eileenanddogs

Month: September 2013

Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Only if the Behavior Decreases!

This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

You knew I would get around to talking about punishment, right?

Cricket demand barking
Cricket demand barking. I reinforced this for years. But not by yelling.

Q: If you yell at your dog when she barks, is that positive punishment?

A: Only if the barking decreases over time. (And how often does THAT happen?)

So the answer is, “Not usually.” Or honestly, “Almost never.”

Positive punishment is the presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that decreases the strength of the behavior.

Positive punishment is not merely doing something a dog doesn’t like after they do something you don’t like. Again, we must look at the consequences, just like with reinforcement.

What usually happens in the barking scenario, if we are honest about it, is that the barking is interrupted. This has nothing to do with whether punishment is happening or not, however. Punishment depends on future behavior. We’re looking for that decrease. So if your dog barks Every. Single. Time. the doorbell rings even though you yell at her Every, Single. Time–no punishment is going on there since she is just as barky the next time. (And you know she’s likely practicing it when you’re not there too, right?)

I’m serious about the most common outcome in the barking situation being that there was no punishment.  How often have you heard someone say, “I yelled at my dog after he barked, and he barks a whole lot less now! Now I only have to yell every once in a while to keep him from barking at all!”

<<crickets>>

If we only had to yell a couple of times to get a behavior to stop, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

I’ve read that yelling is even less effective with birds. Apparently, some screaming parrots think human yelling is quite a lot of fun!

What Is It, Then?

In all seriousness though, am I saying that therefore yelling is intrinsically great and harmless and OK? Of course not. For some dogs, it’s very aversive. And if a behavior is not changing, you can’t hide behind that and say it’s OK since there is no P+. That’s still no excuse to hurt, intimidate, or scare your dogs. Many of the ineffective uses of aversives we see come down to plain abuse, not punishment or negative reinforcement.

On the other hand, a yell can be neutral, or it can be a great thing. And some rough and tumble dogs living in noisy households think nothing of yelling. They don’t even notice.

And for dogs who are initially bothered by yelling, that can be changed. When I’m startled, I tend to yell, “Hey!” I’m a pretty quiet person and have a quiet household and yelling “Hey”  used to scare a couple of my dogs. So I took some time earlier this year to classically condition it, just as I conditioned Clara to have a positive response to other dogs barking.  I would take a dog out of earshot of the others, yell “Hey,” a few times, and pay up each time with a nice treat. I built up in intensity. After each dog had a few turns over a few days, I did it with all three together, then we took it to real life. Now they know that if I lose it and yell, it’s “yippie!” time. My yelling is a predictor of a treat. The yelling is similar to the sound of a can opener, a dish being scraped, or supper being measured out.  I did the conditioning because I’m human, and I absolutely do not want my dogs to be scared of me.

So I have to smile when people insist that yelling is positive punishment. Not in my household it ain’t!

Some people include “angry” tones of voice when conditioning their dogs to respond to their names, and I think this is brilliant. (Just don’t start out that way! Do a few thousand repetitions with a nice voice first. Check out the “Classical Conditioning” section of this post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So even if the human is tired and cranky when they call their dog or speak to him, the dog still associates their name with great stuff.

Consequences

I was inspired to write these two posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.

This is not nitpicking. This is the guts of the science.

Go back and check out the other post in this pair:  “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Only if the Behavior Increases!

Only if the Behavior Increases!

This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Pop quiz:

Zani can sit on a crate
Zani sits all sorts of places. 

Q: If I give my dog a piece of kibble whenever she sits, is that positive reinforcement?

A: Only if sitting increases.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it, but the second part is so easy to forget! We casually say, “I reinforced that behavior” or even worse, “I reinforced the dog.” (Thanks Eric Brad, who the other day reminded several of us that you can’t reinforce animals, only behaviors.)

A definition of positive reinforcement:

The presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that maintains, or increases, the strength of the behavior. Positive reinforcers tend to be pleasant stimuli, at least valued, from the learner’s perspective. — Susan Friedman, Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

So most of us remember the part about adding or presenting something. But that’s only half the definition. The other half is that the behavior must maintain or increase.

It makes sense that when one first learns about positive reinforcement, one tends to focus on the added thing because that’s the thing we are learning to do. Add the cookie, the toy. A beginner (including me) might define positive reinforcement as, “Adding something good after a behavior,” or even “Adding something that the animal likes to the environment after a behavior.” Those definitions focus on our action.

There are two problems here. One is that it isn’t always something generally thought of as “good” or even something the animal likes.  For instance, yelling at an animal can be a reinforcer if very little attention is paid to that animal otherwise. And even if they don’t like it it’s often not a punisher. See below. But the more insidious problem is that that definition leaves out the consequence: that the behavior must increase or maintain.

It is not just an aphorism when a behavior analyst says that behavior is defined by its consequences. Look again at definition above. It’s all about the consequences.

