Category: Escape/Avoidance

When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

When a Dog Suffers a Trauma

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog looking away.

Here’s a photo that breaks my heart. Clara the bold, refusing to leave her car crate, even to eat some cat food.

This is what happened.

Early in December, I took Lewis and Clara to the house my sister is going to move into so they could mess around while I cleaned house. It was raining and dreary. There were leaves layered on the lawn and on the steep driveway.

Clara always jumps into the car on her own, but I help her get out. It’s the same routine we’ve had since she was a little pup. After I open her crate door, she comes to the back driver’s side door where I am standing and walks into my outstretched arms, and I lower her down. We do this even though she is 45 pounds, because my SUV floor (on top of the folded seats) is too high for her to jump down from safely, especially at her age.

A red Subaru Outback is parked on an inclined concrete driveway covered with leaves. An arrow points to an area on the concrete just below the back door on the driver's side.
The arrow marks the place I put down Clara after I lifted her from the car. The driveway was wet as well as leafy.

So on this day, she came out of her crate and came to the car door. I beckoned, and she stepped into my arms. I lifted her down. When I put her down on the wet driveway, she slipped and fell onto her side. She didn’t appear to be injured, but the fall was traumatic. She scrambled up, jumped back into the car, and dove into her crate.

I coaxed her out, and she stood there with her back legs trembling, as she does when scared. I couldn’t tell for sure, but she seemed unhurt. Then she scooted back into her crate again and wouldn’t come out.

Clara used to retreat to a crate as a puppy when she was scared or overwhelmed.

Coaxing Her Out of the Crate

I drove back home with both dogs (Lewis had never gotten out of his crate). When I got into the garage, I opened Clara’s crate door, but she wouldn’t come out. I let Lewis out and took him into the house, closing the car door before we went. I didn’t want Clara to try to get out on her own in case she ventured out of the crate.

I returned to the car and tried to coax Clara out. She wasn’t having any of it. She crouched in her crate, looking petrified. I got ahold of her collar, but she was a dead weight, and I didn’t want to resort to force in any case.

I went in the house and came back with two bowls of cat food. The ultimate treat. I planned to put one bowl near her crate, and another on the floor outside the car.

The scene is the back interior of a car. There is a bowl of cat food in the foreground. In the back is a dog crate with a distressed brown dog lying in the crate, backed up from the opening, looking at the camera and ignoring the food.

I set a bowl down in front and a little to the side of her crate. She didn’t budge. I had to hold back tears. She wouldn’t come out for cat food. I left for a bit, shutting the car door. When I came back, she was still in her crate, the cat food untouched.

I left again, for a little longer. When I came back, she was in her crate, but the cat food was gone. She had come out and gone back in again. I was simultaneously relieved and heartbroken. She would come out and eat when I was gone, but not when I was there. Ask anyone who takes in fearful foster dogs. That’s how she was acting, creeping out to eat the food when I was gone, then scuttling back into her safe place. I appeared to be associated with the trauma.

I brought cat food again and left it. Each time when I came back, she had eaten it. She started hanging out in the front of her crate with slightly more relaxed body language. Finally, on about my fifth try, she came out to eat the cat food while I was still there. As desperate as I was to get her out, I didn’t grab her. I let her have the cat food, then she went back into her crate, as I figured she would. This gave me confidence to proceed, though.

I needed a new way to help her out of the car. She didn’t know how to do it on her own by taking a step on the floor of the car, and I was sure she wouldn’t walk into my arms. I decided to use my Klimb, a sturdy, low platform designed for dog activities, as a landing pad. I opened the rear hatch, took Lewis’ crate out, and put the Klimb next to the back of the car. Clara has experience Jumping down onto the Klimb already. I bought it as a step off my bed for disabled Zani, and Clara has used it as well. We do all sorts of training and husbandry on the Klimb, too. It is conditioned as a happy and safe place.

