Category: Escape/Avoidance

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

R- captionI didn’t give today’s post a cute title, because this situation makes me very, very sad.

There are some strange claims going around the dog training community. They are not being made by shock trainers, although I am sure they appreciate them. Instead I am hearing them from many people in the force free community. The statements minimize the problems that can be caused by using negative reinforcement.

In negative reinforcement (R-), something that makes the dog uncomfortable, including that it may frighten or hurt the dog, is used to get behavior. The dog stays in the uncomfortable state until it performs a desired behavior. Then the uncomfortable state is ended. (The definition is contingent on a future increase in the behavior.) This linked post has examples of some of the ways that negative reinforcement is used in training, ranging from body pressure to an ear pinch retrieve.

There is truly a continuum in the severity in the applications of R-. In the human world, it can run the gamut from putting on a coat, to a staredown, to torture. Negative reinforcement happens a lot in the natural world, too, often at very low levels of aversiveness.  So people are correct if they say that some situations are more aversive than others, or that using negative reinforcement is not always a catastrophe. The trouble begins when they make blanket statements–especially blanket incorrect statements–that include all negative reinforcement.

Following are two related versions of the statement about negative reinforcement that I keep seeing.

Version 1

The reason some trainers object to negative reinforcement is that when people add the aversive, there can be fallout.

This statement omits the majority of the problems known to accompany the use of negative reinforcement and aversives in general. The fact that an animal’s response to an aversive can get generalized to the handler is only one of the many problems with using negative reinforcement.

I rewrote the statement to be more complete.

The reasons some trainers object to negative reinforcement include that it employs an aversive, the association with the aversive can be generalized, it is on the undesirable end of the humane hierarchy, it is linked with reactivity and aggression, and has other undesirable side effects for both the animal and the trainer.

The main issue isn’t whether there’s a human wielding the aversive, it’s that an aversive is being used in the first place.

If the only problem with negative reinforcement were that the animal might make an association between the icky thing and the human, all that would be necessary to make negative reinforcement acceptable across the board would be to prevent the animal from making that association.

The shock trainers must be delighted whenever they hear this statement come from the mouths of force free trainers. If it were true, all they would have to do for their training to be acceptable would be to make sure the dog doesn’t know that they are controlling the shock. (And shock trainers with skill and knowledge of learning theory take care to do just that, by the way.) Poof! No more criticism of shock!

I know that this is not the intent of the force free trainers who are defending negative reinforcement. But as long as they make blanket statements about that quadrant, it is the logical conclusion.

It also strikes me as very self centered to mention only this particular problem with negative reinforcement. Really? It’s OK to deliberately use something unpleasant to get the dog to do stuff, as long as the dog continues to like us?

Version 2

Negative reinforcement is ethically OK as long as the handler isn’t the one who adds the aversive to the environment.

On the surface, this sounds like the same thing. But in general, the people who say this are discussing ethics, not behavioral fallout. I have seen probably a dozen people write that using an aversive that is “already out there” is ethically acceptable, while adding one oneself is not. It’s a tempting rationale, but there are some real problems with it.

Let’s go straight to examples on this one.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
  1. Let’s say my dog and I are out in the yard and it starts to storm. I notice that my dog is cowering at the door; she is scared of the thunder. Instead of letting her in immediately, I require that she sit and give me eye contact for 10 seconds. If she can do that, her reinforcement is that she gets to go in the house where she feels safer from the storm.
  2. My dog and I are again in my back yard. I have bought a new sump pump for the crawl space in my house. I turn the pump on while my dog is watching. It will run for 2 minutes as a test. I notice that my dog is cowering at the door; she is scared of the pump sound. Instead of letting her in immediately, I require that she sit and give me eye contact for 10 seconds. If she can do that, her reinforcement is that she gets to go in the house where she can get away from the pump.

Now compare the two experiences for the dog.  She is sitting there at the door trying to figure out how to get me to let her in, away from the scary noise. If the noises are equally aversive, the two situations are just the same.

I don’t see a difference ethically. The thunderstorm exposure is no more humane than the sump pump.  In both cases I chose to use an aversive and required my dog to stay longer than necessary in a situation that scared her. And I did have another option in each case, one that is almost always ignored by people defending negative reinforcement protocols.  I could have just let her in the house without requiring a particular behavior.

