Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control

What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

  1. The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
  2. The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
  3. The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
  4. No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.
Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty

Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty on cue

This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:

  1. When I say, “Pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
  2. He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
  3. He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or sit.
  4. He doesn’t sit or lie down when I say, “Pretty.”

Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were a natural dog behavior like lying down, he would still do it at other times, right? Sure. And although I’ve seen some discussions about that, I don’t know in what situations it would be a “violation” of stimulus control for the dog to lie down without a cue from a human. The common answer is to append “in a training session” to the above rules. But how do we expect a dog to draw a line between “training session” and “not a training session”? And aren’t we training for real life? Do we say that behaviors like sit and down are never on true stimulus control? Probably.

You may choose not to reinforce downs that you don’t cue, but they are reinforcing to a dog who wants to rest and relax. We can’t help that.

For most trainers, there is a period where we are teaching cue recognition and stimulus control where we do not reinforce uncued behaviors. After that is taught, though, we may change the rules a bit in real life.

There are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control. I have a friend with a service dog. “Gigi” has a special setup so she can do the equivalent of calling 911 if my friend falls down. Falling is actually the cue. My friend needs absolute stimulus control on this behavior because it is completely not cool if Gigi “offers” hitting the call box at any other time.

My dogs are not like Gigi. Or more to the point, I am not as skilled a trainer as my friend.

Lack of Stimulus Control

Three dogs bored

Even a gate didn’t stop them from offering eye contact

If you put aside Rule #2 and reinforce your dogs for uncued behaviors, you get dogs who offer behaviors frequently.

One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time.  Dogs trained with positive reinforcement tend to do stuff. And they’ll go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. But it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. You can have a dog who is a virtuoso shaper and completely unafraid to offer behaviors, but who has also learned when that pays off and when it doesn’t.

We can set up some environmental cues and change our own behavior to let a dog know when we don’t want a bunch of offered behavior.

I do have those crazy behavior-offering dogs. If my dogs come running up to me in the yard for no reason to check in—I like that! They’ll usually get something from me. If I walk through a room and someone is lying nicely on a mat, they’ll get a treat.

I also reinforce offered eye contact. It usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors. Reinforcing this in real life means I have dogs who sit and stare at me.

I am OK with the results of this, but some people wouldn’t be. If you are regularly going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you’d best be willing to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning.  If you do that, you can put behaviors into extinction. This is unpleasant for the dog and doesn’t serve our overall training goals well.

My dogs are good at chilling since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is lying down with relaxed muscles. This is nicely incompatible with trying a bunch of stuff to get my attention. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are really out of sync and they are tuning up to bug me to death, I just use management. I get behind a gate.

One of these days I may set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” There are a couple of situations in which I never reinforce my dogs and they have learned that perfectly.

In the following movie, the bar was definitely open. I was reinforcing Clara’s offered retrieves, and you can see the amusing outcome.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

About the Behavior in the Movie

Clara brought me this rusty nail

I’ve reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she started it. She always had a tendency to bring me things. I liked that, so I reinforced it. Still do. It means when she has something dangerous, I can immediately get it from her with no stress. This is a good thing since everything goes in her mouth.  She was an outrageous chewer when younger, so I managed very tightly about this then.

When Cricket was alive, Clara was limited to only half the house most of the time. Clara was just under 2 years old when Cricket died in May 2013, and it seemed appropriate to open things up a bit after that. It went very well. About the worst thing that happened was that Clara snitched napkins off the table to chew up. I was careful where I put food, so she didn’t develop a counter-surfing habit. She did have certain items of my clothing—a hat in particular—that she kept a constant eye out for. But almost everything she picked up other than napkins she brought straight to me. She still does this, “busting” herself for picking up contraband.

There are good reasons to make another training choice, by the way. Some people teach a default “Leave It.” What if there is someone in your household who is prone to dropping pills or leaving sharp tools around? Then reinforcing a dog for picking random things up in her mouth and bringing them to you is not a good idea. But it has been a good choice for us, I think. You can see the rusty nail Clara brought me above. If she hadn’t, she would have been chewing on it in the yard.

By the way, the movie shows pretty impressive distance behavior. Clara was bringing items to me clear from the back of the house!

Does your dog have any behaviors on stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?

Resources

Note: A knowledgeable reader pointed out what I was already feeling itchy about: the “rules” of stimulus control above are training guidelines, and not the behavior science definition. Keep in mind that behavior is never absolutely predictable, and behavior science deals in statistical likelihoods, not absolutes. I’ve linked to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary definition below. I’ll see if I can link to a non-paywalled example of the behavior science definition that is a bit more extensive. If I can’t, I’ll quote from a textbook.

Eileen’s Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

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Eileenanddogs 2019 9th Annual Pet Blogger Challenge

Thank you to GoPetFriendly for another opportunity to learn about other pet blogs and to showcase my own. These are my answers to the 2019 Pet Blogger Challenge.

For those who may be visiting your blog for the first time, how long have you been blogging and what is your main topic? I started blogging in July of 2012. My main topic is dog training, with a humane, evidence-based approach. I talk about behavior science and I demonstrate things with my dogs. I do not train professionally, so I have the advantage of being able to write about my embarrassing mistakes without affecting my business! My wonderful dogs are Zani, an adorable mostly-black hound mix, and Clara, a tan mixed breed with a black muzzle and tail. Clara was born feral and came to me as a puppy. She and I have many stories to tell. Here’s one of the big ones: Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog.

What was your proudest blogging moment of 2018? My proudest blogging moment was when I retracted a post. That sounds pretty strange, I know. But a post I wrote about some behavior science terminology as used in the dog training world went awry. It was misinterpreted to be a criticism of the use of behavior science in dog training. It was meant to be the opposite of that. My point was that we should use behavior science more fully and accurately. But the post was shared by the very people I was arguing against because they thought it supported their position!

Buy a behavior science book. Older editions are cheap!