Why Wouldn’t Sitting Increase?

OK, so with my little example above. You give your dog a piece of kibble every time she sits, but sitting doesn’t increase. Why might it not? And let’s say that the dog does like the kibble well enough to eat it.

I had a section here with three examples, but I’ve decided instead to be coy (and buy some time to check my terminology). Let’s have a discussion about it. Why might the behavior not increase?

Consequences

Full disclosure: I was inspired to write this pair of posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.

Check out the other post in this pair: Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

My Dogs Are Not in Charge

My Dogs Are Not in Charge

As a Humane Hierarchy trainer, it is part of my value system to help my dogs get what they want, within the confines of our mutual comfort and safety. It’s important for me to give them choices and let them operate on their environment. To have an enriched existence not overcontrolled by me.

Until I read this brilliant post, “Threshold Roulette or Choice,” by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs, I would have said without much thought that more control and choices for pet dogs are always better. But Yvette is way ahead of me. There’s a big fat exception to that. So if you have time only to read one post today, go read hers. It is show stopping. I’m just riffing off of it. But here is the learning that she triggered.

Is Putting the Dog in Control a Good Thing?

I think most of us who are dedicated to avoiding force in training would put a high value on freedom, choices, and the ability for our dogs to have control over their environments. So where’s the problem?

There are two problems that I perceive.

  1. As magical as dogs are, with their fascinating intelligences, we are the ones with the bigger brains and with the majority culture. We protect them, care for them, and make decisions for them to the best of our abilities. In so many situations, the one who knows more (the human) needs to be making the major decisions. Yvette made this point beautifully in her post.
  2. This one is more insidious. It’s not a problem with putting them in control per se. It’s just the observation that that even when we think we are putting them in control, most often we are not. Their choices are limited inside the structures that we create and we are feeding the illusion of giving them control. Refusal or inability to acknowledge the power differential provides a mask for doing abominable things to dogs and still claiming that “they are in charge.”

Exploring the Idea

Hypothetical situation: If giving my dogs as much control as possible is a good thing, does that mean that they should be able to eat what and when they want? I love for my dogs to enjoy life and have lots of pleasures. So is more food, tastier food, or more available food better?

I could do this:

I could put out for my dogs an ever-refilling bowl of pork cracklings and another of peanut butter cookies and perhaps some chicken to round things out. They would LOVE that.

But the problems that would cause include:

  • obesity;
  • pancreatitis;
  • bloat;
  • other digestive problems;
  • aggression and possible likely injuries from inter-household resource guarding;
  • danger from vermin or predators if this were set up outside;
  • and more.
My dogs would find this very cool
My dogs would find this very cool

I’ve described this in extremes to get a point across. Setting up situations where their free choice would have ruinous consequences is not humane. Even just giving them free access to kibble at all times has problems. I used to free feed. I stopped when my 60 lb dog gave my 15 lb dog a warning bite to the neck as they squabbled over the feeder while I wasn’t home. (A neighbor saw.) They were both overweight, and also I had a rat problem that went on for years after that.

I don’t usually use the term “dog guardian,” as it’s just a little too touchie-feelie for me, but it is a accurate description nonetheless. We make decisions on our dogs’ behalf all the time. We protect them. They will always be dependent on us, and living in a world that is at least partly foreign.

The obvious limit to giving dogs freedom and control over their lives and environment is safety. The considerations are both immediate (protection from mishap and injury) and long-term (keeping them healthy).

So just as we wouldn’t overfeed our dogs, we need to consider that putting some other bounds on the choices and control they have may be a good thing.

Enrichment

Many of us who love our dogs is enrich their lives by arranging challenges that allow them to express instinctive or naturally expressed behaviors. Instead of free-feeding, many of us use some of their food to train. We arrange for them to forage for some of it. Or we freeze or melt some into food toys.

Some days I choose this for them
But some days I choose this for them

These things we set up are enriching and even empowering to our dogs. You bet! And within the structure of the games we set up, they do get to make choices and exert control. Not to mention develop some skills that express their their natural aptitudes.

But we set up the structure. We don’t ask the dog if she’d rather snack on kibble from a never ending bowl all day or hone her extraction skills with a frozen Kong. We can’t ask her. We make decisions for her based on our observation, knowledge, and best guesses. And we keep in mind the concepts that she cannot. Perhaps she would have chosen the big pot o’ kibble, but we know that eating out of a Kong will assuage some boredom and give her something to chew on for a little longer. So we make the latter choice for her. And we take away her choice of an easy meal for that day.

Who’s In Charge?

I am.

I think the attraction of the idea of “putting the dog in control” is partly a rebound from the practice of punishment and valuing dominance, and in that sense is partly a good thing. At its best, it is an ethical imperative to make up for the strictures that domestication puts on their lives. However, “putting the dog in control” has the same unthinking attraction that the label on food of “all-natural” has for many of us. We like to think that our animals are expressing themselves in unfettered ways. It feels good and wholesome to many of us.

