eileenanddogs

Month: July 2013

Dog Faming Lives!

Dog Faming Lives!

A tan dog with black muzzle lies down on a white mat on a bed with a pink bed spread. She is relaxed, and her mouth is open. A woman plays tug with a smaller, black and tan dog right in front of the tan dog.
How about Clara’s relaxed stay on the mat!

Remember Dog Faming? It’s a response to the trend of “dog shaming,” where people post photos showing dogs doing “naughty” things. These always highlight lack of training rather than anything intrinsically wrong with the dogs, and often show dogs that are very stressed and unhappy.  Isn’t it nicer to catch our dogs doing something good and clever that we are proud of?

Continue reading “Dog Faming Lives!”
Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Although this post is about discussions and accusations about humane training, it doesn’t provide fodder for pithy sound bites or snappy answers. The whole point of it is why it can be difficult to explain succinctly our position as science-based, humane trainers in the face of opposition.  I hope it can be helpful for some folks. Gathering information, thinking this through, and writing about it has settled my nerves about a lot of things regarding the conflicts between trainers. Here we go.

Here’s something that force-free trainers hear a lot:

“There’s no such thing as force-free training because…”

  • “You use leashes and that’s force, the same or worse than a shock collar”
  • If your dog ran out into traffic you would grab him or pull on the leash”
  • “You all use force too, you’re just hypocrites about it”
  • “Harnesses are more cruel than prong collars”

Here Comes the Continuum Fallacy 

Color spectrum, from left to right (in order of frequency): red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet ROY G BIV
There is no such thing as green because we can’t say precisely where the green starts. Really? (credit Wikimedia Commons)

I have previously written a bit on the continuum fallacy, in But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic? I wrote:

Likening pulling on a leash (in an emergency no less) with the habitual use of a shock collar to force a dog’s compliance is an example of the logical fallacy called the continuum fallacy… The continuum fallacy erroneously claims that because there is a range of possibilities between two extremes, there is no meaningful difference between them. In this case the extremes are pulling on a leash one time to remove a dog from danger, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a  shock collar as a training method to teach them via force to come when called…

The examples cited above both employ negative reinforcement, or at least aversive pressure (we can’t really say if reinforcement occurred in the emergency situation since it’s a one trial example). Therefore there is a continuum of such usages between them.

More commonly the extremes cited are two types of training:  training based as much as possible on positive reinforcement (along with desensitization and classical conditioning), and training based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and flooding, such as shock collar training.

You wouldn’t think there was any common ground between these two. But there is, or rather, there are intermediate states between them. Please bear with me if the idea offends you. My point is that they are absolutely different in essence, even though there exists the continuum.

So on the continuum,  next to the trainers who use shock exclusively are the ones who do use some food or play as positive reinforcement in addition to the shock used aversively. Next to them are the “balanced” trainers who combine positive reinforcement with “corrections.” Next to them are the ones who use a shock or prong collar for proofing only. Then the ones who use a shock collar in only one specific situation. And so on. (These could be split more finely of course.)

Going past the middle to the R+ paradigm side are the folks  who don’t intentionally use any aversive tools, but carry old habits (Eileen raises hand). We occasionally do something that is aversive to the dog, for instance, taking a step forward to apply pressure if a dog breaks a stay. We do this because of old habits or lack of knowledge of other ways, but no matter why, it’s still aversive to the dog.

I’m not going to describe every step from here on out. But we can travel farther and farther into R+ territory as other methods drop away.  But truthfully, most people don’t get to the point of never using negative reinforcement or negative punishment or extinction. As I’ve mentioned, that necessitates an almost godlike ability to predict every possible behavioral interaction if you live with your animal. And even if we consider only formal training sessions, it depends on the dedication and creativity of the trainer to unlearn our human punishment programming and get more and more fluent in humane methods.

Because of the infinite gradations between the two extremes, there are those who would argue you can’t make a distinction between them. They would be employing the continuum fallacy.  This link has a good definition and some nice examples of it.

One common application of the continuum fallacy is to claim that the concept the other party is describing does not even exist. Does that sound familiar? Punishment based trainers, particularly shock collar trainers, like to claim that there is “no such thing as force free training.” Since we use things like leashes and collars that are naturally agents of force (although we take pains to ameliorate that), and because some aversive situations are just going to occur in life, they claim that there can be no distinction, none, made between what we do and what they do with their specifically-designed-to-hurt tools. This argument is incorrect (especially when they throw in the straw man of “purely positive”), and a way of trying to talk us out of existence. I’ve written an entire post on it.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. The continuum fallacy is connected to something called an “open concept.”  This really enlightened me about why it’s so hard for us in the force free community to come up with a single name for ourselves, and why we are repeatedly told we don’t exist. What we are trying to describe is a complex combination of a training philosophy, methods, and a mesh of practices. “The kind of trainers we are” is an open concept.