I’d like to say that the fault was theirs because they didn’t read carefully, but I gave it a provocative title, and of course, my writing wasn’t perfect. So I’ll take a good portion of the blame. I took it down after I saw that it was having a damaging effect on the training community. This was difficult because I had spent a lot of time on it and of course my ego and emotions were very invested. But I’m proud of my actions and also proud of the rewritten post: A Quadrant By Any Other Name Is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning.

What was the biggest blogging challenge you faced in 2018, and how did/will you tackle it? I retired from my day job in 2018, and am now a full-time writer/ editor/ mentor/ presenter. You’d think that would give me more time for my blog, right? Nope! I have lots more writing projects! So my challenge is a very common one: finding the time to write blog posts.

My blog does not generate income directly. I have always written purely for education and sharing information. But it’s the platform upon which I’ve built my reputation, so it supports the ways I do earn income as a writer.

I don’t really have a plan to tackle time management. I’ve always had a rule that I wouldn’t publish a post just for the sake of keeping a schedule. I post when I have something to say that I feel strongly about and can write clearly about. When I do feel that strongly, I make the time. That will probably continue to be my plan. My blog is still hands down my favorite place to write.

Which of your 2018 blog posts was your favorite and why? (Please include a link.) My favorite post was If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Was Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

This was a post that I had worked on intermittently for a long time. I have always been fascinated by the manner in which people argue and discuss on social media. (Even before social media, I read Usenet groups for entertainment and education.)

 

Dog trainers who use positive reinforcement are often attacked for being “punishing” when they disagree in a discussion. Sometimes, certainly, it’s all too true that they are being unpleasant or inappropriate. But they also get that accusation from people who disagree with them even when they are being perfectly polite. It’s a cheap shot. And also, technically, it’s usually not true. Punishment is about a decrease in behavior. But usually on Facebook, if someone doesn’t like your tone or your words, they post more to argue with you! I explain what is really happening in the post.

Which of your 2018 posts was most popular with your audience? Why do you think it did so well? My most popular post that I wrote in 2018 was  Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?  I have a lot of evergreen content, so this was only my 12th most popular post (or page) overall for 2018, but it was the most popular of my new posts.

I’m not sure why this post was so popular, except that it addressed a very common misconception and perhaps was shared a lot because of that. It’s one of my own favorites besides being my readers’ favorite! I’m also very proud that it was first published in Clean Run magazine in 2017.

Did you implement a new series, feature, or practice on your blog in 2018 that you’re enjoying? I guess it’s pretty common for bloggers to write about their animals’ medical conditions, but my dogs have had some pretty unusual ones. It’s become a recurring feature without my realizing it. I usually write about medical situations from a husbandry standpoint: how best to care for an animal with certain problems using humane and cooperative care.

Zani is always game to train

This year I had two posts about Zani and her unusual injury: a spinal cord concussion. These were: A Dog with Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Story Part 1 and A Dog with Spinal Cord Concussion: Zani’s Recovery on Video. I also wrote an emotionally challenging post called The Last Trip To the Vet: What If Your Pet’s Last Breath Is On the Operating Table?. That situation has happened to me twice, and in the post, I discuss how to prepare for this awful eventuality so it has a chance of being easier on your pet.

Zani has some more health issues, so stay tuned for more features about how we cope.

Zani moving well after her accident

As the social media landscape changes, how are you promoting your blog posts and connecting with new readers? I am not great at promotion. I generally post any new article on Facebook on both my personal page and my blog page (sometimes on separate days). I sometimes post in an appropriate Facebook group with permission, but I don’t overdo that. I don’t want to be that annoying person who only shows up to promote her stuff.

I also post on Twitter (just once for each article—I should do more), Google+ (a dying platform), and LinkedIn. I’ve had an Instagram account for quite a while and need to get into the habit of posting my blogs there! Since almost all my content is evergreen, now and then I pull out an older post that I think deserves some more love, rewrite it, and publish it as new. I make sure to use a 301 redirect from the URL of the old post to the new one so as not to lose any links or rankings.

Clara will always be my baby

Looking forward to 2019, if you accomplish only one thing through your blog, what do you hope it is? I always have the same goal. I want to share good information about dogs and behavior science and change the lives of dogs for the better.

What steps are you planning to take to ensure you reach your goal? Continue to research what interests me, observe my dogs, and share what I learn.

Now it’s your turn! How can we help? Is there an area where you could use some advice, or an aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? Share it here, and we’ll answer you in comments! I’d love to know how other self-hosting WordPress bloggers are dealing with Gutenberg, the new online editor.

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Clara and her ball

Thank you for the Pet Blogger Challenge, Amy. I was glad to see that you are still moving forward with your plagiarism suit. (And sorry to see that you’ve got yet another site stealing your stuff!) I urge all readers to check out your posts on the plagiarism and to give to your fund. You are helping us all by defending copyright for the little guy.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Starting Soon: IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson

There is still time to sign up for my writing mentorships that start this Sunday, January 13th, 2019. You can take steps to improve your business writing and earn serious CEUs for CCPDT, IAABC, or KPA.

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 mentorships. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly video conference. 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 link above 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 Course Work?

The mentorships will take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interaction. There will be nine video lectures that address different aspects of writing for trainers. 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.  The mentees and I will have weekly video conferences.

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. Fiction is welcome as well.

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

What Do Writing Mentees Need To Know?

  1. 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.
  2. 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 input won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though we will be working on writing, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, and other chat conventions will be fine. If we don’t understand something, we’ll ask. Nothing in the mentorships will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.

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 an accurate parallel 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.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise. — Benita Raphan

Writing Samples

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

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

Firecrackers exploding in the air

I’m sorry I’m so late with my fireworks post this year. But there are still some things you can do. You can take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do on Monday, December 31.

  1. If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in today, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through the night and call your vet as soon as you can so you’ll be ready next time. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.
  2. Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises; don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats.You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them. This is why I am suggesting this method, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for after the holiday, when you can keep your dog safe from accidental exposures to the sound.
  3. Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby. Also, low-frequency booms can’t be “soundproofed” for except with materials that are much too big to use inside a house. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds to an effective degree. But if a crate is your dog’s safe place, that’s great. Here are some examples of safe places for dogs.
  4. Experiment with sound masking to find out what is the most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and called sound masking.And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p.318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.A new resource is the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are desensitized. In that case, these playlists could be the very thing for you.
  5. Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.
  6. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.
The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!