But denying the control we have and need to have is a dangerous slope. We cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that we are the ones with the big brains, we are the ones who have the keys to the cabinet, we put on and take off the leashes, and make health decisions. We spay and neuter our dogs or do not allow them to breed (how natural is that?). And people are free in many countries to strap on shock collars and hold the remote and hurt their dogs.

Many people say jokingly or not-so-jokingly that their dogs are always in charge. Sure, they shape our behavior. Certainly those of us who care for pets dutifully feel like we are their servants at times. But you know, I try not to even joke along those lines. It’s part of the cultural fog about learning and behavior to ignore the power that we have when we control the reinforcers and punishers and set the contingencies. I have read more than one shock trainer claim, in all seriousness, that the dog is in control of the training process. They mistake the fact that the dog can learn how to behave to turn off the shock with the dog being in charge. Really? Did the dog go pick out the shock collar, put it on, hand the human the remote and order him to start pressing the button or else? If the dog is in charge, in what way exactly does he hold sway over the human that would be even nearly equivalent to the humans’ power of holding the shock remote?

Recently protocols that include negative reinforcement have become popular among some trainers who consider themselves part of the force free community. Some practitioners (not all) make similar claims about the subject dog being in control or in charge of the process. This is what Yvette discusses so eloquently. But, as she points out, the dog did not participate in the decision making that arrived at that training session. She didn’t set up the rules. She might have preferred not to participate in that whole situation entirely. (And Yvette’s major point: that letting the dog make the decisions in a potentially explosive situation is a bad idea anyway.)

As in any situation involving operant learning, including with positive reinforcement, the dog learns behaviors according to a rule structure set up by the humans. She is not in control except in responding to the situation that we set up.  We don’t need to unthinkingly attach ourselves to this idea of the dog being in control because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Certainly sometimes the safer and more humane choice is for the human to make the decisions in the dog’s best interest.

Feral dog Clara at the mall
Formerly feral dog Clara at the mall

One of the things I do in this blog is to attempt to clarify misapprehensions about the learning processes, to the best of my ability. Sometimes they are things I read, sometimes they are my own errors in reasoning. I like to explore my own value system and discuss ethical choices. So I really appreciate that Yvette has widened my comprehension with her post. I’m still thinking about what she wrote.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

As the great trainer Bob Bailey says, training is simple but not easy. The principles are very simple and straightforward, but actually applying them in practice can be very difficult.

I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a professional trainer. But I hang out with some phenomenal ones. Plus, I am a student of life and tend to do lots of observation of myself and others. (What, you had noticed?)  And I don’t mind sharing my own errors if it can help somebody along.

Here are eight of the top booboos in dog training. All of which I have done myself, and many of them on camera! (And guess what, I have 15-20 more! You can expect more posts on this if people enjoy this one.)

And by the way, these are errors made by trainers who are using the most humane methods they know and can learn. The list would be much different if it addressed mistakes made by trainers who make heavy use of aversives. I don’t want to write that list right now!

What Can Go Wrong?

(1) Allowing the dog to rehearse the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. One of my trainer friends says this is the #1 problem she runs into with her clients. A client will say, “I bought my dog a bed for his crate and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed that one, too. I’ve bought him five beds and he’s chewed them all.”  That dog is getting really skilled at chewing beds, and has found a way to occupy himself in his crate.

If a dog has a problem behavior, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced. (Chewing is fun for dogs!) Usually not deliberately by us, but reinforced nonetheless. So we don’t tend to “count” it in our minds. But it’s just as if we had given the dog a cookie every time he chewed the bed, or jumped on the couch or whatever. But if we want to teach them to do something different, we also need to prevent those fun rehearsals of the “wrong” behavior and stop that reinforcement.

Desirable door behavior
Desirable door behavior

For example, you want to train your dog not to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. That behavior is reinforced every time she does it if you immediately let her outside. When you start to teach polite door manners, you doubtless start the training with an “easier” door. You practice with an interior door, and work on the behavior  you want. You reinforce with food.

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior–see the linked video–>

But in the meantime, every time you take your dog into the back yard to potty, she continues to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. Getting outside is obviously a potent reinforcer and nothing has happened to stop that. To get the new behavior in place at the back door, you will have to prevent your dog from practicing the old one. That can be a challenge without using aversives, but can be done. With three dogs, our back door behavior is a work in progress, but those bad habits do on occasion get reinforced. And reinforcement “on occasion” is enough to keep them alive and well.

The classic example of rehearsed behaviors and conflicting reinforcers is walking on a loose leash. If you let your dog pull you, using the same gear you use when trying to teach loose leash, that behavior gets reinforced every time that pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, just as purely as if you had given him a cookie for it. That’s why trainers always tell you to cease walking the dog or at least use completely different gear if you must walk the dog, if you are simultaneously trying to teach leash manners. You are shooting yourself in the foot otherwise.