I set up the Klimb. I put the bowl of cat food down near Clara’s crate and she came out and ate. As she did that, I again refrained from grabbing her, but I closed the crate door so she couldn’t hurry back in. She tried a couple of times to get back in her crate, then she walked to the rear where I was waiting. I tapped the Klimb and cued her to jump down on it, and she did! I had yet another bowl of cat food ready. She gobbled it happily, jumped off the Klimb, and went into the house. The timing was great. My partner Ruth had just finished having lunch and had saved a couple of pieces of hot dog for Clara, as she always does. Clara slipped straight into one of her happy routines.

Back in the House

Clara didn’t act scared of me. What a relief—I had been fearing the worst. I have always been her safest anchor in the world. I was safe again, outside the car situation. I had no idea how she would react when we tried the car again.

Over the next couple of days, Clara got excited and asked to come along every time I went somewhere, which made me hopeful.

The traumatized reaction was atypical for Clara. She is physically bold and has never been afraid of objects or unstable surfaces. I was deeply upset by this development. I wanted and needed to help her feel better about exiting the car. Riding in the car is the doorway to lots of enrichment and fun for her, besides being a necessary life skill.

I have seen this kind of large fear response to an event only a couple of times with dogs, and I have learned to take it seriously. I needed to make a careful plan. It’s human nature to minimize this kind of thing in our minds, to assume the dog will “get over it.” It would have been natural for me to try the next day to “see if she would get out of the car the normal way.” I didn’t. I might have tried to change the situation a little, go somewhere different with a better landing area, and assume Clara “would understand that this was different and wouldn’t be scared anymore.” But I’ve finally learned that fear doesn’t work like that. I fought my impulses and made a plan that changed the picture a lot for Clara, because who knew what part of the situation her fear had already generalized to?

Addressing the Fear

The view is through the open rear hatch of a Subaru. There are two dog crates with a Klimb dog platform fitting vertically between them.
Klimb between crates: the front bottom leg is removed

I successfully rehabilitated Clara’s fear and she can again exit the car.

I abandoned the old method of lifting her down. Not only was it now associated with her fall, but I have a shoulder problem and the process causes me pain, too.

With encouragement from Marge Rogers, I figured out that I could fit the Klimb in my car along with both crates. It fits vertically between them if I unscrew one of the bottom legs. I purchased the Klimb’s custom nonslip cover. I had been using a square of yoga mat, but wanted the extra security of the better fit.

Our new method was the same way I got her out that first day: step down onto the Klimb, then down to the ground. But I didn’t want to always have to get her out the back. I needed to have the option to put the Klimb next to a door as well.

Here is the plan I made and carried out. You can see most of it in the video embedded below.

1. With Lewis’ crate removed, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed in back. I reinforced generously, especially for coming out. I used either spray cheese or Stella and Chewy’s dehydrated raw food for every step.
2. Next, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the passenger side door, which she has never used before.
3. First with Lewis’ crate removed, then with it present, I cued Clara to get into and out of the car via the Klimb placed next to the driver’s side. This is her lifelong exit location from the car, and was the most likely to have fear attached to it, so we worked up to doing it last.
4. Finally, we took it on the road. We went somewhere fun. She was happy to jump out via the platform.

A Klimb dog platform is sitting on the level part of a mostly inclined driveway next to a red Subaru. The Klimb is placed next to the back door on the driver's side as a step for dogs when they get out of the car.
The Klimb goes flush next to the car and the car door opens over it. Perfect!

Designing a Training Plan for One Dog

I tailored this plan with Clara’s history and capabilities in mind. I’m not suggesting this as a method for anyone else.

Luckily, Clara was not scared of getting into the car, being in the car, or riding in the car. Just getting out. So I needed to take an operant approach. I would have made a different plan (and likely a longer one) if either of the latter two had scared her. I would have used a classical conditioning-based method.

Here are some reasons why my approach worked for Clara, but might have been a bad idea for some dogs.