The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Thanks for reading!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                             eileenanddogs.com

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All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

I’ve written a lot about the behavior science definitions of reinforcement and punishment. That’s because they can trip us up so easily. Something can be attractive, but not always reinforce behavior. Something can be unpleasant, but not serve to decrease behavior even when it looks like it should. This story is about a natural consequence that seemed like it would decrease behavior but didn’t.

garden fence made of PVC and chicken wire

This garden fence proved to be an effective barrier for a certain beagle

Daisy was frail for a beagle. She was already infested with heartworms when she came to me years ago. The treatment for heartworms then was brutal. She survived the treatment under my care and was cured of heartworms, but she was never strong afterward.

At the time, I didn’t think she was very smart. But now I know I didn’t have the knowledge to determine that. It’s amazing how “smart” our dogs suddenly get when we start using positive reinforcement. She never had the chance.

But I feel confident in saying she was persistent. Very, very persistent.

Fertilizer in the Garden

When I moved into a new house in 1998, it was my first chance to have a garden in my own yard. I built raised beds with cedar landscape timbers. Then, with the help of a friend, I built a little 24″ fence made out of PVC, chicken wire, and plastic ties. It was a durable little fence; I only took it down in 2011 after Clara climbed it as a tiny puppy. That was not a safe move, so the fence came down that day. It wasn’t serving much purpose by then, anyway. Summer and Zani (both trained in agility) could jump it, although they didn’t do so often.

Back to 1998—Daisy was not strong enough to jump the fence. But when I used fertilizer, she wanted in there mightily. Beagle -> stink -> must get there. So she started going to a corner of the fence and pushing her nose at the base between the vertical pieces of  PVC. Here’s a pic of the fence (from much later—2009) where you can see the gap between the corner vertical pieces. I would periodically fasten those together at the base, but the grass and weeds would push them apart and break the plastic ties.

A garden fence made of white PVC. The pinch of PVC around your nose would typically be an aversive stimulus

This photo of the fence shows one of the corners where Daisy pushed her nose.

Just How Persistent Was Daisy?

So when I fertilized in the garden for the first time, it became an instant beagle magnet. After circling around the garden and not finding any significant holes in the fence, Daisy settled on a corner with a gap.  She tried to push her way in with her nose between the poles. She would push her nose, then yelp, push her nose, then yelp, over and over again. Honestly, that’s what she did. She put her whole body into those nose pushes. Then yelled from the resulting pinch.

She did that on and off for several days. I have no idea why I didn’t do something to prevent it. I guess I kept thinking she would stop.  These days I would intervene for sure.

It Had To Hurt, But….

So here’s the question. Was getting her nose pinched over and over punishment? Check out this definition.

1. A particular behavior occurs.
2. A consequence immediately follows the behavior.
3. As a result, the behavior is less likely to occur again in the future. The behavior is weakened (Miltenberger, 2008, p. 120).

Part of the definition of punishment in behavior science is that behavior must decrease. But there was no decrease in  Daisy’s behavior in that situation. You would think getting one’s nose pinched between vertical staves would decrease the behavior that resulted in the pinch, but it didn’t. She got a few dozen nose pinches over a few days.

What we would expect from a nose pinch would be a positive punishment process.

Like this:

Antecedent: There is fertilizer in the garden on the other side of the fence
Behavior: Daisy pushes her nose between two poles in the fence
Consequence: The poles press back on her nose
Prediction: Pushing her nose between the poles will decrease.
What’s the process? Positive punishment

Except it didn’t happen that way. She didn’t stop after one or two pinches. Even though she yelped most of the times she pushed, she kept trying.

Why She Stopped

But after a few days, she finally stopped. Was positive punishment finally kicking in, or something else? I think it was something else. When positive punishment happens, it’s usually right away, in response to an unpleasant stimulus of some magnitude.

Instead, Daisy kept doing push/yell. When she finally, gradually stopped (after a few days) I think instead it was extinction at work. The pattern of her behavior fit extinction more than it did punishment. The definition of extinction is:

1. A behavior that has been previously reinforced
2. no longer results in the reinforcing consequences
3. and, therefore, the behavior stops occurring in the future (Miltenberger, 2008, p. 102).

Zani says, “I can relate. I would like in there!”

Certainly, pushing her nose against things to move them had a reinforcement history for Daisy. It had worked many times. But this time, the reinforcement didn’t happen. Pushing her nose all around the garden fence didn’t get her access to the fertilizer. So she finally stopped.

Another possibility is that the odor decreased over time to a non-enticing level. A decrease in odor would affect the strength of the antecedent. But knowing her beagle nose, I bet it was extinction. She stopped because the behavior wasn’t getting her what she wanted.

Aversive Stimuli

One of the ways behavior science is challenging is that it prevents us from generalizing in the ways we humans like to. It’s situational. That’s the lesson I have learned recently about aversive, unpleasant stimuli. (I am using “aversive” in a general sense: an unpleasant stimulus that will often change behavior. But its definition is not dependent on that occurring.)

A stimulus can change behavior sometimes but not others. There are hardly any absolutes.

My story illustrates a couple of important things about aversive stimuli that have been sinking in for me lately.

  1. Something can be very unpleasant and still not affect behavior. We can call it an aversive or noxious stimulus because it’s something that is normally unpleasant for that species. But we can’t call it a punisher or negative reinforcer unless those respective changes in behavior happen.
  2. Stimuli are situational. A stimulus can change behavior at one time, and not at another.  Or it can even be a reinforcer at one time and a punisher at another. When you put it on, a sweater provides relief from cold in the form of automatic negative reinforcement. But donning a sweater when it is very hot outside is aversive. If I forced you to put on a sweater every time you came to my backyard in the summer, you would come less often (Mayer, 2018, p. 686).

Here is an article that demonstrates the same event operating as both a punisher and a reinforcer for the same rats in different antecedent arrangements.