(2) Lumping. Lumping means failing to break the behavior you are trying to teach into small enough steps. For instance, you are teaching your dog to get on a mat and lie down. Your dog is beginning to understand your cue. You stand right next to the mat and give the cue. Dog lies down. You stand two feet away from the mat and give the cue. The dog goes to the mat and lies down. You put the mat in the corner of the room, go back to the center of the room with your dog, and give the cue. Your dog says, “Huh?” Lots of misunderstandings between humans and dogs could be ameliorated if we just took enough baby steps when teaching a behavior. Here is a post about lumping, with a video starring my dog Zani, who lets her disapproval of my behavior be known.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”
Zani can sit on a crate
Sitting on a crate was Zani’s idea

(3) Neglecting to generalize cued behaviors. Dogs are great discriminators. They notice every little thing in the environment. It’s all pertinent to them. They are not as good as we are at generalizing. And it is very very hard for us to get that through our human heads.

If a dog knows “sit” when in the kitchen facing east, she may not know it while standing on the piano bench in your front room facing north. And she almost definitely won’t know it if you lie down on the floor next to her or stand on your head before giving the cue. All along you thought she was responding to your verbal cue, but she actually was responding to the fact that she was standing in the kitchen facing east, and you have a clicker and treats, and you said a word (which turns out that it probably could have been any word). All of that was actually her cue. I have several movies showing dogs who respond incorrectly to a cue because of the human failure (um, mine) to help them generalize.

And here’s my moment to plug Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. The Training Levels are the best training program I have ever seen to build generalization into every step.

(4) And that leads to…not knowing what the dog’s cue actually is. It may not be what we think it is.  They are generally paying attention to our body language and props way more than we think. Almost all of us (border collie owners excepted, grin), think that our dogs understand verbal cues better than they actually do. I have lots of experience with this, having been blessed with two dogs who are probably less proficient than average at verbal cues. I have yet to teach them, despite many repetitions, some simple word discriminations that some breeds and individual dogs seem to pick up very fast. To really know whether your dog understands a verbal cue or not, you need not only to practice generalization, but get yourself out of the picture for the final exam. I have a fairly embarrassing post and video where I was trying to test my dog’s knowledge of the difference between her “crate” and “mat” cue. I didn’t realize until I saw the film that I was still cuing her with my body.

(5) Trying to train when dog is too stressed. Just about anybody who has gone to a dog training club has either done this or seen this. The dog is trying to take in this noisy, chaotic environment full of other people and dogs. Even if the dog is not scared of strange people or dogs, the noise and chaos make everything difficult. This is where it pays to know and observe your dog, and do some homework on dog body language.

It's not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train
It’s not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train

Here are some posts, photos, and videos of mine showing a stressed dog, a fearful dog, my own shut down dog, and some other shut down dogs. While some dogs can respond while stressed or fearful, a good teacher will help you work with your dog to get her comfortable in the environment before ever starting to teach “behaviors.” Most would agree that learning to be comfortable in a difficult environment is a more important lesson than learning to sit on cue. And it will really pay off in the long run.

(6) Not being aware of the dog’s responses. This is a more general version of #5. Once one starts learning about dog body language, it can be a revelation to watch videos of one’s own training sessions. You may learn that you are making your dog nervous when you ruffle his fur. Or that he ducks strongly away when you reach down to pat his head. You may learn that you are leaning far to much into your dog’s face. You may learn that you are unwittingly doing something to jazz up your dog when you are trying to teach a relaxed, duration behavior. Or like me, you may learn that your dogs are way more sound sensitive than you thought. (I had the camera on behind my back when I recorded this video.)

(7) Using a verbal cue too soon. I mean, we want to do it at the very beginning, and that’s exactly what not to do! It seems to be almost innate for us to assume that dogs do or “should” understand our own native human language. If you grew up in the “say ‘sit’ and push the dog’s butt down” generation, it is hard to imagine anything else. But remember, the word “sit” is a cue. It is a green light that says, “if you sit now, reinforcement is available.” But attaching that cue to the behavior is a latter step, not the first step. Chanting “Sit, sit, sit,” does not instruct your dog what to do. And doing the butt push move means that the first thing that Sit means is “Mom is about to push my butt down.”

The better way of looking at it, as Sue Ailsby describes it, is that we say to the dog, “That thing you are doing–we’re going to call it ‘Sit,’ OK?”

The first step is to get the dog sitting repeatedly. You can lure, capture, or shape. But it’s a good idea to keep your lip zipped and don’t let that cue come out. Some people say you shouldn’t use the cue until you are willing to be $100 that the dog will sit.

Here is a little video I made of Clara as a puppy. This is the very first time I had used a verbal cue for “down.” I had already gotten predictable and repeated downs by arranging the environment that way. Do you see how startled she is the first time I use it? It’s only the second verbal cue she has been exposed to. As far as she’s concerned, I have interrupted the game we were playing.