Natural vs Contrived Negative Reinforcement

There is a recognized difference between two types of reinforcement: natural (or automatic) negative reinforcement and contrived (or socially mediated) negative reinforcement. I have written a post about them. Paul Chance’s definition is as follows:

Natural reinforcers are events that follow spontaneously from a behavior… Contrived reinforcers are events that are provided by someone for the purpose of modifying behavior. Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Seventh Ed., p. 140-141

Getting inside a house is not a natural consequence of sitting and offering a human extended eye contact. Both of the above examples are contrived, even though one utilizes a phenomenon in nature, and the other a sound from a machine deliberately turned on by the human. There is no stipulation about the stimulus for these definitions, only the reinforcer.

A related example of natural negative reinforcement would be if my dog were in the back yard, it thundered, and she came in the doggie door under her own power. In this case, the reinforcer of getting in the house is a natural consequence of the dog going through the doggie door.

A Message from My Heart

Making glib claims that minimize the harm in negative reinforcement can result in dogs being hurt.

Please remember that when you make blanket claims about negative reinforcement, you are not necessarily talking about the more benign end of the spectrum or just one instance. If you have stature as a trainer, you are giving blanket permission to countless people to be cavalier about using aversives.

For whatever reason, most people are primed to believe it when told that X, Y, or Z method “doesn’t hurt” the dog. Many of us pet owners have had this experience. I would venture to say that most pro trainers have come across it in their clients. People are ready to believe that things that hurt dogs don’t hurt them. And they are ready to believe that practices that harm dogs are not harmful.

It is responsible to urge caution in the use of aversives. It is not responsible to minimize the fallout.

Regarding Comments

This is  a post about speaking truthfully when making general claims about aversives. It is not about any training method. It does not “damn” anyone who uses negative reinforcement when training their animal. It urges them not to make blanket statements about the acceptableness of R- in general or to argue in favor of its acceptance as a general practice. 

Coming Up

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Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

I recently gave a webinar entitled, “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition,” for the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). The webinar is still available as a recording, and I encourage any interested folks to check it out. It is not expensive. (And thank you to everybody who already came! That was so cool to recognize some names!)

I am outlining here some basics from the webinar. The reason I created the webinar in the first place was to allay confusion in the dog community about definitions and to aid in communication. I think some straightforward definitions and a “map” will help many people and their dogs.

I argue that there are three distinct, necessary, and useful definitions of the word “threshold” in dog training. They are:

  1. Sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here is one textbook definition: The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.—Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007. In the webinar I go into the history, discuss types of thresholds in psychology (yes, even within the discipline there is more than one), and cite several more definitions and supporting information. There are many sensory thresholds: hearing, different aspects of vision, smell, touch, etc. One way the psych definition of absolute threshold is unfamiliar to our common use of “threshold” in training is that it is the stimulus that is above or below the threshold of the organism’s sensory capabilities. We say, “That sound is under the threshold of hearing,” not, “The dog is over its threshold of hearing.”  Organisms’ responses to sensory stimuli are often invisible to the naked eye, and the responses generally do not correlate to overt, “dramatic” behavior.
  2. Threshold in the common training sense. You can find definitions of this usage in books by Leslie McDevitt, Debbie Jacobs, Laura VanArendonk Baugh,  and more.  These definitions roughly agree. Here is Debbie Jacobs’, which is very straightforward:  The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).” — A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog, 2011I argue that this usage of the term generally corresponds to the response of the sympathetic nervous system: the fight/flight/freeze response or the fear response.  In this usage, it’s the dog that is said to be over threshold, not the stimulus. I also cover usages of the term “threshold” by behaviorists including Steven Lindsay, Dr. James O’Heare, and Dr. Karen Overall. They discuss dozens of sensory, physiological, and behavioral thresholds, and always specify which one they mean.
  3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness. This threshold is the point at which an existing stimulus becomes aversive, generally because of the intensity of the exposure. I gave this threshold a name, but I didn’t invent the concept. It is necessary to locate this threshold through our dogs’  behavior when doing both desensitization/counterconditioning protocols and operant learning processes. Jean Donaldson defines it thusly: In DS/CC,  “under threshold” is: An intensity of stimulus that elicits no fear (and so the intensity of stimulus that would not function as R-)…. Not “mild fear” or “manageable fear,” it’s NO fear.–The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement, PPG Webinar, 2012.  Attention to this threshold is necessary also in negative reinforcement protocols that involve escape,  since the stimulus exposure must be over the threshold of aversiveness in order for escape to function as negative reinforcement.

