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Month: July 2015

Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

I have updated this post. Please see the new version:

Automatic vs. Socially Mediated Negative Reinforcement

Eileen Anderson, 10/21/17

Papers blowing
What will it take to turn the fan off?

I read the following online the other day:

People shouldn’t object to the use of negative reinforcement! It’s just stuff like washing my hands when they are dirty or drying them when they are wet. What’s wrong with that?

This is a fairly common defense of using negative reinforcement (R-) in training. The defender points out that R- is common in life and trots out a benign-sounding example or two.

Here’s a quick review of the definition of negative reinforcement:

In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of, a stimulus.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

Dr. Susan Friedman remarks in her Living and Learning with Animals course that negative reinforcement may be the most common learning process of all. Think of all the times we scratch an itch, shift in our seats, take off or put on clothing to be more comfortable, and perform other small movements, almost unconscious, that relieve discomfort. Not to mention the larger, more obvious instances when we escape or avoid things that are bothering, threatening, or hurting us.

(Throughout this post I am using the convention of describing certain scenarios involving aversives as negative reinforcement. However, keep in mind that we never know whether any reinforcement process has occurred until we see a behavior increase or maintain.)

Hand washing is a good example of the day-to-day kind. The analysis looks like this.

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on my hands
  • Behavior: I wash my hands
  • Consequence: No more dirt on hands

Problem solved. Negative reinforcement doesn’t sound so bad then, right? Why should I and others argue against using it in training?

Natural vs. Contrived Reinforcement

Instances where we take action for our own comfort with a behavior that removes the aversive are called natural or automatic negative reinforcement.

Natural reinforcers are events that follow spontaneously from a behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

The “event” in the hand washing case is having clean hands. It follows spontaneously from washing them.

However, when a trainer uses an aversive in training to reinforce specific behaviors, it is no longer natural negative reinforcement, because she has inserted herself into the process. This version is called contrived negative reinforcement.

Contrived reinforcers are events that are provided by someone for the purpose of modifying behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

No longer does the human or animal necessarily respond with a behavior that directly relieves her discomfort.  The trainer decides what behavior is required to stop the aversive stimulus. It may be something completely unrelated to what the natural escape response would be. The important thing is that the trainer uses the aversive by putting a contingency on escaping it. 

My dogs love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They come in when they get too hot.
Clara and Zani love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They get off it it’s too hot. 

This post was born the other day when I watched Zani hop onto the chaise lounge in the backyard, take a couple of steps around on it, and hop off again. It was 100 º Fahrenheit out and the vinyl was hot to the touch. Clara approached it and I pulled out my camera, expecting her to jump off as well. Instead, she settled down and stayed there for six minutes, getting up not out of apparent discomfort, but instead because Summer barked at something. I realized I wouldn’t have known that Zani would be more sensitive to the hot plastic than Clara. See #4 below.

Important Differences

Equating contrived, training-centered negative reinforcement with natural negative reinforcement is inaccurate.

In the movie I demonstrate five differences between the two. In contrived negative reinforcement:

  1. A third party controls access to the reinforcer and can set contingencies on escaping or stopping the aversive stimulus.
  2. The animal doesn’t generally escape the aversive one time and get to move on and do something else. The trainer usually reapplies the aversive, exposing the animal to it multiple times.
  3. The trainer forces the animal to stay in the area. She will generally prevent the animal from performing the natural escape response that would end exposure to the aversive. For instance, gun dog trainers who teach a force fetch with an ear or toe pinch often have the dog tethered very tightly on a bench. People who use negative reinforcement in exposure to triggers usually have their dogs on leash.
  4. The trainer can’t know exactly how much discomfort she is causing the animal. She has interrupted the natural sequence for the animal of “feel discomfort–do something about it.” She may cause the animal to endure a much larger magnitude of the aversive than it would have in natural negative reinforcement.
  5. The behavior required to escape the aversive can be anything at all. The animal often has to figure it out while in the presence of the aversive.

In the movie I show an example of a natural negative reinforcement scenario with a very low-level aversive stimulus. Something you wouldn’t think twice about if it happened to you. Then I show what happens when that low-level aversive is applied in a contrived negative reinforcement scenario. 1)By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.

I’m keeping this post short (Edit: but see below) because most of the juicy stuff is in the movie. Seeing is probably more effective than reading.

 

Link to Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement movie for email subscribers.

I haven’t discussed the fallout from the use of aversives in this post. I do in several other posts and pages.  (Yeah, I know, I usually won’t shut up about it.) But do take a look at the movie and consider how you would feel about the person who had the remote control in her hand.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.
The Gravity Game

The Gravity Game

Clara holding ball

Clara has always loved playing ball. She enjoys chewing balls up and chasing them in equal measure. When she was a pup and adolescent it was a joy to watch her shape herself into quite an athlete, in her drive to chase down and catch the ball more quickly.

