Category: Behavior Science

I explore behavior science like a kid in a candy store. I hope I can convey how fascinating it is, whether it's about dogs or even humans!

I Got Trained Like Pavlov’s Dogs—Then Things Fell Apart

I Got Trained Like Pavlov’s Dogs—Then Things Fell Apart

A black and rust colored dog lies on a pink mat. Dog is lying on her side and side-eying the camera

Rinnnggg! I learned to expect something nice when I heard that sound. Then things went south.

The Sound

When I first started out as a blogger in 2012, I used a hosting site called WordPress.com. Their smartphone app has a pleasant little notification sound effect. I soon learned that the app played the sound when I got comments, likes, or follows.

Here’s the sound effect.

The sound is an arpeggiated C major triad, in the 6/3 position, pitched high (the lowest note is E6 at 1,318 Hz), with a timbre resembling a celeste. For most people accustomed to Western music, it would be a fairly pleasant sound, a lot more pleasant than, say, a buzzer.

Positive Feedback for Blogging

Getting positive feedback is fun for any blogger. But when you are just beginning and have no idea whether anyone will want to read what you write, it’s thrilling to find out that someone likes it well enough to follow. Or when they simply press the Like button. Or the absolute best, when they leave a positive comment or a question.

I didn’t realize until I started blogging how important comments are. When you write, you put your stuff out there and hope people read it. Encouraging comments act as positive reinforcement. You want to publish more, and to do that you have to write more! It was a great feeling whenever I found out that something I wrote helped somebody and their dog.

I feel lucky (most of the time) to be a writer today when immediate feedback is possible. I think about the writers of yesteryear, for whom positive responses often came only after they were dead, if then. But I can write a post and get responses on the same day.

The Classical Association and How It Was Built

You can see where this is going, right? Here’s what happened when I first started blogging and got the WordPress app.

  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone followed the blog
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone made a positive comment
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
A hand holds a smartphone and a bunch of like and other symbols float in the air above it

Et cetera. We’ve got both operant and classical conditioning going on. That’s always true, but it’s especially easy to see in a situation like this. I look at my phone when I hear the chime and get reinforced for doing so. But I also get a great feeling about that chime.

The chime was meaningless the first time I heard it (a neutral stimulus) since I didn’t know what it predicted. After a few repetitions, it predicted social approval. After a couple dozen repetitions, I started getting a surge of happiness when I heard the chime!

This is one of the clearest examples to me that the stuff that goes on with our brains and emotions is chemical. I could feel happiness wash through me when the chime played. And you can bet that whenever possible, I grabbed my phone to see what had happened. The pleasure that had at first come from a like or a follow or a friendly comment had moved forward in time. It started surging in when I heard the chime—even before I saw what had arrived on the blog.

The WordPress.com notification sound is custom, not shared by other phone apps to my knowledge. It’s beneficial for their sound effect to stand out. For me, as the end user, it facilitated the classical conditioning. It meant that the pairing of “the chime” with “cheerful news about my blog” was completely consistent, so consistent and distinct that I could feel my body chemistry change when I heard it.

Expulsion from Eden: The Association Changed

Portion of Michelangelo painting Expulsion from Eden: A serpent with a woman's head is wrapped around a tree.
The serpent from Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Eden

So it was bound to happen, but I didn’t see it coming.

What happened when I got my first nasty comment on the blog?

I heard the chime and got the thrill of joyful anticipation. I looked at my phone to see what had happened. I got an eyeful of vitriol! My mind and body were primed for a treat, and I got hostility.

The happy brain cocktail had started, but cut off as I felt an unpleasant flush. My skin got prickly. A wave of nausea washed over me. I was upset and hurt.

I sound like a real baby, and maybe I am. But the above is the best description I can give of my feelings. And from my amateur observations, it may be similar to what my dogs go through when disappointed and hurt as well.

I had been floating along in a honeymoon period, and it was not in my mind that someone would respond unpleasantly. Too bad WordPress couldn’t assign a different sound to nasty comments, eh?

The important thing was that it only had to happen once to completely change my reaction to the sound.

The next time I heard the chime, I had an unpleasant dual reaction. I momentarily had the old response, then the new unpleasant one washed in. The prediction of good stuff no longer held, and the purity of the chime was history.

And worst of all, there was still a prediction! Something was waiting for me! But was it a nice thing or an icky thing?

My negative commenter didn’t leave right away, so the negative feelings started being my principal response and the joyful reaction faded. Instead of happily reaching for my phone with a slight sense of euphoria, I looked at it with dread.