(Watching the video today makes me realize I know her better now. According to #6–watching the dog’s responses–I might have ended earlier. Her tail is wagging with a rather low carriage and she is working very hard for a wee one. She was more stressed than I would like.)

(8) Rate of reinforcement too low. “Rate of reinforcement” means the number of reinforcers per unit of time, for instance, per minute. When teaching a new behavior, and particularly to a dog who is new to training, it is desirable for the RoR to be very high. Dogs who know you have treats and are playing a training game but can’t figure out the rules of the game tend to get frustrated, lose interest, or even wander off. It is our job as trainers to arrange the teaching so that the pupil can have a high success rate and therefore a high rate of reinforcement.

Here’s a video of some behavior drills I did with three of my dogs. The highest rate of of reinforcement was in Zani’s first session: 12 treats in 43 seconds. That’s a treat about every 3.5 seconds, or 17 treats per minute. All of the other sessions shown came to a treat about every 5 seconds, which would be 12 treats per minute. Many of the behaviors had a little duration on purpose, so that’s not bad. I checked the video of puppy Clara I linked to in #7 above, and I delivered a treat about every 5 seconds in that one as well.

By the way, I made this list of booboos before I realized that I had examples of so many of them! How about you? Have any suggestions for my next post on this? Bonus points if you’ll step forward and show an example!

Other Resources

Here are a few other articles on common errors. I got a few ideas from them, but most of the above were from my own head and some trainer friends’ heads.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Gorilla sitting on ground next to a tree. He is scratching his head with his left hand.
Gorilla scratching an itch

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

A springer spaniel, standing next to a body of water, is photographed while shaking water off
Shaking it off

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:

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.

Zani and Summer's response to body pressure
Zani and Summer’s response to body pressure

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.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Dogs Leave it at a Higher Level: Zen on the Move

Dogs Leave it at a Higher Level: Zen on the Move

Pictures of dogs exhibiting self-control while covered with or surrounded by cookies, dog biscuits, or hot dogs are popular ways people Fame their dogs. You can see plenty of them on the Dog Faming FaceBook page. And here is Paisley doing a beautiful job in her entry for the Your Pit Bull and You Calendar Contest. (Go vote for some of those charmers!) Paisley is one of my current favorites, particularly since she doesn’t look stressed with the exercise. Don’t I see a tail in mid-wag? She knows exactly what to do, and also knows that she will be nicely compensated for her efforts!

Paisley the Pit Bull Leaves It!

At my house we’ve been working on a different kind of Zen lately, and although maybe it isn’t as photogenic, it’s a real challenge too.

I’ve mentioned before that I train using Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. There is a step in Lazy Leash that incorporates Zen that I have been practicing with all of my dogs for several months. For my dogs, moving around while performing Zen is a real challenge.

Many training protocols use a treat on the ground as a distraction while teaching leash manners. It certainly has to be worked up to, since just keeping the leash loose at all takes all of the dog’s concentration at first.

Sue is so good at splitting out steps, and I love how she does the Zen/Lazy Leash combination.  Her steps involving the treat include:

  • Handler and dog stand with a treat directly in front of the dog, with the dog on leash. Handler takes one step away in any direction and returns. Practice duration and the person moving in different directions.
  • Handler and dog walk toward the treat on the floor and turn away before they get there.
  • Handler and dog walk past the treat on the floor.

The first step was no problem for any of my pups. Putting the leash on didn’t change the picture much from regular old “food on the floor” Zen. They were all OK with the second step, too. But oh man, the third. Clara and Zani are convinced the treat is going to jump out and grab them! I don’t have any trouble with them pulling towards the treat. However, both of them will sometimes tighten the leash when trying to get away from it!

I have mentioned before that many of us teach Zen at the beginning by reinforcing the dog for backing away from the “Zenned” item. So it can be a new concept for the dog that they it’s OK to be close to the treat–they just can’t eat it. I have some pretty cute footage of Clara trying desperately to keep her distance from a treat in my post Attack of the Zen Field. We have worked on it quite a bit since then and she has improved, but is still distrustful of that scary old treat.

I’ve been using this Step in the Levels as an opportunity to teach my dogs that they can actually go near the treat–as long as they don’t eat it (and in this case also maintain a loose leash).

Here is a short video of the results of that training. Summer is the pro from all the Rally practice we’ve done with treats and toys on the floor. Zani and Clara still have to work through some “cognitive dissonance,” as I teach them that it’s OK to go close to the treat. In short, the Zen is great, but if the dog runs behind me to get away from the treat, the loose leash doesn’t stay that way. But I’m super pleased with everybody’s progress.

Dog Faming: Zen on the Move

Link to the Zen on the Move video for email subscribers.

Other Zen Vids with Bragging Rights

Sniff Zen

Wheee–rabbit pee!

Zen Trap

Great treats popping up in unexpected places!