1. It involved jumping onto a small surface. It would have been a different and longer process if Clara hadn’t already been comfortable with the Klimb. She has had lots of good experiences on there, including jumping down onto it as well as up. She grew up in an agility household and got plenty of practice jumping on and off a variety of things.
2. My method involved a bit of luring or targeting as I beckoned her onto the Klimb the first few times. For some dogs, that would have been too much pressure. It’s not a good idea to lure a dog toward something that scares them. Again, Clara’s comfortable with the Klimb.
3. The area behind my car in the garage was a tight place to work. You’ll notice it in the video. Clara was exiting the car straight at the closed garage door, which was very close. She had to jump down and immediately halt her forward motion. A bigger dog, or a dog lacking her physical ability might have had a hard time. But she coped fine. I made this choice because leaving the garage door open would’ve had its own set of problems.

For those who would like some more general instructions for a dog who may not be used to getting onto a stool or platform, here is a video by the wonderful trainer Donna Hill with step-by-step instructions on teaching a dog to enter and exit a car using a step stool.

Video of Training Steps for Getting Out of the Car

The great thing about a dog who loves to go places in the car is that going to a fun location becomes the large, terminal reinforcer. I’m still using higher value reinforcers for moving on and off the platform, but I’m gradually fading them to lower value as she becomes fluent with this new system. You can see in the video that she is interested in the environment as soon as she exits the car.

Might Clara’s Reaction Be Related to Cushing’s Disease?

Clara was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease last May (2022). Her original symptom was extreme hunger. Her case is mild so far, and she is not on medication yet. But over the summer, she started exhibiting some weird fears.

I suspect those fears, and her high-magnitude response to a onetime fall, are related to the Cushing’s. This disease causes dogs to have an overabundance of cortisol in their system. Not a great situation for a dog with fears and who had such a hard start in life. Her recent anxiety and fears could also be early symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction. Cushing’s may raise the likelihood of that condition as well (da Silva, 2021).

My vet and I are trialing some meds. The thought of Clara having added fear and stress in her life makes me feel sick. I’ll do anything in my power to help her. In the meantime, I’m relieved Clara is comfortable getting out of the car again. We dodged a bullet. I’ll be keeping the Klimb in there for good.

Reference

da Silva, C. C., Cavalcante, I., de Carvalho, G. L. C., & Pöppl, Á. G. (2021). Cognitive dysfunction severity evaluation in dogs with naturally-occurring Cushing´s syndrome: A matched case-control study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 46, 74-78.

Copyright 2023 Eileen Anderson

Photos copyright Eileen Anderson. The photos of Clara frightened in the car were digitally altered by a Photoshop specialist to remove a whole lot of white dog hair that was sticking to the fabric on the back of the rear seats. I don’t mind telling you about it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to let you see it!

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

Black and white cartoon drawings of two stinging insects flying together in a threatening manner
Cartoon stinging insects, since I don’t want to trigger any phobias. See the link immediately below for photo of Polistes exclamans, the common paper wasp species that was living on my porch.

Photo of Polistes exclamans in nest

silver metal storage cabinet with a blue tarp on top. The cabinet door is partially open.
This was the cabinet on the day that I found out there was a wasp nest under the blue tarp

One day last summer (2021), I was on my back porch. I lifted a tarp I keep over my cabinets so I could close the door, something I’ve done without thought dozens of times. A wasp flew out from under the tarp at warp speed and stung my hand so hard and painfully that it felt like a blow. For a moment I didn’t know what happened, but my hand hurt like hell, and I realized that a stinging insect had gotten me and that there were more of them.

I yelled and scrambled back into my house, frantically scanning to make sure no wasps had come in the door with me. I slammed the storm door and the wooden door inside it. But the wooden door doesn’t latch all the way in the summer and wouldn’t stay shut. I needed to get away from that wasp and its colleagues so badly that I leaned on the wooden door with all my body weight for an embarrassingly long time, on the off chance that a wasp might be between the doors. I recovered slowly from my scare. My hand throbbed and started to swell.

Continue reading “Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout”
I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!

I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!

Some people make claims like the one in the title out of true ignorance. They can’t identify how the behavior change is working. I’ve been there. It’s easy to believe that if one can get a dog to do something without discomfort or physical force in the moment, the training method is benign. We forget what transpired before.

