforced for most of the rest of the session.

So at that time, Clara’s experience with “leave it” was:

  • When a fist with a treat inside it appears in front of your face…
  • look at the floor…
  • and a treat will appear.

She also learned that licking or even approaching the hand with the treat in it didn’t work. Those behaviors started to extinguish in that context.

Here are three more examples of “leave it.”

What are my dogs doing in this picture?

Three dogs practicing leave it: staying on their mats as treats roll by.

We call this “leave it” but what are the dogs doing?

If I operationalize it, I would say that they are lying on their mats with their heads up, watching treats roll by. I could improve on the term “leave it” by calling this behavior a down stay or a mat stay with distractions. 2)Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are holding their heads up and watching something.

What is Summer doing in this picture? (Those are pieces of mozzarella cheese on the floor.)

Summer practicing leave it: walking on a loose leash through a grid of cheese on the floor

We call this “leave it” but what is Summer doing?

Summer is walking with me on leash, keeping her head and shoulders in line with my left side and within two feet of me such that the leash stays loose. She is doing this with a major distraction of cheese on the floor. AKA “leave it.”

Finally, what does Clara do in this movie?

Link to the Clara recall video for email subscribers.

When I call her, Clara lifts her head up from the food she was eating, turns, and runs to me. It’s a challenging recall. But it’s also “leave it.”

Can we specify that “leave it” consists of one of these four things?

  • Come
  • Stay
  • Continue another duration behavior
  • Relax the jaw muscles to release an item

Did I miss anything?

So What? (Part 1)

Sometimes we can train ourselves into a corner if we don’t operationalize what the dog is actually doing. Clara learned (after the above puppy video) that a reliable way to get a reinforcer in a “leave it” situation was to move away from the tempting item. She put distance between the item and herself. This worked fine until I started using food as a distraction on the floor and she actually had to go close to the food to do what I was asking of her. Then I realized that I had taught “leave it” as “back away” when what I really wanted was “hold your head up and keep your mouth closed.” Those are pretty different!

I wrote a whole post about that: The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field.

The embedded movie in that post shows Clara struggling when I ask her to get on her mat with a treat in the way. This was harder for her to learn than it was for my other dogs. That was probably because backing away from the treat had been so heavily reinforced.

Anybody want to suggest how I could have made the transition with less stress for her?

So What? (Part 2)

This post started off as a rant prompted by the use of the terms “self-control” and “impulse control” in the dog community. I have used those terms myself, plenty of times. That’s how we conceptualize what we want from our dogs. We don’t want to have to order them around all the time. We would like for them to perform the behaviors we like almost automatically (with reinforcement from us, of course).

But I am becoming a little concerned about using the constructs of “self-control” or “impulse control.” They have an almost moralistic edge to them. The typical definitions of those things for humans involve urges, emotions, and morality. More important, we tend to see self-control type behaviors all under one big umbrella. I think that with our dogs we do better to talk about specific behaviors. Just as we shy away from using constructs such as “guilt” in dogs because of the harm that can be done under that assumption, I think we might want to hesitate in using these general terms about self-control. We don’t know that the dog conceives it that way. What we do know is that we can successfully reinforce certain behaviors.

I truncated my rant when I found out that the term “self-control” does have a valid definition for animals.  It’s a big topic, so I’ll address that in the future.

In the meantime, here is my encouragement to operationalize, operationalize, operationalize! Figure out specifically what you want the dog to do. Figure what it looks like. Define it. Describe it. Then teach it.

And for fun: does your dog do anything quirky as part of “leave it”? I bet there are some cute ones out there.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.
2. Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are holding their heads up and watching something.
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Local Enhancement and Socially Facilitated Behaviors in Dogs

Three dogs lying on the grass as seen from above. It is local enhancement, imitation, or just that they agree on the best place for sun baths?

 

This post started out as one thing and transformed into another as I went along, as many of mine do. I have been familiar for a while with the term local enhancement for a type of social learning in dogs. I had some videos that I felt were good examples. But while researching this post and putting the clips together into a movie, I learned that the concepts and definitions were a lot less cut and dried than I thought.

This topic is up for lots of interpretation and discussion in the literature and I have found it to be underrepresented in discussions about dog behavior. I felt that at least an introduction to the subject would be helpful. I have gone with the most thorough, most recent, and most cited sources.  I am open to additional information and hope for a good discussion.

Terms and Definitions

There are several different types of socially facilitated behaviors and social learning. These are two separate terms since behaviors can be socially facilitated without subsequent learning (Heyes, 1994, p. 214). Also the types of social facilitation overlap, and more than one can be going on at the same time. Among the types are behavioral contagion, local enhancement, stimulus enhancement, observational conditioning, copying, emulation, and imitation.

I got interested in local enhancement since I was pretty sure I saw it happening with my dogs.  Like most of the other types, it involves animals performing similar behaviors as a result of observation or other perception of another animal. But it is not classified as imitation.

Here are a definition and an example of local enhancement from textbooks:

Local enhancement occurs when, after or during a demonstrator’s presence, or interaction with objects at a particular location, an observer is more likely to visit or interact with objects at that location (Hoppitt, 2013, p. 66).

…When local enhancement is in play, a model simply draws attention to some aspect of the environment by the action he undertakes there (for example, digging for worms). Once the observer is drawn to the area, he learns on his own (Dugatkin, 2004, p. 154-5).

Note that the observer animal doesn’t have to see the demonstrator animal. The observer can happen upon odors the demonstrator left or other signs of its actions in the area.