The Association Changes Yet Again

Fast forward a few months. I had had no aggressive commenters for a while, so when I heard the chime, I usually looked forward to checking out what was going on. I would never regain the pure joy reaction, but the chime had moved back into the positive side again.

In June 2013, I got an email from the WordPress.com staff that one of my posts was going to be featured on Freshly Pressed, the daily WordPress showcase. It was thrilling to have a post chosen out of the millions published each day. They didn’t tell me the date of the feature in advance, but I knew exactly when it happened because the chime on my phone blew up. It went off constantly for more than an hour. Wow! My post had been showcased for a potential audience of millions. All sorts of people outside the dog training community, including other writers, read my post and many followed my blog!

The chime went off at a very high rate for more than a week, and there weren’t any comments that were exceptionally hard to deal with, so all was well.

Cans of Spam on a grocery shelf

But about a month later, I noticed something. The flurry hadn’t quite died down, but my new followers didn’t look like real people from their usernames. This took a while to sink in. But when most of the usernames were things like reebok4ever, vi_gracheap, and gucciandcoach, I started to get it that not everyone who followed the blog or liked a post was passionate about dog training. They were interacting on the blog for a different reason. These bots and spammers would like a post because their icon and a link to their website could appear in a list at the bottom of the page.

Soon most chimes were predicting these spammer likes and follows. They greatly outnumbered serious followers, and I wasn’t getting any comments. So the chime became meaningless. Why would I want to know when another non-entity followed the blog?

I turned off the chime.

Dogs

This post isn’t just about me.

As a human, I have a big cerebral cortex and some cognitive skills that are unknown to dogs. I can reason and predict and justify. But I experienced the change of the chime physically, and the switch from yay to yuck was very unpleasant. Dogs have similar neurological chemicals and reactions to those of humans. And I can only imagine what it would be like to go from trusting that something great was about to happen to finding out that I might get whacked, without the cognitive skills to understand what was happening.

This is the classical conditioning version of the operant poisoned cue. I’ve written about the effort I made to replace such a cue that was negatively affecting my dog. Now, when I establish a classical pairing, or assign a cue to a behavior, I make sure in both cases that they predict only good things. Not only for effective training, but to be fair and kind to my dogs.

Here’s an example of a situation that could have gone south, but I managed to not let that happen.

I reinforce my dogs generously for getting on their mats. Most times, the mat itself is the cue. I reinforce “offered” mat behavior. So little Zani, who ceaselessly sought goodies from me, decided when we first got up in the morning and headed to the back door to run ahead of me and lie down on every mat. She was such a clever little cuss. Trouble was, she got underfoot, and some mats were in my way. I caught myself many times wanting to fuss at her for plopping down in front of me on a mat. There I was, stumbling sleepily along. I thought, damn, she should know better!

A black and rust dog is lying on a navy blue mat holding a sports shoe and looking directly at the camera
Zani on a mat with a shoe: a double bid for reinforcement

But she was doing exactly what I had daily reinforced her for doing. Mats predicted nice things happening. I hadn’t put mat behavior on stimulus control. And I was the one who put the mats in the walkway.

I know I mashed up operant and respondent learning in that example. But it was mashed up in the chime example, too. I have reinforced my dogs for being on mats so much that mats are classically conditioned as good, happy places.

So did I really want to create a similar nasty experience for my dear little dog? Did I want to switch without warning from “mats predict great things” to “getting on a mat can make Eileen pissy”?

No. Never. I didn’t want to dilute the power of her cues. I wanted that happy brain cocktail for her as part of our interactions always. And I still want it for all my dogs.

Copyright 2013, 2022 Eileen Anderson

This post was first published in 2013 under the title “Goodie or Doodie: When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On.” I’ve rewritten it substantially.

Spam photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Angry Red Hammer Guy under this license. I cropped the photo, which originally showed that the Spam was misplaced in the Kosher section of a grocery store.

Serpent photo from Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain.

The smartphone illustration is from CanStock Photo.

The two photos of Zani are copyright Eileen Anderson.

No Stalking while Walking!

No Stalking while Walking!

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is standing on grass and alertly watching something off camera
Lewis watching a man in the neighborhood move his trash can

I’ve been walking two to three dogs every day since April 2021. One of my goals is to give them the most fun and freedom possible within the constraints of walking on leash in a suburban neighborhood. I have a post in the works about the ways I work on these goals. But in the meantime, I’m sharing this fun contrast in the behavior of three dogs.