Continue reading “I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!”
Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Let’s say you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you vaguely know walks up to you. He walks up very close, face-to-face like the Seinfeld close-talker. Close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

You will probably have a strong urge to step back. You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation and a host of other factors. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.

Continue reading “Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals”
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.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Notes

Notes
1 This also applies to sessions of  counterconditioning where the food is not contingent on behavior. I am setting that aside for now.
But It Worked for My Dog!!

But It Worked for My Dog!!

Worked for who?
For whom did it work, again?

What happens when someone shares a “success” story about training with aversives? Here’s my response to a commenter who did so on one of my previous posts.

A Parable

Once there was a woman named Reva who had a serious health condition that needed intervention. Her intexagog was inflamed and could rupture any day. Reva looked up intexagog specialists in the phone book. She found Dr. Bleppo, who had an ad that was both slick and reassuring, and picked him. She made an appointment. He was a likable guy and radiated competence. He said sure, he could fix her intexagog right up and she would be fine again.

Reva scheduled surgery. It seemed to go well. Her intexagog was fine, she was out of pain, and resumed her normal life. She started having mood swings but didn’t put that together with the surgery. She thought maybe she had always experienced those and just didn’t remember correctly.

Whenever the subject of intexagogitis came up in discussion Reva always recommended the doctor who had operated on her. She heard some murmurings that maybe there were problems with his methods. She always responded, “But my operation was a great success!” Her friend Hector started having trouble with his intexagog, and she gave Dr. Bleppo a glowing reference. Hector contacted Dr. Bleppo on her recommendation.

But a few months after the surgery Reva found out from another specialist that the method Dr. Bleppo had used had an 80% rate of undesirable side effects. These had been well documented for years and the evidence the new doctor gave her was very strong. The side effects ranged greatly in intensity, from things like occasional tingling in the fingers to depression to damage of other body organs to death. They could appear immediately after the surgery or years later, especially if one maintained the after-surgery protocol Dr. Bleppo had recommended. The doctor hadn’t told her of any of this on the front end, just assured her of his experience and told her he could make her well again.

Even though Reva was one of the lucky ones—at this point she had only the mood changes to deal with—she felt betrayed. And now she knew that she might experience some of the other side effects later. She considered filing a complaint with the medical board, since Dr. Bleppo had acted wrongly in not informing her of these side effects and risks, or telling her of alternatives.

Hector had also gotten surgery from Dr. Bleppo, so Reva told him what she had learned. He reacted with hostility when she told him this news. He hadn’t experienced any side effects (yet). Hector continued to talk about what a wonderful, dedicated surgeon Dr. Bleppo was to all who would listen, and would bring up his own successful surgery as proof.

Dog Trainers

The world of dog training is rife with Dr. Bleppos. We don’t have a regulatory board to go to if they don’t inform us of the possible consequences of their actions, nor if they ruin our dogs with harsh methods. Most of us will move on to another trainer, but we may still not have the necessary information to assess trainers.

Training that depends on aversive methods such as prong or shock collars, intimidation, throwing things, loud noises or sprays of water or more noxious substances, personal pressure, or flooding (not letting the dog escape from a scary, painful, or uncomfortable situation) has risks. The possible fallout from these methods has been known and studied for decades and on many species. My posts 7 Effects of Punishment and Fallout from the Use of Aversives delineate the types of problems that commonly accompany the use of aversives. The latter post includes references to research. But the Trainer Bleppos either don’t know about the problems, they dis the science, or they actively keep this information from their clients.

Dog Owners

The world of dog training is also full of Hectors. Many of us have been Hector at some point. When dog owners make a financial and emotional investment in something, we want it to work. Generally, if there is any way possible to see it as working, we will do so. So the Hectors of the dog training world predictably pipe up in any discussion that is critical of aversive methods and give the example of their dog being fine.

Some dogs may be fine, or close to it. Someone with more ability to read dog body language than the person posting would likely see the behavioral responses to the use of aversives, but they might be subtle and the commenter can’t see them. Plus many dogs are very resilient and forgiving of humans. We have bred them to be.

