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Month: March 2015

But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.

Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.

Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.

Summer over the threshold of stimulus aversivness
My dog Summer showing stress during an R+ training session. What can we therefore conclude about the learning process called positive reinforcement? 

The “Stressed-Out” R+ Dog

So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?

When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.

Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.

Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.

If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.

Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.

Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.

Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.

  • What I’m calling pressure could consist of anything in the environment, setup, or even mannerisms of the trainer that the dog would like to escape from. Is something too loud? Is someone pressuring the dog with his or her body? Is the dog being kept too close to something she is scared of? This type of problem comes from the unwitting inclusion of an aversive stimulus.
  • Likewise, accidents happen, as they can in any training. A trainer might step on her dog’s tail during a stay, but again, this is an aversive accident, not an integral part of R+ training.

So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus.  Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.

A Fair Comparison

Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and  the trainer is often touting it as a success story.

So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.

Here’s what it could look like.

  • Bad timing: Imagine popping a dog’s collar when she is heeling perfectly, in addition to popping her when she makes an error.
  • Changing criteria too fast: Imagine using duration shock to teach a dog to jump off a platform immediately after using it to teach her to jump on it.
  • Unplanned aversive stimulus: Imagine teaching stays using your hands to force a sound-sensitive dog to hold her position while a delivery truck with a no muffler drives by.

Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?

A Real-Life Example of the Results of R+ Training with Errors

I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.

In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.

In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.

My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.

My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?

Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.

Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions.  The tape on the wall is in a tight area.  I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.

So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.

Link to the Lumping video for email subscribers.

But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.

So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?

That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.

The Proper Rejoinder

Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:

It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!

The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.

Conclusions from Examples

Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”

A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.

What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.

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Bootleg Reinforcement

Bootleg Reinforcement

Auf Deutsch!

-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.

A sand colored dog with a black tail and muzzle is in a play bow position, sniffing a person's boots.
Clara excitedly sniffing my boot. Really!

Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?

Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–scienceofbehavior.com

The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.

Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump.  Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.

When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:

  • Food on the counter.
  • Scraps in the trashcan.
  • Food the dog can grab if she runs away from you on the agility field and back to your setup area.
  • All manner of critters on the agility field.
  • Rat trails along the walls of an indoor agility course (this happened to me and my dog once).
  • Books on the bookshelf available to chew.
  • Buried cat poop that the dog can dig up.
  • Neighbor dog available to fence fight (there are bootleg negative reinforcers, now that I think of it).
  • Whatever happens to be reinforcing about barking (either positively or negatively reinforcing).
  • Whatever the dogs gets access to when she pulls on leash. And that leads to…

Odors

The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.

Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans, she is extremely neophilic, that is, 1)An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.  she is fascinated with and drawn to investigate anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.

Clara sniffing
Copping a drive-by sniff

So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)

I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.

The Movies

Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.

I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here).  I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.

I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.

The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?

When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.

If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 1.

 

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 2.

I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?

Related Posts

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Addendum: History of the Term “Bootleg”

Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:

bootleg (n.) Look up bootleg at Dictionary.com“leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.

Bootleg items
Bootleg items courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (click photo for license)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes   [ + ]

1. An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.
Release Me!

Release Me!

Three dogs waitingHey! It turns out I have some bragging rights I haven’t collected on. So here goes.

Back in Spring 2013, I wrote two posts about practical issues with multiple dogs that were both quite popular.

A Secret for Training Two Dogs delineated a trick I learned about how to train one dog to wait quietly, unconfined, while another is actively trained.

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination is related to the first, in that it described how I taught my dogs their unique cues for individual releases. If you train more than one dog, and they are waiting quietly as mentioned above, you need to be able to tell one that it is her turn, right? And the others need to ignore that cue and wait for their own. I taught the individual release cues following the guidelines of errorless learning (which I refer to as reduced error learning, following the terminology lead of Dr. Susan Friedman).

Both of the above posts had movies attached with real life training.

At the end of the movie about teaching individual release cues, I was still working with the dogs one at a time, but I promised to show more as we improved. By this time,  almost two years later, I use these cues virtually every day.

It seems that stays, boundary training, and releases are trendy “show-off” exercises right now. So I’m going to show off a little, but I also want to direct people to the idea of using positive reinforcement to train these very useful behaviors.

As it happened, I taught the releases with almost pure positive reinforcement. There was a tiny bit of extinction, for when the dogs made wrong guesses, but I minimized that as well.

In today’s video I am showing the end behavior as I use it in my house. If you want to see how I trained it, click on the blog names above.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Link to my YouTube playlist: Helpful Behaviors for Households with Multiple Dogs

I would love to see a proliferation of positive reinforcement based videos of individual releases and boundary training with happy dogs. Anybody else up for it?

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