I believe that most of the problems in discussion of thresholds in the dog training community are due to two major points of confusion: 1) Whether we’re talking about the dog or the stimulus being over threshold (confusion between Definitions #1 and #2); and 2) The fact that many of us haven’t realized there is a difference between Definitions #2 and #3.

Mapping it Out

Here is a graphic showing these three different thresholds, and where the major types of protocols for working with fearful, aggressive, or reactive dogs fall among them:

Thresholds for blog
 This graphic may be shared for educational purposes with the copyright and credits included, and I would appreciate online citations to link back to this post or the webinar page.

The combination of desensitization/counterconditioning is performed under the threshold of aversiveness, as Jean Donaldson describes. Protocols using negative reinforcement (escape/retreat from the aversive stimulus) must take place partly over the threshold of aversiveness, or else the movement away is not reinforcing. They generally go back and forth over that threshold. Finally, flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear response. In the webinar I split things out further and map six different protocols separately; I have roughly grouped them for this graphic.

I also talk about the ways that some of the thresholds move and change, through training, external events, and the emotional state of the dog. I describe how certain protocols become more difficult if two of the thresholds are very close. For instance, for wild animals the threshold of sensory perception of a stimulus and the threshold of aversiveness of that stimulus may be practically on top of each other.  I address the often-heard claim that there is no negative reinforcement happening if the dog is “under threshold.” (Which threshold?)  Also, I discuss which protocol is likely to take place closer to the stimulus—but also why the absolute distance is not a good point of comparison.


I will be working further on this topic, in part because of some great questions asked at the end of the webinar, so you may expect more from me about it at some point.  For now I encourage anyone who wants further information to view the webinar.

Please note that the webinar does not have information on how to perform the above-mentioned training/conditioning protocols, on reading dog body language, or other training tips. It’s not about how to train a fearful or aggressive dog.  But the feedback I have gotten from viewers is that it has clarified an area of considerable confusion and that it will help their training.

Related Posts

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Why Not to Respond to that FaceBook Post While You’re All Fired Up

Why Not to Respond to that FaceBook Post While You’re All Fired Up

Zombies Invade San Francisco!

Thanks to Scott Beale on Flickr for the photo. 

This post may not about what you think. There are several obvious reasons not to rush off the deep end with a critical FaceBook comment, first among them that you may really hurt someone or make yourself look like an asshole. But I don’t think that point really needs a whole blog post, do you?

But here’s an idea that I do think is worth examining in detail, since I think it is much less familiar to many of us, psych majors excluded.

I’m talking about responding to that inner drive that tells you that you MUST get out there and write something to STOP THE NONSENSE that people are writing. And that you need to do it RIGHT NOW. Dealing with the feeling is a very interesting topic to me.


A friend told me that when you take your first abnormal psych class in college, you are blindsided by the perfect descriptions of your mother, your boss, your next-door neighbor, and your ex–right there in the textbook. 

I kind of had that feeling when I started learning about maladaptive coping strategies, but it was, umm, not just other people. Oh oh. This really hits home.

I’ve been reading and studying psychology in a piecemeal way most of my life but I hadn’t read much until recently about coping.

So when I recently read this blog post on maladaptive coping strategies, it started me burrowing into the topic. While some of my buddies are reading original sources and writing about the ramifications in dog training (as I probably will too), I’m sticking with the basics and thinking about people!

Maladaptive coping mechanisms: how could something that feels so right be  so wrong?


In psychology, coping is expending conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.–Wikipedia

Adaptive coping is coping that works to achieve these aims. Maladaptive coping is unsuccessful in the long run and actually raises stress levels. But since maladaptive coping can feel so good in the short run, it’s very very seductive.

Here’s a list of adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies I have compiled from some different sources, both scholarly and pop culture.  This one in particular was a particularly nice succinct little list: Adaptive and Maladaptive Coping Strategies, and all its entries made it into my list below.