So I can never say to a commenter who relates a punishment success story that her individual experience is wrong and her dog is not fine. Sometimes I will suspect that the commenter lacks the knowledge for a comparative assessment, or the punitive methods used might have been at a low level or she might have a robust dog. But it is not a good argument to deny someone’s experience.

What I can say, and am saying now, is that sharing such an experience does not prove the method’s safety and is very damaging. Behind the one dog who seems OK are strewn many dogs who may not recover from damage due to punitive training. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but most of the positive reinforcement based trainers I know go around picking up the pieces for those dogs and their owners. So holding up the token survivor is sadly misleading.

Misunderstandings

There are some common misunderstandings whenever I bring up the problems with aversive use. I want to address a few before the comments start rolling in, grin. Whenever someone submits a comment on my blog supporting or recommending the use of aversives, I counter it. This is not because I am completely pure in my training, nor because I think aversives don’t work, nor because I think dogs should live completely sheltered lives. It’s because aversive success stories give people permission and encouragement to use aversives. Many people are searching for this permission. I’m not going to provide it here.

On the other hand, I don’t think people should hide such usage. I’m in favor of honesty, and honesty includes delineating the drawbacks and risks of aversive use, especially when describing an apparent success. If something is noxious enough to prompt avoidance, it’s probably noxious enough to create side effects. I addressed this in my last post, Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement, with an example of what might happen when one uses a mildly aversive stimulus repeatedly in a training scenario.

Example: My Own Aversive Use

Here’s an example of how I talk about the implementation of an aversive. As part of loose leash training, I taught all of my dogs to yield to leash pressure with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. I pulled gently on the leash, and when they responded by lessening the pressure (moving towards the tension), I marked and rewarded with food. But the initial reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure. The food may have reinforced something afterward, and perhaps helped support the generally positive response my dogs have to training. But leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement (if there is a behavior change and the dog learns to respond to the pressure).

Now, having a dog that will yield to gentle pressure is very handy. And teaching it is not usually likely to prompt a whole lot of redirected aggression or other dramatic side effects (with most dogs). Certainly not as problematical as something that hurts or pinches or applies heavy pressure. But when I look back on the videos I took of that training, I can tell that it was just not fun for my dogs in the way most of our other training was, even though good food treats were involved.  This exercise put a damper on their enjoyment of training, and possibly a damper on their relationship with me. Why let that happen if I don’t have to?

So what if I were to recommend that protocol?  There would be people reading about it who had dogs who might suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do. People who have fearful dogs who are just now getting used to being handled at all and are sensitive to proximity? There is possible fallout, even with such a “mild” aversive. So you will never see me tout its success or urge others to try it. Instead, if asked about my own experience, I’ll urge caution and describe the drawbacks.

Not every positive reinforcement method is right for every dog either, of course. And some include aversives accidentally in the way they are applied. Still, that’s different from systematically and repeatedly using an unpleasant stimulus to get or suppress behavior.

To My Commenter

I’m glad your dog did OK after you used a trainer from a national franchise. I can tell he is a beloved family member and you care for him very much. I have a suggestion: there are at least two trainers in your area who use positive reinforcement-based methods and have pledged never to hurt dogs in the name of training. They can be found by searching for trainers at your location on this list:  Membership list of the Pet Professional Guild. Both of them offer fun classes like agility and clicker training. Take your dog to such a class, just for fun. See how he likes it. Hopefully, it will be a new and enjoyable experience for both of you.

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Graphic credit: The sad dog cartoon is free clipart from clipartpanda.com. Thanks! 

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.

Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.

Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.

Summer over the threshold of stimulus aversivness
My dog Summer showing stress during an R+ training session. What can we therefore conclude about the learning process called positive reinforcement? 

The “Stressed-Out” R+ Dog

So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?

When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.

Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.

Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.

If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.

Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.

Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.

Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.

  • What I’m calling pressure could consist of anything in the environment, setup, or even mannerisms of the trainer that the dog would like to escape from. Is something too loud? Is someone pressuring the dog with his or her body? Is the dog being kept too close to something she is scared of? This type of problem comes from the unwitting inclusion of an aversive stimulus.
  • Likewise, accidents happen, as they can in any training. A trainer might step on her dog’s tail during a stay, but again, this is an aversive accident, not an integral part of R+ training.

