Month: October 2012

Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Home page photo from behaviorworks.org

Imagine if you could drop out of this world for two months and live somewhere where positive reinforcement ruled rather than punishment. Where teachers understood how people best learn. Where people taking a class were there to learn, not work for a grade. Where people noticed what was good and remarked upon it. Where people said please and thank you. A lot. Where “cheating” didn’t even need to be discussed. Where the teacher understood the qualities of effective reinforcement so well that she made herself available by email and text to EVERYONE and often responded in less than 5 minutes.

I got to live there for two months, mostly on Thursday nights but also for a large part of my weekends. I took Dr. Susan Friedman’s class: Living & Learning with Animals (LLA).

The best thing about the class for me was not the course material. People who have taken it are free to gasp in dismay at this point because the course material is absolutely  incredible. But I bet they know where I am going. For me it was even overshadowed by the application of learning theory to our experiences as students.

I’m one of those perennial students. A couple of decades ago I found myself working at a university where I could get essentially free tuition. After a background in performing arts, I thought it would be fun to exercise a part of my mind that had had little former training. I had always been “good in math” but had taken the music path instead. So I started taking math, science, and engineering classes. This culminated in a master’s degree in engineering science in a rigorous program. With a bachelors and masters in music performance, I had to get into the program through a loophole and basically work my ass off for years to catch up with those who had “appropriate” undergraduate degrees. But I did it. For fun.

I had little to no interest in a career in a related field. I was curious. I was there to learn. So I became keenly aware of the conflict between how to learn in order to understand the material, and and how to learn to get a good grade.  At first I was naturally inclined, and later I made a conscious effort to keep to the former method. For example, I was amazed one day when a chemistry professor said to the class, “Now, I hardly expect you to do ALL the problems at the end of each chapter.” Oh, naive me. That’s what I had been doing.

As I got in over my head and my life got busier, working to get a good grade started to hold sway. I lasted several years after the masters, was an ABD,  but eventually quit because it just wasn’t a pleasure anymore.

Fast forward back to today. The first thing I fell in love with in LLA was the approach to our homework. The teaching assistants work one on one with each student on their homework assignments. They employ what Dr. Friedman calls a soft Socratic method. Whatever your answers, whatever your level of experience, they will ask you questions to improve your understanding and gently guide you along.

I’ve been in a lot of situations where my work was critiqued. I used to be an orchestral musician. (That means I had to live with a very public level of critique.) I worked as an academic editor for someone with a PhD in English (a great job with lovely bosses, by the way). My major professor in engineering was, if possible, even more particular about my writing. I’ve always wanted feedback, but it was really really hard on my ego. When I would get my work back with the red pen marks, I would literally put it aside so I could gird myself for the corrections.  I’m not kidding: I would look at it out of the corners of my eyes at first. Finally I would get up the courage to go through it and quickly make the corrections, then hide it from myself again.

It took only one iteration of the homework exchange in LLA  for all of that trepidation to vanish into thin air. A lifetime of performance anxiety took its leave. This exchange was FUN. The teachers were there to help. You could write casually, with an occasional joke or casual remark, and they would be real people right back at ya! And with incredible expertise at helping you lead yourself to understanding. You could write things like, “Man, this part is hard but I think….” and “Am I on the right track here?” For the first time in my life I looked with happy, non-stressful anticipation for the responses to my homework. And believe me, those hardworking people were fast, too!

I realized that this is what my animals might feel like when I am doing really good training with them. It’s a game they can’t lose. The worst thing that can happen is a gentle delay of reinforcement before “getting it.” The homework game was incredibly fun. I loved being the trainee.

Another thing I loved was the method of participation in the actual teleconference.  Early on Dr. Friedman mentioned that she doesn’t use the webinar software providers where people have a visual display of the presenter’s PowerPoint presentation on the computer. She has participants from all over the world and has found that the webinar technology is just not up to the challenge of serving everyone well. But there is another benefit to her format, which I am positive she is aware of. She uses an audio conference call (group telephone call) system. She gives us all a link to her presentation with embedded graphics and playable videos. So while we listen to the audio, we have control over switching from slide to slide and playing the videos ourselves on our computers. Also we can unmute our phones to ask questions or text them in using a standalone chat program.