She gives her all to it, hurling herself down the hill through my yard. She has never had a ton of stamina, so often we are done very quickly. I let her have her ball only when we play with it and for a short time afterwards, because of her interest in chewing it up. So she has invented various ways to keep the game going longer without wearing herself out.

One of those ways ended up being the Gravity Game.

Clara under the porch steps
Clara under the porch steps

She has always liked to hang out under my back porch steps, and started taking mini-breaks there during our play. She soon discovered that if she let go of the ball while under there, it would roll out. Then, Silly Human might roll it back to her. That was Gravity Game 1.0. Then one day, Silly Human failed at her job. And Clara discovered that without intervention, the ball would usually roll down the hill. She could then play a mildly entertaining game of fetch all by herself. That was Gravity Game 2.0. You can see Gravity Games 1.0 and 2.0 in the video immediately below.

Gravity Games 1.0 and 2.0

Possessing and Chewing the Ball

Clara doesn’t play Gravity 1.0 or 2.0 that much anymore because we have developed other ways for her to keep her ball longer in the yard in between sessions of my throwing it. I’ll be writing about those new activities in a future blog. But I have always let her carry her ball in the house after we finish playing, and Gravity 3.0 was born inside.

The photo shows why Clara gets possession of her ball only for short time periods.

A red rubber ball with many chew marks and pieces missing
The reason Clara doesn’t get to have her ball all the time…

That ball is several years old, so that damage is from many sittings. But still, the longer she has it, the more rubber will disappear, either onto the floor or down her gullet.1)That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.

Sharing the Ball

There is so much I appreciate about Clara. This new indoor game highlights the fact that Clara, as focused as she is on balls, is not overly “guardy” of them. I have never seen her snarl or even give a hard look at either of the other dogs, should they wander close or play with one of the balls. Granted, they both defer to Clara’s ownership of a ball when she has it, but still, she isn’t ugly about it.

More than that, I love that Clara trusts both Zani and me to return the ball to her in Gravity 3.0. Clara knows that she only gets the ball for a limited time after we come in the house, but the game makes it worthwhile for her to release it periodically. I have a predictable routine for taking the ball away from her (she gets a dab of peanut butter), and I don’t ever do it in the middle of a game.

The New Game: Gravity 3.0

Clara is already accustomed to Zani “helping” retrieve the ball. You can see that in this old movie of Clara and Zani’s Team Retrieve, and also the movie in my blog post “What You Reinforce Is What You Get.” Gravity 3.0 is perhaps a spinoff from the team retrieve as well, but one where Clara gets to hang out in a corner and have gravity, Zani, and me do all the work! It fits perfectly that she would develop this game to take place when she is tired from dashing around the yard.

The more I think about it, the funnier it is. Clara has pulled a role reversal. She has taught me to play fetch! She drops the ball down a step, and Zani and I return it to her. Zani, as usual, has figured out a way to get paid for an activity.

From years of observation, I am fairly certain that one of the main reinforcers when Clara plays ball is the physical sensation of catching the ball in her mouth. So in Gravity 3.0, she gets to chew and mouth the ball, she releases it for a few seconds, and then she gets to catch it again. What’s not to like?

What games has your dog taught you?

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Notes   [ + ]

1. That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.
It Was Coming Right At Me!

It Was Coming Right At Me!

 

Silhouette act 2
Backlit silhouettes may look pretty strange to dogs. (Photo credits at the bottom of the page.)

I am so interested in how dogs perceive things, and how they notice differences that we don’t, or that we take for granted. Those differences can matter to them a great deal. An example of that was the focus of my recent post, “Intruder in the Yard!,” about Zani’s response to a landscape timber in my yard that had rolled out of place.

Clara, with her feral puppyhood, appears to discriminate between people to an extreme. She socializes with a few people besides me now, but each person has behaviors Clara is comfortable with, and everybody’s list is different. One person might scuff a foot while standing next to Clara, and Clara won’t even appear to notice. Another might do so and she will startle. And even though she can walk through crowds of people now, she’s most comfortable if they move along. Let someone slow down and start to focus on her…well, let’s say that that is not on her list for most strangers. Frankly I don’t know how she keeps up with her rules.  They are extremely detailed.

This week I learned a new “detail.” Though I expect for her it was a large and important difference.

Real-Life Training

Every week Clara and I take two lessons. (I am very lucky to have a great trainer and friend who has worked with Clara since she came to my life.) One of the lessons usually takes place on the road. I have posted about Clara’s many trips to a shopping mall, and how that was the place where she started to step out of her wariness with humans.