So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus.  Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.

A Fair Comparison

Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and  the trainer is often touting it as a success story.

So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.

Here’s what it could look like.

  • Bad timing: Imagine popping a dog’s collar when she is heeling perfectly, in addition to popping her when she makes an error.
  • Changing criteria too fast: Imagine using duration shock to teach a dog to jump off a platform immediately after using it to teach her to jump on it.
  • Unplanned aversive stimulus: Imagine teaching stays using your hands to force a sound-sensitive dog to hold her position while a delivery truck with a no muffler drives by.

Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?

A Real-Life Example of the Results of R+ Training with Errors

I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.

In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.

In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.

My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.

My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?

Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.

Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions.  The tape on the wall is in a tight area.  I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.

So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.

Link to the Lumping video for email subscribers.

But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.

So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?

That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.

The Proper Rejoinder

Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:

It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!

The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.

Conclusions from Examples

Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”

A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.

What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.

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What Does Shower Mold Have to Do With Dog Training?

What Does Shower Mold Have to Do With Dog Training?

Am I really reaching today, or what? You be the judge!

There is a series of articles in the behavioral psychology literature that questions whether the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is important.*

These papers are often quoted by people who seem motivated to rehabilitate negative reinforcement, although the papers are generally more about nomenclature, and not whether negative reinforcement is humane.

Before we go on, here is a working definition of negative reinforcement and some examples:

Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Some examples are:

  • The buzzer of your alarm clock goes on until you get up and turn it off.
  • You get rained on until you open an umbrella.
  • A trainer pinches a dog’s ear until she opens her mouth to accept the retrieve object.

Negative reinforcement can be involved in something as trivial as scratching an itch to something as serious as running for one’s life from a predator. There is a vast range of severity. It’s not all about pain.

When we consider dog training, we need to make a distinction regarding handler mediated negative reinforcement and automatic reinforcement. Stepping in and putting a behavioral requirement on the removal of an aversive differs from the myriad ways that dogs take action in their own lives to remove an aversive, be it mild or extreme.

Finally, there are some borderline cases where it is hard to determine whether the process involved is positive or negative reinforcement.

That is what I’m writing about today.

Borderline Cases

The classic borderline case is the thermostat. When it’s too cold and you go adjust the thermostat by two degrees, are your actions reinforced by the subsequent pleasant feeling of warmth, or the relief from the uncomfortable cold? People use the borderline cases to support arguments made in favor of doing away with the distinction between R+ and R-.

Those who like to argue that negative reinforcement is “not so bad” also like to bring up this example, even though it is not typical of reinforcement scenarios.

I ran across one of these ambiguous situations recently in my own life and am going to share and analyze it here. Let’s see whether the fact that it could go either way makes the negative reinforcement any more benign.

Blue and white checkered tiles
Tile photo credit—Wikimedia Commons

Personal Example: My Shower

I am an indifferent housekeeper. I am prone to clutter, and tend to barely keep up with the dog hair on the floor and the dirt the dogs track in.

I have a bit of a problem with mold in my house, and my shower had recently gotten pretty bad, such that even with a thorough cleaning I couldn’t get it to look nice. I have tried several times in the past to change my behavior about that, but failed.

So when it got moldy again about four months ago, I made a thoughtful plan and tried again. First, I threw out and replaced my shower curtain liner and in-tub mat. I scrubbed the shower and tile and sprayed it with bleach. I did this repeatedly over the course of a few days until it was beautifully clean.

Then I thought about antecedents and reinforcers regarding the shower cleaning behavior and made a plan to maintain the shower and keep it clean.

I purchased two kinds of shower spray: one with bleach and one without. Both claim to keep the shower clean just by spraying on. (Bear with me. I’m not much interested in the details of housecleaning either, but they are relevant here.) My goal was to arrange antecedents to make the desired behavior as easy to maintain as possible.