It made a huge difference to me. I’ve generally disliked webinars,  and find it irritating to watch someone controlling their presentation from afar. (Besides which most people have no clue how to use AV materials well and merely read their PowerPoint presentation to the audience.) Also it’s irritating especially at the beginning when their screen is already visual and we get to watch them struggling to open their presentation and get it on full screen.

Dr Friedman presented evidence in a lecture that control over one’s environment may be a primary reinforcer. Primary or secondary, it’s powerful. That small difference of advancing the slides myself and hitting Play on the videos; well, silly as it seems, it was really empowering. I could even go back to look at something again, although I had to be quick about it!

Also, the fact that she answered people’s texts during the class was so cool. Usually in “webinars” the questions texted in are handled by a moderator and passed on to the presenter at the end. Whenever the rest of us were watching a video, Susan was obviously catching up on her texts and answering questions in real time, right when they were relevant. Occasionally she would pause her lecture–and say so–to do the same. The opposite of the impersonal, inexorable drone of a disconnected lecturer. She would answer some questions online and share some on the call. Far from bring an interruption, it was helpful. We got a breather too, got another reminder that she and all the others were real people too, and got a sense of community. And she stayed after class on the phone! Opportunities for more questions.

Speaking of community: the students are broken up into four groups who submit their homework and questions through a Yahoo group. Everyone’s homework exchanges are visible to anyone else in the group. Dr. Friedman never said ONCE not to copy other people’s homework. The assumption is that we were there to learn, we were adults, and we were in charge of optimizing our own learning experience. Which obviously would be better if we did the work ourselves. I made a point of not looking at anyone else’s before submitting my own each time. (OK, in the very first assignment I opened one email and took a glance, literally a glance, to see the format of their answer to make sure my presentation method was at least in the ballpark.) Then afterwards I would dive into the wealth of teaching and information exchange going on with the other folks. We got to watch the process of the others and learn even more about learning.

Now for the two things in the actual course material that changed my life. First, I have always had a knee jerk reaction when people joke about using positive reinforcement or punishment to their own ends. Often in husband and wife jokes. I have been really uneasy with the idea of one person in a relationship with an animal or human making contingencies on the other’s behavior. This is not something to be taken lightly. Part of this is probably related to the “cultural fog” around behavior and learning that exists. Susan mentions that people so often express trepidation to her about using positive reinforcement: isn’t it just a bribe? Won’t we make the person dependent on it? Won’t it kill their intrinsic interest? etc. And she says that not once has anyone expressed those trepidations about punishment. I’m sure part of my distrust came from the cultural fog. But part of it I think was a valid concern. It applies to using both punishment and reinforcement. What gives us the right to consciously affect another’s behavior with either method?

Susan Friedman rested my heart with one statement.  First, the outside world reacts to behavior “problems” with punishment. Better, we as thoughtful trainers improve on that; we approach the problem humanely and with an eye to training a new behavior rather than punishing the old. Our approach is usually, how do we fix the problem?

Best:  Dr Friedman’s approach: FIRST what does the animal (or person) want? That’s the starting point. It comes before “how are we going to change its behavior to suit us.” With that small (HUGE) difference in approach, it all became OK for me. It recognizes that particularly with animals, but certainly with children too, we are the ones holding the cards. We have the key to the food cabinet and the outdoors and connection with society and all the good stuff. The power difference is acknowledged. So we must always start with what the other guy wants and needs. It’s only fair. She puts a huge amount of consideration into ethics before intervening in an animal’s behavior. She respects the animal. And the person.

That’s love, folks.

The other piece of the puzzle for me was in the very last lecture. She mentioned that it goes all over her when someone responds to an encouraging comment from her with, “oh, you are using that training stuff on me aren’t you!” (Actually I think she said something closer to, “It ticks me off.” I don’t remember exactly.) She then proceeded to talk about praise needing to be genuine. Well, sure. But how does one do that? By paying attention. By being a keen observer. And when you are on the receiving end of that, you can tell instantly. The praise resounds like a bell inside you. This person SAW me. They noticed who I am. And they noticed a partially good thing I did. And they SHARED it with me. That is the first thing you will notice about Susan and her teaching associates. They are so very genuine. And they are paying attention.

