eileenanddogs

Author: eileenanddogs
Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

This is a rewrite, with significant changes, of a post originally published in March 2013.

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

In March of 2013, Summer and I competed in her last AKC Rally Obedience trial. Yes, I was one of the many people who took a moderately reactive dog to trials to compete. She was such a good sport. She was a wonderful partner (she passed away in 2017) and did a great job, but I decided afterward that I was asking too much of her.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer stepping out with a jaunty gait, relaxed mouth and face, and a happy tail

What It’s Like for a Reactive Dog at an Obedience Trial

Summer encountered many challenges at performance events and venues. A dog trial will never be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, primed to be afraid of men, bothered by certain types of dogs, and easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even while you sit in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new pops into your field of vision or right in your space. And the noise!

Once I described the trial environment and what it was like for a dog like Summer to a friend, and she said, “Like a funhouse!” She nailed it. For those a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through.

From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Scary_clown
Public domain image of what an obedience judge might look like to Summer

Funhouses have mirrors that distort your appearance or confuse the pathway or aren’t mirrors at all. Some floors give way and move when you step on them. Weird characters may pop into view. They often have a confusing maze. In other words, a funhouse is an out-of-control environment that is hard to escape.

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily, knowing roughly what to expect. For some reason, some of us actually seek out experiences that startle or scare us or bewilder our senses. I don’t think dogs do. Summer went (rarely) to obedience events because I took her. I did my very best to make them easy and pleasurable for her, but this was a challenge.

Summer’s History in Competition

I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was under-socialized and feared children and most men. She was anxious, she hated most small terriers and other feisty dogs, and she became somewhat sound-sensitive over the years. Besides these traits, she didn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. She was an extremely mixed breed, close to the phenotype of the village dog except for her longer coat. She generally wanted to do her doggie things like chase varmints and she liked her comfort. Finally, she was hypothyroid, on medication, and tired easily.

Perfect performance dog, right? Actually, for me, she was.

Summer and I were very close. We worked together for all of her life with me and she always read me better than any of the other dogs. She was my crossover dog and we grew up together in the dog training world. She loved to go places and have me to herself. I reinforced the hell out of rally and obedience behaviors, and she came to enjoy them almost as much as agility. Plus there were always those wonderful smells at dog trials!

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

How I Helped My Dog at Rally and Obedience Trials

Here are some of the things I did at trials to maximize the good for Summer:

  1. She got tired easily, so we minimized the time at any event (We stayed for about 2 1/2 hours at this event but we were outdoors for plenty of that).
  2. I left her by herself as little as possible since it worried her. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I would get someone she knew to sit next to her crate.
  3. I set up our crate in a less-trafficked area and set up visual barriers in our little zone to cut down on some of the stimuli.
  4. I sought out and let her visit with a couple of people whom she adored (and who adored her).
  5. I took her outside as much as possible. She loved to explore outdoors.
  6. If there was an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we always did. I used the time to get her comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  7. I stayed hypervigilant (since she was). I tried to see every possible startling thing before she did, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I took the best treats ever, both for after her competition run but also for sitting around in such a difficult environment.
  9. I was responsive to her energy level and generally didn’t take her more than two days in a row.

I am not the only person who has made these efforts. Our name is legion, and since the original date of this post, the group has grown. There are now entire courses on helping dogs adapt to trial environments. Many bloggers write about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations. Thankfully, the pressure to compete at all costs seems to have given way to more consideration for the dog’s wants and needs. There are also many more opportunities for competition that accommodate the needs of fearful or reactive dogs, including all-virtual titles where you submit videos online.

I would not compete in public with a dog like Summer now. Why did I do it then? I had several motivations. Competing gave me specific goals and helped me keep focused on my training. It gave Summer and me something to do together with just the two of us. Also, I liked to get out and show people what a dog trained with positive reinforcement could look like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she always looked happier than 90% of the dogs who competed. And I wanted people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (This was still a rarity at the time.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

With all these motivations, I had to temper my ego and preferences and avoid pushing my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate (and probably thinking about chicken baby food)

Our Title Run in Rally Advanced

The sport of rally obedience involves lots of heeling in patterns and some other combinations of moves such as sits, downs, stays, and jumps. There are signs placed in order around the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform.

Summer was one of the two first mixed breed dogs in my state to get an AKC Rally Novice title, a goal I set out to achieve as soon as I found out that she would soon be eligible. She got two first-place runs and a third place. The other mutt did well, too. I think the other owner was a motivated as I was to show that mixed breeds could perform well.

At the Novice level in rally, dogs compete on leash and there are 10–15 signs in the ring (out of a pool of 40 or so that you learn). In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) they are off leash and there are 12–17 signs, including more difficult ones. Summer and I already had two “legs” (qualifying runs) in March of 2013. A third qualifier would give us our title. Spoiler alert: we succeeded.

