eileenanddogs

Category: Choice

The Opposite of Force

The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants
Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. Continue reading “The Opposite of Force”

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

Graffiti on a brick building that says, "False"
Photo credit carnagenyc: see bottom of page

I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that Continue reading “I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)”

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

Two hands offering different treats to a dog in an attempt at a preference test

What’s your favorite color?
Do you prefer pie or ice cream?
Which shirt do you like better: the striped one or the solid green one?

Most of us have been asked our preferences since we were children. Sometimes we are being asked to make a choice: if we choose the striped shirt we won’t be wearing the green one also. If we are asked to choose enough times, our preferences often become clear.

With the best intentions, many of us are attempting to determine our dogs’ preferences by Continue reading “So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong”

If You’re Loving It, Why Leave?

If You’re Loving It, Why Leave?

Is “choice” a code word for negative reinforcement?

It can be. Seems like that’s the context where I see it pop up the most. 

I’ve written a lot about choice. Two of my major points are:

  1. Many people are confused about using choice as an antecedent vs. a consequence; and
  2. People are rarely referring to choices between positive reinforcers when they write about their animals having a choice.

But here’s another thing that gets under my skin. These days it seems like many people who use the language of choice to describe their training are referring to the fact that they permit the animal to leave as relief from a difficult task. For instance, in a husbandry session, the dog may receive a food reinforcer for cooperative behavior. That constitutes positive reinforcement if we see cooperative behavior (usually staying still or focusing on something) increase or maintain. 1)This also applies to sessions of  counterconditioning where the food is not contingent on behavior. I am setting that aside for now. The dog is allowed to leave as often as she wants. The session starts back up if she returns. The leaving constitutes negative reinforcement if we see leaving increase or maintain. But remember: escape is only a reinforcer if the activity is unpleasant.

Letting the dog leave is a good thing. But there is a big drawback if it is planned on as an expected response and built into a protocol.

Building escape behavior into a protocol can provide a disincentive to the human to make the process as pleasant for the dog as possible. Rather than working harder to create a situation where the dog doesn’t want to leave, the trainer can focus on saying that the dog is “empowered” by the ability to leave. On the contrary, some trainers, including myself, consider a dog repeatedly leaving as evidence that we have not worked hard enough at making the experience pleasant.  It’s a failure, not a goal. It means we didn’t set up our antecedents and graduated exposures well enough.

Text: What does true free choice look like in a husbandry session? I tried it. My dogs LOVED it.

Forced vs. Free Choice

I have written about forced and free choice before. Forced choice applies to our husbandry example. The dog can stick with the session and get food or another appetitive stimulus, or the dog can leave. Leaving usually leads to an environment that is bare of other positive reinforcers, or has very weak ones. We deliberately set things up that way as an incentive for the dog to stick with the session. There is no shame in that. Controlling other reinforcers is a part of positive reinforcement-based training. But bragging that escape offers the animal empowerment when the other option is bare of interesting activities is a bit strained.

Also, the presence of food can be coercive. The husbandry session may be unpleasant but the food quite good. Hence, the dog is putting up with discomfort to get the food. Again, sometimes we have to perform medical or husbandry tasks that are painful. But why start out that way if we don’t have to?

On the other hand, free choice is a choice between two appetitive stimuli: two good/fun/nice things. Two things the dog will work for. For instance, stay inside and be petted (for a dog who likes that) or go outside and play ball. Play with this toy, then that one. Dig in the yard or lie in the sunshine.

Is there a way to offer free choice between two appetitive stimuli in a husbandry session? Sure, and I tried it. My dogs LOVED it.

summer-mm
Summer watching to see if the Manners Minder will pay out

If You Really Want to Give the Dog a Free Choice…

…you have to stop controlling other options for reinforcement. Instead, offer another option. In my case, I set up for a husbandry session, but provided another reinforcement option in the form of a Manners Minder, an automated treat dispenser. 

I loaded it with the same treats I was using and placed it a few feet away. I set it to eject treats on a variable interval schedule. My intention was for the Manners Minder’s rate of treat delivery and mine to be similar. It would eject treats every so often no matter what the dog was doing (no contingency from me). But the dog’s behavior of leaving the husbandry session could be positively reinforced.

I started a nail clipping session with the video camera running. 