But if you have more than one dog, I bet you have seen local enhancement now and again.

Socially Facilitated Behaviors Without Learning

One thing that tripped me up is that it turns out local enhancement doesn’t have to involve learning (Thorpe, 1963, p. 154). Sometimes behavior is elicited socially but there is no behavior change in the future. The examples in my movie are probably of this type.

Some researchers say that local enhancement only takes place if the observer animal interacts at the location after the demonstrator has left (Heyes, 1994, p. 215).  That is true in the first of my video examples but is not required by most definitions.

William Hoppitt (2013, p.66), whose definition I included first above, believes that the term local enhancement should be inclusive:

…We suggest that local enhancement be retained to refer to all such location effects, irrespective of whether they result in learning.

He also includes in his definition that the demonstrator animal may be either present or absent. Under that definition, both of the examples in my movie would qualify. When the demonstrator animal is still there, the classification of the observer’s behavior is more difficult. If the observer is interacting at the location at the same time as the demonstrator, we could be seeing general social facilitation. This is the tendency of animals to behave as others in their group are doing (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 467). Consider such contagious behaviors as yawning in humans and barking or fence running in dogs. In one of my examples in the movie, the dogs are attracted to a location but also running around excitedly in a group. There is probably both local enhancement and social facilitation going on.

Thus, local enhancement can end up with two animals doing the same thing at more or less the same place. But it is different from imitation or emulation. These are separate and precisely defined learning methods.

Not Imitation or Emulation

The term imitation has a specific meaning in learning theory.

Imitation: Performing the same action as a demonstrator by virtue of having seen the action performed. The action must be novel… (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468)

Some definitions stipulate that the observing animal must use the same body parts to perform the behavior they observe. For example, in one study, marmosets watched a demonstrator open a canister. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its hands to remove the lids used only their hands. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its mouth also used their mouths to remove the lids (Voelkl, 2000). That difference marked their behavior as true imitation.

Emulation means that the observer copies only some of the elements of a complex action (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468).  The behavior by the observer may be different and may or may not achieve the same end as the demonstrator.

Local enhancement is a much looser concept than both of these. But the more I read about it, the more obvious it seems to me that since animals of the same species would respond similarly to the same stimuli in the same location, it would make sense for them to pay attention to what their conspecifics are doing and where. This could be advantageous and selected for.

When Do We See Local Enhancement?

Almost all studies of local enhancement in the natural environment involve foraging behavior. For instance, one animal will see that another has found a good source of food and will go to that area. Or an animal will happen on the scent of a conspecific and will learn to consume the food in that area or of that type.

Lab experiments follow this model as well. Rather than involving foraging, they generally involve a learned behavior that results in food.

Several domesticated species respond to humans in ways that involve local enhancement. One study shows local enhancement behaviors in horses as a response to the presence of a human near food (Krueger, 2011).  There are several studies with dogs. Some of the human gestural and pointing studies with canids may involve local enhancement.

One of my examples shows two of my dogs investigating a spot in the grass after another dog had appeared to snap at and possibly eat an insect there. The two other dogs waited until the first dog left, then both went to the spot and sniffed for a while. Anthropomorphically speaking, here’s what I imagine going through their heads. “That was interesting. Is it something I need to know more about? Did she maybe leave a piece or is there another one of those? Do they live here?” In the second example, one dog discovers something alive and exciting under a step on my back porch. This is the one where you can see both local enhancement and socially facilitated behavior. After all the dogs arrived, they ran around excitedly and tried to get at the animal (which stayed safe).

Link to the video in case the above embed doesn’t work for you. 

Social Learning Is…Learning

There is a tendency in the dog training world to treat social learning as exempt from learning theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on the type, social learning includes antecedents, behaviors, consequences, and/or classical associations. It’s just that some of the elements are a little different from what we are used to.

How about your dogs or other animals? Do you see local enhancement? How about between different species?

References

Dugatkin, L. A. (2004). Principles of animal behavior (No. Sirsi) i9780393976595). New York: WW Norton.

Heyes, C. M. (1994). Social learning in animals: categories and mechanisms. Biological Reviews, 69(2), 207-231.

Hoppitt, W., & Laland, K. N. (2013). Social learning: an introduction to mechanisms, methods, and models. Princeton University Press.

Krueger, K., Flauger, B., Farmer, K., & Maros, K. (2011). Horses (Equus caballus) use human local enhancement cues and adjust to human attention.Animal cognition, 14(2), 187-201.

Shettleworth, S. J. (2009). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.

Thorpe, W. H. (1956). Learning and instinct in animals.

Voelkl, B., & Huber, L. (2000). True imitation in marmosets. Animal Behaviour, 60(2), 195-202.

Thank you to Yvette Van Veen and Debbie Jacobs for leading me to some good resources on this topic. All conclusions are my own.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson

I’m pleased to announce that I am offering writing mentorships for trainers and behavior professionals through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). The mentorships will enable professionals to improve their writing and better represent their businesses. Mentees who make the most of the course will leave the mentorship with documents they can immediately put to professional use.

The mentorships start on January 15, 2017. During the eight-week course, I will provide individual coaching to up to 15 mentees with writing projects of their choice. The projects may already be in progress or may be started during the mentorship. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly videoconference. I will provide startup assignments and information on typical business documents for mentees who want help with writing but don’t know where to start.

There are also spots for auditors. They will audit in the academic sense. Auditors will be able to view all written discussions in the classroom between the mentor and mentees, will have full access to the supporting course materials, but will not take part in the videoconferences or submit their own projects.  