Open and Closed Concepts

So many things fell into place when I read about this.

A closed concept is something that can be exactly defined, such as a triangle. But many of the most important things in life can not be exactly defined. From “Open and Closed Concepts and the Continuum Fallacy” by Sandra LaFave:

An open concept is one for which the connotation cannot be precisely specified; rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.

Here are some examples. Vegetarian. Christian. Pacifist. Have you ever heard someone arguing about the definition of any of these or over who belongs to the group? I thought so. Yet the various individuals who identify with these terms can define their habits and belief systems beautifully, and they are often at the core of the person’s identity.

A portrait in pencil of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His face is angular and he looks intense and pensive.
Ludwig Wittgenstein worrying about open concepts (credit Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889-1951) wrote about open concepts. His example was the concept of “game.” He advised the reader to think of different games and to try to think of what was common to them all. (My suggestion: use the examples of patty-cake, football (American or world), board games, and the often deadly games played in the Roman Coliseum, and try the exercise.) He wrote that you cannot identify one single characteristic common to all examples of games.

But that doesn’t negate the concept of game. He analyzed the similarities and differences in several types of games and concluded:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. –Wittgenstein  in his Philosophical Investigations as quoted by Donald Palmer in “Does the Center Hold?”, p. 394

Glupling Training

As I mentioned, I think the lack of a commonly agreed upon name by all in the community is one bit of evidence that “the kind of training we do” is an open concept. For that reason, for brevity, and to introduce a little levity into a heavy subject, I’m going to call force-free, science-based, humane, primarily positive reinforcement training “Glupling Training.”

It would be easier to live in a world where we could say, “If you do these five things, and don’t do these five things, then you are a bona fide Glupling trainer.” Nice clean line in the sand. But we don’t live in that world. Glupling training is a philosophy; a group of methods; a paradigm. I strive for it. I think most of you out there reading this are striving for it. I’ve got certain great trainers and thinkers in mind as my role models and perhaps you do too. But we need to acknowledge that the edges of the definition are not universally agreed upon.

For instance, within the Glupling community there are heated discussions about head halters and front attach harnesses, and whether these are OK as permanent solutions, temporary management aids during training, or never OK. People disagree about the use of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Some people seek to be two-quadrant trainers (positive reinforcement and negative punishment). For some trainers negative reinforcement protocols are OK in general, others go case by case, still others try for “never.”  How about No Reward Markers? Or whether it’s OK to yelp as a training technique when a puppy bites you?

I have watched other groups in similar throes of self definition. Organic gardening discussion groups talk about whether the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) disqualifies someone from the group. “Childless by choice” people argue whether people who never had kids of their own but then marry people with children still “count.” There is discussion about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to people who are or have been dependent on alcohol. This is just a completely typical situation with open concepts. I would even argue that these discussions can be healthy, as long as they don’t start to eat up your life.

The bigger troubles start with the people outside of the particular community who object to it. With regard to Glupling training, these are the folks who want force-based methods to be socially acceptable and so attack the Glupling paradigm. These folks have two main strategies.

  1. Some trot out straw men and the continuum fallacy and simply claim that Glupling training does not exist. These are the ones whom I describe in my blog post, “But Purely Positive is a LIE!
  2. Others jump onto the Glupling bandwagon and market themselves as Glupling trainers, prong or shock collars included. This method has the effect of diffusing the definition of Glupling training and confusing the public. You can find lots of folks on the Internet who salt the word “positive” throughout their website, even if they use physical dominance techniques, prong collars, or shock. These folks accomplish several things by adopting the term, “positive.” First, it is popular right now and it sounds wholesome and good. Second, they add to the confusion (some groups have actually created credentials and initialisms that are identical or similar to established organizations). Third, they help maintain the public’s confusion about the processes of operant learning, since “positive” in the behavioral sense absolutely does not equal “wholesome and good.” And fourth, as added by an early reader of this post, who would want to market themselves as someone who will throw things at your dog and yell “bah”? “Positive” sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?

One observation I have about these continuum fallacy arguments: it seems to always be the side with the less restrictive definition that is arguing that the other side doesn’t exist, not the other way around. Vegetarians never argue that omnivores don’t exist. Organic gardeners never argue that gardeners who use non-organic techniques don’t exist.

This disagreement is typified by a group of people (or an individual) seeking to distinguish themselves from others who are simultaneously trying to negate the distinction.

Static vs Dynamic

I said above that it would be nice to live in a world where Glupling training was easy to define. But actually…one of the hallmarks of Glupling trainers is that we are always using the science to find ways to be more humane, more fair, and better trainers for our animals. The research moves us forward.  So perhaps two of my (fictional) five things that might have defined Glupling training in 1998 are completely out of date in 2013. But that’s a good thing. Given a choice between an approach that is static and claims to know everything and be perfectly complete and definable, and one that allows room for growth and speculation and doesn’t claim to be perfect this very instant….well, you know which one I would choose.