In the homework, we typically received a comment on every section or paragraph that we wrote. Anything from a “Yes,” to “I loved how you worded that,” to “Not quite, have you considered…?” I have the utmost respect for the stamina and the level of attention of those folks! Their comments were never false, empty, or automatic.

As a dog trainer, I had already been learning about the importance of learning dog behavior and body language. In the course I learned all over again how that observation, with whatever species, is absolutely essential in our lives with others.

I just got a glimpse of utopia for two months. I’m doing my best to bring it home with me and share it. Thank you to Susan, Billie, Julie, Dana, Shauna, Margo, Wendy, and Cynthia. And all the rest whom I didn’t get to work with this time but look forward to for next time.

P.S. Dang it, now I want a parrot.

Thanks, Susan and associates!







Thanks from me, too!


© Eileen Anderson 2012                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

The Barking Recall

The Barking Recall

Clara Running

Here is an “almost Wordless Wednesday” (except my videos have a lot of words in them!).

I have been working with Clara since she was tiny to make sure she didn’t “catch” some of Summer’s reactive behaviors, and to help her cope well with distractions by reorienting to me.

In the future I will write a real post about what we did, but today you just get to see a movie.

You can also skip forward in time to see how the behavior helped develop her habitual self-interruption and reorientation to me when in intense situations as an adult dog.

And you can skip way forward in time to see how the conditioning fared 10 years later.

As usual, comments are welcome, and feel free to ask questions.  Enjoy!

Sorry for all the vertical videos in there. They are from before I saw the light about that.

Related Posts

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

Shaping and Stress

Shaping and Stress

Zani rolling over in a shaping session that we both enjoyed

This is an expansion of a post about a possible cause of stress in shaping that I sent to the Training Levels Yahoo group.

Shaping involves extinction. That is, ceasing to reward something that has been repeatedly rewarded. In the real world, for humans and observably for other animals, that is stressful. The classic examples are when an elevator stops coming when the button is pushed, or when a candy machine just sits there after you put in the correct change and push the button. What usually follows? In the elevator case, repeated pushing of the button. Harder, faster. With the candy machine, all that, and possibly pounding, shaking, yelling. If you think about an animal’s behavior being tied to survival, something suddenly not working anymore is a danger signal. Oh oh, this place or this method that I was relying on no longer provides food. I’m going to have to start all over again and find somewhere or something else.

We are taught that when we suddenly stop rewarding something that a dog has been rewarded for, to be ready for an extinction burst. That is, the behavior rises in frequency and intensity before it fades away. Extinction is not fun for the dog in this circumstance! It is frustrating.

OK, back to shaping. When we shape, we are introducing tiny little extinctions over and over again. That’s how we get successive approximations to the final behavior.  “Fido, THAT behavior is not getting paid for anymore, it is up to you to figure out something that is.”

When I see the really great trainers shape, there is another characteristic besides their ability to detect the tiniest behaviors and differences in behaviors to reinforce. Another skill is that they are constantly watching the animal’s demeanor, as much as its actual movement, and are responding to that. They can keep that extinction process as gentle as possible and keep the animal trusting that the world hasn’t come to an end when they stop clicking for something. And of course these two skills go together. Seeing and responding to the tiniest movements does tend to keep the rate of reinforcement high.

Also they think empathetically. There is a clinically proven human tendency (the “curse of knowledge”) to assume that when we have something visualized or auralized in our heads, that the others around us automatically will see it, hear it, understand it quickly. Great teachers learn that this isn’t the case. And great shapers keep in mind all the time that the animal may not have a CLUE to what they themselves have so clearly in their heads.