I minimize the control I put on walks with the dogs. They are on leash, but I give them all the freedom I safely can. I have very few “rules.” There are many paths through the streets of my quiet neighborhood, and they get to choose. I live at the end of a T intersection, so even at the beginning, there are three directions to go. I don’t have a rule forbidding backtracking, which makes for walks that are foreign to a goal-oriented human. One of my dogs (Lewis) sometimes takes “walks” that don’t even go anywhere and seem chaotic to this human. We often spend a lot of time with him doing power sniffing in my front yard in the flowerbeds. That’s his choice, so that’s fine.

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is sitting in a street next to a driveway looking at something off camera.
We stayed here for about five minutes while Lewis watched a rabbit

A friend recently asked me what rules I do have. Keep in mind we walk in the suburbs, and the dogs are on six-foot leashes. I said 1) a dog can’t go over six feet into someone’s yard; 2) no staying out in the middle of the street for too long; 3) If there is a car parked on the street, we walk around it on the outside (the street side) together rather than walking in someone’s yard; and 4) the dog needs to follow my lead when I have to intervene, say, if a car is coming or we need to avoid something.

But I forgot one rule. The fifth rule is no stalking: no turning to follow other walkers at a close distance after they pass us. The funny thing is that all three of the dogs I walk with want to stalk, but for three different reasons.

Clara

Clara is curious. Even though she was formerly feral, and her human social circle is four persons big, she is curious about people. Just not in an affiliative or sociable way. She’s interested in the same way she might be attracted to an inanimate object with a novel smell. Plus people move, so that makes them more interesting! But not as…people.

When we were playing catch-up socialization at the shopping mall when she was young, she got comfortable enough that she wanted to follow passersby so she could get a good whiff. You can see it in the video at the above link. I let her do it sometimes in that locale, since stalking was less obvious with lots of people milling around. But if you are walking on a suburban street and someone passes you, they will notice if you instantly turn around and follow them. So I don’t let her do it immediately, although if she still wants to when they are a socially acceptable distance away, I let her follow or at least watch.

Lewis

Lewis is often aroused on his walks. He is reactive, but in an excited Tarzan manner. People and dogs thrill him. He might give off a bark or two when he sees a person, but if they beckon, he will be all over them. Literally all over them if I don’t intervene. We don’t interact with most people we see. There are three whom we stop and say hello to. But for those others who move on—nothing would make him happier than to follow them, see what they’re up to, and catch up and jump on them.

Choo Choo

Choo Choo is my friend and partner’s chihuahua mix. She had a rough start in life and has many fears. Over several years, she has learned to go for walks. She enjoys it and has become very courageous about new things and exploring on a microscale. Her behavior is an interesting mixture. When she sees people, she appears quite calm about them (except she hackles up). But as soon as they pass, she wants to follow and (possibly) catch up to them. Her philosophy is that the best defense is surveillance, and her experience is that coming up from behind is the safest. Since most people don’t enjoy being stalked by a small, intense dog, I don’t allow this! But we do stop and watch.

The Function of Following

I think it’s interesting that all three dogs want to follow the walkers who go by, but for completely different reasons:

  • Clara: non-affiliative curiosity
  • Lewis: reactive sociability
  • Choo Choo: fear

Their behaviors look different, too. Clara’s is calm and neutral; she is interested but not passionately so. You may see her sniffing the air. Lewis is excited and may strain to catch up. He might let out a yip or two. Choo Choo is hackled up and also intent on moving forward, but for the opposite reason.

If the people going by had wanted to interact, they would have stopped. So in all cases, I prevent the behavior. Unfortunately, it’s socially unacceptable. But if I were trying to modify it by training, I would need to know the function.

For Clara, there is no way to improve the situation with training at this point. Even though she will walk up to a stranger and accept a cookie, she does it as a trained behavior. She is polite and cooperative, but doesn’t want to be friends. So letting her trail people to sniff them can’t end well. Either they will be weirded out, or they may turn around to be friendly, and she’d rather not interact. In most situations, you can’t say to a stranger, “Hey, could you stand still with your hands to your sides and look at that lamppost while my dog sniffs you?” So I manage her behavior. The best I can do with passing people is let her turn around and sniff as they leave (but not follow them) and try to provide her with other interesting things to sniff and investigate.

For Lewis, we are working on his excitement, but not methodically. As he makes more friends, perhaps he won’t want to stalk people so much. With his existing friends, we practice not losing his mind (four on the floor and no jumping or pawing). And when people who aren’t his buddies (yet) pass us by, he gets to watch and sniff (but not follow) like Clara.