We know #2 above through life experience. We know that sometimes we want things and will work to get them, but at other times we will work to avoid the same things or be indifferent. But it can be really hard to remember to let that knowledge guide our use of terminology in behavior science.

Does This Mean Hurting Your Dog Repeatedly Is OK If No Behavior Changes?

Of course not. An why would you even do that?

But noting the (non)effect of a low-level aversive stimulus can teach us a lot. It’s another reason not to try to use positive punishment in training. Because unless you use a stimulus at a knockout level you are more likely to get the “Daisy” situation. “I don’t like this, but I’ll keep going because there’s something I really want to do or get to.” Going to the knockout level is inhumane and risks terrible side effects. Remember: Skinner originally concluded that punishment didn’t work to change behavior. It’s because the unpleasant stimuli he was using were not intense enough.

This post in no way supports the idea that it’s OK to do painful things to our dogs as long as their behavior doesn’t change. Or if their behavior does change, for that matter.

I think I’ve experienced every typical misunderstanding about behavior science out there. I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. And when I have worked through those misunderstandings, it’s gratifying to understand the science just a little bit better. I am driven to write about it because I want to help others who are on a similar journey of learning.

Daisy, the star of the story. This is my only photo of her.

References

Mayer, G. R.,  Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Wallace, M. (2018). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan.

Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Wadsworth. Belmont, MA.

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Aversive stimulus, Behavior analysis, Extinction, Punishment | 4 Comments

Resistance to Extinction Can Be Incredibly Annoying

black and brown hound dog mix sitting and staring in an example of behavioral resistance to extinction

Zani is too cute to be annoying, isn’t she?

I’ve written before about the concept of “resistance to extinction” and how it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be when we want strong, fluent behaviors from our dogs.

Unfortunately, the situation where we are likely to notice resistance to extinction is often with behaviors we never wanted in the first place.

Most of the behaviors we teach our dogs to perform on cue are not natural to them. Stay still in one place for minutes at a time? Resist their built-in scavenging software? Walk at a  b o r i n g l y  slow pace next to a human and don’t pull ahead? Replace their species-specific greeting behaviors of jumping and licking mouths with something more acceptable to humans?

Trash picking is a doggie favorite

Any good trainer will advise you that when dealing with a problem behavior, you need to prevent it from being reinforced, wherever that reinforcement comes from. These built-in dog behaviors are terribly hard to get rid of, even with the best training plans. You have to cut off that reinforcement. Any little scrap of reinforcement will keep the behavior alive (and if it’s an innate behavior, it’ll stay alive even without your help). In other words, they become resistant to extinction.

I do a fairly decent job of not reinforcing annoying behaviors from my dogs. I put some thought into my setups, so I don’t reinforce a lot of annoying normal doggie stuff.  However, in Zani’s case, that just means that the persistent little devil figures out other ways to get my attention.

Like staring at me.

Duration Eye Contact

As it happens, staring at a human is probably not a built-in dog behavior, but it’s a cheap behavior. It’s easy to do. Doesn’t take much effort. And one dog has taught me a possible downside.

Wait—teaching reorientation is crucial and eye contact is a great way to do it. I’m just showing what can happen if you are sloppy.

When I first worked on duration eye contact as part of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, it was tough going with Zani. She is a sensitive little dog, and I think looking me in the eye felt scary/rude/anxiety-inducing for her.  We were stuck at six seconds for like, forever. But we worked at it a lot. I even have a short post about it.

I can’t remember if we got up to the goal of 30 seconds. I’m thinking it was more like 15-20 for the behavior of looking into each other’s eyes. But another exercise in the Levels specifies that the dog looks at your face while you don’t look at them. Because of the lack of pressure (Eileen looking back) Zani excelled at that one. But I never put it on cue or methodically worked up duration. Zani took it on herself to do that. Uh-oh.

Getting the Human’s Attention

I’m lucky, right? My dogs don’t bark, paw me, or do naughty things to get my attention. They only wake me up at night to go outside if they are sick. But other things can be annoying. Just try being stared at by a motionless dog who can focus so hard it feels like she’s boring holes in you. And think about how you might get her to stop. There are very few behaviors that are incompatible with the dog looking at you.

The focused staring is particularly ironic because I am crap at teaching duration. I hate it, even though I know it’s essential to good training. My teacher says that without duration you don’t have much at all, and I have to agree.

So in real-life training, as I mentioned, I worked Zani’s verbally cued eye contact up to 20 seconds or so. I worked her cued sit-stay only up to a minute or two.

But in the “the dog learns what works when living with you” department, I actually don’t know the limits of Zani’s “Sit and Stare” behavior. We have never reached it. That’s right. She outlasts me. Hear that sound? It’s all the pro trainers and behavior science people giggling. I’ve muddled into the classic resistance-to-extinction setup. I have taught her duration by accident. It’s a dead easy behavior. She can do it while lying in her bed, or sitting, or anything else. It has a varied reinforcement history. And the longer I try to hold out, if I do cave, then I have taught her that persistence pays off. AAAAAGHH!

Resistance to Extinction Captured

This is Zani’s frequent response to having a camera pointed at her

The other night Zani was frisky and wanting my attention. We had already played a little and trained a little. She started hassling Clara, which is adorable, but not to Clara, who is nice about it anyway. I’ve been trying to video this hassling of Zani’s for quite a while, but for years now, Zani stops and “poses” when I aim the phone a certain way. Why does she do that? Because I give her a treat after I finish taking the photo or video. I don’t recommend this practice. You will rarely get a truly candid shot if you do it. But it is the reason I get all those adorable head-tilt photos of Zani.

And yet more reinforced staring.

So the other night I had the volume down on my phone, so she wouldn’t hear the telltale beep when I started to video. But she noticed anyway.

She wheeled around (you can see that at the beginning of the video) and sat and stared at me. I, foolishly, decided to keep the camera on her in hopes of her turning back around to what she was doing to Clara. I was looking the other way, hoping that what I was doing would not count as “attention” and that she would go back to trying to interact with Clara.