This unedited movie shows the very beginning, where Zani is still figuring out what the deal is. Is it OK for her to run to the Manners Minder in the middle of our session? (Yes.) Is there a good reason to return for nail clipping? (Yes, because there were gaps in the Manners Minder schedule.) Zani has a genius for optimization and was soon going back and forth. 

I was super pleased that husbandry sessions are pleasant enough to her that Zani happily came back.  If she hadn’t, that would be valuable information. It would mean I needed to work more on making husbandry pleasant for her. In the meantime, to get the job done, I could stack the deck a little in my favor via treat value or rate of reinforcement. I would have no problem with the ethics of that. In my opinion, it’s still far superior to the scenario where the dog’s only other option is escape to a boring room.

During my other dogs’ first sessions, I needed to call them back a few times. They both tended to get stuck in one place or another because of their reinforcement histories. Thinking it through, I don’t think calling them affects the balance of the two options much. The sound of the Manners Minder is a very strong cue that food is available. Likewise, my calling my dog is a strong cue for the same. I reinforced the dogs for coming back to me when I did so. They were free to leave again right away, but they usually stuck around for a nail clip or two, or until the Manners Minder produced another treat.

In the movie with Zani you can see me using the remote on the Manners Minder. I am turning the down-stay variable interval setting on and off.  But in subsequent sessions (not filmed) I just set it and let it alone. 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Choice Doesn’t Apply Only To Negative Reinforcement Protocols (Even Though That’s When You Often Hear About It)

One of the things that often gets lost in the discussions about choice is that we offer our dogs a choice every time we give a cue for a positively reinforced behavior.  When I call my dog while she’s digging in the dirt in the yard, I have offered her a choice, whether I’m happy about that or not. And it’s a choice between two nice things. But this type of choice is often overlooked because the reason we train dogs is often to get them to do things we want. Offering a dog a choice between two appetitives can be inconvenient for the human. Whereas offering a dog a choice to leave an uncomfortable husbandry session doesn’t cost us much. We know the dog will probably come back because we are the source of R+ in the room. It seems pretty self-serving to me to promote choice primarily when it is easiest for us. 

If a trainer or a protocol focuses on choice, ask questions. What are the choices? Ask the trainer or author to operationalize them. Are the choices antecedents or consequences? What will your animal be choosing between? The trainer should be able to tell you whether both of the choices lead to positive reinforcement, or if one leads to positive reinforcement and the other to negative reinforcement (escape). 

Don’t Necessarily Try My Experiment at Home

This was an experiment. Our success with the dual reinforcement setup had a lot to do with the dogs’ history with me. Offering a powerful reinforcer for leaving a husbandry session could backfire if a dog didn’t have a strong reinforcement history for staying. I’m not necessarily recommending it. I wrote in another post about the down side of offering a dog between two positive reinforcers and how it can be tricky. That risk is very clear in my game with the Manners Minder.

Another issue is that the dual reinforcement setup as I presented it is not workable for procedures where the dog must stay still, perhaps as in a jugular blood draw. But that’s true for any method that allows the dog to leave. Most of us at some point also train the dog to stay still.

I tried this out because I was curious. I am publishing it because I want folks to see what it can look like for a dog to exercise free choice in a husbandry session. I’m continuing to do it because it makes toenail trims downright fun for my dogs.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Notes   [ + ]

1. This also applies to sessions of  counterconditioning where the food is not contingent on behavior. I am setting that aside for now.
The “Choice” Challenge

The “Choice” Challenge

Thanks to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman for their input on this topic. Any weird conclusions are mine alone.

I have come to believe that most of us who thought we were using “choice” as a reinforcer were mistaken.

Wait! Before you come running after me with pitchforks, let me explain. I’m not saying that choice isn’t a wonderful, enriching, and humane thing to provide for our dogs. It can be all that! Rather, I’m concerned about the trend of glomming onto attractive-sounding language without proper analysis of what is actually happening. The problems attending that go a lot further than nomenclature. They can affect the quality of our dogs’ lives.

Choice as a Reinforcer

I’ve written before about misunderstandings regarding choice, but this is the biggest misunderstanding of all. When we say that choice can be reinforcing we may be technically correct, according to some studies, but we are probably not using it that way ourselves. Let’s analyze it.