In my list, I tried to pair them when possible, but it’s not in any way exact.

Adaptive Coping Maladaptive Coping
Concentrating on efforts to do something about the problem Practicing anxious avoidance–avoiding anxiety provoking situations at all times
Seeking instrumental social support (getting advice, talking to someone who can do something to help) Looking for sympathy/social support
Deriving meaning from stressful experience Performing safety behaviors
Keeping physically fit and preventing adverse physical effects Relying on someone or something else to cope
Lowering arousal through relaxation techniques Aggressing
Exercising Abusing substances
Using humor Escaping–fleeing at the first sign of anxiety. Panic or phobias
Taking action about the problem Distracting oneself
Accepting and learning to live with it Being in denial
Showing restraint: holding off on doing something too quickly and making it worse Rushing in to “put out the fire.” Seeking relief from the discomfort no matter what the cost
Confronting problems directly Wallowing in self blame
Suppressing competing activities, i.e., concentrating on the problem Performing mental avoidance–turning to other activities to distract oneself
Planning: making a strategy Disengaging–giving up
Changing unhealthy emotional reactions Focusing on venting emotions
Performing altruistic acts Performing self-indulgent behaviors
Preparing ahead of time for stressor Getting sensitized (rehearsing and anticipating future fearful events)
Changing perspective and making realistic appraisals Dissociating (compartmentalizing)
Utilizing internal locus of control Utilizing external locus of control
Counting one’s blessings Ruminating
Planning how to use one’s time productively Sleeping too much

If you are like me, some of those in the maladaptive column were a surprise!

Adaptive or Maladaptive: A Quiz

Let’s say your job at a big company sucks. There’s a bar on the way home where you and your coworkers hang out. Several times a week, on your way home, you stop at the bar. A couple of drinks help you unwind from the stress of your jerk boss, your impossible quotas, and the toxic guy in the next cube. But also, your coworkers are there. There is lots of camaraderie as you support each other in your complaints, and share the difficulties in the workplace. It feels great to get that social support. When you get home, you are still a bit frustrated, so you get on FaceBook using your fake account and gripe a little more, or post anonymously on a “my terrible boss” website.

Question: Which part of what I have described is maladaptive and which is adaptive?

<<insert Final Jeopardy tune>>

Answer: As described, all of it is generally maladaptive. Most of us recognize the down side of regularly using alcohol to handle a situation. But the type of social support described is also maladaptive a lot of the time. This comes as a surprise since we usually look on social support as a great thing. And the support described above undoubtedly feels great. Such a relief it is to hang out with people who understand and can commiserate! But doing so is unlikely to lower stress in the long haul. In fact,  it is likely part of a dysfunctional coping strategy that may keep you in your miserable job, and/or keep you miserable in your job. So is griping on FaceBook, but that doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us.

Expansion: How could we tweak this to make it more adaptive?

  • How about, instead of drinking and bitching at the bar, you had a meeting with your co-workers about ways to improve the workplace? You could even bring in people who worked at other corporations who have managed to implement grassroots improvements.
  • Or if that turns out to be too “pie in the sky,” you can form a support group where you help each other job hunt to get out of the toxic company. (Just don’t let it devolve every time into a gripe session.)
  • OK, so in today’s job market, neither of those will probably work for everyone who is discontent. We have to be realistic. So in the meantime, keeping physically fit, meditating or doing other mental relaxation techniques, counting one’s blessings about having a job at all, and creating internal challenges and learning experiences relating to the job are all positive coping strategies.

So What Does This Have to Do With FaceBook?

Facebook is a pleasant place where you visit with your friends and family, chat with like minded people, exchange ideas, and share photos. What a happy place it is! It must be since so many people spend so much time there, right?

Not! For some of us, FaceBook is also a place where we find disagreement, insults, and mayhem. And it’s things we care very deeply about that are being argued about. FaceBook can instantly cause one’s blood pressure to shoot sky high!

There is a lot to cope with there. And what is the main stressor? For most it’s dissent. Both the fact of disagreement and the emotional reaction to the ways that people disagree.

It turns out that few of the ways I’ve been using to cope for a long time came up on the maladaptive list!

Maladaptive? Really?