Read the official mentorship course description and register here. 

The above link will tell you “who, what, when, and where” about the mentorships. But here I’m going to tell you the “how and why.”  How will they work and what will it be like for participants? And why should you sign up?

How Will the Mentorships Work?

The mentorships will take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interaction. I’ll be posting videos and files. I’ll provide resource lists, cheat sheets, and sample assignments. Mentees will upload their individual projects so we can work on them together. Auditors and other mentees will view our discussions and the editing process. Mentees and auditors will be able to chat with each other. If time is available I may answer auditors’ questions related to the mentees’ projects. The mentees and I will have weekly videoconferences.

Documents we can work on include but are not limited to articles, blog posts, class handouts, behavior assessments, biographies and other marketing materials, announcements, press releases, grants, reports, and books.

Prepared course materials will cover style sheets, time management, motivation, organization, voice and audience, writing tools, editing tools, search engine optimization, references and plagiarism, and collaboration.

How Will Things Work for Participants?

Here are the three most important things mentees need to know:

  1. I will be your hired coach. You can tell me the types of assistance and critique you want, or you can turn me loose and say, “Help!” We’ll figure out the best way to work together. My goal will be to help you improve your writing skills so you can turn out some great documents. My help won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  2. I will not be grading anything. We’ll all push aside the “write-it-for-a-grade-and-hope-the-teacher-likes-it” paradigm. That’s not what this is about.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though this is a writing mentorship, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to the chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, and other chat conventions will be fine. If we don’t understand something, we’ll ask. Nothing in the mentorship will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.

A Note for the Introverts

There has been a trend in organizations for a few years to adopt an extroverted educational model. Boisterous entertainment. Aggressive engagement. Required participation. Making everything into a game that no one can decline.

You introverts don’t need to worry. You can keep on being introverts. I’m one, too. We’ll have fun. We will have some contests and games. Write a paragraph in exactly the wrong voice! Submit the dorkiest bio! But there will be no required or forced participation. You get to have your own definition of fun. However you choose to take part, I’ll do my best to make it interesting and fun for you.

Why Professionals Need Coaching and Mentoring

Writers need coaches!

Top-level professional singers usually use vocal coaches for their entire professional careers. Professional athletes in individual sports such as tennis likewise retain personal coaches throughout their playing careers. Having an expert outside observer and teacher is essential. It allows professionals to get more information about their tasks and feedback on their skill sets. It prevents them from falling into idiosyncrasies. It gives that invaluable second pair of ears or eyes.

Coaching is a successful model for a writing mentorship. Calling on a mentor doesn’t mean you are helpless or unprofessional. It’s not about getting a grade. It doesn’t have to hurt your ego. It’s about getting an outside perspective and expert feedback.

Better writing will help you communicate better with your peers, provide clearer instructions to your clients, and present a more polished public appearance.

Register for the writing mentorship here. 

IAABC writing mentorship

Writing Samples

You can read my bio on the mentorship page linked above, but I’m also providing some writing samples here. Since my voice in the blog is moderately casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Thank you to Randi Rossman for discussing the scholarly work about antecedents with me. All mistakes are my own. 

I recently found myself in a situation that dogs are in a lot of the time, and it was a revelation.

So here’s the deal. I use a Mac laptop at work when I do bookkeeping tasks. I also own a Mac laptop and use it at home (and other locations).

The one at work has a 13″ screen. My home computer has a 15″ screen. The work laptop is older and has an older operating system.

On my work computer, to scroll down, I move my fingers down the trackpad. On my home one, it’s the opposite. To scroll down, I move my fingers up the trackpad. The software folks reversed it in one of the operating system updates.

I’ve been using these two computers long enough that I switch back and forth fluently. I rarely make a mistake using the trackpad. I perform the correct behavior without conscious deliberation. I had to actually test one of the computers to be able to write down which way the trackpad works on each one. I can’t remember unless I am actually doing it.

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up? Closeup of a black and rust colored dog next to a laptop keyboard

I haven’t taught Zani how to scroll using the trackpad yet

Antecedents

So if I perform two opposite behaviors for the same outcome, what is telling me the difference?

“Antecedent” is the term for stimuli and situations that set the stage for a behavior. They include cues (discriminative stimuli), motivating operations, and in some classification systems, setting events.

These things can combine in quite complex ways and I am not going to undertake to untangle them in this post. However, we can explore the factors that may play into my performing one behavior vs. another. In other words, how do I know which way to move my fingers on the trackpad?  Something in the environment is cuing me to do so. What is it?

The obvious candidate is that I am working on two different computers. I mentioned that the computer at work is smaller. I use a smaller set of programs on it, although none of them is unique to that computer. E.g., I use QuickBooks to keep the books at the office but also use it on my home computer to keep my own business books.

The two computers have different desktop pictures. Slightly different power cables. The computers have two different operating systems, which is the reason I have to perform different behaviors in the first place. But those operating systems don’t create much of a visual difference on screen.

Anything else? There are not auditory or olfactory differences that I am aware of. There may be kinesthetic ones, but if so, they are small, and I can’t name them.

In both cases, the visual information on the screen is one of the immediate antecedents. What I see informs me that I can move my fingers to view the rest of the document. It looks about the same on both computers. Still, if you had asked me what it was that told me which way to move my fingers to move to scroll down, I would have told you that it was using a different computer.

I would have been wrong.

What’s the Mystery Antecedent?