Zen Generalization: Hole in the Fence

Who says that training with positive reinforcement doesn’t hold up in real life? Get a load of this post!

Hole in the Fence Zen

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Summer, Clara and Zani, leave thrown kibble alone
Summer, Clara and Zani, leave thrown kibble alone
Can We Determine Whether Training with Food Is Positive or Negative Reinforcement?

Can We Determine Whether Training with Food Is Positive or Negative Reinforcement?

A blue box clicker and pile of dry kibble
If your dog is really hungry, what learning process will be involved here?

Yes we can. This question was pretty well answered in the 1950s.

Note: You need a basic understanding of the processes (often called quadrants) of operant learning for the discussion in this post to be meaningful. You can read my post, Operant Learning  Illustrated by Examples, to get the basics.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of remarks that seek to minimize the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. Some people claim that you can’t determine which process is at work in any reinforcement scenario  (continuum fallacy, anyone?), and it’s even been argued that the terms “positive” and “negative” should be abolished. More on that in a later post, but if you pick up any new edition of a learning theory textbook, guess what? That point of view may be mentioned but the terms are still in use.

I got curious about the food argument so I gathered up some articles I had and did a little poking around in the psych journals.

To review:

  • Positive reinforcement: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.
  • Negative  reinforcement: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Both processes increase behaviors, but most trainers feel there is a big difference between the two methods. Negative reinforcement involves an aversive (the thing that gets removed), and most trainers in the positive reinforcement oriented community want to avoid that. But there seems to be a growing minority that either truly doesn’t perceive a difference or is focused on some gray areas and generalizing from those.

Indeterminate Situations

There are indeed some situations where it is very difficult or impossible to determine the major process. The classic example is that of thermostat adjustment. If you are a little bit cold and go turn your thermostat up 2 degrees and the furnace comes on, are you adding heat or reducing cold? Most people would say the latter (negative reinforcement), but that heat can sure feel pleasurable and luxurious in its own right when it comes on. The situations that don’t fit well into one process or another generally have in common that they deal with a continuum of states and not discrete things that are added or removed.

So yeah, there are some scenarios where the primary process can’t easily be determined.

But food intake is not one of them.

Here’s how the argument is usually presented:

People who train with food are employing a negative reinforcement protocol because food removes the aversive state of hunger.

I have seen this claimed by force trainers but also a few people in the positive reinforcement (oops! maybe they wouldn’t call it that) community. It is often played like some sort of trump card, but it is as out of date as dominance theory.

What I haven’t seen is anybody pointing out is that there were multiple experiments performed in the 1950s that successfully separated out the positive reinforcement qualities of food that were independent of assuaging hunger. So here we go.

The Studies

In 1950 Sheffield and Roby published, “Reward value of a non-nutritive sweet taste.” The abstract from APA PsychNet:

After showing that hungry rats will ingest significantly more of a 1.3 gram/liter saccharine solution than satiated control animals, the hungry rats were trained on a single unit T-maze with a saccharine solution reward. Learning was rapid and showed a high positive relation between correct choice and speed on the one hand and rate of ingestion of the saccharine reward on the other. After discussing the implications of these results for various learning theories, the authors conclude by suggesting “that elicitation of the consummatory response appears to be a more critical primary reinforcing factor in instrumental learning than the drive reduction subsequently achieved.”

“Drive reduction” corresponds to negative reinforcement effects, the satiation of hunger in this case. They removed these effects by using a substance that had no nutritional value. The study showed that while the rats gained no calories, eating a tasty but nutritionally empty substance could be an effective reinforcer.

In 1952 Miller and Kessen published “Reward effects of food via stomach fistula compared with those of food via mouth.” Here is the abstract:

Rats prepared with stomach fistulas were trained in a simple T-maze under hunger motivation and with rewards of milk for correct choices and isotonic saline for incorrect choices. Different groups received milk in a dish or milk injected directly into the stomach. While both groups reduced errors and time significantly, the “milk-by-mouth” group learned more rapidly. “These results show that milk injected directly into the stomach serves as a reward to produce learning, but that milk taken normally by mouth serves as a stronger reward to produce faster learning.”

This says that even for an animal that is food deprived (“under hunger motivation”) there is a reinforcement effect beyond satiation of hunger. What’s left? Positive reinforcement. It’s not controversial to say that eating food is pleasurable. What’s interesting is that this experiment shows that it is pleasurable aside from satiation.

If eating were exclusively about negative reinforcement, most of us would skip dessert
If eating were exclusively about satisfying hunger, most of us would skip dessert–photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Makes Sense to Me

Actually, we know this intuitively. We have taste buds. Preferred foods taste good to us. It’s a major pleasure. How many of us will eat something we really like even after we are full? Some of us could easily do that three times a day!

I don’t know if all animals have taste buds, but most organisms must have a method for discriminating for appropriate foods. Doesn’t it make sense that organisms would have a survival advantage if they got immediate feedback about this, rather than having to wait until they have digested the food?