By the way, that is one of the reasons I keep my hand in the discussions and arguments on the Internet. I learn stuff that way.

Conclusion

I have recently written a handful of posts with a deliberate intention of publishing talking points for Glupling trainers who are confronted by the same rhetoric from force-based trainers over and over. The posts are listed below.

I had hoped for this post to join that group, but I’m not sure how  helpful it is. It has been very helpful for me as I mentioned above because it has clarified some difficult things in my mind. Like, why do these fights keep going on and on? But this post is not the kind of thing a person can quote in an argument and say, “Hah! Read this! It proves my point!” Not even close.

But I will throw in some tips on dealing with the continuum fallacy when confronted with a version of it in debate. Dr. LaFave suggests a simple statement that even if there may be a continuum between extremes, the concepts at each end are meaningful. I mean, nobody really believes that black and white are the same because there are shades of gray in between. And she suggests that people who use words in eccentric ways (my example: like shock collar trainers who say the method is positive and force-free) should be called on to defend their eccentric usages of these terms and give good reasons for them.

And this from me: When I have encountered the continuum fallacy, in my observation it has not usually been an innocent misunderstanding. It is usually from someone who, in my opinion, is determined to obfuscate. If I find that to be the case, I will state my position once, if at all (and for the benefit of others who may be reading, and not with the hope of convincing the other person) and move on. In short, as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t argue with someone you have to educate.”

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

eileenanddogs’ First Birthday!

eileenanddogs’ First Birthday!

Cartoonish picture of a pink birthday cake with one blue candle on itWow. One year ago today, on July 21, 2012, I published the Welcome post to this blog, the supporting “about” pages (linked at the top), and the Blooper movie. And thus my life changed.

Common tips about starting a blog usually include a recommendation that you should be able to think of either 5 or 10 topics you would like to write about before you actually start. I read that recommendation, sat down and immediately came up with about 30 titles.

It wasn’t a fluke. At this moment, I have published 82 posts. I have 70 drafts in the works. Some virtually complete, some only a title. So although I know I’m not immune to writer’s block, or the slowdowns that affect almost every writer from time to time, I have no dearth of things to talk about.

Head shot of a black and rust colored dog that looks like a small, slim beagle. She looks (and is) very friendly. Her mouth is open and her teeth are crooked.
Zani, July 2013

Starting a blog has brought my writing spirit back to life. It has given me a healthy way to focus all the thoughts and feelings (and arguments) I have churning around my head about science based training. It has helped me become a better dog trainer. It has made me a bunch of lovely new friends. I love having it. It’s like building a house, piece by piece, and having a bunch of generous people watching and cheering me on. (Can you tell I used to be in the performing arts?)

My friend Marge Rogers suggested my starting a blog in May or June last year. We were discussing a Yahoo group, probably ClickerSolutions. I was talking about how frustrated I got because I had Things To Say but could only say them in these fleeting discussions where I would often feel like I was just not heard. Not only that, but what I had to say felt so important and urgent to me. It was unhealthy, I thought, to go around bothered by a discussion on a Yahoo group. Marge said (probably not for the first time) that I should start a blog.

I remember almost exactly what I said. It was something to the tune of, “But my writing is reactive. Somebody says something or does something, it bothers me, and I am prompted to write about it.” She said that was OK.

Later I came to think that was a pretty silly concern on my part. What, all topics are supposed to spring fully formed from my forehead? Of course I react to what’s going on around me. Everybody does that! And it’s certainly not all negative. Plus there’s a synergy to it. The more I write, the more I have to write about.

A sable dog is reclining on a chaise lounge. Her head is propped on the arm rest and her eyes are sleepy.
Summer, July 2013

Also, interestingly, having a blog has helped me cope with disagreement better. I have always been fascinated by good (and bad) argument. Yet I personally have a thin skin and an obsessive mind, which make public criticism or contradiction pretty tough, even if it’s fair minded. If I get called a name, insulted, or even misunderstood by a random person on the Internet it can stay on my mind for days. But I predicted, and was luckily correct, that having my own blog would allow me enough control over the situation that I could stay mentally healthy about it. This blog is my Internet home and I have the ultimate say about what goes on here. I can set both the tone and the guidelines for discussion.  Just knowing I have the ability to disallow someone’s comments if they start acting really rotten really helps. And I haven’t had to do it yet!

I’ve had one truly unpleasant go-round with an angry commenter, but had beautiful written and personal support from a friend (thank you Sharon!) all through that encounter. I learned a lot about my own training philosophy from that situation.

I’ve had a topic I promoted heavily on this blog and that speaks to the very heart of me get heatedly criticized and dismissed by some prominent people in my own community. Some said that promoting this idea was harmful to the cause of humane training. That’s about the worst thing somebody could say to me. I do understand their criticism in part, but obviously don’t agree. That disagreement was a lot tougher to handle, but I made it into an exercise in trying to stay mature, keep to the high road argument-wise, be open to criticism, and stick to my ethics.

