Category: Operant conditioning

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks serious

I think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement-based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.

If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.

Continue reading “Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior”
When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara pulls on leash edited

Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!

  • One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
  • The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.

Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.

Doing DS/CC Correctly

The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time.  We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.

In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.

How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world.  Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.

So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.

Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.

But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.

Pavlov Wins

Text box: "Holding to strict criteria for walking on a loose leash and maintaining the clarity of pairing in classical conditioning are mutually exclusive

Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)

The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!

After DS/CC

Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction,  and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.

During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.

Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side.  I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.

I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that  it gives me great joy to be led around!

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses

What It Looks Like

This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.

In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.

Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.

Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!

That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.

So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull?  I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public,  I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.

But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.


If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline  your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)

It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.

Clara and her buddy taking a break from shopping
Clara and her buddy in a department store display window taking a break from shopping

For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.

I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.

Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?

It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.


Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube


The Girl with the Paper Hat

The Girl with the Paper Hat

Hat made out of folded newspaper

This post has been updated and re-released here

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the matching law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014




It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

An updated version of this post.

Zani head tilt
Zani keeps her eyes on me a large part of the time

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or slip collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only to “get the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately,  the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

Nonsense Clue #1

We almost never want only our dog’s attention.

Let’s say that your Magical Attention Signal is tossing a lightweight coaster towards your dog. Your dog doesn’t particularly care about coasters. (Folks with disc-crazy dogs, hang on, I’ll get to you.) So you toss the coaster and the dog looks up. Yay, success! You’ve got the dog’s attention. Mission accomplished!

Um, no. Of course we don’t want only the dog’s attention. When we want their attention, it’s for a reason. The reason is almost always one of two things: to get them to do something or stop doing something. Getting their attention is only the bare beginning.

Nonsense Clue #2

Non-predictive stimuli are subject to habituation.

Habituation: A decrease in response following repeated exposure to a non-threatening stimulus.–Klein, Thorne: (2006) Biological Psychology

Virtually all of us have experienced habituation to something that was initially novel. Let’s say you move to a new house. It’s barely within earshot of an elevated train or metro track. When you first move in, you notice the sound of the train regularly: maybe a whistle, or just the rumble.

Elevated trainAt first it gets your attention. However, it gradually sinks in that there are no relevant consequences to that sound for you. The train schedule doesn’t affect vehicle or pedestrian traffic in any way. You don’t have to arrange your day around it. None of your loved ones ride it or work for the railroad. The noise is faint and there aren’t any noxious fumes. It doesn’t predict danger. In fact the train noise doesn’t predict anything for you, good or bad.

So what happens to the stimulus of train noise?  Habituation. You stop noticing it. It fades into the background. Our minds sift through stuff all the time to determine predictors of good and bad consequences. Things to seek and things to avoid. Low-intensity stimuli with no consequences fall to the bottom of the priority stack.*

Animals, including dogs, do this sifting too. Some dogs are noticeably good at it, like my Clara, who often knows my behavior patterns better than I do. And when you think about it, loads of the stuff we humans do has some kind of predictive value to our dogs. Turning on the TV. Getting dressed. Opening the refrigerator. Sighing. Even pulling down a book from the bookshelf.

I had a hard time thinking of a regularly occurring non-predictive stimulus in my life with my dogs, but here’s one. For my own dogs, the automatic switching on and off the the central heating and air means nothing. They hear it intermittently all day long, but it is just background noise to them. If the temperature weren’t well controlled, or if one of them was extremely hot- or cold-natured, she might start to notice and take the opportunity to go lie next to the air vent. Then the sound of the heat and air clicking on would become predictive, and start rising up in the stack of “things to notice.”

So the upshot is that if we want our dogs to keep responding to a stimulus, it generally has to be quite strong in itself, or have a consequence. Good or bad, your choice. But not neutral.

What Really Happens?