I have shared before that I am pretty thin skinned. I’m an unlikely candidate to be writing about anything controversial since argument makes me really nervous. Throughout my life I’ve been proud that I have been able to just turn away and ignore stuff that has been written about me or even to me if I knew it would be upsetting. It does take some self discipline.

Hare making a run for it
Hare making a run for it

So how could ignoring somebody who bothers you, or protecting yourself from having to read the opinion of every Tom, Dick, and Harry be maladaptive? First of all, remember that we are dealing with stressors. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid eating egg yolks if I just plain don’t like them. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid arguments about the Greco-Persian wars if those are not interesting to me. But it’s maladaptive to turn away from criticism of my posts as a default, fearful reaction. It is an escape response if it stems from an inability to cope with the criticism.

If I’m completely honest, when I try to ignore critical stuff about me or my writing, that doesn’t relieve the stress. I know it’s out there. After a while it may fade from my mind, since I’m forgetful. But the most important thing is that ignoring it doesn’t build any resilience. Since I do get some relief from the escape, I will be more likely to do it more in the future, not less. The behavior may generalize and become an automatic coping mechanism. 

I think we can perceive that that’s not good. I would much rather be in a place where criticism didn’t hurt so much. Let’s look at the Adaptive column for some alternatives.

What if, instead of turning my back, I could take a look at this criticism? What if I derived meaning from the act of reading these other opinions? Gave them some thought. Either firmed up my own views, saw some merit in the others’, or just had a good laugh? What if then I was just able to accept that this person is out there thinking that particular thing, and not have it bother me personally? Wouldn’t that be better than having to continue to escape and avoid whenever I see that they have written something about me?

I think it would. Acceptance is underrated. In my opinion, the list item about “acceptance” doesn’t mean that you agree with or excuse the person. It means that it doesn’t stress you out that they are out there disagreeing with you. Huge difference.

And if I got to that point where it just didn’t bother me, then whether or not I looked at it wouldn’t matter. My emotional reaction to a diatribe about one of my posts would be a bored yawn or a quick scan for new information rather than a quick click away.

I want to be clear that I’m not pointing a finger at anybody else. This adaptive/maladaptive stuff is tricky. If you are somewhat in the public eye and tend to ignore some types of non-constructive criticism, you may just be a lot farther along than I am in the growing up process. But for me, that ignoring thing has been a fear reaction.

That’s the missing piece for me. I have been thinking all along that in some cases, not paying attention to someone or something could be just fine. Even severing ties with a relative or former friend may not necessarily be maladaptive, in my opinion. We don’t have to associate with everyone in the world to be mentally healthy.

I talked to a very wise friend about this. She said immediately that she thought that if one could make a choice about it, that was an indicator of more adaptive behavior. It wasn’t running away. That person didn’t have a huge emotional impact on you. You just thought it logically through and decided they just weren’t worth your time in the grand scheme of life.

Fools Rush In

And that brings me to the title. Did anybody notice the item in the maladaptive side about rushing in to “put out the fire”? We all know that feeling. Here’s the famous cartoon.


Credit and license for the cartoon. Thanks!

You can even see that this is maladaptive. The person is losing sleep so as to get their comments in right away.

Learning about maladaptive coping has been a revelation to me. Here, all that time I have been seduced by that feeling of absolute urgency. It is powerful!  But I have learned now how to classify that feeling. For me it is MISPLACED. It is maladaptive. It’s a classic response to pressure (negative reinforcement, anyone?) And that can lead us to take the quickest avenue to relieve the pressure. Writing an elaborate response to straighten everybody out and pressing Post!

But the internet will be there tomorrow. I can sleep on it. See all that stuff in the “adaptive” column about showing restraint and planning? FaceBook comment threads are probably the last place in the world where you are likely to change someone’s mind anyway. After a second thought, you may decide it’s not even worth your time. And if you are just wanting to help someone–they’ll probably be there tomorrow. It is just not an emergency after all. How interesting it is that some words on a screen can tap so effectively into those physiological responses to stress!

How about you all? What do you think of the lists above? Agree? Disagree?

Coming up:

  • Boing! Capturing a Trick
  • The Catharsis Myth and Dog Training
  • What is an Antecedent?
  • Elements of a Cue
  • Making Lemonade: Negative Reinforcement in Writing
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)

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