Quite often in discussions about negative reinforcement, someone brings up a plethora of examples from human life that sound harmless and benign. Here are some of the items that are often mentioned:
- Scratching an itch
- Washing your hands to remove dirt
- Drying your hands on a towel to get the water off
- Trimming your fingernails to reduce their length
- Taking out the trash when the kitchen can gets full
- Turning on the windshield wipers in the car to remove rain from the windshield
- Taking an aspirin if you have a headache
- Covering your ears if there is a loud sound
- Putting on a coat when the temperature drops
- Using an umbrella to stay dry
Reading these, one can come away with the impression that negative reinforcement is just no big deal. What’s the fuss about and why do some people try hard to avoid it in animal training?
All of the above examples have something in common. They are what B. F. Skinner termed “automatic reinforcement.” Here’s a typical definition:
Automatic reinforcement occurs when a person’s behaviour creates a favourable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).
Automatic reinforcement can be either positive or negative. The above examples are negative since they deal with removing an aversive condition. (For a review of the four processes of operant learning, you can read my post Operant Learning Illustrated By Examples.”)
We learn to do the things in that list, usually as children or teenagers, to make ourselves more comfortable. Some undesired condition develops, we take action to change it, and if successful we personally reap the benefit.
In applied behavior analysis, one analyzes operant behaviors like this: there is an Antecedent, a Behavior, and a Consequence. The antecedent and the consequence are in or from the environment. The behavior is that of the subject person or animal. Applying these “A B Cs” can be quite helpful in seeing what is going on.
In negative reinforcement, the antecedent is the undesirable condition. So for an example of automatic reinforcement:
- Antecedent: There is dirt on Mike’s hands
- Behavior: Mike washes his hands
- Consequence: Dirt is gone from hands
Socially Mediated Reinforcement
The other type of reinforcement is called “socially mediated” reinforcement.
If another person is involved with the function of the behaviour this would be defined as “social reinforcement” or “socially mediated reinforcement” (Cooper et al., 2007).
In negative reinforcement this means that another person or group removes the aversive stimulus. And most important, they can intervene in the reinforcement process and can determine what behavior is required to get the aversive to stop or reduce in intensity.
In automatic negative reinforcement, the reinforced behaviors are directly related to solving the problem. The actions of opening the aspirin bottle and taking an aspirin are reinforced by the relief the aspirin provides from a painful condition.
But in socially mediated negative reinforcement, perhaps someone else has the keys to the medicine cabinet. That person could require some unrelated behavior from you (say, clapping your hands three times) before you got access to the aspirin. If they were consistent, that behavior could be reinforced by the relief provided the aspirin, and would increase. When you had a headache and needed an aspirin, you would probably clap your hands three times. That’s a big difference from being able to walk in the bathroom and get your own pill.
Connection to Dog Training
Back to automatic negative reinforcement. Here are some examples for dogs:
- shaking off water when wet
- biting their own toenails when they get too long
- scratching an itch
- scooting on their butts when their anal glands bother them
- coming in out of the rain
- getting in the shade when hot
- lying down in the kiddie pool to cool off
Those don’t sound so bad either, do they? Dog gets a little uncomfortable, takes action, gets comfortable again.
- Antecedent: There is water on Fido’s coat and skin
- Behavior: Fido shakes off
- Consequence: There is less water on Fido
Reading these lists, you could come away mystified that so many people disapprove of using negative reinforcement in training. It sounds like no big deal.
The problem is that the application of negative reinforcement in training is quite different. In training we are doing the equivalent of “socially mediated reinforcement.” The animal is no longer autonomously in charge of removing an aversive condition. There is a human requiring a certain behavior before the aversive can be turned off or escaped.
Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training
In dog training, the human has control of the reinforcers (and the aversives, if used). So in negative reinforcement, rather than a dog performing a natural behavior to remove an aversive condition, the human has influence over the stopping of the aversive. And like the clapping hands for aspirin example above, the human can choose a behavior that is unrelated to the natural way the dog might escape the aversive.
Some examples of human controlled negative reinforcement in dog training:
- A dog moves forward from sit stay. The human walks or leans forward into their space until they sit back down.
- A dog is wearing a shock collar. The shock is turned on and stays on until the dog performs a specified behavior. (Link is to a video demo I made using a stuffed dog.)
- A dog is nervous about the teeter in agility. You lead the dog close to the teeter and mark, then turn around and take her away while giving her a treat. (The treat is potentially positive reinforcement, getting farther away from the scary teeter is potentially negative reinforcement.)
- A dog is being trained to hold a retrieve dummy using a force fetch technique. The trainer pinches the dog’s ear continuously until the dog opens its mouth and accepts the dummy. (This is a real training video with a real dog. You may not want to watch.)
- Your dog is reluctant to take the steps down into the back yard. You walk into the dog’s space until they go down.
- You teach your dog to yield to pressure on the leash when you pull gently on it (often combined with a treat, which is generally positive reinforcement).