In your dreams, Eileen. I had forgotten what a potent cue the camera is, and how much reinforcement history she has for staring at it. I also forgot that my not looking back makes her more comfortable with staring. Zani sat and stared for 3 minutes and 15 seconds, and I have no idea how long she would have gone. The longer she kept on, the more I knew I was in trouble. She was going to outlast me. And I also felt very guilty that she saw it as working for a treat. When I stopped, I didn’t give her a “Yes!”. I gave her a release cue with no treat. Then, feeling bad, I cued a hand touch and reinforced that. I was playing in my mind like I didn’t reinforce the whole chain, but that was probably just a little fantasy.

Cues

Bob Bailey reminds us that animals learn all sorts of cues, not just the ones we want them to. Case in point. It turns out that my aiming the camera at Zani tells her that duration staring will be reinforced. She has also learned that staring works without the camera. Like I said: it’s a cheap, easy behavior. She stares if she wants to play or wants outside. What I couldn’t accomplish on purpose, training duration eye contact and sit-stays on cue, got trained by accident precisely in situations where my dog was bugging me.

The behavior on the video is also unusual because she’s on a mat and not lying down. Mats are ultra-strong environmental cues for that. Zani almost never sits when she’s on a mat, even when I cue it. She lies down. Except in the one situation where I didn’t train it.

The video isn’t the whole three solid minutes of staring, just excerpts so you can get the idea.

This is what resistance to extinction looks like. That staring behavior has been gathering bits of intermittent reinforcement here and there for years. And look what happened!

I bet I’m not the only one who does stuff like this. Who else has reinforced a nuisance behavior intermittently and gotten the predictable result?

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Cues, Extinction | 20 Comments

IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2019

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) again in 2019. 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 13, 2019. 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 video conference. 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 link above 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 Course 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 video conferences.

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. Fiction is welcome as well.

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.

What Do Writing Mentees Need To Know?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  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.

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.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise. — Benita Raphan

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 casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science.  They drive observable behavior.

Considering a dog’s emotions is the sign of a thoughtful and prudent trainer, not a wimp. Because not all emotions are tender and sweet. Of course, we want our dogs to have joyful and fulfilling lives. But there’s another reason to concern ourselves with dogs’ emotional states. Fear. Dogs are predators with mouths full of teeth. Many of them are powerful enough to kill a human. Any of them with half their teeth can do damage. An animal with those types of weapons front and center can be dangerous, even deadly, when afraid. Fear is an emotion we definitely need to notice.

If you want to see some examples of fearful dog body language, check out this post with labeled photos of young Clara at a vet visit.

Considering a dog’s emotional state is not the sign of a wimpy cookie pusher, or even of being from California. Trainers who train with aversives love to paint us as people who are insufficiently tough with our dogs and train with fairy farts and rainbows. Therefore, they say, our dogs must be unruly and jump on Grandma, steal food, and run into traffic. This fable is but a hamhanded attempt at defending the use of force in training. The proper way to deal with fear is not toughness, punishment, and suppression. The evidence showing the hazards of that goes back for decades.

The proper way is to reduce the fear, and behavior science tells us how to do that. In so doing we create safety for the humans and yes, the possibility of a joyful life for the dog.

Dealing with Fear

The respected trainer Jean Donaldson says that the first question we should ask ourselves when beginning to work with a dog is, “Is the dog upset?”

If the dog is upset, we work on that first. For most of us, this means finding and hiring a qualified, positive-reinforcement based dog behavior specialist. Then “working on it” may include leaving off typical training for a few days or weeks. It can mean limiting ourselves to only indirect and non-demanding interactions if the dog is brand new to her situation and scared. It can include activities designed to help the dog feel secure in a new environment. It can include desensitization and counterconditioning: techniques designed to ameliorate fears.  It can include gentle, easy training games when the dog is ready. It can include psychotropic drugs for dogs who can’t get out of a state of heightened anxiety without that help.

Taking these steps doesn’t mean we are coddling the dog. Such a plan is both practical and empathetic. A wise use of desensitization, counterconditioning, and positive reinforcement training can help an animal become happy and comfortable in the world. It’s a win/win because it’s also safer for the human.

Suppressing Emotions

There’s another way to look at it, of course. We could ignore what we know about physiology and the central nervous system. We could buy into a bunch of discounted theories about why dogs do what they do. And we could use punishment-based methods to suppress the hell out of the dog’s behaviors. If you carry a big enough stick, you can often hurt a reactive or aggressive dog into submission. But given that most such behavior is born from fear, punishing a fearful dog for aggressive or threatening behaviors is a bad idea.  Punishment-based methods have been shown to correlate with increased aggression from the dog.

An infamous TV personality who purports to train dogs has a video in which he aggressively approaches a dog who is known to resource guard her food. She is minding her own business and eating. He bullies, prods, harasses, and corners her until she bites him. He then exclaims, “I didn’t see that coming!” Leaving aside the fact that getting dogs to aggress appears to be one of the goals of the show, let’s pretend like his goal really is to train the dog. In that case, he would have done well to observe the dog’s behavior (without provoking her) and building that information into a training plan. Many trainers consider resource guarding to be one of the easiest problem behaviors to address in dogs.

This video shows the changes that can happen to a dog who aggressively guards food with just a few minutes of good training.

A Modest Example

Here’s an old photo of my beloved rat terrier, Cricket, with a chewable. Her body language and eyes are saying, “I am willing to fight to keep this item.” At that time, I didn’t know how to change a dog’s emotional response to address resource guarding. I just avoided the issue. That’s called management, but I didn’t know the term then. I did know the risks of getting into an object custody battle with a terrier, even a very small one.

Cricket, a small black, brown, and white terrier, is chewing on a rawhide toy with her body hunched around protecting it and giving a warning look. Her emotions are probably those of anxiety about the item being taken away.

I could’ve made a moral issue of it. The dog “shouldn’t” guard things against me because I’m the boss. I could have battled Cricket for her chew toys and gotten bitten and hit her for biting me. I could have made her submission my goal. But I didn’t. Even then, it seemed like a stupid idea. I just worked around it. I was lucky she was small. I might not have had the luxury of working around her guarding if she had been a bigger dog.