Recently we have been going to a park along a river. It has many walkways and pedestrian bridges. We go for long walks among joggers, bicyclists, walkers, other dogs on leash, and lots of kids, all of which Clara has handled with aplomb.

Last week, though, Clara’s paw pads got sore from an allergic reaction just a day before her lesson. We decided to take mats and watch people go by for an hour.

Our teacher brought her young border collie, who recently made Clara’s Dog Friends list. (The Dog Friends list has a speedier application process than the Human Friends list.) We found a shady spot to set up. The spot was on a sheltered sidewalk that was in a low-lying area. There were three different approaches, two of which were stairs coming down. The dogs settled on their mats.

Here They Come!

After we had been there for about 15 minutes, a man who had been exercising walked down the steps and straight toward us. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and headphones (which Clara is normally quite used to) and was walking slowly. “BOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. I leaped up and we moved a little, but she alarm-barked off and on until he went by. She was responsive to me and not out of her mind, but not happy with that man. We discussed the ways he might have been different from what she was used to and decided to stay where we were. It was a quiet weekday morning, and the odds were in our favor that that would not happen again.

Then along comes a woman in a jogging suit along the same path. She was equally alarming to Clara.  She came slowly down the stairs toward us, then stopped and started doing stretching exercises in our vicinity. “BOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!” said Clara. The woman was about 20 feet away from Clara, which is usually plenty for Clara’s comfort. She happily passes pedestrians at touching distance when we walk. But this woman had already startled her, so this was not OK.

The woman stayed so we left. We moved to a different sidewalk where the approaches were rather curved and there were no steps coming right at us. And it’s a good thing we did, because immediately another man went to the area where we had been and started doing exercises that looked like fast motion Tai Chi. Luckily Clara couldn’t see him from her mat. We did OK for a while. I made sure she didn’t get up and be able to see the man, who was now doing a squat walk. Mercy! (Everybody who has a dog who is bothered by people doing odd things should do some prep work for that one!)

A woman came our way and visited with the young border collie while Clara watched happily and ate spray cheese. But then a woman headed in from the other direction using a cane.  Clara has been around several kinds of mobility equipment, and quite frequently, but this didn’t seem like the day to ask her to do that. And the squat-walking man was turning the corner and I was worried he was coming our way. We called it a day.

What Were the Differences That Day?

There were quite a few, and I have an opinion about what added up to trigger Clara into alarm barking. Here are the differences I can identify.

  1. Clara had a tender foot.
  2. We were with a younger, smaller dog whom she didn’t know as well (Clara is usually more relaxed when a doggie friend comes along).
  3. We were in a low-lying area with people coming straight down at us. The angle was unfamiliar.
  4. The people approaching were in shadow, somewhat backlit.
  5. The people stopped or slowed when they got to the bottom of the steps rather than proceeding along.
  6. The “crossroads” area where we were didn’t have a clear path; it was a largish paved area where people might hang out rather than continue briskly through.
  7. There was no demarcation between where Clara was lying and the rest of the sidewalk. When she would lie on her mat at the shopping center we were usually on grass right next to a sidewalk, but this was different. There was no visible boundary between Clara and the people coming through.
Clara being a tourist on a happier day
Clara being a tourist on a happier day (if a bit hot)

I honestly doubt whether the tender foot contributed to her lower threshold for reactivity that day. And we’ll never know whether she would have been more comfortable with her usual dog buddy (a personable and confident rough collie). But I think all the other things I mentioned about the setup basically added up to “threatening,” especially numbers 3, 4, and 5. People coming straight down at her, in shadow, then slowing down or stopping.

Ever since she came into my life as a 10-week-old pup, Clara has been sensitive to being trapped. I think the layout contributed to that, and the angle of approach and backlighting sewed it up.

But these are just my best guesses. I may have missed something else entirely. Time will tell.

Was This a Catastrophe for her Training?

We won’t know whether Clara got more generally sensitized to people until the next time we go out. If this incident had happened earlier in Clara’s training before her many positive experiences, it could have caused quite a setback. But I doubt that will be the case. By now she has had hundreds of hours of graduated good experiences being out in the world with people of all types, doing all sorts of things. So in the face of all that excellent history, this was probably but a blip on the screen.

It was a good reminder to me that although my dog has come such a long way, I would do well not to take her usual relaxed and happy affect for granted. There are still things that might upset her more than I expect them to, and I can’t always predict them.

What’s the weirdest human activity your dog has gotten accustomed to? Squat walk is going to be our new challenge. I don’t know if we will ever work up to being at the bottom of a hill and have people come down at us, though!

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Photo Credit: The silhouette photo is copyright © Francesco Scaramella. Used under Creative Commons license via Flickr. I altered the photo by cropping out a second figure.

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