I long ago passed through the annoying period where I had to learn which behavior to do on which computer. During that time I was making repeated mistakes. After that, something gelled and I rarely thought about it anymore. But recently, the mystery part of the antecedent revealed itself.

When I take my home laptop to work, I usually station myself at a certain table. But the other day, I put my personal laptop where I usually put the work laptop. Guess what happened when I needed to scroll down?

You got it. I performed the behavior that would have worked if I were using my work laptop. The incorrect behavior for the computer I was using.

So the essential thing that tells me to move my fingers up or down to scroll on the laptop is not a physical characteristic of the computer. It’s an element of the wider environment. It’s where I sit.

Location, location, location.

Dogs

Sue Ailsby, in her book Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, writes about a time she gave her a dog a cue she thought she knew and received a blank look in return. Sue writes:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those three little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her. –Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, page 226

It is brutally common for us not to know what the antecedents are for a behavior we are teaching our dogs. We think we know, and we are wrong a lot of the time. We think the crucial antecedent is the verbal cue, but it may be the environmental setting plus the fact that we are saying something—anything. It might be that the dog is performing the next behavior in a pattern that we as trainers have been performing for years without realizing it. In many cases, the salient antecedent is our own body language that precedes or accompanies the verbal cue.

I have a set of YouTube movies and posts about why dogs might perform the “wrong” behavior for a given cue. (Actually, it’s usually that they are performing the right behavior for a cue that they have noticed and we haven’t.) In one of the movies, I show my dog Zani performing the “go around” behavior. She is to trot out and circle an object and come back. I usually use a tall object such as a floor lamp for her to go around when we practice. I use the verbal cue “Come by” to get her to circle clockwise around it. It appears for all the world that she is responding to my verbal cue when she performs the behavior.

Then, in the movie, I switch out the lamp for a shallow plastic lidded box. I say, “Come by.” Zani trots up to the box, but instead of circling it, she gives it a tentative nose target, and then mounts it with her front legs.

Zani is trying to earn her treat. She’s not being hardheaded and certainly not stupid. She’s not ignoring me. It’s just that my saying, “Come by” was not the real cue in the first place. Not the whole cue, anyway. A crucial part was the tall vertical object, in this case, the lamp. When I took that away, I took away part of the information that told her what behavior we were working on.  When I put a box there instead, I was changing the antecedent, and she offered behaviors that are usually reinforced in the presence of the box instead.

This kind of stuff happens all the time in dog training.  Location, as in my computer scrolling issue, is huge. If I usually ask my dog for a sit in the kitchen and a down in the front room, it will take extra effort for the dog to do a down in the kitchen and to sit in the front room. Then there are surfaces. The same dog I mentioned, Zani, dislikes lying down on my concrete floor most of the time. (This seems to be pretty common with small, shorthaired dogs.) Over the years, I have waffled between wanting to improve her response and feeling like it was mean and unnecessary. I’ve been inconsistent. The result is that she will lie down on concrete, but she will not usually do it the first time I say the cue. She’ll try sitting first. And even this is not stubbornness. She shaped my behavior and I let it happen. I rarely ask her for a down on concrete. So concrete, instead, has become part of the antecedent for sit.

Small black dog leaping in front of a woman holding a plastic bowl. The bowl is part of the antecedent for the behavior.

What’s the cue? My saying “Boing!” or holding out the container with the ball in it?

Zani’s jump in the above photo was an offered behavior I put on cue because it was cute, lively, and fun for her. We always do it at the same place and time: when we are playing ball and I have the special ball container. When I say, “Boing!” she jumps. (Sometimes she jumps without my saying it–that should give us a hint right there.) But I have complete confidence that if I walked up to her in the house sometime without the ball container and said, “Boing!” I would get a completely blank look and no jump.

Changing the Behavioral Response

When I had my home computer in my workspace in my office the other day, changing the scrolling behavior was not easy. This is a lesson for us as dog trainers as well. I had this screaming locational cue telling me to do one behavior, and I had to repeatedly override it with my conscious mind. It was tough! I kept reverting. And I have no doubt that the next time I take my computer to work I will have to learn it all over again.

So let’s have some empathy for our dogs. Even though I consciously knew what was going on, I still couldn’t fix my behavior by turning a switch in my head. I had to learn and practice the new association. This happens to our dogs way more often than we even know.

How about you? It’s hard to catch a human situation where the antecedent is not what we thought it was. I lucked into mine. I’d love to hear some others. (Dog examples are OK, too!)

Related Posts

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the moment the trainer feeds her dog, and that we need to see that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery–I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like and let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first, so this is another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food we use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk like using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies but I didn’t want that to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, your dog’s being a source of comfort when the human world is harsh for you doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now; I’ll address it in a future post. Besides, the net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more help to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternative behaviors to things that just don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the way they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond, and it’s a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and handling! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six clips where I am training with food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for that too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats!

You will see me both tossing treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and treating in position. Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

By the way, I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should definitely use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.

I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her multiple treats while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. In the video, I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because she is doing duration and this is a hard behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer doing a nose-to-hand target. This was after I had cleaned up the results of sloppy training on my part. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One thing speeding things up is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food!) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In this case, we were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. That’s a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I do them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. That happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think 8 seconds is a long time for that–try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Of course, there are other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have successfully used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be completely empty if we didn’t have a bond already. It only gains value after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate clearly with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current learning theory textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The results are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.