And it doesn’t take much observation to conclude that dogs enjoy food, does it?

There has been a lot of research on this topic and I have yet to find an experiment that had an opposing result. The same effects have been shown with water consumption and even sexual activity  (Sheffield, Wullf, and Backer, 1951), both primary reinforcers. And a personal note: I don’t enjoy reading about these unfortunate experimental animals, whose lives were almost certainly short and painful. But since the knowledge has already been gained from the studies, the least we can do is pay attention to it.

Dark meat chicken chunks for agility training
The good stuff: dark meat chicken chunks for agility training

So back to food. Even if your dog is extremely hungry and you expect that negative reinforcement will be involved if you use food to train, the studies say that there is also positive reinforcement even in that extreme situation. Taste buds probably don’t turn off when animals are famished.

There’s another aspect that I haven’t seen mentioned in a study but a smart FaceBook friend mentioned. Putting a treat in your mouth and getting pleasure from tasting and swallowing the food are perfectly and immediately correlated. But there is not a one to one correlation between each piece of food and a perceptible reduction in hunger. At least in humans, satiation is delayed. If you have a perfect meal in front of you with the exact volume of food and number of calories to fill you up, and you divide it up into 30 bites, your hunger is not assuaged 1/30th with every bite. The relationship is just not going to be that salient. The diminishment of hunger is probably delayed, and less linear. The positive reinforcement component would almost have to be stronger, which is what the studies with rats found.

Maximizing Positive Reinforcement

If you are still worried about a negative reinforcement component with training with food, it’s easy to address.  To minimize (and possibly eliminate) the presence of negative reinforcement effects, how about this: don’t train your dog on an empty stomach. Meaning the dog’s stomach, silly! But it’d probably be good if you have eaten something too. You want to be at your best when training!

Use appropriate sized pieces of good treats and you can be fairly confident that you are training with virtually entirely positive reinforcement (if the behavior increases, of course). If calories are a concern, cut down the next meal. Also, recent research indicates that dogs, just like people, probably learn better when their stomachs are not empty.  Makes me feel good that I have almost always given my dogs some of their meal ahead of time to take the edge off before training.

I’ll be writing more about the movement to eliminate the terms “positive” and “negative” from the technical descriptions of the processes of operant learning, and the nature of reinforcement in general. It’s a pretty interesting topic. In the meantime, you folks who are training with food: you can sleep well at night.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

 

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Summer's new hand touch
Summer’s new hand target

In our last episode, I shared how I messed up Summer’s hand (and object) targeting behavior six ways from Sunday. Now I will share the process of retraining it.

When you follow directions from a book, such as the Training Levels, a lot of the planning is done for you. So I get a little lazy about training plans. I can just check little boxes off in the books.  (A reminder: I  acquired all these errors when I was brand new at training and using a mishmash of methods. Wish I’d known about the Levels earlier.)   But it’s a good idea to always have a plan, and collect data on what you are doing. Since I now need to do a unique retraining plan suited exactly to my dog and her needs, I am going to make a plan and share it, then share how well it works.

Training Plans

Training plans can be as simple or as detailed as the situation demands. For this situation, where I am trying to get rid of several superstitious behaviors that often follow my cue for hand target, I am going to make a thorough plan, and share it here.

Here are two posts about training plans, both by great trainers.

I combined parts of both of these to design the categories for my plan. I also made a record-keeping spreadsheet in Google Docs, loosely based on Melissa Alexander’s. Hers is accessible through her post above.