I’ve had one of my movies, this one where I used a stuffed dog to demonstrate some shock collar techniques, bother a prominent shock collar trainer so badly that she wrote a whole post of her own to mock it. A whole post on how silly I was to use a stuffed toy as a demo. Wow! That incident actually bothered me the least, and in retrospect I get quite a kick out of it. I try to be careful about where I put my energy, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that that post was just so silly that it didn’t merit a response from me. She either truly didn’t get it or was really grasping at straws. I confess that I like knowing that it bugged her.

I had my funny debacle of a contest, which at least got some persistent folks free books, and taught me another lesson about the curse of knowledge.

A tan dog with a black muzzle is reclining on a bed with a bright quilt. Her head is on a red dog bed. Her mouth is open and her teeth are prominent and bright white.
Clara, June 2013

On the other hand I have had the good fortune to have some early public successes and recognition. I have had two posts go truly viral, neither of which could I have predicted. They were Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted? and Dog Facial Expressions: Stress. Both body language posts, interestingly. I’ve had four other posts that were quite successful: They were

The last two were spur of the moment “shorties” and I was delighted that they became so popular.

I’ve had my crossover to positive reinforcement training story generously hosted by Ines Gaschot at The Crossover Trainer. I’ve had a post highlighted by a writer on the Huffington Post, and another featured on a popular syndicated page with a crude name (available if you drop me a line), and best of all, was featured on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” showcase. It was the “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie…” post above. (Here’s a link to Freshly Pressed but I think you have to have a WordPress account to access it.)

My blog brought me into contact with the amazing Susan Friedman, after which I took her wonderful course, a life-changing experience.

I have had another life-changing experience this year though, a heartbreak when my 17 year old tough-as-nails little heart dog Cricket passed out of this world. Readers’ kind words meant so much to me and were so helpful. I have posted about her dementia, about caring for her as a senior dog, and about losing her, but one of my favorites was for our 10 year anniversary together in December 2012.

I’ve been spending a bit of time looking at old photos and videos of her, and the picture below is a video still.

A small smooth coated white, black, and brown terrier with huge ears is standing very square on her feet and looking up.
Cricket at age 14, August 2010

Feature

While reviewing the readership numbers of my posts, I noticed some that I wished had been viewed a little more. (OK, lots! I’m greedy.) I have picked one to feature on my “birthday,” in case you have made it this far into the post.

My post and movie about Lumping in training directly demonstrate what “lumping” is, and what can happen when you do it. The video is from a bona fide training session where I made some careless errors. Zani, as usual, is the perfect demo dog: a good sport, but clearly making her feelings known about my klutziness. If you are a new reader, you probably haven’t seen this. I hope you’ll check it out.

Also thank you Ruth, Lynn, and Carol, and my Internet-friend-who-likes-to-stay-anonymous, who have been unfailingly encouraging and sometimes challenging. And thank you Marjorie, my faithful and fascinating commenter whom I feel like I have really gotten to know.

Thank you, all you wonderful readers. I hope you are as ready as I am for another year.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

The Look of Fear

The Look of Fear

A small black and tan/rust dog is crouched on a green and brown couch. She is leaning away from something (not visible) to her right and looking back in that direction. You can see the whites of her eyes. She looks scared.
Zani is afraid

What happened to little Zani while I was at work one day? Summer was in the crate. Cricket was in the other room. But something had gotten Zani very very worried, and she took a long time to recover.

I have already written about and published many pictures of my feral dog Clara when she was frightened and stressed at the vet’s office.

Now I’m sharing what Zani looks like when she is frightened. Continue reading “The Look of Fear”

When Management Succeeds

When Management Succeeds

“Management fails.”

Have you heard this saying? Did you understand completely what the person meant?

I’m going to explain it in some detail for those who aren’t familiar with the terminology or concept, then tell my own management story.

A woman is sitting on a bench, holding a small black and white terrier who is sitting very relaxedly in her lap. A larger tan dog is on the floor looking up at the woman. The woman is talking to the larger dog.
Clara offers a calm down behavior in the presence of Cricket

Management

In the dog training world, “management” means the things you have to do if you haven’t trained your dog in a behavior appropriate to a certain situation. Some examples:

  • If you have a dog who persistently jumps on guests to your home, and you solve the problem by always locking him in a back room when you have company, that’s management.
  • If you put up a baby gate instead of either teaching your dog not to go in a certain room, or teaching him how to behave in there safely, that’s management.
  • If you have two dogs who fight and you choose to separate them forever using doors and crates rather than doing counterconditioning and/or training them in behaviors which are incompatible with fighting, that’s management.