Later I learned how to be proactive about resource guarding.  It’s a normal dog behavior, but their ways of expressing it are on a spectrum from peaceable to bloody. Nowadays I teach my dogs upon joining my household that if I walk by them when they have something of high value, I will toss them something great. This is not about sticking my hands in their food, taking their stuff away, or even “trading,” at least in the beginning. The first few dozen times, all I do is give them something. It’s generally something a lot better than what they already have. After a while, I will occasionally “borrow” their item, then give it back with interest (something great). Then if that time comes when I need to take something away for real, they will get the best thing I have with me in return. And since I take something only a small percentage of the time, they stay relaxed about it.

I did this as a prophylactic measure with my next three dogs after Cricket.

Here’s a photo of Zani chewing on a beef tendon in my office. Pretty different from the Cricket photo. Does she look worried that I’m is going to take it away, even though I’m standing right over her? Nope! But paradoxically, I could do so with little upset on her part.

Zani, a black and tan small hound mix, lies on the floor on her side, chewing on a beef tendon

I don’t want to imply that it is always that easy or that resource guarding isn’t serious. I was lucky with my dogs that I didn’t have a hard case. I did some work on the front end and it was effective. It can be a different story with a dog who is already guarding or is more strongly inclined to do so. Again, that’s a situation where it is imperative to call in a trainer. Since originally writing this post I have become acquainted with an intense, practiced resource guarder of food, toys, people, and locations. She’s (luckily) also small but it is not an easy situation.

Change the Emotions

Changing our dogs’ emotional response to things that could upset them is not about rainbows and fairies. It’s not about indulgence or coddling. It’s a pragmatic approach that is the only road to a win/win situation. The dogs were afraid or worried, and now they’re not. They didn’t take over or dominate us. We all have less stress, and they are much safer to be around.

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This is an update of a former post from July 2017.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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1:1 Pairings: The Science Behind Clicking and Treating

A guest post by Eduardo Fernandez,  first published in 2001 in the now out-of-print American Animal Trainer Magazine as “Click or Treat: A Trick or Two in the Zoo.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A recent discussion on an Association of Zoos and Aquariums listserv, (specifically their ‘training’ list) caught my eye and my key­strokes, and one that has apparently be­come a commonplace discussion among many bridge trainers. The discussion emerged as a simple inquiry by another list member on whether it was appropriate to use a bridge without being followed by a “treat”, (whether food or some other backup reinforcer). I quickly answered that anything less than a 1:1 pairing would weaken the reinforcing value of the bridge, and put the subject to rest. But a strange thing hap­pened. As I continued to read the posts on this listserv, many other list members took the exact opposite stance: that it was ok to ‘click’ and not treat, and that such ‘click or treating’ may even strengthen the bridge. Astounded by the ensuing discussions and arguments, I decided to gather up the data and attempt a thorough review of what was the appropriate way to go about this busi­ness of clicks with or without a treat. The following is the result.

Operants and Respondents: Behavior’s Double Helix

Important to understanding any behavioral process, especially those entailed in bridge training methods, are the dual roles that both respondent and operant conditioning methods share. Many behaviorists recognize the importance of both pro­cesses on behavior, and many more recog­nize the practical impossibility of stating any set of responses as only respondent or operant behavior. Our training methods, whether one uses a bridge or not, are no different. For the sake of this article, however, I’ll focus on the use of a bridge, (specifically a clicker, although any bridge could fit the equation), and the dual processes involved.

As those of us who use bridges know, one must first pair the sound of the clicker with some reinforcer for it to function as a condi­tioned reinforcer, (a process referred to as “magazine training” in the laboratory). This is best understood, however, through the pro­cess of respondent condi­tioning. Just as Pavlov conditioned the tone of a bell with food to elicit a condi­tioned response, so do we initially pair the sound of a clicker as a conditioned stimulus (CS) with some unconditioned stimulus (US), generally food.

The continual pairings during our training programs between the sound of the clicker and food should also be understood through the process of respondent condi­tioning. Even though we are now also using the clicks as conditioned reinforcers (CR’s), the respondent conditioning process is still at work.

Pavlov’s work reveals two crucial discoveries relevant to bridge training: the temporal distance be­tween the presentation of a US and the CS and the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a US following a CS, (Pavlov, 1928). Pavlov found that the distance between the presentation of the US following a CS important. The further in time the two were presented, the weaker the effects of the CS. Also, Pavlov found that each presentation of a CS without the following US weakened the effects of the CS.

Extinction and Ineffective CR’S

Later researchers also examined the importance of the CS-US pairings and their temporal distance, as well as the conditioned reinforcer effects based on such pair­ings. The Rescorla-Wagner model (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972) gives us such an extinction curve, where one can graphically demonstrate the weakening of a CS over time when not paired with a US.

Other researchers examined the reinforcing effects of a CR based on its previous pairings with a primary reinforcer/US. Again, the results were as Pavlov had demonstrated almost a century ago, the longer the temporal delay between the CS and US, the weaker the CS’ s effects were (Fantino, 1977). But what of the actual rein­forcing effects of a CS? Does a weak CS necessarily mean a weak CR? Egger and Miller (1962) examined this aspect itself. They conditioned rats by pairing two different stimuli (SI and S2) with food on two different sched­ules. One stimulus (S1) was always followed by a US (a 1:1 CS-US or click-treat pairing). The other stimulus (S2) was occasionally not followed by a US, and there­fore not a 1:1 pairing. They then examined the condi­tioned reinforcing effects of each stimulus on lever pressing. The stimulus that was occasionally presented by itself, (S2, or the non-1:1 pairing) did not become an effective reinforcer, while the other stimulus (S1, or the 1:1 pairing) did. Although this study was conducted to examine the ability of a stimulus to provide informa­tion about the delivery of primary reinforcement (its ability to function as a ‘marker’), its point, along with the other presented data, should still be taken. Anything less than a 1:1 click-treat relation will produce a weaker CR than the direct 1:1 relation, at best.

Beyond the Data

Now that we’ve examined the data-driven story, what about the argu­ments against using the 1:1 click-treat pairing? Here are a few comments, concerns, and arguments often leveled at the idea.