Finally, with our pet, service, and performance dogs (i.e. dogs who live with us) it comes down to the trust account. It needs to be very high for some animals to enjoy shaping as much as we ourselves might. They have to trust us that the lack of a click, and a little extinction, is not the end of the world.  I will admit to making mistakes about this. Shaping is so cool; it’s like being handed a shiny new toolbox with all sorts of fun things inside. I’m a pretty empathetic person but I will tell you that I have gotten overexcited about this tool and plowed on through signs of big frustration from my animals. I have recordings that I will probably never show anyone else of shaping sessions I did very early on with both Zani and Clara. They went on for several minutes. We got to our goal (MY goal). But neither dog was having fun after the first minute or so. They were showing stress and frustration. Zani was whining. Clara was spinning, which is her superstitious and stress related behavior. I was pressing on towards the goal insensitively.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the shaping process is usually reinforcing–to the human! Shaping is incredibly cool! We dangle it in front of trainers who are considering “crossing over.” Look what you’ll get to do with your dog! Many of us need to be careful about going overboard.

Just like any other activity, some dogs are going to intrinsically enjoy shaping more than others. But we are trainers, right? If using shaping is important to us, we need to find ways to make sure it is fun for the dog. A little stress may be a good thing in life, but if an animal is chronically averse to training activity we like, it’s time to do something about it. We probably need to gentle down the extinction process. And mind our trust accounts.

A few thoughts on how to do this:

  • Watch the dog and get to know her signals.
  • Pay attention to how long you are waiting if you are withholding the click. That’s when the extinction stress can build up.
  • Start with very short sessions: just a few clicks.
  • Be willing to stop before achieving a pre-ordained goal (This is a hard one! We tend to be so goal oriented.)
  • Have an environmental cue that lets the animal know when you are shaping and when you aren’t.
  • My friend Lynn says, Teach it! Think of it from the learner’s point of view.
  • Lynn also says do little sessions of “shaping nonsense.” Make sure both you and the dog approach it as a game.
  • Don’t do like I did with Zani and start shaping with a brand new rescue dog just because you can. I wish I had built up our trust a little better before doing that.

Here are my three submissions to ShapeFest 2012 a few months ago. I’m pleased with my dogs’ demeanor in all of these. Clara is still the most serious,  but showed only a few little stress signs. Her main stress behavior is a counterclockwise spin. She does a couple of spins starting at 2:20 but it’s hard to tell how much is stress and how much is just a behavior she is trying. Since her pace is not frenetic, my guess it that they were mostly offered behaviors.

Shaping Zani to roll over

Shaping Summer to mount a platform, using playing in the hose as the reinforement

Shaping Clara to do a distant paw touch

I bet some of you out there have some other suggestions about making sure shaping is fun. Care to share?

Discussions coming up:

  • Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
  • “Errorless learning”
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Thanks for reading!

Lip Licks!

Lip Licks!

A classic lip lick from Zani

Just a quick body language observation item today. I love watching slow-motion footage of my dogs since so much is happening that I normally don’t see.

I had suspected for a while that Summer had at least two distinct “lip licks.” Lip licks, lip flicks, or nose licks are believed to be stress signals for most dogs. I certainly think they are for Summer and Zani. The slightest hint of untoward events and it is Lip Lick City at my house. It is embarrassingly easy to get one on film. All I have to do is walk straight toward either of them with stiff body language and they’ll usually do it. Both of them are incredibly pressure-sensitive. (I try to mind my body language on their behalf,  but I’m a klutzy human so of course I bother them a couple of times a day by accident.)

Anyway, here is a short movie comparing what I believe to be stress lip licks from both Summer and Zani, contrasted with what I believe is a happy relaxed lip lick from Summer. Both of these lip licks can be seen in the video in Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted? One lip lick means no, another yes.

So does anybody else’s dog have a “happy lip lick” like Summer?

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

Call the Doctor. I Think I’ve Been Poisoned!

Call the Doctor. I Think I’ve Been Poisoned!

I had a little outpatient procedure the other day. As I was leaving, still a little fuzzy, the discharge nurse gave me some papers including a little card in an envelope. She said, “This is a thank you note from all the staff who worked with you today.” I was surprised, and mumbled, “Well, I should be thanking them.”