At this last trial, the course was a fun one, with a lot of Summer’s favorite moves and a couple of the new signs added that year. Things went very smoothly until we got to the very back of the ring.

We encountered a problem I had never experienced. The required behavior was a spiral left. You must take the dog in a certain spiraling pattern around some pylons, with the dog on the inside, between you and the pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We couldn’t walk comfortably in the space between the ring fencing and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. I had trained Summer to walk at a certain proximity to me and she kept trying to move over into her normal position. This sent her toward the wrong side of the pylons. But she was only doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back in position but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a complete do-over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary of the ring, encouraging her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do-over, we got a score of 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments when she got distracted by sights or sounds. I didn’t blame her. People were cheering in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I was so proud that she stuck with me so well in such a difficult environment.

Video of the Run

I’ve never posted a rally or obedience video before because we were decent but not all that great. We were true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I was pleased when I saw the film. The only moments Summer looked unhappy were a couple of times during sit stays (at 1:13 and 2:15). When we were moving, her tail stayed up and she looked focused and happy. I even like the parts where she got distracted and looked out of the ring because she responded when I asked her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral for brevity and clarity. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. We were at the back of the ring and it’s hard to see our fatal error, so for most viewers, it would be 27 seconds of boredom. I linked to the unedited version at the bottom of the post for the curious.

Retirement

As you can see from her body language, Summer was pretty happy in the ring. It’s not surprising; we practiced a lot and I regularly gave her a whole jar of chicken baby food after a rally run! She knew what was waiting for her. But even that ambrosia can’t turn a miserable dog happy, and she looked happy and comfortable for most of her time in the ring.

Nonetheless, this was Summer’s last competition. We could have returned the next day to compete at the next level, for which we had practiced. But trials exhausted both of us. And with her potential for noisy reactivity if a small terrier should get in her face, I felt it wasn’t responsible to keep taking her. Remember, in the funhouse, you are never quite in control.

UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2.
11/2005–8/25/2017

Unedited version of rally run for those who want to see the mess-up.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thank you to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any mistakes are my own.

Some terminology in behavior science is notoriously hard to get one’s head around. One of these terms is negative reinforcement. Not only is this learning process itself a challenge to understand, but the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Behavior scientists specialize in training, teaching, and learning, so naturally, if a term from their own field trips people up, they are going to analyze the problem. The terminology for negative reinforcement has already been changed once, in the 1950s to early 1960s. There has been more discussion since then. This post is about the article that started the more recent discussion, and how it is often misunderstood in the animal training community.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael published an article named, “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things” in the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is widely mischaracterized, in my opinion. It is commonly quoted by people who use aversives in training and seek to minimize that when discussing or defending their methods. And certainly, the title sounds very promising for just that purpose. But only if you ignore the last phrase about “bad things.”

Some people claim the article says that the distinction between the learning processes of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They say that the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is blurred and can’t always be determined. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all the possible reasons for maintaining a distinction between the two. This is false (see page 43 in the paper).

Michael’s paper centers on better ways to make descriptions of and determinations about the contingent processes of operant learning. The claim that Michael states that there is little difference between positive and negative reinforcement is false. This claim misrepresents both the focus and the conclusions of the article. Note again the last part of the title: “A better way to talk about bad things.” 

In the article, Michael asks whether we need to make the distinction between what we call positive and negative reinforcement. His final answer is yes, that we need the distinction. He concludes, “We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world.” (page 43)

Dr. Michael is concerned about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He wants to get rid of positive/negative and present/remove in the descriptions for different types of reinforcement.
  2. He wants to find a better nomenclature to indicate when an aversive is involved.

He proposes a solution, which I will describe below.

There are four major parts to the paper: a history of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the current terminology, a section that explores whether we need the distinction or not (his answer: yes), and a proposed solution. I’ll summarize each briefly. The following four sections are headed with the subtitles used in the paper.

1. A Brief History of the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This section comprises 75% of the paper and is devoted to a retrospective of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, starting with Skinner in 1938. As some people know, what Skinner initially called “negative reinforcement” is what we now call punishment.

A textbook published in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his usage of the terms in his own textbook, defining them as we know them today. There was a period of transition—Michael mentions that it had to have been especially tough for the students who attended courses at the same time that employed different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised usage, what we use today, was in common use.

I am not going into detail here, but Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are dedicated to the changes in definitions and usages of the terms and the resultant confusion. This is a major focus of the article and a major part of his criticism of the use of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What is Wrong with the Present Usage?

In this section, Michael says, “Since 1953 there must have been thousands of man-hours spent in the attempt to prevent the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Even though I am not credentialed in that field, I know what he means. I have spent many hours myself figuring out the processes of operant learning, with bonus time on negative reinforcement, and many hours as well trying to pass on my basic understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses can be confusing, especially since almost all the words used have other meanings or common metaphorical uses.