What about VRs?

As Skinner himself demonstrated, variable ratio schedules of reinforcement (VR) are highly effective, and often more effective than fixed ratio schedules (FR), (Skinner, 1938). How­ever, clicking each response but not delivering food after each click is NOT a VR schedule. You are still pre­senting a reinforcer for each occurrence of the response, regardless of whether it’s a CR or primary one. What you are doing, however, is weak­ening the CR’ s reinforcing effects, since you are now not pairing each click with food. This is still a continu­ous schedule of reinforce­ment (CRF). The only way this becomes a VR schedule is if the clicks were no longer functioning as reinforcers, at which point the clicks would then be meaningless. To effectively intermittently reinforce responses on a VR schedule or other, you would need to allow more than one response to occur, then click, and finally “treat” after each click.

The Occasional Click or Treat

The respondent conditioning processes described above are not only relevant to the initial pairings of the clicks with “treats”; they are an ongoing process. Al­though an extensive history of click-treat pairings will strengthen the CR effects of your clicks, this in no way renders your clicker invin­cible. At any point during your training, extinction of a response based on a lack of click-treat pairings is a threat. Each click that is not followed with a “treat” undergoes this process, regardless. It may be mini­mal, but you’ve still weak­ened your bridge.

Too Much Food!

I’ve heard a few trainers comment that it’s just not possible to give as many “treats” as they do clicks. The argument is simple; “I can’t give the animal THAT much food!” Fortunately, the answer is just as simple, “Then don’t.” I use “treats” in quotes for a reason. Treats do not neces­sarily mean food. They simply refer to any stimulus that functions as a reinforcer for an organism, whether a primary or secondary one. This can include pets, hugs, ice cubes, play time, ball chases, escape from “work”, etc. Pairing a number of reinforcers with your bridge is not only an option, it’s ideal. While a click paired with one reinforcer is simply a conditioned reinforcer, a click paired with numerous reinforcers now becomes a generalized conditioned reinforcer. Generalized conditioned reinforcers are more resistant to both satiation and extinction. The only thing to remember is that any item paired with the clicks should in fact be a reinforcer in and of itself.

Chain Them Up

Many trainers use chained schedules of rein­forcement. Some trainers also insist that they are simply using the bridge as a ‘marker’ for some responses and a conditioned reinforcer for others. For example, you click without “treating” for a dog running through a tunnel (1st response), use the same clicking sound without a “treat” for running up a ladder (2nd response), and finally use the same click again with a “treat” for heeling on a stand (3rd and terminal response). However, you’re still clicking without treating, and the animals you’re training may not be as unforgiving as you ex­pect.

There is an important distinction between a chain schedule of reinforcement where different stimuli are used as discriminative stimuli SD/CRs for each response, and a tandem schedule where the same SD/CR is used. Although tandem schedules are often used to explain light stimuli that do not change, using the same click for different responses in a chain without treating is generally the functional equivalent.

The distinction may seem complicated, but the previous example illustrates the difference. In the original instance, where the dog received the same click with or without food for each response, the trainer is using a tandem schedule. How­ever, if the trainer were to use a different marker or bridge for the two previous responses, and only used a bridge followed by a “treat” for the terminal response, he/she would be using a chain schedule.

For those who insist on using markers, the solu­tion is again simple. Use different stimuli as markers. By doing so, you’ve more accurately established a chain schedule. The marking stimuli do not have to be paired directly with a rein­forcer, and you can now save your click followed by the treat for the terminal re­sponse. However, whether using markers is more or less beneficial than not using trainer-specified SD’s/CR’s for non-terminal responses is yet to be proven. The termination of a response, (e.g., the dog making it to the end of the tunnel) will function as a CR for that response, as well a SD for the next response, without additional bridges or mark­ers. No specific conclusions can be made about the benefits or lack thereof of using trainer-specified mark­ers until such empirical applied research has been conducted.

Ivory Tower Blues

A possible argument against any empirical sup­port for using a 1:1 click-treat pairing method is that it’s strictly laboratory-based. Such arguments have been leveled against scientific communities on occasion, especially those within the behavioral sciences. Any such data are claimed to be too “basic”, and therefore not relevant to applied fields.

A valid aspect of this argument is that for animal training, the applied arena is drastically different than the lab. The ani­mals we work with are distantly related to rats and pigeons, the behaviors we train are drastically different than lever presses and key pecks, and I have yet to see an animal trainer train in a setting that even slightly resembles a Skinner box. Our applied arena is different, and one that needs its own applied research. Animal training can lead to discovery too, and new phenomena not covered by the basic research are bound to occur.

However, little can be justifiably argued from this stance on this particular issue. Click-treat pairings are directly based upon concepts discovered from these same or similar basic laboratories. Also, all data that I know of to date is in support of the 1:1 click-treat-pairing method. Although further applied research on this issue would be beneficial (as is generally the case in any science), there is no evidence at present that I am aware of to support the concept of a non-1:1 bridge pairing being as effective as a 1:1 pairing.

Good Enough

Which vehicle would you prefer for a drive in dangerous conditions?  Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even with all this said, many have stated that a weaker bridge is still “good enough”. One does not necessarily need the world’s most potent reinforcer for a specific response to effectively train. Even with a considerably weaker bridge, one might get the desired target responses they want.

Still, this is a dangerous place for any trainer to base decisions upon, let alone any endeavor you choose to engage in. Imagine yourself forced to drive in the mountains in a blizzard. Now imagine being given the choice of driving a 4×4 Chevy or a Pinto. The Pinto might be “good enough” to get you up or down the mountain, but the Chevy is prob­ably a much safer bet! You shouldn’t treat your clicking much differently especially considering how comparably equal the two methods are in terms of time, effort, and money.

Training Beyond Hallows Eve

The choices we have for how to train may seem endless, but a few questions beg simple solutions. I believe this area is just that: one with a simple solution. Allow me to simplify this for you if the point hasn’t hit home yet; anything less than a 1:1 click-treat pairing will weaken your bridge. It’s that simple.