The Choice Challenge: Zani, a small black dog, is lying on an elevated bed with her eyes open and paying close attention. She is keeping her options open.
Zani keeping her options open

Let’s say I give my dog Zani the choice of coming indoors or not. There are nice things to do both indoors and outdoors in her opinion, so the choice is between two R+ scenarios. (I actually do have a real-life cue that has come to signal a choice about that.  More on that in a future post!)

  • Antecedent: I stand at the door and ask Zani if she wants to come in
  • Behavior: Zani trots inside
  • Consequence: Low value treat
  • Prediction: Behavior of coming inside when given that option will maintain or increase

Where was the choice in this description/analysis?

Let’s say she chooses the other option.

  • Antecedent: I stand at the door and ask Zani if she wants to come in
  • Behavior: Zani ignores me and eats grass
  • Consequence: Grass
  • Prediction: Behavior of staying outside when given that option will maintain or increase

Where was the choice in this description/analysis?

How about this one? Context: I always let my dogs walk away from a toenail trimming session whenever they want.

  • Antecedent: Clara sees paraphernalia for a toenail trim: clippers, treats
  • Behavior: Clara leaves the room
  • Consequence: Clara escapes the stress of a nail trim
  • Prediction: Leaving nail trim when stressed will increase

Where was the choice?

The choice was between behaviors and it was offered in the antecedent.

In all of the scenarios above, and almost anytime we are talking about “offering” the dog a choice, giving the choice is part of the antecedent, not the consequence. We set up the environment (antecedent) so there is more than one possible, hopefully pleasant activity (behavior). The consequence is the reinforcer for the chosen behavior. In the above scenarios the reinforcers were a low value treat, grass, and escape.

This kind of choice can’t be a reinforcer, at least not of the behavior we are analyzing. And a reminder: as I mentioned in a previous post, the animal always has a choice about their behavior, whether we want it to be there or not. As we train a behavior to fluency and consistency, we are actually trying to prevent the possibility of the animal making other choices.

So Let’s Try It As a Reinforcer

OK, perhaps I have convinced you that the choices we offer are usually in the antecedent. “Would you like to do this, or this?” So instead, can we create a different scenario where the dog needs to perform one particular behavior correctly but then has a choice of two different reinforcers? That scenario at least has the potential of the choice being part of the consequence.

Choices diagram
Two possible (simplified) scenarios for choice-making for our companion animals 

Here is how I would go about that. Let’s say I’m going to ask my dog Clara to perform a sit. A couple of feet away from her I have her red rubber ball and a favorite toy, with a little space between them.

  • Antecedent: I cue a sit
  • Behavior: Clara sits
  • Consequence: Whichever thing Clara grabs after I mark the sit: ball or toy

What role would the choice after the behavior perform? In this case, I believe very little. The ball and the toy would each have a much stronger and more direct effect than the fact that the dog got to choose. The choice aspect would likely be overwhelmed. And by the way, we can’t assume that whichever item she grabs is preferred, in general or even at that moment. Preference testing is a lot more complicated than that.

When scientists study choice as a reinforcer, they have to go to great lengths to separate its influence from the obvious reinforcer of the animal’s behavior–the thing the animal chooses. They have done it, including in a series of studies I described in another post on choice. Even if we agree that choice itself had a reinforcing effect (and not all scientists do agree), the work they had to perform to isolate it means it just is not going to get isolated often in the real world.

So can we separate out a possible effect of the choice part from these strong reinforcers? We could try. We could keep excellent records. In some trials, there would be only the ball. In others, there would be the ball and the toy (the choice scenario), but she only gets one. (We would also have to watch out for possible punishing effects of removing one item–most dogs would want both!) If Clara’s sit-on-cue response percentage was higher when both items were present, no matter which item she chose, we could claim that “having a choice” was a reinforcer. Not the only reinforcer or the strongest, but one with a possibly traceable effect. But in a home scenario it is almost impossible to control for all possible reinforcers and other competing stimuli that could make the scenarios non-identical. I think even in the best attempt at a clean experiment, we probably wouldn’t be able to say that we demonstrated at home that choice was a reinforcer.

I’m starting to flinch a little bit when people talk about choice being a reinforcer. When it comes to their animals, how do they know?

The “Choice” Challenge

So here is the challenge. If you have been trying to use “choice” as a reinforcer, try these questions on for size.

