Have you ever had an epiphany? Wherein all of a sudden some information you had been turning over and over in your mind fell into place and created an entire new picture? It has happened to me a handful of times in my life, and in each case the result was that I changed some basic beliefs.
Trainers who have switched to positive-reinforcement based training from more aversive-inclusive methods often refer to that process as “crossing over.” I have written about crossing over in many bits and pieces over the years, plus in a couple of longer articles (I’ve linked some at the bottom of this post).
For me, crossing over brought an epiphany. I have always wanted to explain it and to share it far and wide. The other day I had a realization that just might help me explain it better. You could almost say I had an epiphany about my epiphany!
A Changed Outlook
The epiphany I had when crossing over to positive reinforcement-based training was about far more than training. It changed my outlook on life. It was like a bunch of building blocks got knocked down, then magically fell into place into a new and better pattern.
The epiphany was about learning. Not only about how dogs learn, but also about how we all learn. It wasn’t that I was suddenly dedicated to the least invasive methods possible, though I was. It wasn’t some kind of promise never to give a correction again, though I certainly had and have no plans to. It really wasn’t about what kind of trainer I was planning to be.
It was that I suddenly “got” reinforcement. I got that the behaviors I saw my dogs do: desirable and undesirable; cued by me or not; in competition settings, at home, or on a walk: these behaviors were happening because the dogs got something they wanted through doing them. (I would add now that it also could have been because the dogs avoided something undesirable, but that wasn’t part of my epiphany.)
If my dogs were repeating a behavior, I was either reinforcing it, or allowing it to be reinforced.
When my dogs did something I didn’t like, they weren’t challenging my authority. They weren’t giving me the paw. It probably wasn’t “coming out of the blue.” They did it because it worked.
I could suddenly visualize a sort of map of my house with sketches of my dogs (and me!) in different areas, color coded for the frequency of the behaviors. I realized that behavior is a map of reinforcement. On my imagined map, stronger, habitual behaviors are colored darker than less frequent behaviors.
So actually, the epiphany was about the science.
But my very next realization was about ethics. How could it be fair for me to punish a behavior if it was there because it was getting reinforced, or worse, because I myself had reinforced it? And how could I now overlook the fact that inconsistency on my part (read: intermittent reinforcement) was keeping the unwanted behaviors alive so effectively? This was all on me.
If the dog is doing something because it gets reinforced, doesn’t it make more sense, and isn’t it more fair, to work to remove the reinforcement first, rather than jump into punishment mode? If you jump into punishment without identifying the reinforcers, that means that part of the time the dog gets reinforced, and part of the time she gets punished, for the same thing! Plus as long as the reinforcement is there, you will never get rid of the behavior unless you are willing to escalate the level of the punishment massively, and perhaps not even then.
The thing about removing reinforcement is that it requires us to change our behavior, sometimes in some big ways. No wonder we resist the idea.
One of Many Examples
This reinforcement/punishment combo is very common and easy to fall into, because of ignorance about how learning works, but also because of the unwillingness of humans to change their own behavior even when they might know better. It becomes the norm in many dogs’ lives. Here is but one example.
It is a standard recommendation in traditional obedience training that when your dog pulls out of position and tightens the leash, you give a “correction” in the form of a quick jerk on the leash. This is translated to the dog’s collar and from there to the neck. This is a movement that humans quickly get very good at. And even if the dog is wearing a flat nylon or leather collar (i.e., not a prong or choke collar), getting a correction has got to be at least jarring, and probably in many cases painful. The most extreme form could cause injury.
But many say this is necessary. We are told anything from “you need to be the boss” to “that’s the only way the dog will learn what not to do.”
OK, so that’s half of the story. Now forget about the corrections and the rhetoric for a moment and visualize this. You are walking along with your dog on leash. The dog sees her best buddy and pulls you in that direction. Or you are walking along with your dog and there is evidently something just out of reach that smells wonderful, because your dog changes her course and goes over to smell it, tightening the leash momentarily on the way. Or you have just let your dog out of the car, on leash, and while you get your gear, she is walking the circumference that the leash allows, sniffing around and exploring, and tugging a little when there is something good just out of reach.
Now let’s think how positive reinforcement works. The dog does a behavior, receives something she really likes, and the behavior increases in the future. That means that in the case of each of those three examples, pulling on the leash (the behavior) probably got reinforced (access to the goodies). The dog pulled and got something she wanted. It’s as if she pulled on leash and you handed her a treat. She will likely pull again.
Keep in mind you are also probably having training sessions where you hand her a treat for the opposite behavior: staying by your side. And jerking on her for pulling. Again, the situation for the dog is that the same behavior gets reinforced sometimes and punished sometimes.
Dogs are good discriminators, so they can learn after a while which are the situations in which you are more likely to let them pull vs. when they will get the collar pop. This is one reason you will see plenty of dogs trained in competitive obedience who drag their owners to the training building (and again I will confess that I have been in this group).
But it’s just not fair. So many dogs live in this chaotic and ever-changing combination of punishment and reinforcement, yet we are encouraged to believe that the problems that arise are because we haven’t “taught them their place.”
Are We Just Robots, Then?
There are still a good many people who have a gut-level rejection of behaviorism, even when applied to animals. When presented with my epiphany, or particularly my vision of the “map of reinforcement,” some may have a negative response. It’s reductionist, they might say. It seems to represent our animals and ourselves as little machines, we don’t live in Skinner boxes, it’s too specific or not specific enough, it leaves out emotions, not everything fits in “quadrants,” ad infinitum.
For what it’s worth, everything I have learned in my very beginner-level studies of behavior analysis has shown me what amazing creatures our dogs are, what amazing creatures we are, and how varied and subtle the processes of learning can be. How do we interact with our environment? What effects do environmental stimuli have on us? It’s more like a wonderful, fractal dance than the cold, clinical image many people still have in their minds.
(Besides, it’s the new, sexy field of neuroscience that is presenting evidence that humans may not have free will, not the applied behaviorists!)
The tiny bit of the great field of behavior analysis that I have learned has taught me how to enhance my dogs’ happiness and fun in the world, and taught me to at least start to play fair.
Anybody feel like sharing a story about behaviors that you have (or have been tempted to) both reinforce and punish? Or any behaviors that continue even though you can’t figure out what the reinforcer is?
- I’ve written about the joy of living with dogs without worrying about dominance stuff here: Respect is SO Last Year!
- More about how it isn’t fair to reward and punish the same behavior: Three Behaviors I’m Tempted to Punish, and Why I Don’t
- My later analysis of crossover and the different stages I went through.
- Using trick training as an aid to crossing over: “Just a Trick?”
- Being tough on ourselves as positive reinforcement-based trainers: “Being Tough.”
© Eileen Anderson 2014 eileenanddogs.com
Note: My text in the graphic strongly resembles a sentence in Jean Donaldson’s Culture Clash, page 158: “If a certain behavior is occurring in the first place, it is, by definition, being reinforced somewhere, somehow….” This was not deliberate on my part. I love that book and it’s possible that that sentence sank into my psyche, or it could be a coincidence. Anyway, a nod to Jean Donaldson for saying it first and best!