I then adopted a loose schedule of using the cleaner with bleach a couple of days a week and the less noxious (but also probably less effective) one a few times a week. I wasn’t sure exactly how much would be necessary to keep the shower clean, but was ready—gasp—to do something every day if I had to.

So far I have kept up—it’s been a few months now—and the shower/tub is sparkling clean.

Question: What is Maintaining the Behavior?

Shower stall with white tile and a white curtain pulled aside
Shower photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is it negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement?

Let’s map out our contingencies. We are talking about a reinforcement scenario (not punishment) because we are increasing/maintaining a behavior: spraying stuff on the tub and tile.

 Positive reinforcement version

  • Antecedent: Schedule says it’s time to spray down the shower with cleaner
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Shower looks and smells pleasant and clean

Negative reinforcement version (escape)

  • Antecedent: There is mold in the shower
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Mold is gone

Negative reinforcement version (avoidance)

  • Antecedent: There is the threat of mold in the shower
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Threat of mold is relieved

So which scenario is it and does it matter?

Can We Tell By Observation?

First, let’s think about whether there is any way that a person observing my behavior could tell. Is there a special way to apply shower spray that shows one’s motivator is to prevent mold? Or is there an indicator that one loves the look of a sparkly clean shower?

Behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement tend to be minimal. The person or animal does the very least he or she can do to get the result. I believe this has shown to be true in the workplace, and can also often be observed in dogs that are trained using aversives only.

As Aubrey Daniels says:

Positive reinforcement maximizes performance, while negative reinforcement gets a level of performance that is just enough to get by, just enough to escape or avoid some unpleasant consequence.—Bringing out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels

In the case of the shower, could we tell by watching? If we observed my behavior over time, we could note whether I sprayed the whole shower or just the parts that tend to get moldy. We could also note whether I made efforts to determine the minimum amount of work it takes to keep a shower clean (or mold-free) using the methods I chose.

Also, we could try to tell whether I took any enjoyment out of the clean shower. Do I go out of my way to admire it? Do I polish parts of it to make it extra sparkly? Do I shower even when I don’t need to because I find it so pleasant?

But since I’m a human being with many motivations, I think it would be a little difficult for an onlooker to tell what is driving my shower cleaning behavior. I may use minimal efforts because I want to save on cleaning supplies or I like to make a game out of efficiency. When I look at the shower, I may be looking for flaws, not admiring my handiwork.

But I know which it is!

So Which Is It?

What is driving my behavior is the threat of mold. I hate it. I remind myself to notice how nice the shower looks, but that is an incredibly weak reinforcer for me.

Even though I have worked out a system with minimal effort and virtually no elbow grease, I HATE having to spray stuff to maintain the clean shower. There is no pleasure in it for me, before or after. I am continually trying to figure out whether I can skip a day, or two, or maybe leave off the bleach version for a while. The situation is doubly frustrating because I feel like I can’t mess up. Because if the mold comes back even a little, it will be that much harder to eradicate. So I don’t even know where the boundary for “minimal” is, but I am sure trying to find it.

This is almost a purely negative reinforcement scenario for me.

Application to Dog Training

I have previously written about two situations in which it could be hard to tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement in dog training. One is when training with food if the dog has been deprived. The behaviors that allow a starving dog to eat are negatively reinforced as her hunger is assuaged. Likewise, a game of hiding from your dog could involve either positive or negative reinforcement.

However, I think the most common situation where positive and negative reinforcement can be confused is when dogs are said to work for praise. Yes, you read that right. Compared to food and play, praise is a very weak positive reinforcer for most dogs, and often nonexistent unless it has been deliberately paired with a primary reinforcer and/or the bond with the human is very strong. More often, praise is a safety signal, a sign from the human that, “You have done the right thing and I won’t hassle or pressure you anymore.”

So we may think our dog is working “for the joy of a clean shower” when she really is working to escape the mold. And, unlike humans, dogs tend to be a little more obvious about how happy they are with an interaction or a method, if we can just learn to pay attention.