I did think it a little odd to get a thank you note for undergoing a medical procedure! But when I got home I opened the envelope with that little surge of happy anticipation you can get with such things, even if it’s from a medical office and even though I suspected they had a reason beyond the simple goodness of their hearts for sending it. After opening it I first saw that five staff people had signed it by hand. How nice. Then I read the printed message. “Thank you for letting us serve you today. Please take the time to complete our survey.” There was a green sheet in the packet with questions about the service at the facility.

I felt slimed.

Thank you note. It was a poisoned cue in this story.

(This is a generic thank you note. I don’t have a picture of the actual note because I threw it away THAT DAY.)

I should have known better. I did sense that they wanted something from me when the nurse made a point of mentioning the note. I couldn’t imagine what they could want, though, and the suspicion slipped away. My cultural programming took over, and in spite of myself I had a little of that sense of anticipatory happiness that comes with an unexpected gift or even just a piece of pleasant mail.

I started thinking  about this in behavioral terms as I realized that they had squelched any desire on my part to be cooperative. That’s too bad since they were nice staff. Perhaps they needed the survey for some kind of accreditation. But I had a visceral negative response to this ham-handed attempt at manipulation.

I discussed the incident in the context of Dr. Susan Friedman’s course, Living and Learning with Animals, which I am currently taking.

I described my feeling of being tricked. I had been expecting a tiny happy feeling from being thanked. It might have reinforced going to that facility, or more probably opening the envelope of the card. I got an aversive instead. I was blindsided by pressure to perform a task, albeit simple, but in a way I really didn’t appreciate.

So instead a goodie potentially resulting in positive reinforcement, I got an icky application of negative reinforcement. Check out my post for a review of the processes of operant learning, a.k.a. “the quadrants.”

Susan Friedman pointed out that the thank you note was a poisoned cue. Whoa. Of course.

She was referring to a term coined by Karen Pryor that refers to a cue associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Animals that experience this kind of mixed training are generally demotivated and often display stress. Nicole Murrey performed several experiments with poisoned cues for her master’s thesis research under the supervision of Jesus Rosales Ruiz at the University of North Texas. The behavior in the study was to come to the human on cue. The aversive seems comparatively mild  to us: it consisted of the dog being pulled into position via the leash when it failed to come voluntarily.

The dog learned one verbal cue for the behavior that was taught with positive reinforcement only. It learned a different verbal cue for the version that included the aversive. Adding the aversive completely changed the dog’s performance and demeanor in those training sessions.

Ms. Feisty being pulled via the leash. After she complies, the pressure will release, negatively reinforcing her movement in the handler’s chosen direction.


Being pulled where you don’t want to go isn’t fun for a real dog.

The above photo was graciously provided by Debbie Jacobs of fearfuldogs.com. She has a great blog here. Debbie’s life’s work is UNpoisoning things for dogs. I almost decided not to use the photo because it seemed a bit callous for me to compare my instant of squirming irritation with the experience of a dog being pulled by its neck. But these kinds of connections help me learn, and maybe they will you too.

Anyone who crosses over to training based on positive reinforcement notices the changes in the dog’s response to cues that are trained exclusively that way. It is writ large. And some of us actually retrain behaviors and change poisoned cues because of the negative associations.

For humans and some animals, the aversives involved with negative reinforcement can be completely non-physical. Negative reinforcement is present in social pressure, threats, nagging,  extraction of promises, guilt trips, even quotas and deadlines. All situations in which some kind of pressure is applied to get you to do something, at which point the pressure relents.

A thank you note is a cue for being thanked, and opening them has been taught to me with positive reinforcement. Every time I had opened one before this I had gotten a small bit of pleasure, or at the worst, a neutral experience. What I got this time instead was a mild aversive, and the surprise made it SUCK. This was a tiny incident in life, a blip on the screen. But I’ll bet it will be a while before I have unspoiled anticipation at opening a thank you note again.

Ironically, a straightforward request to fill out the survey would have been fine. But some marketing wannabe decided to pair it with the unexpected thank you note. I’d be interested to see whether they got more surveys back when they implemented that pairing. It didn’t work on me.

How about you? Have you ever gotten something slightly (or extremely) icky when you were expecting something nice? How did you feel about it?

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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