Management is not a bad thing. If you have ever had a puppy, you probably learned pretty fast to manage some things, or you wouldn’t have made it. You can’t teach them everything they need to know at once, so you control the environment to prevent certain problems.

Management is also very important as a background for training. If you had the jumping dog in the first example above and decided to train him to behave nicely around guests, you would continue the management during purely social visits from guests while you were also training the behavior in controlled setups. The management would prevent him from practicing the undesirable behavior. If he was still getting to practice that with guests some of the time, your training during the rest of the time would go nowhere.

So what do people mean when they say, “Management fails”?

I have always seen that remark in the context of the third example above, or a similar example involving a dog who is aggressive to humans. They mean that if the safety of one of your dogs, cats, or even a child depends on certain doors always being closed and 100% consistent behavior on the part of all the humans in the household, odds are that some day a human will mess up, the wrong creatures will get access to one another, and someone will get hurt. They are emphatically encouraging people not to depend on management alone when someone’s safety is at stake.

The alternatives to simply managing aggressive dogs are counterconditioning and training the dog/s (while simultaneously managing as described above), rehoming a dog, or euthanizing a dog (sometimes done in the case of high level aggression where the dog is deemed unadoptable).

Susan Garrett is well known for encouraging training rather than management. She suggests making conscious choices whether to train or manage for each situation, rather than letting managing the dog be a default. She points out that a trained dog, as opposed to one who has to be managed (read: controlled) all the time, can go many more places, do more things, and can generally have a more interesting life. But she has also shared that she has chosen to manage at least one common problem: dogs getting aroused and barking when the doorbell rings. She uses a special ring on her phone instead of a physical doorbell to let her know she has a visitor . She (so far) has chosen not to train a doorbell behavior.

By the way, Susan Garrett’s doorbell solution fits under what Susan Friedman calls “Antecedent Arrangements.” Even though some trainers might consider it “only management,” from the animal’s point of view, it is less intrusive than even training a new behavior with positive reinforcement. It is one of the mildest forms of behavioral intervention since the animal is not asked to change. The situational trigger is just removed. This works well when the human’s routine is easy to change.

So why am I even talking about this? Because I’m a little bit of a contrarian, that’s why. No actually, because I discovered that there can actually be overlap between management and training. I had never thought of that, since lots of people who discuss the two talk as if they are mutually exclusive. But in one situation, I thought I was “only” managing my dog but she got trained without my realizing it! I was able to stop managing* and everybody was still safe and happy. Here’s what happened.

Clara and Cricket

When Clara came into my life in July 2011, my little rat terrier Cricket was about 15 years old and already frail. Clara was the smallest dog in the house for about two days– 11.5 pounds to Cricket’s 12–but outgrew Cricket (and everyone else) very quickly. As Clara grew in size and confidence, I quickly made the decision to keep them separated. Cricket disliked most dogs anyway, was getting dementia and didn’t interact with them well, and would only grow more frail. My worry was never aggression from Clara, but that lethal, wagging tail of hers and her bouncy habits.

I already kept Cricket separated from one of my other dogs. I decided rather than try to train Clara to be calm and keep her distance from Cricket, I would just keep her separated too. If Cricket had been a younger dog and more a part of the group, I probably would have made a different decision. But what I did decide had a very interesting result.

There were two exceptions to their separation each day. When Clara first got up in the morning, we would rush through Cricket’s space on our way to the back door so Clara could go out to potty. Conversely every evening Clara came through on the way to going to bed in her crate in my bedroom.

On these trips through Cricket’s rooms, I did not seek to train anything. I just made sure Cricket was out of the way and/or made sure I walked between them. I may have body blocked once or twice, but definitely not as a rule. That’s something I consciously avoid.  I just planned Clara’s route and made it easy for her to leave Cricket alone. Clara was always intent on our destination, which helped, too.

After a couple of months I noticed something. Clara was consciously avoiding Cricket. Clara the Rude, who body slammed dogs for entertainment and responded quite reluctantly to my other dogs’ requests to be left alone! Amazingly, she did not bother Cricket and actually avoided her.

How did that happen?

We Are Always Training Our Dogs

OK, this is another truism, but it’s, ahem, true.  I confess the first few times I heard it, I thought it was rhetoric. Only later did I come to realize that it was meant much more literally. All animals learn and change their behaviors because of consequences. Whatever your dog does, it does because there is something reinforcing about it. Some things are intrinsically reinforcing, of course, but one of the first things a student of learning theory finds out is that we have been training our dogs to do many of the problem behaviors we complain about.

It is dead easy to train our dogs to whine to be let out of their crates, steal our socks (what fun for a puppy when a human runs screaming after it!), dodge away when we reach for their collars, countersurf, and mouth our hands. I don’t mean that we are purposely training these things (usually), but that our behavior is creating the consequences that shape their behavior whether we want it to or not.