This is a typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis is the average suppression ratio. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to  the frequency of the behavior.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But there are other problems with the use of aversives besides the immediate fact of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In learning theory usage it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become desensitized to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something.(I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree in this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, the problem is born out of a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully desensitizing their dogs to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the rats were determined to have reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised through nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half, resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in learning theory, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off of behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. The human’s act of raising the level of the punishment is reinforced.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and its known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see desensitization to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence.  My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that are destructive of our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.

References

Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment in that vein from a discussion group. The topic was solving a specific behavior problem.

I am not here for confrontation but I am against “one size fits all.” I go with what gets the best results. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and every dog is different. I stick to the techniques that help my dog but I’m open-minded and always open to learn.

This can sound attractive and reasonable, especially if you grew up in California in the 1970s as I did. I grew up in a culture that valued open-mindedness and I was explicitly taught it as part of a moral code. “Don’t be critical.” “Learn about other people and other ways of doing things.” “Don’t judge.” (See the photo at the bottom of this post for my 1970s credentials.)

I may have added some nuance to that value over the years, especially the “don’t judge” part. I came to believe that being open-minded didn’t mean automatically accepting every thought and idea that came my way.  Because questioning statements and beliefs, especially your own, is open-minded too.

Ad Hominem

The first thing to realize about the quote above is that it is an ad hominem response. It’s all about the personal qualities of the writer and by implication, those who might argue against her. Even with all that nice language about being open to learning and everyone being entitled to an opinion. Did you notice something? It doesn’t address the behavior problem or a training method to solve it. Whoosh! Now we are talking about who’s open-minded and who’s not.

Implying that your opponent is closed-minded is an ad hominem attack and an attempt to silence. The writer can say all day long that she’s not there to be confrontational. I believe she truly may not want an argument–she’s doing her best to squelch one before it starts! The appeal to open-mindedness, when successful, can pre-empt any argument that comes against one. And it can be effective. What do you say to someone who ignores the substance of what you say and dismisses you as closed-minded? I’ll get to that below.

What Is Open-Mindedness Really?

OK, the next part is where some might say, “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” Except that is also ad hominem. It implies that there are limits to open-mindedness as a virtue, but it doesn’t specify them. It’s just a return insult. We can do better than that.

The thing is, being open-minded doesn’t mean you can’t make judgments. It means being willing to consider all the evidence. Here are some definitions:

Dictionary.com:

Having or showing a mind receptive to new ideas or arguments.

Merriam-Webster:

Willing to consider different ideas or opinions.

Oxford Dictionaries:

Willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.

None of these implies that open-mindedness means avoiding coming to conclusions about evidence. None precludes judging something to be harmful or unnecessary.

Crossing Over

For many people, it required an extremely open mind to come to understand how positive reinforcement-based training worked and learn to see dog body language.1)Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.

 

Meme openmindedness

Being open-minded means being open to learning about cognitive fallacies and cultural programming. Being open-minded means being willing to examine one’s own assumptions. It means being willing to open one’s perceptions to see fallout and to leave old methods behind. It means living with the cognitive/emotional dissonance that precedes changing one’s beliefs. It means being open to the possibility that something formerly taken for granted is false.

Being open-minded about the possibility that we were wrong about how best to train our dogs is hard and can hurt.

A friend who made some painful realizations when crossing over from training with aversives wrote this:

I think a big part of allowing yourself to believe there might be a better way of doing things is coming to terms with the fact that you aren’t doing things the best way already. I think that’s a stickler for a lot of people. People are trying to do the best for their dogs, and it’s hard to acknowledge that they might actually be doing the dog harm.

Why This Post?

I’ve got two reasons. First, I want to offer a possible response to being accused of closed-mindedness.

Most of us who spend any time in Internet discussion groups have come to recognize an ad hominem retort. Something like, “Why would I listen to you? Your videos suck!” is an obvious personal attack and irrelevant to a discussion about ideas or methods (even if the videos do suck). A remark like that could also get the writer thrown out of a lot of groups that have a zero-tolerance policy for personal attacks. But a quote like I opened with at the beginning of this post would rarely get flagged as inappropriate. It usually passes under the radar when a writer claims open-mindedness and implies that her opponents in argument lack that quality. I think this is because open-mindedness seems relevant to discussion. It is a seductive argument. We don’t realize that since it’s a character trait, throwing it in it leads attention away from the actual argument.

Here’s a sample response to such an accusation.

  • A: You are closed-minded; there are lots of good methods out there. Every dog is different.
  • B: There certainly are a lot of methods, so let’s talk about them. We can do that better without bringing in individual character traits.

The idea is to politely turn away from character judgments and return to the original discussion. I would not repeat the term “open-minded” or “closed-minded” back. Leave those behind. Whatever you do, don’t get sucked into an, “I’m more open-minded than you are” contest.

I don’t fool myself that Person A is going to get persuaded to open her mind to the things we might want her to. Not from this one discussion. For crossover trainers, our own journeys can tell us that. That kind of change can be terrifically hard. We need to remember how it was for us and have empathy for that. But the argument is not pointless. Remember that the lurkers, the folks in the background who may be on the fence, are always there watching. They will respond to the things we say about positive reinforcement training, to our coolness in the face of unfair criticism, and to our patience.

And that brings me to the second reason for this post. Professional trainers who practice positive reinforcement-based methods are beleaguered. I watch it happening to you. You are still a minority in the training world. Time and time again you have to pick up the pieces after a force-based method has hurt a dog. You deal with both dogs and people who are hurting, confused, and sometimes desperate. You often suffer from compassion fatigue. And then you get on Facebook for a little R&R and there is someone telling you how closed-minded you are.