  • What behavior was reinforced by offering a choice? Remember, the choice has to come after the behavior for choice to be in the running as a reinforcer.
  • What other reinforcers were involved? (What was the dog choosing between?)
  • How did you separate the effect of the choice from the effect of the reinforcer the dog chose?
  • How did you track the data of the choice/non-choice situations? How substantial was the effect of choice?
  • How did you allow for the possible aversive effects of removing an option when the dog chose the other item or activity?

So maybe you aren’t using choice as a reinforcer. If, instead, you are giving your dogs lots of choices between behaviors, great! That’s wonderful. But that’s different from asking for a behavior and using choice as a theoretical part of the reinforcer.

IMG_1449

Why Am I Being So Picky?

We all agree that offering our animals choices and freedom and the ability to exert their preferences are good, humane things. So why do I keep nitpicking about the language we use? It’s because when we focus on choice, we may turn our attention away from what is actually driving the animal’s behavior. If I congratulate myself on how my dog is free to leave a husbandry session whenever she wants, I may neglect to notice that 1) I could be taking steps to make the session less stressful so she wouldn’t feel it necessary to leave; and 2) she is repeatedly practicing escape behavior–and practice makes perfect. I would far rather my dog take actual enjoyment from getting her nails trimmed and want to be there in the first place. I bet she would too. The ability to leave when she wants is essential, but is a sad, paltry, negative reinforcer compared to enjoying the activity in the first place. If it happens a lot, it’s an indicator that I should rethink my approach.

Even when the choice is between two positive reinforcers, it can be unfortunate to over-focus on “choice” rather than the reinforcers themselves.  For instance, I can pat myself on the back for giving my dogs the choice to be inside the house or out in the back yard, both of which have reinforcers available. Yay, choice! But I can tell you right now that any of my dogs would rather go on a walk down to the corner of my street where the pee-mail is so fine. On that walk our actions would be structured and the dog would be on a leash. Leashes are usually choice limiters. The dogs would be far less free to choose on the walk down my street than they are when they are in my back yard. But the sniff-fest that would be available when we got to the corner (not to mention the one on the way) is so hugely interesting that it would dwarf most “choices” they have in the back yard. In this case the “less choice” situation would have richer reinforcement than the “more choice” situation.

Finally, the exploration of choice leads us into constructs. We can get focused on teaching our dogs a special way to say yes or no, for example. That can be a cool thing to teach, but I think there’s something more important for us to learn. Our dogs are telling us “yes” and “no” in their own ways all the time. We just need to pay attention.  Requiring the dogs to learn our language, to say things the way we want them to, may even reduce choice if it means we pay less attention to what they say in their own ways. It means we have put the onus on them to learn our language rather than the other way around.

Anybody up for the choice challenge? Can you separate out reinforcing effects of choice on a behavior?

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.1)Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a downside, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making
In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous—to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one—to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that they come with a price. Please comment!

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes   [ + ]

1. Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”
Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Two paths diverging
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shout-outs to Companion Animal Psychology for the post, The Right to Walk Away” which covers the effects of offering that particular choice in animal experiments, and encourages us to apply the concept to our animals’ lives. Also to Yvette Van Veen for her piece,  “A” Sucks “B” Stinks What Kind of Choice is That? , which definitely has some “rant” commonalities with this post of mine.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 is: The Dog’s Choice.

We positive reinforcement-based trainers often point out that our dogs have the choice not to participate in a training session. I think giving the animal “the right to walk away” is a good and humane practice. I also believe it’s only the first step of consideration of our animals’ self-determination.

Trainers who exclusively use aversives to train employ the language of choice as well. Shock trainers will say that the dog “is in control of the shock” and that the dog has a choice. In that case the choice is to comply–or not. Neither of the choices yields positive reinforcement. But these trainers too can honestly claim their dogs have choices.

Most of us would say that theirs is a pretty strained use of the term, “choice.” It’s a very stacked deck, and even the best option–successful avoidance–is not a fun one for the dog. But using the definitions of learning theory, neither of those situations–the positive reinforcement-based trainer giving the dog the right to leave, nor the shock-only trainer–would qualify as giving the animal a “free choice.” 

I’m going to argue here that limiting choices is intrinsic to the process of training an animal, whatever method we use. It’s the nature of the process. And it’s actually not “choices” or “no choices” that define a method’s humaneness.  It’s what kinds of choices are available within the structure we set up that determines how humane it is. 

We all stack the deck.

When anyone talks about giving their animal choices, I believe we need to ask questions.