Michael goes on to describe another problem that includes semantics, in this often-quoted section:

Another difficulty with current usages is that the critical distinction between positive and negative reinforcement depends upon being able to distinguish stimulus changes which are presentations from those which are removals or withdrawals, and these latter terms are not very satisfactory descriptions of changes. The circumstances under which we have a tendency to say “present” certainly seem to differ from those where we say “remove” in vernacular usage, but some of these differences are irrelevant to a science of behavior, and there are a number of circumstances where the distinction is not easily made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Note that he is not saying that it’s difficult to detect the differences between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The issue he objects to is the use of the terminology of presenting and removing stimuli.

…In other words, from the point of view of the behaving organism presentations and removals are both simply types of environmental changes. If they differ, the difference must not be based upon the variables controlling the person who causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This section merits careful reading. His major objections to the concepts of “presenting” and “removing” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the environment or a third party and that they have societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removal can sound negative). He says what is really important to the subject organism is simply that something changed, and it is the point of view of the subject that we should be concerned about describing. We don’t need to talk about adding or removing stimuli, we need to describe bad changes and good changes from the standpoint of the subject. (Michael uses the terminology of “bad” and “good” throughout the article, which is also a deviation from standard practice.)

In other words, it appears that “present” and “remove” are abbreviations that can sometimes stand in place of a more complete description of both the pre-change and  post-change condition. The abbreviation is usually possible in the case of unconditioned reinforcements, although even here it must always be possible to infer the characteristics of both pre- and post-change conditions if we are to imply behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An interesting point: he states “present” and “remove” are incomplete descriptions. He is not arguing to ignore the nature of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He is arguing against shorthand. He is arguing that we need to describe the state of the environment and the nature of the change more accurately in order to determine the learning process in play.

There is much more in this section about presentations and removals not being specific enough for scientific usage, and it is in this section one really gets a sense of Dr. Michael’s concerns.

He also addresses an argument that has been going on for a long time in behavior science. It goes like this:

You can’t tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement if you train using food because you don’t know if you are adding food or removing hunger.

Various people

Experts in the field discuss this question earnestly and with goodwill. But you will also see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who seek to mask their use of aversives (it’s is a favorite among force trainers). I humbly offer my own study of this question, but here’s a surprise. Dr. Michael addresses this very situation in his paper.

When we say that we present a food pellet to the rat the listener can always assume that the pre-change condition is one in which no food is available. We could say that we remove the “no-food” condition, but then the behaviorally important aspect of the change would remain to be described. When we say that we terminate a 50 volt electric shock, the subsequent “no-shock” condition can generally go without further description, but if it were described alone little information would be provided.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He is saying that only one description is typically accurate in a particular situation because the other one fails to describe crucial parts of the situation. Again, he is arguing that we need to analyze the reinforcement situation with information about the environment before and after the change, not by focusing on one stimulus and whether someone “presented” or “removed” it. What is happening from the animal’s point of view? Is it a “good” change or a “bad” change, and does it involve a bad thing (aversive)?

3. Why Do We Bother?

In this section of the paper, Michael examines possible differences between negative and positive reinforcement and discusses whether each particular aspect could or should be the reason we need to make a distinction.

As we find ourselves applying behavioral analysis to more and more complex human situations we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between presenting and removing, or we find an increasing number of situations that seem to involve both. A fairly common response to this situation is to avoid making the distinction, and simply refer to the relevant environmental change as “reinforcement,” without attempting to determine whether a positive reinforcer is being presented or a negative removed. One might well ask, then, why we bother making the distinction even in those cases where it can easily be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

If your goal is to generally minimize fallout of the use of negative reinforcement, you can cherrypick the above paragraph without continuing and make it look like Michael is saying the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is the section where he specifically rejects that interpretation. He considers four reasons for making the distinction. He discounts the first three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening effects of R+ and R- different? He answers that they are not any more different than the differences between different forms of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  involve different physiological structures or processes? He doesn’t think trying to make this distinction is a good idea in view of the changing field, but he leaves room for future research. This article was published in 1975, before most of the current discoveries that showed exactly that: that different physiological processes are likely involved (Overall, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Should we keep the current terminology so as to warn people only to use “positive,” not “negative”? He appears to be asking whether we should actually appeal to the double meaning of positive. Again he answers no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Note that in using the term “social distinction” he is referring to the words “positive” and “negative,” not to the actual learning processes.)