Although science creates no hard and fast rules, Pavlov, Skinner, and their colleagues have stood the test of time on this topic for nearly a century now. When it comes to pairing a “treat” with a bridge, always follow the bridge as immediately as possible with a “treat”. Eventually, our own applied research will bridge the gaps be­tween basic research and applied phenom­ena. Until that time, we should let the basic research guide our behavior, and keep an eye out for areas that might demand such future research.

We all know that training methods are, for the most part, based on simple behavioral principles. We also know that regardless of that fact, training can become infinitely complicated. Therefore, if you need no other excuse, stick with the simple plan. Parsimony is next to godliness in the sci­ences, and little else gets simpler than “do x after y“, a.k.a. 1:1.

References

Egger, M.D., and Miller, N.E. (1962). Second­ary reinforcement in rats as a function of information value and reliability of the stimulus. Journal of Experimental Psychol­ogy, 64, 97-104.
Fantino, E. (1977). Conditioned reinforce­ment: Choice and information. In W.K. Honig & J.E.R. Staddon (Eds.), Handbook of oper­ant behavior (pp. 313-339). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Pavlov, I.P. (1928). Lectures on conditioned reflexes. New York: International Publishers.
Rescorla, R.A., and Wagner, A.R. (1972). A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement. In A.H. Black & W.F. Prokasy (Eds.), Classical conditioning II: Current research and theory (pp.64-69). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organ­isms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Many thanks to Eduardo Fernandez for letting me republish this important article. You can see more of Dr. Fernandez’ work on his ResearchGate page. He also runs a FaceBook group: Animal Reinforcement Forum.

Copyright 2001 Eduardo Fernandez

Photo Credits

Gorilla photo credit Tomáš Petřík via Wikimedia Commons.

Ford Pinto photo credit dave_7 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chevrolet Colorado 4×4 photo credit Kobak via Wikimedia Commons.

Clicker photo copyright Eileen Anderson.

 

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Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?

Black dog with tail held high

Zani’s tail is up, and you’ll see in the video below that it is wagging. Does she look friendly and happy?

Why do dogs wag their tails? The prevailing view is that they do so when they feel happy and friendly. Many do, but dogs also wag their tails in other situations. So the answer to the title question is no. Dogs wagging their tails are not always expressing friendliness or joy. Not by a long shot.

Many dogs will wag their tails from arousal or when performing predatory behaviors. Some will wag when they are getting ready to aggress. My dog Clara has a particular wag when she is anxious. When observing a dog wagging its tail, we need to look at the rest of the body language to determine what’s going on. Some things to look at are:

  • how the dog is moving and in what direction;
  • whether its movements are stiff or relaxed;
  • whether its mouth is tight or relaxed; and
  • whether the dog is looking directly at something (including you!).

An important factor is the carriage of the tail. How high is the tail? (See section below on breed differences.) Other important factors are whether the tail is wagging fast or slow and whether it is stiff or loose. These things can mean the difference between an eager greeting and an oncoming attack. We can never assume that a wagging tail means a dog is friendly.

The Direction of the Wag

There is scientific research that has found a correlation between the direction of a dog’s tail wag with its emotional state. It was found that the tail wagged predominantly to the right when the dog was responding to something it might want to approach, such as its owner. The tail wagged more to the left in response to something the dog would want to avoid. When you look at the video below, can you identify a sidedness to Zani’s tail wagging? Does it correlate with what we find at the end?

This research verifies what we can already see: dogs don’t wag their tails only to express happiness. They also wag their tails during general arousal, aggression, and other emotional states.

Tail Carriage

I haven’t found any research on the height of the tail when wagging, but experienced dog trainers learn to pay attention to that. In general terms, low and loose wags are usually friendlier than wags with the tail held high and stiff.

I think it’s hard to do research about that, though, because of big differences in “normal” tail carriage between breeds, not to mention between individual dogs.

Many northern breeds, like this Shiba Inu, have a naturally high tail carriage. Their tails are built that way.

Light brown shiba inu dog with tail curled up over its back (normal carriage)

Shiba Inu courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rhodesian Ridgeback with tail hanging straight down

Rounder is feeling good but his tail is hanging straight down

On the other hand, some hound breeds have naturally low hanging or even tucked tails. Rounder the Rhodesian Ridgeback is in a good mood in this photo, but his tail is hanging straight down. You can find extreme examples of this in whippets and greyhounds, who often tuck their tails between their legs when standing. This tail carriage could mean “I am miserable or afraid” in many other dogs. For the whippet, it’s often just business as usual.

Summer is expressing predatory aggression in her stance, the set of her mouth, and the curl of her tail

 

 

 

 

 

My mixed breed dog Summer probably had some northern breeds in the mix. She held her tail at different heights depending on her mood and activities. She wasn’t all that waggy, but she had a beautiful, low, wide wag when she saw someone she loved. When her tail was tightly curled up over her back it always meant she was aroused, often predatory. In this photo, she was watching a cat on the other side of our fence.

Note the stiffness of her body, the slight lean forward, the set of her mouth, and the piloerection (hackling) around her shoulders.

Why Is This Dog Wagging Her Tail?

The video shows my dog Zani in my friend’s yard. The video shows a few seconds of her behavior. Her tail is wagging the whole time. It first plays with the sound off, so you can concentrate on her body language. Then it plays again with sound. Then finally you see the reason for her behavior. Is she wagging because she is friendly?

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Other Body Language Accompanies Zani’s Wagging Tail?

Watch the way Zani moves. Is she moving toward something, away from something, or both? Is she eagerly approaching something? Is she looking at something, listening to something? Look at the fur down the center of her back. Look at the set of her mouth.

You’ll have to watch the movie to see what Zani was responding to, and hear my own final conclusion of what was going on for her. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet: the whole sequence is adorable. Enjoy!

Related Pages and Posts

Photo Credits

Shiba Inu: Takashiba via Wikimedia Commons
Rounder the Ridgeback: Marge Rogers
All others: Eileen Anderson

Reference

Quaranta, A., Siniscalchi, M., & Vallortigara, G. (2007). Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Current Biology17(6), R199-R201.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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