  • What can the animal choose between?
  • What processes of learning are involved?
  • Is an aversive stimulus a focal point of the choice making?
  • What choices are ruled out?
  • Will the choices broaden later in training?

Not all choice situations are equal, and I think we need to knock off the instant happy dances anytime a person mentions “choice” in reference to training. Instead, I think we should ask, “What are the choices?”

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

How many times have you read one of the following instructions in a positive reinforcement group or forum? They are often addressed to new trainers, or trainers with puppies.

  • Be sure and begin your training in an area of low distraction.
  • Control other possible reinforcers.
  • If you can’t get the dog’s attention, start in the bathroom with the door closed and wait him out.
  • Don’t let the dog practice undesirable behaviors.
  • Watch out for bootleg reinforcers!

All of those are about limiting choices by removing the availability of reinforcers. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we do that. But there is no contradiction here. As trainers using primarily positive reinforcement, we are in the best position to look at the ways that this kind of choice management affects our dogs’ lives, and examine the ways we can move forward to a more choice-rich environment for them.

The Desirability of Choice

Many experiments have shown that animals and humans prefer having multiple paths to a reinforcer, and of course options for different reinforcers as well.

This is from a webpage that describes one of the important experiments with animals regarding choice. The experiment introduced some interesting nomenclature.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, “Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons.”

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.  Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

Another good article about the Catania experiments and other work on choice is, “On Choice, Preference, and Preference for Choice” by Toby Martin et al.

(In no way can this short post cover all the nuanced research about choice. For instance, abundance of choice has a downside, especially for humans. I am sticking to the issues of choice that are most applicable to the situations our companion animals find themselves in.)

“Forced Choice”

Note the definition of “forced choice” in the description of the experiments above. Nothing happened when the pigeon pecked the red key. The bird was not shocked or otherwise hurt. Forced choice was defined as a situation where only one behavior led to positive reinforcement (more correctly, a appetitive stimulus), and another behavior or behaviors led nowhere.

Having more than one behavioral path (in this case, multiple green keys to press) to get to the goodie was defined as “free choice.”

Now, think back to what we do in the early stages of training. Review my list above of the ways we remove “distractions,” i.e., other reinforcers. That type of training situation more closely resembles forced choice than free choice. The freedom to leave–especially in an environment that lacks other interesting stimuli–is not enough to designate a process as being free choice, at least in the nomenclature of this experiment and subsequent definitions in learning theory. But it’s a good first step.

Types of Choice

Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.

  1. Choice between different behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. See examples below.
  2. Choice between handler-mediated positively reinforced behaviors and nothing in particular. This is the typical “they can walk away” type of positive reinforcement training session.
  3. Choice between different positively reinforced behaviors with an aversive present.  This can happen in exposure protocols if the trigger is close enough that it is at an aversive level. The proximity limits the value of positive reinforcement, and, if the aversive gets too close, eliminates it, because of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
  4. Choice between enduring an aversive stimulus and performing a behavior that allows escaping it. Most shock collar training exemplifies this, as do operant exposure protocols that put contingencies on escaping the trigger.
  5. Choice between behaviors that are positively reinforced and behaviors that are positively punished. A training situation such as “walk in heel position, get a cookie; surge forward, get a collar pop.”
  6. Choice between behaviors that are positively punished and behaviors that get nothing in particular. This would be across-the-board suppression of behavior.

In all that I listed, even #6, the dog can be said to have a choice. But none of them, with the exception of #1, would likely be called “free choice” in learning theory nomenclature.

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:

  • Desensitization/counterconditioning with the trigger at a non-aversive level. The leash or other barrier prevents or controls the choice of movement towards the trigger, but there are no contingencies on behavior within the area and multiple reinforcers may be available.
  • Shaping, which can offer multiple choices of behavior along the path to a goal behavior.
  • Reinforcing offered behaviors in day-to-day life with an animal. (I’ll write about this in my followup post.)
  • Training techniques that allow the dog to leave in pursuit of another interest. However, these as well do tend to have a final goal of another behavior.

Note that we are not talking about using a variety of reinforcers. That’s easy to do in training. We are talking about different behaviors leading to reinforcement. When you are focused on a training goal, that one is a lot harder to include!

A Word About Preference

Preference is not the same as choice, though they are related.