So he rejects three reasons for making the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. Then, in a section that is rarely quoted, he goes on to answer his original question in the affirmative, saying that we do need a way to distinguish the difference. He says:

The layman frequently finds it necessary to identify an environmental event or condition as one which he doesn’t like, which he attempts to escape, or avoid. He may refer to such an event as “bad” (without the moral implications of this term), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” etc., and he also has “punishment” to use as a contrast with “reward.” A science of behavior also needs a way of identifying such events.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And finally:

We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He is arguing that we need the distinction between what is currently called negative and positive reinforcement so as to be able to specify when a “bad thing” is involved. So it is incongruous that this paper is cited in support of arguments to blur and erase the use of aversives.

4. The Solution

Michael spends so much time focusing on confusing terminology in the paper that it is strange he doesn’t devote more space to making his solution clear.

But here is what he wrote.

So, the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement and call the bad things punishers and punishment. One set of terms refers to changes which have a strengthening effect on the preceding behavior; the other to changes which have a weakening effect. The distinction between two types of reinforcement, based in turn upon the distinction between presentation and removal simply can be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, bold added by Eileen

The last sentence of that quotation can also be taken out of context in a misleading way. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can claim Michael is saying that there is no difference between the learning processes we call R+ and R-. But he has already said that we need to specify when there is a bad thing involved. He is arguing not to base the distinction on the terminology of presentation and removal. 

Finally he writes:

The arguments set forth above convinced me about 6 years ago to stop making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and to refer to the bad things as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That is the way he achieves his goals of getting rid of the terminology of presentations and removals and finding a better way to describe the “bad things.”

It’s a shame that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of applying his terminology. But I would suggest a couple of examples, following his lead. Both of these are what we would now call negative reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the goal of increasing behavior, the learning process could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol where an animal’s behavior is reinforced by giving them more distance from a scary thing, the learning process involved could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It seems clunky at first, but once you realize a bad thing (“punisher”) can be involved in reinforcement in only one way, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we need to stipulate when there is a bad thing included as part of the learning process. He also states that what we call negative reinforcement includes a bad thing, and presents a cogent argument that the differences between what we currently call R+ and R- are important and are distinct from each other in real-life situations.

Epilogue

In 2013 (yes, I’ve been working on this post for seven years), I tried to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he applied his terminology: how and when he made the distinction that a punisher was involved. I reached his wife, who said he was not able to discuss such things any longer due to dementia. He passed away this year: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted several others in the same vein, questioning the terminology of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement. In my reading, the arguments had some of the same flavor but were not exactly the same. I’ve included those articles in the references below. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers usually get a footnote in behavior science textbooks, but the standard nomenclature hasn’t changed to reflect the ideas put forth, which Michael himself later noted (Michael, 2005). I recently heard a behavior analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice a similar concern with “presentations and removals.” She mentioned that in her work it is most important to observe whether behavior is under aversive or appetitive control, and those are the classifications she uses.

And permit me one moment of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use negative reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal leave or take a break from a difficult procedure means that R- is a planned part of a training plan. Most of us would agree that allowing escape is less intrusive than flooding, but we also try mightily to train with enough skill that the animal doesn’t want to leave in the first place. So my aim here is not to preach purity, although I try to avoid the use of R- in every possible way. My argument is with people who are disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to attempt to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant learning.

Rest in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts here have done this famous paper justice.

References

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?. The Behavior Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Teaching the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The behavior analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior.

Lattal, K. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And Yet…: Further comments on distinguishing positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Comment on Baron and Galizio (2005). The Behavior Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Speculation and Explicit Identification as Judgmental Standards for Positive or Negative Reinforcement: A Comment on. The Behavior Analyst29(2), 269. 

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Sidman The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis.

Photo Credit

Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

A woman reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay. This became a poisoned cue.
“STAY!”

Originally published in December 2012; expanded and revised for 2019. The video in this post was featured at Tate Behavioral’s ABA Conference in October 2019 by Dr. Megan Miller.

A poisoned cue is a cue that is associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Poisoned cues were probably the norm for a period in some types of training, and still are common. If you tell your dog to “sit” and he gets a cookie if he sits but gets a push on the butt or jerk on the leash if he doesn’t, then “sit” is a poisoned cue. The term was coined by Karen Pryor.

Continue reading “Replacing a Poisoned Cue”
Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

Continue reading “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?”
The “Invention” of Cues in Training

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.   

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

Continue reading “The “Invention” of Cues in Training”
Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training

Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training

Chocolate cookies on a cookie sheet. The baker may do other activities while the cookies are baking as long as she shows up at the right time. Her behavior follows the matching law.
When we bake cookies, some reinforcement is on a variable interval schedule.

What Is the Matching Law?

Have you heard trainers talking about the matching law? This post covers a bit of its history and the nuts and bolts of what it is about. I am providing this rather technical article because I want something to link to in some other written pieces about how the matching law has affected my own training of my dogs.

Continue reading “Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training”
It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using learning theory. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.

Glumph

Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

 

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Link to the video for email subscribers.

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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