So how might our thrown coaster stimulus work? We have determined that if it were non-predictive, it probably wouldn’t continue to get the dog’s attention. So if it works consistently to get the dog’s attention, what’s going on?

There are four relevant possibilities:

  1. Yay!

    Having a coaster suddenly land nearby could be intrinsically desirable to the dog. Maybe you have a loopy goofy retriever and he loves having something thrown near him, even if it’s just a coaster. He probably grabs it and plays with it. However, it may have failed as an attention-getting device. He’s playing with the toy, not looking up at you. And if you threw it when he was doing something you didn’t like, you would have accidentally reinforced the bad behavior. “Yay! I got a toy when I barked at Grandma!” (This can happen when people try to interrupt or punish with squirt bottles. Some dogs think being squirted is wonderful.)

  2. Startled boxer

    It could be intrinsically aversive to the dog. I would wager that this is the case for many dogs, especially at first. Something flying through the air, appearing suddenly close and making a noise could startle them. Some dogs would habituate to it, and some might never do so. If they didn’t habituate, this could work as a way of getting your dog to pay attention to you. There’s a big drawback though:  that startled, fearful response would likely become associated with you. You become the scary person who throws stuff.

  3. It could predict something desirable for the dog.

    Good stuff coming!
    Good stuff coming!

    Maybe your dog is not turned on by coasters. But what if, every time you tossed the coaster, you then threw a treat or a toy? The dog would quickly learn that the coaster toss predicted great stuff (in the same way that clickers are typically used). If you were to toss the coaster a number of times, pairing it with good stuff, after the dog learned to the association you could use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. This is the principle of the “positive interrupter.” But you don’t have to throw anything. If you are close enough to toss a coaster, a simple noise or word would do. And it’s pretty clear that the promoters of the Magical Attention Signal are not using it this way.

  4. Oh oh!
    Oh oh!

    It could predict something aversive for the dog. Like Cesar Millan’s “Tsst!,” it could predict a kick or a jab in the neck. Or something less dramatic, like being yelled at or handled roughly. This might not have been the trainer’s or owner’s intent from the start. But if the startling effect of the thrown coaster wears off (version #2), a stronger consequence will need to be added. Then the thrown coaster would become either a punishment marker (“Fido, you are about to get it”) or a threat (“Fido–hop to it or you are going to get it”). This is also how most shock collar training works. When a trainer brags that he uses only an extremely low, non-aversive level, that is because the dog has already been taught that the shock can easily be escalated if he doesn’t comply. Otherwise we are left only with the Magical Attention Signal.**

By the way, #4 illustrates the concept of the “punishment callus.” One of the paradoxical problems with using an aversive is that most people want to start out light. But if you try that on strongly entrenched dog behaviors like barking, digging, or jumping up, the behavior may well prove to be too strong. Then you will be in the position of having to escalate. And often the dog’s ability to tolerate the aversive will escalate right alongside.

No Magical Attention Signal

Many promoters of aversive tools to use in dog training don’t want to say that they ever hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

If someone says that Tool A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask them what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also ask them what happens if the “painless” tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

The Magical Attention Signal is not going give any lasting help on its own. Learning theory and common sense (if only we could apply it when we think about dogs!) tell us that behavior has consequences. We take actions for a reason. We act to get stuff we want. To avoid stuff we don’t like. All creatures with a brain stem, and more primitive creatures as well, from what I hear, do this.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Rapt attention in the back yard

But the good news: if you keep conscious control of the reinforcers in your life with your dogs, use those reinforcers to strengthen behaviors you like, teach alternatives to behaviors that you don’t, you will have a head start on getting great attention from your dog.

All photos except the one of my dog Zani and the one with my three dogs are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The boxer photo was cropped.

* This is a simplification of habituation. The extent of habituation depends on several characteristics of the stimulus and organism. Here is a review article: Rankin, et al. [2009.] Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Sep 2009; 92(2): 135–138.