So, what of Clara and Cricket? Although I carry treats on me most of the time, I didn’t give Clara a treat for staying away from Cricket. But twice a day we went by Cricket, with Clara at a good distance, on a trip to something good. In the mornings the trip was to the outdoors and potty time. In the evening the trip was to the bedroom and Clara’s crate and soft bed, which she liked from the day she got here. So those were mild and rather non-immediate reinforcers, but the important part is that they were utterly consistent. Nothing fun ever happened around Cricket. Clara didn’t develop any kind of a history of interaction with her. Cricket was for going by at a distance and getting to a good place, and that’s what Clara learned to do. Getting to the good place was the end of a behavior chain that included walking far away from Cricket.

The movie shows the marked differences between Clara’s behavior with Cricket, and her behavior with Summer and Zani.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Astute viewers may notice the big obvious lip lick and lookaway that Clara performs upon seeing Cricket coming down the hall in one clip, when Clara was a year old. Those are common stress signals for dogs.  It’s quite possible I got a little help at times from Cricket, who could be pretty intimidating to other dogs, with the “stay away” message. However, given Clara’s habitual non-response to such cues from other dogs, I think in the long run this played a pretty minor role. In their last year together, Cricket had advanced dementia, and didn’t appear to be giving off as much dog communication to anybody. The last clips in the movie show Cricket’s typical behavior at that point in her life. They were taken in late April 2013, one month before she passed on.

A tan dog has backed int a smaller black and rust hound mix and is pressing the smaller dog into the wall with her butt
Clara smooshing Zani into the wall with her butt on purpose

I also want to mention that the movie may give the impression that I let Clara run rampant over my other two dogs. She would certainly like to spend her life bashing into them and smooshing them into walls, but I intervene pretty successfully in that most of the time. However, I think applying some of the principles I learned from her behavior towards Cricket would be helpful in that regard. I am always doing what I can to help the dogs get along well.

If I get brave, I’ll write a second post about Clara’s interactions with Summer and Zani and how they have built her current behavior toward them.

I hope this strong lesson for me about subtle reinforcers and the strength of consistent habits will be helpful for some others. I’m really curious as to whether this has happened to other folks. Have you ever accidentally trained a really good behavior? I hope it happens to me again!

*Please, please do not misconstrue my remarks as encouraging people to stop managing a dangerous dog, or testing the waters to check whether something magical has happened from management. Mine was a unique situation. Most important, as I mentioned above, Cricket was not in danger from aggression from Clara, only from careless behavior that might knock her over. If aggression were the issue, Clara never would have been walking through Cricket’s space in the first place.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

This remark has been hurled at me. How about you?

I certainly don’t call myself “purely positive” or particularly like the term. But here it comes at me, predictable as clockwork, anyway.

The reason this keeps happening is in the “short version” below. I also talk about why I don’t care for the term. But that’s not quite the whole story. The “long version” covers why we might not want to estrange ourselves completely from the goal of positive reinforcement training.

The Short Version

“Purely positive,” or sometimes, “all positive,” are terms most often used as epithets by force trainers to refer to trainers who avoid force and aversives.  They are used as a straw men in arguments.

A Straw Man is a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument that is usually laughably extreme and easy to disprove. That’s its purpose. The person who creates the Straw Man can knock it down and play like they have disproved their opponent’s actual argument.

Here is an example of a Straw Man. Judith runs a landscaping business.

Closeup of pink petunias--soft, bright pink flowers dark centers and large petals
Pink Petunias or Straw Man?

Judith: “The pink petunias withered up and died back early this year. I guess they are more attractive to certain pests or maybe it’s because they came from a different supplier and just weren’t as healthy to start with. Since the pure red ones did so much better I guess I’ll use red next year whenever possible.”

Cindy: “What have you got against pink? If you stop using pink flowers of any kind you’ll lose customers! Whoever heard of a landscaper who doesn’t use pink? That’s ridiculous!”

Cindy recast Judith’s concerns about a problem specific to pink petunias, as a global, irrational objection to all pink flowers. Note that Cindy could have argued logically against Judith’s actual reasons. She could have said, “That didn’t look like a pest-borne problem,” or “But you ordered other plants from that supplier that did just fine,” or “I read that this was an especially bad year for the Pink Petunia Bug but they emerge on a seven year cycle. Pink petunias will probably do fine next year.”   These statements would have addressed what Judith actually said and they might have had a good discussion. Instead, Cindy instantly morphed Judith’s statement into something else, then acted as if Judith were being extremely unreasonable.

People generally construct Straw Men when they have a dearth of logical arguments. Once in a while they have an honest misunderstanding. If that happens, the person who built the Straw Man can be gently presented with one’s real point of view and a discussion of its true merits and faults may ensue. But sometimes Straw Men are constructed by people who just want to win at all costs, the truth be damned, or are used consciously by people who know that what they are saying is untrue. When someone does that, it’s generally the case that they are not going to listen to your true point of view or play by the rules of polite conduct in an argument.