Take-Home Lessons

Even if it is a negative reinforcement scenario, cleaning the shower is one of those fairly benign sounding applications. Perhaps I sound like a pretty spoiled person to be complaining about it. I know that I am privileged for that to even be on my radar as a problem, for sure. But you know, when searching for photos to use with this post, I got grossed out. And even though I found a couple of moldy tile pictures on Flickr that would be permissible to use, I ultimately decided against it because they were disgusting. I didn’t want icky pictures of mold on my blog.

I have been describing an “automatic” negative reinforcement process. My own actions directly remove the aversive, the threat of mold. How would I feel if someone used the threat of mold to get other behavior from me?  Easy answer. I wouldn’t like them very much. Especially since I am so easy to please with food or money, grin. Really, why on earth would someone want to use a threat instead?

These kinds of analyses of everyday activities are helpful to me. I hope they are helpful to others, and I hope I didn’t over-share. I have contemplated trashing this post several times, but then I thought perhaps it would help someone understand negative reinforcement just a little better. When one is first learning about the processes of learning, negative reinforcement methods can sneak in, seeming like magic. Look, I didn’t have to hurt my dog or give it food either! That’s one of the main reasons I write about it so much. It can be quite insidious.

Got any personal negative reinforcement stories?

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

* This is the first in the series of articles I mentioned. Even the last part of the title indicates that the paper is about nomenclature and not excusing negative reinforcement.  Michael, Jack. “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things.” Behaviorism (1975): 33-44.

9 Effects of Punishment

9 Effects of Punishment

Here are nine documented possible side effects of the use of punishment, negative reinforcement, and of aversives in general.

  1. Escape/Avoidance: If you hurt or scare your dog, she will likely try to avoid you, the places you frequent, and whatever else she associates with the hurt. This linked post is about that happening to a dog. This post is about that happening to a human.
  2. Operant Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, he may hurt you back.
  3. Elicited Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, she may hurt your other dog or your kid.
  4. Generalization (related to #1 and #2 above): If you scare or hurt your dog, she can become afraid of (or aggressive toward) other things associated with your actions, like locations and objects.
  5. Apathy: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot, she may become apathetic and not do much of anything.
  6. Conditioned Suppression/Learned Helplessness: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot unpredictably, she will live in a state of fear and also may not do much of anything.
  7. Injury: If you hurt your dog you could cause him injury. 
  8. Reinforcement of the Punisher: If you hurt or scare your dog regularly, your actions will easily be reinforced and become habitual. On the occasion that your actions don’t work to interrupt or decrease behavior, you will tend to escalate the hurt.
  9. Copying: If you see someone training their dog through pain or intimidation, it can influence you to do it yourself.

These are the things you risk if you use pain, fear, force, coercion, intimidation, or even startling to train your dog. The effects are not limited to training “tools” such as are featured in the picture below.

Not all of them will happen all the time. But they are all possible, and we can’t know ahead of time which dogs (and which owners) will be strongly affected by the use of aversive methods.

That’s the short version. For scientific references, check the resource page described and linked below.

Prong collars, air horns, squirt bottles, penny cans, and throwing bags
Some aversives used in dog training

Introducing the Aversives Resource Page

Here it is:

Danger sign homemadeFallout from Use of Aversives in Punishment and Negative Reinforcement: A Reference List

This resource page cites articles, most of them classics from peer-reviewed journals, on the above types of fallout. It is provided for people who need or want to investigate the original sources.

Most types of aversive fallout are so well documented that the reader can check out the original article and follow a cascade of research following it.

Besides classic sources for the above effects, I’ve listed the main studies that document side effects of painful or scary training for dogs, and also a couple of other important references. Like many of my projects, the page is ongoing.

If it is helpful to you, please share it. If I have left out something important, please let me know!

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

A speech balloon with the words, "This method is OK because..." in it.

Today’s post is about how people often justify the use of aversives. I’m going to use my own experience as an example.

  • I am going to present a description of an aversive method I used to use.
  • I am going to list many common justifications that could be offered as reasons why that method could be OK.
  • I’m going to describe the possible fallout from the method for the dog and for the handler.

Aversives

Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defined aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!”
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