This is my shout-out to you. Those insults that people hurl are wrong. You are not only open-minded: you are also willing to review the evidence and make decisions. You educate yourselves. You are willing to admit your mistakes. You advocate for the dogs.

Thank you.

My 1970s California Credentials

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Offering my credentials as a California child of the 70s, with my dad, Norman, and sister Gail.

Shout-out to reader Neil Joinson who politely pointed out that the preferred term is “closed-minded” rather than “close-minded.” I have edited the article and graphic accordingly. Thanks, Neil!

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© Eileen Anderson 2016

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Others never adopted force methods, and I want to throw in a “Good job!” to them.
Posted in Critical Thinking, Training philosophy | Tagged , | 25 Comments

Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

What do the following training descriptions have in common?

  • “My dog’s afraid of strangers. But when she stops barking and makes eye contact with me, I give her a treat.”
  • “I hold her foot. Then I give her a treat after I clip each toenail, as long as she stays in place and doesn’t pull her foot away.”
  • “When we have guests, I wait for him to show some calm behavior like stretching, breathing more deeply, or lying down. Then I give him a treat.”
  • “We play LAT (Look At That). I say ‘Look at the dog’ and she does. I mark, then give her a treat.”1)Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.
  • “When the cyclists go by, I cue my dog to sit, then I treat.”

These are all training methods designed to help a dog cope with something uncomfortable, undesired, or scary. But they are not classical conditioning.

These five descriptions are all operant methods. How can we tell? It’s because the food is given as a consequence of a behavior.  In each case, a certain behavior is required before the dog is given the food morsel. There is a contingency. If the training is successful, the trainer reinforces the behaviors of making eye contact, staying still, stretching, breathing deeply, lying down, looking at a trigger, or sitting.

Each of these follows the operant model:

  • an antecedent (usually the trigger appearing);
  • a behavior as specified above;
  • and a consequence (food).

The goal is for the dog to learn to perform these specified behaviors instead of being reactive or tense. Any of these could be a successful method, especially if the dog’s unease is not extreme.

Classical conditioning involves a different type of learning.

The Real Thing: Classical Conditioning

First, a little about respondent behaviors. Respondent (involuntary) behaviors include reflexes like the following:

  • blinking when a puff of air is directed at the eye;
  • sneezing because of a bright light or an irritant in the sinuses; or
  • salivating at the sight or smell of food.

Respondent behaviors follow a two-part model: Stimulus/response. In general, respondent behaviors can’t be reinforced or punished. Most of them aren’t under our control. (There are some exceptions.) Think about it this way: if you got praised or got a chocolate chip every time you got goose bumps (cutis anserina), would that happen more? Nope. Goose bumps are a response to a specific stimulus, usually cold or something that causes a strong emotion. Every respondent behavior likewise has a stimulus or stimuli that will cause it to occur.

Classical conditioning is a name for a procedure where we “attach” the respondent behavior to a new stimulus.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it thusly:

A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired; a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.

We can cause respondent behaviors to occur in response to a new stimulus by pairing them as described above. Pavlov’s dogs are the standard example. They were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a buzzer that meant the food was coming. The buzzer (first stimulus) reliably predicted the appearance of the food (second stimulus).

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

In dog training, we use classical conditioning to change the dog’s physiological and emotional response to a stimulus. For example, if a dog is afraid of the sound of delivery trucks we can consistently feed the dog roast chicken after the sound. The dog’s attitude towards delivery trucks will likely change. It will go from fear to, “Yay, chicken is coming!” The truck sound itself will come to trigger the body’s preparation to ingest food and the happy feelings that can accompany that. The happy feelings and behaviors are why we do this. We aren’t trying to teach the dog to want to eat delivery trucks. We are attaching a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to something that was formerly scary.

So how is it different from the five examples at the beginning of the post? Here are two examples that outline the basic process of classical conditioning done correctly.

Classical Conditioning: Two Examples

  • “After my dog sees the bicyclist, I wait just a moment, then start feeding her. As long as the bicycle is passing by, I keep feeding. Then I stop feeding a moment after the bicycle disappears from sight.”
  • “My washing machine makes a certain beep if the load get unbalanced. Whenever it beeps and my dog hears it, I give her a treat right afterward.”

Notice that nowhere in those two descriptions is there any mention of a required behavior. Trigger happens; dog gets food. We are so accustomed to asking for a behavior that this can seem quite foreign at first. There are other important issues involving the mechanics of the process, such as timing, that I haven’t described above. Someone who described their training with the phrases above could still be making mistakes in the training. But those are the bare bones descriptions that generally mean that the method is classical, not operant.

Three dogs group around a woman with a vacuum. The dogs have learned to associate the vacuum with good things through classical counterconditioning.

My dogs associate the vacuum cleaner with great stuff

Operant behaviors can change as a result of classical counterconditioning. Former behaviors that were prompted by the fear can extinguish when the dog is happily anticipating food. The dog will likely stop panting, pacing, and barking at the delivery truck if we condition him that truck noises predict chicken. Instead, he’ll be salivating, wagging his tail, and looking for the chicken source.

Classical Conditioning vs. Classical Counterconditioning

“Classical conditioning” is a general term. But we generally use the term “counterconditioning” when we know that the dog already has a fear response to the trigger. We aren’t starting from neutrality; we are attempting to “counter” a negative emotional response. In that case, we usually include desensitization as part of our method as well. That’s beyond the scope of this post.