The reason that bringing up “purely positive” is a Straw Man is that virtually no one is claiming to be a 100% positive reinforcement trainer.

I’m sure not, but I’ve been reamed up one side and down the other for supposedly claiming to be “all positive.” The person got a real kick out of “proving” that all positive wasn’t possible, when that wasn’t even relevant to our discussion and certainly not to my training.

If someone starts ranting about “Purely Positive Zealots” at this point I will only go one round in a discussion, then quit. I seek to be calm in the face of their misrepresentation. Whatever I write will be done with others who may be reading in mind. Then I’m out. There’s no point in having a discussion with someone who is clinging to irrelevancies, not to mention mocking me.

Nomenclature Problems

Large plus sign in black on a white backgroundAs has been pointed out by many trainers, since the operant learning nomenclature uses “positive” in a mathematical sense and it can apply both to reinforcement and punishment, the waters get muddy immediately if one calls oneself (or is called) a “positive trainer.” In operant learning, positive just means you add something as a consequence to a behavior, and it can be a good something or a bad something. So there are both positive reinforcement and positive punishment under the umbrella of positive. Oops! And we’ve left negative punishment, the type that does not involve applying an aversive, by the wayside.

The term “positive trainer” is not even close to accurate.

Even though like most other people I do fall into using the term sometimes as a shorthand, I think calling ourselves “positive” anything is a bad idea. It muddies the waters. It adds a glamour to a term that we need to be un-glamourizing. “Positive” has, and needs to have, a specific, quasi-mathematical meaning.

The Longer Version, Or, What if it Were Possible After All?

However. It’s more complicated than what I wrote above.

The problem with saying, “Hey, ‘purely positive’ is a myth and an insult” and leaving it at that is that it erases it as a beautiful paradigm. It implies that one must use something farther down the Humane Hierarchy than positive reinforcement to train an animal successfully. We don’t want to imply that, do we?

I’ve discussed before that research has shown that animals do not need to make mistakes to learn a behavior. Although this is counterintuitive to us, they do not have to know “what is wrong” to know what is right. Also, punishment (including negative punishment) is not necessary to teach a behavior well, or to “prepare an animal for real life,” or toughen the animal up. I wrote a whole post about that too.

I think that those of us who are aiming for the positive reinforcement paradigm are the ones who are in the best position to know exactly how much success we are having. We are confronted with real life every day with our animals and know when we’re not using positive reinforcement exclusively and are grown up enough to be honest about it. The force avoiding trainers I know are extremely willing to identify and classify every training technique they use. For instance, when they are using negative punishment or extinction, they will say so, and they will define the terms for those who don’t understand.

Then there’s the fact that we live with our dogs. Negative reinforcement is probably a daily occurrence in most households with dogs (think spatial issues; body blocking; momentary leash pressure). My opinion is that a person would have to have godlike foresight to be able to avoid every situation in which it could occur. And believe me, I work to avoid it!

A tan dog with a black muzzle and black tail is running very fast
Clara’s recall was trained with positive reinforcement

The important thing is that I can’t think of a time when aiming for a method more centered on positive reinforcement (or an intervention even less intrusive) has harmed my training. It has helped numerous times. It helps me and my dogs for me to think about the ways I teach things and get creative about training behaviors without negative punishment or negative reinforcement (or positive punishment of course) when possible. I know for me it is easy to get set in my ways, and something really nice can emerge when I apply myself to thinking about a familiar behavior as if it is the first time I’ve taught it.

Aiming to train without punishment at all (including without negative punishment) and without negative reinforcement is a beautiful goal and I don’t think we need to be apologizing for that.

This post is part of a series:

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Yes, You May Comfort Your Dog!

Yes, You May Comfort Your Dog!

Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other booms and squeaks
Summer is afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

Just a quick reminder for the upcoming fourth of July holiday in the U.S. with the attendant loud booming noises.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

And this post by Tena Parker has both information on fear and also some other great safety and preparation tips: Fearful Fourth of July

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog! (And keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.)

Coming up:

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Level 1 Breakfast

Level 1 Breakfast

Those who have read for a while know that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels to structure my training. For you new folks: go check them out! They are a great resource if you are training your dog on your own and could use great training tips and structure to what you are doing. Also for you new folks, since I’m showing a training video on this page, please read the Welcome post if you haven’t already, to know a little more about the focus of my blog and why I post videos that sometimes, ahem, show errors.

Following the Training Levels helps me keep going, be consistent, and remember to generalize, generalize, generalize. It helps me keep track of three dogs. It helps me figure out what to train when my mind is tired and blank. Plus I get the benefit of help from all the great trainers on the Training Levels Yahoo group.

