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Category: Aversive stimulus

“I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!”

“I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!”

foxhound and black lab playing in a field

This is a story from a client of one of my professional trainer friends. Let’s call my friend “Phoebe.” My friend had met the client for some coaching for her young, exuberant dog, Raven. But it was a very long distance for the client to come. My friend received this email after she hadn’t heard from the client in a while. Some details were altered for privacy, but I’ve left the email essentially as the client wrote it because she tells the story so eloquently.

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All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

I’ve written a lot about the behavior science definitions of reinforcement and punishment. That’s because they can trip us up so easily. Something can be attractive, but not always reinforce behavior. Something can be unpleasant, but not serve to decrease behavior even when it looks like it should. This story is about a natural consequence that seemed like it would decrease behavior but didn’t.

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Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

Positive reinforcement-based trainers never use positive punishment, right? At least we certainly try not to. But it can sneak into our training all the same.

Brown and white dog being grabbed by the collar in example of positive punishment
Collar grabs can be aversive

Punishment, in learning theory, means that a behavior decreases after the addition or removal of a stimulus. In positive punishment (the addition case), the stimulus is undesirable in some way. It gets added after the dog’s behavior, and that behavior decreases in the future. Some examples of that kind of stimulus would be kicking the dog, jerking its collar, shocking it, or startling it with a loud noise. You can see why positive reinforcement-based trainers seek not to use positive punishment.

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Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current behavior science textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The conclusions are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.
This is a typical response to application of a mild-to-moderate aversive. I created this graph because 1) I don’t have rights to the ones in textbooks, and 2) standard behavior change graphs are difficult to interpret if you are unfamiliar with them. I made a different type of graph, but what I have represented is the same response you see in the textbooks and research papers. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis shows the ratio of behavioral decrease. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to the frequency of the behavior and shows that the suppression of behavior was only temporary.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But the immediate risk of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog is not the only problem with using aversives. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In behavior science, it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become habituated to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something. (I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree on this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, this situation usually comes from a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully performing desensitization to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the researchers determined that the rats had reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised in nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in behavior science, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off in behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. Raising the level of the punishment is reinforcing to the human.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and punishment’s known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see habituation to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence. My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that can destroy our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.

References

Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement protocols, the ethical and definitional difference is not about how the aversive got there. To say so is to invoke the naturalistic fallacy.  The ethical difference rides on whether the trainer chooses to put a contingency on the animal getting away from it, not whether the aversive is “natural.” Do they ask for or wait for a certain behavior before retreating? Because that is a choice. If the dog gets close enough to the trigger that she starts showing stress, there is always the option of getting her humanely out of there, with no requirements on her behavior from the handler.

Where the aversive came from is ethically irrelevant, since the trainer makes a choice whether or not to use it, however it got there. Most would agree that such a use is an ethical choice, to be carefully considered.

So the fact that people are still mentioning this irrelevancy about “who put it there” seems like a lot of hand waving to shoo away the real issue: choosing to use an aversive.

But wait–in case it matters–how did it get there?

How It Really Got There

My hand, my voice, my phone.
My hand, my voice, my phone.

I have a formerly feral dog with whom I have been working for a few years, gradually getting her socialized to people, and making lovely progress with DS/CC.

Even though my goal is to keep the triggers (people, in her case) under the threshold of aversiveness, I realize that I am dealing with potentially aversive situations when we go out into the world. And I arrange for and seek out those situations for her sessions. For instance, I make phone calls at times to arrange for a controlled session with a person unknown or partially known to her.

If I do this and blow it and let her get too close or stay too long, I have exposed her to an aversive. How’d it get there? Me! Entirely through my choices! I arranged it. I deliberately sought it out with her. I made the phone call, drove my dog to the meeting place, and exposed her to the trigger. I added it to her environment, or added her to an environment where I knew it to be.*

People following any protocol generally arrange for triggers to be present in this way, including people, dogs, specific things like people on bikes or scooters, or other animals. So if someone is doing any type of exposure treatment, how can they claim that they are not responsible for the aversive being there? Did the Tooth Fairy bring it? Can their dog pick up the phone and drive the car?

It is not logical to claim to have nothing to do with the aversive being in the environment if you planned it, arranged for it, or sought it out in the first place. And that includes stealth sessions. If you are out there looking for triggers to use without their knowledge, you are still the one choosing to expose your dog to them. Finding = adding.

Empathy

You can probably detect that I find this irritating, but I seek to look at it in an empathetic way.

I have been reading some posts by Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) practitioners in particular who express that they feel attacked and beleaguered by questions about negative reinforcement and humane training attached to their protocol. I get that they feel pushed into a corner.

I can empathize with that. Here is something you believe in, and people are asking difficult, pointed questions about it. Sure, anybody would be defensive. As a blogger, I have to deal with all levels of criticism. Even the most reasonable of criticism hurts.

There are people who react to these questions with dignity, though. They say yes, they are using negative reinforcement at times if they use certain protocols. They have thought it out, see good results, usually use other protocols as well, and are ultra careful about side effects. They don’t play like the presence of the aversive has nothing to do with them. Although I may not agree about all methods these folks use, I can appreciate their transparency and honesty about the science.

But it really worries me that there are still people who claim not to be responsible for getting the aversive into the environment. If they are trying to elude responsibility for that, even though it’s completely a side issue, what else are they willing to overlook, justify, or push out of their minds?

Thank you to all the people who do their best not to adjust the science (or even basic logical thinking) to justify their own preferences.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* I am not confusing positive punishment and negative reinforcement, here. To use negative reinforcement, there has to be an aversive in the environment to be removed or escaped. We’re talking about how the aversive got there in the first place.

5/25/14 Addendum

This post is an urge to be honest about one aspect of the use of aversives.  I believe that all trainers, regardless of method, should be honest about their training choices and philosophy. You do it: own it. That’s the message in a nutshell. And I directed it to an argument that I believe does the opposite of “owning it.”

However, one of the common responses I have gotten over the past week  is comparisons of the ranges and setups of DS/CC protocols and those using negative reinforcement, often in an apparent attempt to minimize the differences.

I have previously provided a webinar and a movie on the differences and similarities of the major protocols for addressing fear in animals, with particular emphasis on their ranges and setups.

To review a few relevant points: Debating who starts further from the stimulus is a moot point.  No matter how far away you start, you are required to go into the aversive range for a negative reinforcement protocol to work.  In desensitization and counterconditioning you have no need to cross into the range of stimulus aversiveness in order to get effective results. In R-, aversive exposure is necessary. The protocol depends on it. In DS/CC, aversive exposure is by accident and hopefully rare. That is an important distinction between DS/CC and negative reinforcement-based protocols.

The other important distinction is that you can get a positive conditioned emotional response from DS/CC. With DS/CC and negative reinforcement there are two very different types of learning going on.

 

 

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