But I do have other posts and videos with examples of both classical conditioning and counterconditioning/desensitization.  Check out the following. The first two entries are about classical conditioning and the third and four entries are about counterconditioning/desensitization.

“Pavlov On Your Shoulder”

Bob Bailey says that whenever we are training, Pavlov is sitting on one shoulder and Skinner is on the other. As one grows in importance, the other shrinks. What this means is that even while we are teaching a dog with operant conditioning (Skinner), classical conditioning (Pavlov) is going on. If you train with food and toys and other fun, the dog usually gains a positive emotional response to you, the activities you do together, and even the place where you typically train.

The converse is also true. When we do classical conditioning and pair food with a stimulus, we can quickly start to reinforce related operant behaviors. For example, when the dog comes to expect the food after a stimulus, he will start to turn to or approach the source of the food, usually the trainer. Those orienting behaviors occur in between the stimulus and the food, so they get reinforced.

I’m including this section about the interplay of two learning modes because some people use the “Pavlov on the shoulder” comment to claim that the operant training I described in the five comments is classical after all. They will say that all training has elements of classical conditioning, since associations are being made. This part is true. But while both processes are usually going on at the same time, our methodology targets one or the other. The methods are different. Understanding the differences can help us be more effective trainers.

Operant Counterconditioning

I hate to tell you this. Just to make things a bit fuzzier, there is a term called “operant counterconditioning.” It’s not used that often. But it’s the reason I have been specifying “classical” conditioning and counterconditioning all through this post. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin defined operant counterconditioning as follows:

Operant counterconditioning is when you train an alternate, incompatible behavior. For instance, if a dog lunges and barks every time he sees other dogs across the street, you can train the aggressive dog to watch you and go through other obedience exercises when he sees dogs. —Rapid Reversal of Fear and Aggression in Dogs and Cats, Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

Some of my five “not classical conditioning” examples above could qualify as operant counterconditioning.

Why Does It Matter?

I realize that not everybody is a nomenclature nut like I am. But if we want to learn about different techniques, know their strengths and weaknesses, practice them, and discuss them, we need to know the correct concepts and terminology. I have seen dozens of people say that they were performing classical counterconditioning when they were using an operant method. I’ve mixed up the two myself. That usually indicates more than an accidental terminology problem. It usually means that the person really doesn’t understand what classical counterconditioning is.

Movies

These short movies show fun examples of conditioned responses. When we perform classical conditioning, we look for the moment where the dog starts anticipating the food after the new stimulus. In the first movie below, Zani gives a clear, “Where’s my food??” look when I pause with the food delivery after touching her back with a plastic syringe.

In the second movie, Hazel goes beyond the double take. She’s wagging her tail but she also licks her chops (a sign of salivation) when she notices the nail file.

Has anybody else’s dog gotten as far as actually salivating as a result of classical conditioning?

Link to Zani’s counterconditioning movie for email subscribers.

Link to Hazel’s classical conditioning movie for email subscribers.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Thank you to Lori Nanan of Your Pit Bull and You and the wonderful Hazel for allowing me to use the cool movie and photo.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning | 28 Comments

Rescue Me! (Part 1)

If your dog wanted to jump into your lap or hide behind you when another dog was bugging her, would you let her do so? If you did, would you be reinforcing fear?

Friends and Playmates

My dogs Zani and Clara have been playing ever since the day in 2011 when Clara arrived so unexpectedly. Clara was about 10 or 11 weeks old and weighed 12 pounds. Zani was three years old and 18 pounds. Both were and are dog-friendly and good communicators.

Zani played hard with baby Clara, chewing on her neck, knocking her over, and restarting play over and over. Clara was both game and good-natured. She still is. Which is a good thing, because now Clara weighs 44 pounds, more than twice as much as Zani.

Clara and Zani

Clara and Zani, back when they were better matched in size

Back in those days, my teacher advised me to interrupt them frequently so they would learn to take breaks and so I could call them out of play. I did so, and taking a breather started to come naturally in their play. Over the years they have developed their own play style. It encompasses several different activities with mini-breaks between them. And to this day they will respond quickly if I call them, no matter how intense their game is.

They play well together, even with the size difference. Clara self-handicaps, lying down and rolling over and letting Zani chew on her. She can run much faster then Zani, but she never runs and tackles her or mows her down. If she is chasing Zani and catches up with her, she veers off in another direction or circles around her. That way Zani can leap on her instead.

Clara often comes out of it with her neck fur all wet from Zani’s mouthing. But she never sets a tooth on Zani. Nevertheless, I always supervise when they play.

IMG_0882

Clara grew up, but she and Zani are still buddies

The Only Problem

The only blemish on this idyllic-sounding situation is that Clara doesn’t always take “No” for an answer when Zani doesn’t want to play.

I’ve mentioned they are both good communicators. Zani has a selection of behaviors she performs when she doesn’t want to play that even I can read. But Clara doesn’t always respond in kind. So when Zani stops, breaks eye contact, turns away, sniffs the ground, and digs in a favorite dirt hole–sometimes Clara will politely turn away. But she also might come roaring right into Zani’s face trying to play some more. That’s when the size difference is a problem.

Hence, I stay ready to intervene when Clara is being a butt. However, if I am a little late in my intervention, Zani has figured out a method of her own. She runs and jumps into my lap. I let her stay there until Clara has calmed down enough and stopped trying to force Zani to play with her. You can see that in the movie.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What Does This Remind You Of?