A year or so ago on the Yahoo group, Sue mentioned using her puppy Syn’s breakfast a few days in a row to get a jump start on a certain behavior. Now, using a dog’s meals for training sessions is not at all a new idea for me. But frankly, I had rarely done it up to then, except with Clara. The reason was that I had gotten into a habit of using higher value treats for training first Summer, then Zani, in agility and other performance work.  That habit had carried over even into training at home in a non-distracting environment. Every task felt so very important; I didn’t want to devalue anything by using dry food.

But when I read Sue’s post that day, I thought wistfully that it would be so NICE if I could just use their breakfast or supper sometimes like other folks and not always have to dream up new good things for them to eat (and for me to cut up).

I thought maybe, just maybe, I could use the kibble for known behaviors and low key stuff. Since I was starting a project of rehabilitating Summer’s poisoned stay cue, I thought that might be a good candidate. I was going to need to do hundreds or thousands of reps, and they didn’t all have to be steak.

A blue box clicker and pile of dry kibbleSo I started thinking up some things each dog could do for some of their morning kibble each day. That’s when I found out that my dogs were now thrilled to work for kibble.

It turns out that those couple of years using high value treats got Zani and Summer addicted to the training game permanently. And Clara, well, she might work for cardboard. (Actually she would.)

Great! The kibble thing meant that finding the time and energy for training just got quite a bit easier for me. Set out part of a meal and do something with it.

I generally give them the meal part first. I rarely use my dogs’ entire meal for training, although they wouldn’t mind.  I have always wanted to stay mindful myself that many things in their lives are free, and that’s how I want it to be. (My practice about that predates Kathy Sdao’s great book, but she said it very well.) Also recently I have learned that dogs, just like people, probably learn better when their stomachs are not empty. Why after all these years did this only now occur to us? Anyway, I give them some of their meal ahead of time and take the edge off, before training.

So here I was, finally having what a lot of people have had from the beginning: dogs who work very happily for kibble. What was I going to do with it? I work outside my home, so doing a training session in the morning (for THREE dogs)  is still wedging something into a busy time. How could I make it easier on myself?

I took a page out of Lynn Shrove’s book. Lynn is the Empress of Level 1. Her dog Lily has an incredibly firm foundation, and I know it’s in part because Lynn does Level 1 behaviors over and over, everywhere, everywhen, with everybody. Check out budding trainer Bethany, age 7, working with Lily on sits and downs if you want to see adorable. Not to mention very practical on Lynn’s part.

So my version is the Level 1 Breakfast. Take a portion of everybody’s breakfast, and have a rapid-fire practice session of sit, down, target, come, and Zen. (Those are the behaviors from Level 1 in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) We started off just doing it in normal places, in normal positions. All my dogs can use practice on verbal cues. None of them, for instance, is at 100% correct response of sit and down. Summer comes the closest, but you can see an outtake at the end of the movie where she has an incredibly creative response to the cue, “sit.”

I said rapid-fire above, because we are moving quickly, and because Level 1 behaviors don’t require duration, except up to 5 seconds for Zen. However, you will see me adding a second or two of duration now and then in the movie just to keep things mixed up.

We went on to more challenging situations, for instance, with me sitting or lying on the floor. And we found out quickly what needed some work!

Link to video for email subscribers.

So just from these couple of sessions I learned that the following things needed work:

  • Zani has a big space bubble around her and tends to do her behaviors a fair distance away. I need to practice more recalls right to my feet and hands and generally shape her into working more closely to me. The directions for this are right in Level 1.
  • I need to practice yet more collar grabs with Summer. She’s doing OK (better than Zani!), but her tail wag slows down a bit when I take her collar. I would love to get “delight” as a response.
  • Clara got a bit stressed when I switched abruptly from having her run to me for a hand target to cuing Zen. She responded properly but looked progressively more worried (paw lift, shrinking away). She was fine with Zen in other contexts, so I think the sharp transition was difficult.  I’ll practice more transitions and reinforce the Zen mightily.
  • When I was lying down, Summer, who actually knows her cues the best in that situation, fixated on my nigh pocket and hand with the treats and was actually bumping my hand with her nose. Major distraction. What a time for me to cue Zen! I put the treat on the floor right in front of her it was an immediate fail. Several things to practice about that!
  • Zani and Clara both had trouble sitting when I was lying on the floor, as is very common. I want to mention that for both of them I “helped” them by repeating the cue and adding another signal (verbal or hand, depending on what I had originally given). It would have been a  bad idea to continue to do this, because it would end up reinforcing their incorrect response. The proper thing to do, and what I did do subsequently, is work gradually down to that position and give them a history of success.

A sable dog is in motion, moving sideways and twisting her body. You can see just the legs of her trainer in the background.
Summer with a very creative response to “sit”

So that’s what we learned over the course of a couple of breakfasts. Now we are filling in the gaps.

Thanks for reading and viewing!

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