A white dog with reddish brown ears and ticking is standing in the street and watching two people and two dogs walking away in the distance on the
Lewis watching a group of two people and two dogs from a polite distance

For Choo Choo, we are working gradually on her fear. We do ad hoc counterconditioning when we are unavoidably close to people, and that has made her much more comfortable over time. She is also very decisive about turning away from anything she doesn’t like the looks or sound of. But I think it will always be important for her to monitor people we have passed, and she won’t want to stop tailing them. She doesn’t get to do the tailing, but as with the other dogs, we at least turn around and watch the people leave.

The Popularity of Stalking

I’ve learned that plenty of other dogs want to follow passersby!

If you walk your dogs on leash, do they want to stalk people or dogs who have passed? What do you observe as the function? Do you ever let them?

Copyright 2022 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.

Continue reading “Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article”
“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.

Continue reading ““I Will Never Use the Shock Collar Again!””
The Stages of Crossover

The Stages of Crossover

When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.

Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.

Continue reading “The Stages of Crossover”
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.

Continue reading “All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish”
1:1 Pairings: The Science Behind Clicking and Treating

1:1 Pairings: The Science Behind Clicking and Treating

A guest post by Eduardo Fernandez,  first published in 2001 in the now out-of-print American Animal Trainer Magazine as “Click or Treat: A Trick or Two in the Zoo.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A recent discussion on an Association of Zoos and Aquariums listserv, (specifically their ‘training’ list) caught my eye and my key­strokes, and one that has apparently be­come a commonplace discussion among many bridge trainers. The discussion emerged as a simple inquiry by another list member on whether it was appropriate to use a bridge without being followed by a “treat”, (whether food or some other backup reinforcer). I quickly answered that anything less than a 1:1 pairing would weaken the reinforcing value of the bridge, and put the subject to rest. But a strange thing hap­pened. As I continued to read the posts on this listserv, many other list members took the exact opposite stance: that it was ok to ‘click’ and not treat, and that such ‘click or treating’ may even strengthen the bridge. Astounded by the ensuing discussions and arguments, I decided to gather up the data and attempt a thorough review of what was the appropriate way to go about this busi­ness of clicks with or without a treat. The following is the result.

Continue reading “1:1 Pairings: The Science Behind Clicking and Treating”
Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. I changed the title after publication in this version. Please see the note about that at the end of the article.


Three dogs looking through a fence. Continuously reinforcement. A recall trained via variable reinforcement probably won't get their attention.
If I’ve trained recall on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, how likely are my dogs to come away from the fascinating distraction behind the fence?

Do I have to carry around treats or toys forever?

This is a common question from trainers who are new to positive reinforcement techniques. And most of us have heard the following typical answer.

Continue reading “Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?”
A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning

A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning

This 2003 edition book is $4.89 on Amazon. Contents: priceless.

There is a science that deals directly with how organisms learn and how to use that information to change the environment in order to change behavior. It’s called applied behavior analysis (ABA). It is the applied version of behavior analysis, which was referred to as the experimental analysis of behavior earlier in the 20th century.  It is descended from the work of the behaviorists such as Skinner and is now classified as natural science.

It is a rich field of study. Universities offer graduate degrees. At the same time, it is approachable. Many of the entry-level ABA college textbooks currently in use are readable to someone with a strong high school education and certainly to someone with a college education. They are generally self-contained, in that they don’t require a lot of previous exposure to terminology to be able to work through.  The books contain fascinating information about what makes us tick, why we do what we do, and how we might go about changing behavior if we needed to. They also teach skills in ethics and kindness.

Because experts in learning write them, the texts are generally well organized, interesting, and approachable. A sidebar in Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior starts off, “What would you do if, while camping miles from the nearest hospital, you were bitten by a poisonous snake?” It goes on to discuss superstitious behavior. Other sidebars are titled “Punks and Skinheads,”  “Variable Ratio Harassment,” and “Learning from Lepers.” I’ll leave you to go find out the subject matter. This topic is a goldmine for the curious. It is relevant to everyday life and can teach knowledge and skills that are very practical. If you buy older editions of textbooks, as I usually do, the prices are quite reasonable. (For instance, here’s a link to Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior, with the oldest editions first. You can scroll forward to newer editions as your pocketbook allows. The most recent edition is 2013.)

Like any field of study, ABA has its own terminology. When we first encounter it, two things typically happen. First, we think we know it already. Who doesn’t know what punishment is, right? Motivating operation—doesn’t sound too hard to figure out! Then we go a little deeper, and even though the words are familiar, the concepts may not be. Some are extremely unfamiliar. That can cause dismay. One of the problems in the dog training world is that a lot of people get stuck at that point.

Continue reading “A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning”
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”
Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.