- You want to teach your dog the trick of covering their face with their paws. As a first step to get your dog to touch their face, you put a piece of tape or post it note on their face. The dog paws at her face to get the tape off. (People usually use this one as well in tandem with positive reinforcement of giving the dog a treat after she paws her face.) The tape comes off either through the dog’s efforts or because you help.
- A herding dog has its first exposure to sheep. The handler uses a staff to create pressure to keep the dog from rushing in too close to the sheep.
- Your dog has issues with other dogs. You take her close enough to see another dog and start evidencing slight concern. When she performs a certain behavior, for instance a head or body turn away, or a ground sniff, you lead her farther away from the dog. (e.g. see at 0:44 – 0:51 and 1:17 – 1:27)
- You do agility with your dog. Sometimes you push into her space to influence her path. (Clearest example in the video is around 1:24 – 1:29, where the handler is using her whole body to push. She also often “pushes” with an arm held high.)
- Your dog doesn’t respond on the first cue to sit, so you repeat it again and again, keeping up the verbal nagging, perhaps even raising your voice and fussing at her, until she sits. There’s an example of this one in my movie that has examples of the four procedures of operant learning at 3:11 – 3:37.
- You want to teach your dog to get out of your way or back up, so you continue walking toward her until she moves.
Each one of these begins with particular situation or condition and requires the dog to perform a specific behavior to get it to stop or decrease.
So here’s what a sample ABC looks like now:
- Antecedent: Human is pinching dog’s ear
- Behavior: Dog opens mouth and accepts retrieve item
- Consequence: Human stops pinching
Perceive the difference? The handler either creates the aversive condition, or utilizes one occurring in the environment. The handler cues or waits for a specific behavior. When that behavior is performed, the handler stops the aversive condition or moves the dog away from it.
The handler gets to create a contingency.
People often think I am some sort of purist since I write critically about negative reinforcement. But it’s not the R- itself I’m a purist about. I’m a purist about being honest about it. We live in the real world, with our dogs, and it’s very hard to go through life without that quadrant sneaking in now and then. But we make choices all the time. Using an aversive to train our dogs, or to get through a tough situation, is a choice.
In the spirit of honesty, here are some things I have done.
- I do agility, and pushing into the dog’s path with your body on occasion is pretty hard to avoid. But I’m learning to be a better handler, and there’s always a different way to handle just about any sequence.
- I have taught response to leash pressure (put a tiny pressure on the leash, and when the dog yields to the pressure, treat). It is a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. See below for my comments about it.
- I have used body pressure in the past to get my dogs to move or return to stay position or to walk down the stairs. I have a movie showing their sad reactions to that. I have a third, less sensitive dog, on whom I occasionally perform a body block, for instance, if she is liable to bash into my other dogs if I don’t take action. However, that may not constitute negative reinforcement, since there doesn’t seem to be a behavioral change on her part and she is not getting more sensitized to the pressure. So it’s just plain application of pressure on my part, in a pinch.
- I have also used negative reinforcement a few times when the other alternative would have been unintentionally positively reinforcing a behavior that I really don’t like. For instance, in the past when I was holding Zani or Summer and they started to struggle, a couple of times I hung on until they became still, and only then released them. I didn’t want to reinforce the struggling by putting them down right then. If I found myself doing something like that repeatedly I would take action about the problem. And actually, I did in that case. We do practice handling and associating being held with great things, and I think it’s been years since I had to apply that kind of restraint.
- And of course through daily life with multiple dogs I probably unconsciously use body pressure more often than I know, although I make an effort to pay attention. And again, the dog I am most likely to use it on is not showing any particular behavior changes that I can see, so there may not be negative reinforcement going on.
It’s important to me to be honest about it. But I also want to make it clear: I strive not to use these things. Please don’t interpret the above items as condoning negative reinforcement. I’m always looking for better ways. I hope you are too.
Even some of the more benign-sounding techniques in the list of links above I have seen to be quite unpleasant to dogs. I used to do leash pressure exercises with my dogs as part of leash training, and when I look at video footage of those training sessions, I can tell they didn’t enjoy the training as much as most of the other things we do, especially at first, even though they got a treat every time they yielded to the (tiny!) pressure. Perhaps more skill on my part would have helped, but nothing would remove the fact that I was putting physical pressure on their necks.
Defenses of Using Negative Reinforcement in Training
Some people say, “I’d rather take something away that my dog doesn’t like (negative reinforcement) than take away something that he does like (negative punishment).”
This comment erases that important distinction: the contingency from the handler. I take away things my dogs don’t like frequently. But I have a choice about how to do that. I almost always choose NOT to make them do something to “work” for it first. I don’t want to come to view an untoward environmental condition as an opportunity to get behavior out of my dog. My dogs rely on me for their safety and happiness. If something unpleasant happens, I do my best to get them out of the situation.
Others stipulate that they do not cause or create aversives, but only use them when they occur naturally in the environment. This is a very minor point. I think a more important point is that they are using the aversive to get behavior. Wherever the aversive is coming from, they are choosing to use it. And usually there are other choices.
I wrote this piece because I think equating the type of negative reinforcement used in most training with scratching an itch or washing one’s hands is seriously confusing and misleading. I hope it is helpful.
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