From a review article about choice:

Preference is the relative strength of discriminated operants Researchers often measure preference as a pattern of choosing.  –Martin, Toby L., et al. “On choice, preference, and preference for choice.” The behavior analyst today 7.2 (2006): 234.

Pattern is a key word. I may not like my green tee-shirt very much, but I will choose it if my red ones are in the wash. It is only by observing my tee-shirt choice over time, noting circumstances and performing a bit of statistical analysis, that my choices will indicate my preference (red tee-shirts).

Observing our pets’ preferences, and giving them their preferred items, is a good and thoughtful thing, but doing so does not necessarily involve their making a choice.

In addition, I’ve written about how determining an animal’s preferences in a formal way can be more difficult than it sounds. But scientists are developing ways to determine choice in animals. The following article covers some of these:  Using Preference, Motivation, and Aversion Tests to Ask Scientific Questions about Animals’ Feelings.

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

I think that when we talk about giving dogs choices, or describe protocols that supposedly do this, we should consider two things. First what are the choices? Are there multiple possibilities for positive reinforcement, or are there choices between positive reinforcement and nothing, or only crappy choices?

Second, we should consider how we are limiting choices. Are the limitations temporary or permanent? Are there ways we can give our dogs ways to express their preferences and make choices in their lives with us? Even in training?

There is no barb intended for positive reinforcement-based trainers in this post. Giving the animal the right to walk away is revolutionary in the recent training climate. We are the ones taking that step. Sometimes it’s the most control we can give them. But I believe we can do more.

Part 2 of this post will include my attempts–successful or not so–in giving my dogs choices in different situations.

How about you out there? In what ways do you give your animals choices–in day-to-day life or in training?

Articles Mentioned

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Let Rats Decide

Let Rats Decide

Wait a minute! I thought this was Eileenanddogs! Well, just for today, it is Eileenandrats.

I write a lot about dog body language in this blog.  I discuss letting animals have a say in how and when they are handled and touched. I talk some about how to perceive their answers through observation. And I have shown, in my most popular post of all time, dogs communicating “yes” and “no” about whether they want to be touched. It’s a mini lesson about body language as well as a proposal that we let the dogs decide whether they want to be petted.

So you can imagine I was delighted to come across Gwen Lindsey’s work on rat body language and giving rats the chance to say yes or no to handling or other actions. She discusses the issues on this page, Let Rats Decide When, and has a lovely video on the same topic (embedded below). Gwen is the owner of the website JoinRats.com, a site that is chock full of advice for people who have rats as pets.

Small Animals

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.
Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

In the dog training community, it is still a fairly foreign idea to let dogs have a choice about being handled. They are legally only property, and to some people that seems fine and natural. Others of us don’t think it is fine, but even so, can still carry around the underlying assumption. It can be hard to shake off.

So if it’s that way for dogs, what might people’s attitudes to very small pets be? Not only are most of them much easier to force our will upon, simply because of their small size, but they don’t have the historical partnership with us that dogs do. And I think most people have kind of a rough assumption that any pet smaller than a cat doesn’t have much of a personality, and that we just don’t need to concern ourselves with what they might want.

I hope Gwen’s video can persuade people otherwise. It certainly was a revelation to me, seeing how her rats interacted with her. It’s the same difference that crossover dog trainers start to see in their dogs. I have always loved my dogs, thought they were brilliant, and appreciated their personalities and quirks. But they blossomed after I started to use positive reinforcement and desensitization/counterconditioning to “converse” with them. It added a new dimension to our relationships, and added freedom to their lives in ways that were visible in the smallest elements of their body language. 

I had pet rats in my teens and twenties. I was very fond of them, and good to them.  But at that time no one talked about enrichment or training for small animals. I know that my rats associated me with good things, but I could have built such a better life for them, and had such a better relationship, had I known then what I know now. They could have blossomed. too. Ahh, for do-overs. 

For now I hope some of you out there will enjoy, as I do, the happy, trusting rats in this movie.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I know there are some folks out there (and rats or other small animals) whose lives will be changed if they see this video. So please feel free to share it, either directly from this URL or by sharing this blog.

Gwen has tons of great information on pet rats on her website but is also revamping a lot of things right now. Another really nice page of hers for rat owners who are new to training their rats or enriching their lives is Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.

I bet some of you have a lot of questions. Gwen can be reached by email here, and will also answer questions in the comments section below.

I am hoping to find some rattie lovers out there among my readers!  

Coming Up:

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

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