My Training Plan

  • Goal: a clean touch of Summer’s nose to my hand, followed by her generalizing that to similar touches to different objects. I want verbal cue recognition (will do tests with objects, see below).  But she doesn’t have to wait for a verbal if I do the hand signal.
  • Description:  A clean clear touch of nose to hand or object. She can be in any position that will allow her to reach the hand or object. It doesn’t have to be a hard touch, just definite touch of nose. No drivebys, and no just whiskers. No teeth, no open mouth. Minimal paw lifts. I define minimal as: her paw can lift about an inch higher than normal if she is walking or trotting to the target. Getting her mouth closed and preventing paw whacks are essential. A little leftover paw action is OK with me.
  • Methods: Capture the touch, then shape a firmer touch if necessary. I want to make the picture as different as possible for Summer from the very beginning, including changing the hand signal and verbal cue. I will follow the progression in Level 1 Target in the Training Levels. I will start with me seated. Use Sue Ailsby’s hand position (see “new position” above). Start off with my left hand rather than right, which I have used more often for hand targets before. I’ll drop treats rather than handing them to her (encourages mouth/hand contact) or throwing them (builds excitement).
  • Cue: Verbal. In the case of hand touch, presentation of hand.  Cue discrimination: the ability to distinguish from Sit and Down on verbal alone. For this I will use a standalone object, since the presentation of the hand will always be more salient than the verbal. When to start with the cue: TBD.
  • Sessions: Up to three sessions per day of 10 treats.
  • Criteria for advancement: In the early stages of the hand touch, 95% or above. This is because my goal is to clean out the old superstitious behaviors. Also I have observed that Summer doesn’t mind lots of repetition. Later I will build in her looking me in the eyes before I will give the cue. This is because of her habit of staring at the food or my food hand.
  • Duration? Not for this project.
  • Distance? 15 feet to object, or about that much if chasing me.
  • Distractions? Maybe near the end. Put down a mat for her to go by as she goes to touch an object.
  • Position: Hand touch from all different directions. Object touch from different positions. I will limit to objects already in her sight, i.e., she doesn’t have to turn around to find it. However, I plan to “try it cold” by cuing a Touch when she is not expecting it and when there is an obvious object to touch.
  • Where: Start in my den. Do other rooms in house, back porch, back yard. Possibly go on to front porch.
  • Reliability: I want 95% free from superstitious behaviors. Response to cue itself 80-90%.
  • Comments and caveats: Since we have an ongoing issue with staring at food, I will chain in eye contact after she is getting some fluency.  She is more likely to do the undesired behaviors if she is excited and moving fast, so I will start with her standing still. Observation: she is quite likely to offer an undesired behavior after failing to meet criteria and doing a light touch on the first one, instead of offering a firmer touch. I will need to be creative and use positioning to avoid errors. Also I stated earlier that I don’t want to use negative punishment at all if possible. That means I don’t want to rely on pulling the target away from her if she is approaching it with her paw or an open mouth. I want to prevent those things from happening to begin with. I want to tell her through reinforcement what is working.
  • Future:  Duration. Mix up Zen and target. Learn to distinguish target cue from retrieve cue.

The difference between my old and new hand positions for target:

Notes about Future Steps

In the Training Levels, what follows the hand touch is:

  • Foot touch:  (Dog’s nose to human foot) Probably no problems here.
  • Wooden object: I’ll need to prevent teeth touches and grabbing by using a large, flat object, as described in the Levels (p 187) Need to watch for feet movement. How to discourage? Careful height of object. Experiment with stationary vs moving.
  • Plastic object: ditto.
  • Metal object: ditto.
  • Spot on wall: I’ll have to modify the instructions: I won’t use a post-it note or painter’s tape. (Watch the Targeting Mishaps movie to see why.)  I’ll draw or paint a target on a piece of poster board with non toxic paint. Start by holding the board. Shape touching the spot. When that is solid, get it onto the wall.

We have practiced all of the above behaviors before, but many incorrectly because of superstitious behaviors.

Session Planning

Session 1. I’ll sit in a chair. Treats on my right on a desk. Proffer left hand in position described by Sue. Correct iterations marked by Yes and drop (don’t throw) treat.

Link to video for email subscribers.

My Notes after the First Two Sessions

Wow, real life comes crashing in. So Summer did one touch/sniff, then the very next one she took all my fingers in her mouth. (A “bite” but very inhibited. Her teeth didn’t close.) I wasn’t ready for that at all. I was in the middle of saying “Yes” but aborted it. I was so surprised I just got up and turned off one of the cameras and took a break. In the meantime Summer heard me say most of “Yes” and was sniffing around looking for her treat, which I had made a split second decision about and didn’t give her.

Dang! An important goal for me is no negative punishment, but abruptly getting up and stopping a training session can be a big dose of that….

But the video taught me a lot. Both the times (yes, it happened again) Summer took my fingers in her mouth, I had presented my hand kind of flat. Must have looked like I was handing her a treat.

Besides the position of the hand, I need to make its presentation a little clearer (I don’t need to leave it halfway out there). Make it very clear: on/off. I’m still struggling a little with the hand position; that’s part of why I am so stiff. Also I’m trying to keep my body very quiet. A couple times I was too slow and she was already moving forward when I presented my hand.

I’m really really glad I counted reps and successes. I would have overestimated our success rate otherwise.

Also, I chose to go with 10 treats rather than 10 total iterations. 10 treats means 10 correct responses, but puts no limit on incorrect responses. Sometimes not advisable at the beginning. But even looking at the video I had a hard time deciding what “counted” as an iteration or not, so I’m glad I wasn’t trying to count while training.

Third and Fourth Sessions

We have already had our third and fourth sessions, although they’re not included in the movie. Our success rate got better and went up to 10 correct out of 13 both times, which comes to 77%. I tried to loosen up a little and move in Session 4 but I immediately got an open mouth from Summer. I’ll need to continue to be very conservative since movement on my part has typically triggered mouthiness on hers. There’s always a fine line between getting the behavior and not wedding it to a certain setup. I’ll do some other things to introduce some variety.

Here is my training tracker document. I’ll keep it up to date and publicly accessible.

Thanks for reading.

Now that it’s done, here is the whole series:

Also coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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