I just described a situation in which Zani is uncomfortable. She runs to me to get away from Clara when she is a bully. I want to compare it to another scenario I believe is similar. First, here’s the bully one.

The Bully/Irritation Scenario (#1)

  • Zani is uncomfortable with something Clara is doing
  • Zani runs and jumps up in my lap
  • She is safe from (out of reach of) Clara

How does that compare with the following? (Hint: they both involve escape from something unpleasant.)

The Fear Scenario (#2)

  • There is a thunderstorm and it scares my dog
  • She runs to me and jumps in my lap
  • Her fear often lessens somewhat

I bet that in Scenario #1, most people would let their little dogs jump in their laps to get away from pushy bigger dogs. But there is a sizable group of people who have trouble with letting the dog into their lap in Scenario #2. It’s because they are wary of “reinforcing fear.”

Reinforcing Fear

Many eminent people have written about the fact that you can’t reinforce fear. Fear is a set of respondent behaviors that occur when the sympathetic nervous system ramps up in response to a threat. These respondent behaviors, including the emotion of fear, are not subject to operant conditioning. But the idea of reinforcing fear is “sticky” and hard to get rid of. (Here is my article about it.)

The “reinforcing fear” rationale goes something like this.

Let’s say the dog is afraid of something that we think she shouldn’t be. We think if we comfort her, we are somehow strengthening her misguided idea that there is something to be afraid of. Or that we are creating a little wimp by not forcing her to “face her fear.” Instead, we think we should use some method (usually involving deliberate forced exposure to the scary thing, or flooding) to “show her” that there is nothing scary.

Flooding is considered inhumane in animal training and is extremely easy to do. It can masquerade as benign-sounding activities like hand-feeding the dog or giving her a hug.  At its most extreme, it engenders learned helplessness. There is also a large risk of the fear worsening: the animal can get sensitized rather than desensitized. When we say, “Sink or swim,” plenty of dogs sink.

But unfortunately, the ideas about “facing fears” have some cultural power behind them. They are easy to fall into because we don’t tend to take dogs’ fears seriously.  Sometimes we don’t even know what the fear is about. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from making assumptions about how to get rid of it.

Comparing the Two Situations

I think you can see where I’m going here. Most of us would not hesitate to help our dogs get away from a bully dog, a stinging insect, a rainstorm, or a human yelling at them over the fence. But let that threat get a little less concrete, and our empathy and willingness to help can get fogged over with other concerns. Why?

I’ve made a comparison table of the characteristics of these two scenarios. Let’s see if it’s a valid comparison and if we can account for our differences in attitude.

Dog is bothered by something.Dog is strongly afraid of something.
Humans can see the problem.Humans may not see the reason for the dog's fear.
We agree that avoidance is a reasonable response. It's not only useful, but clearly necessary.Dog's fearful response seems over the top.
Dog may try to fix the problem on her own.Dog appears helpless.
Dog isn't showing fear, just avoidance/irritation.Dog is showing fear.
Our intervention clearly helps.Our intervention may or may not help and we may not be able to tell if it does.

I think perhaps we respond differently in the annoyance scenario because the threat is concrete and visible and our intervention can be clearly helpful.

For instance, we probably agree that Zani shouldn’t have to deal with bullying on her own if she can’t do so effectively.  She generally has already told Clara five ways from Sunday that she doesn’t want to play, but it’s not working. Her avoidance is a reasonable response and is much better than escalating into snarls or a fight. Taking cover with me is an effective interruption of Clara’s behavior.

But in the fear situation, the dog may be exhibiting some extremely panicked behaviors. We aren’t sure how helpful we can be even if we try. We may not even know where the fear is coming from. Or if we do we have a value judgment about it. How silly of the dog to be petrified of a quiet peeping noise!

Is there something about this situation that pushes us into wanting to try a sink or swim approach?

We may be left in the strange position of helping our dogs when there are minor irritations they need assistance with, but leaving them on their own if they are scared to death about something. Does that make sense?

Turn It Around One More Time

One last thing: Let’s apply the “don’t reinforce the fear” rationale to the Zani and Clara situation since I do indeed let Zani escape to me. Do you think that when I let Zani jump into my lap to get away from Clara, I’m “reinforcing” her feeling that Clara is being bothersome? If I would just refuse to let her jump in my lap and say something jolly, would she “get over” her desire to escape Clara?

I really hope no one answers “yes” to these questions. Zani’s escape from Clara is a response to Clara’s behavior, not to mine. I can’t make Clara any less annoying by refusing to help Zani escape. Nor can I force a dog to get over her fear by refusing to remove her from the scary situation.

By the way, with another dog and another situation I might indeed pause before intervening if the dog were in the process of developing coping skills. I’m not saying we need to completely protect our dogs from all challenging situations. But Zani already has such skills. She is simply overpowered in the situation I describe, so I help her out.

Most of us are willing to help our dogs escape minor irritations like a biting insect, getting wet in the rain, or the obnoxious behavior of another dog. But because of concerns about reinforcing fear, we may be unwilling to intervene when they're truly frightened of something. Does that make sense?

Reinforcing a Behavior

Some of you have noticed by now that in both scenarios, there is a probably a behavior being reinforced: the dog coming to me. Yes, we may have a natural negative reinforcement scenario going on. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we explore the ethics of that part of the situation.

In the meantime, what do you think of my comparison? Did I miss something? Is it off the mark? I have debated publishing this since it is perhaps a stretch. Tell me what you think.

Then again, maybe I wrote this whole post so I could publish the old footage of Zani knocking baby Clara over….

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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