**We could also add, looking at the four quadrants, that the thrown coaster could predict the cessation of something aversive, or the removal of something good.  But I think these are pretty unlikely usages.

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

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17 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

17 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

Training, 2009
“Real” training with Cricket, 2009

When most of us think of cues, we think of the verbal ones we teach our dogs. “Sit,” “Down,” “Here!” Perhaps we have taught them some hand signals as well. To teach a cue we go through a set process that can be quite a bit of work. It involves foresight, planning, and decision making on our parts. And practice, practice, practice. I think that tends to limit our perception of the other ways cues can come to exist in our lives with our dogs.

There are cues going on all the time that we didn’t plan or teach, and some that we don’t even know about. I’m going to share 17 of these that I have noticed out of the thousands that my dogs probably do, and movies of two of the most interesting ones.

First let’s review the definition. A cue in behavior science is properly referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Such a mouthful. A discriminative stimulus signals that reinforcement is likely available for a certain behavior. (The term also applies to a stimulus that indicates that reinforcement is not available, but let’s leave that alone for now.*). Breaking it down a bit: What’s a stimulus? It is a physical event that the organism can sense. Discriminative? It has a special meaning in this definition.

So in plainer English, and in the usage of dog training, a cue is a green light that tells the animal that there is a desirable consequence available if a certain behavior is performed. In real life training, we need to be sure and make it different enough from other stimuli so that the animal knows what behavior is being indicated. You don’t want your “bow” cue to sound like your “down” cue (thanks, Kathy Sdao!), and if you are using colors as cues, you had better not use colors that look almost the same to a dog, like orange and red.

Note that a cue is not a “command” or an “order.” There is no force in the definition of cue.

The Clever Cue Detector

What does this mean to Clara?
What does this mean to Clara?

My dog Clara has a genius for observation of the tiniest details, perhaps in part a result of her feral background. Since she arrived in my dog household, I have noticed an increase in group behaviors by my dogs that are responses to events in their environment. In other words, they now notice all sorts of things, usually that I do, that likely predict good stuff. And Clara in particular has the ability to follow my behavior chains backwards, to find the earliest predictor that I might do something cool.

Cue #1 The first one that I noticed is that Clara responds when I reach for the top shelf of a particular cupboard in the morning as I am getting ready for work. Virtually the only time I reach up there is to get down the package of cookies that I typically dip into for the dogs when I get ready to leave. Clara gets a nice treat when she goes to her crate, and the others (who are separated in different parts of the house but not otherwise confined) get a small piece too.

If we put that in the language of behavior analysis, we have:

  • Antecedent: Eileen reaches for package of cookies on the top shelf
  • Behavior: Clara runs to her crate and waits inside
  • Consequence: Clara gets a nice chunk of cookie

The interesting thing to me is how far back in time Clara has tracked this cue. Some dogs might not get in their place until verbally cued to do so. That’s the case with my other two dogs. Or a dog might wait until I was walking towards her crate. Or breaking the cookie into pieces, or rattling the package while getting the cookie out. But Clara has traced my behaviors backwards to the earliest consistent predictor of my leaving and her cookie: my reaching for the package. Also, I think it’s very cool that she runs away from the cookie to get the cookie.

In the movie, I show what happens when I reach into the cupboard and pull out something from a lower shelf. (Nothing! Even though it’s a noisy package, the dogs continue to watch, but don’t budge.) Then I show what happens when I reach for the special package of cookies. The sound is certainly part of the cue, but Clara doesn’t always wait for the sound. I have experimented, and she discriminates on the basis of what shelf I am reaching for.

Link to the cookie shelf cue movie.

Here are some more cues that I have come to notice. They are mostly Clara’s, but the other dogs have learned them now as well. I’m skipping past the more obvious ones like how all the dogs come running if they hear me preparing a meal, or opening the front door. Everybody’s dogs do that, right?

Cue, Cues, Everywhere!

The Computer

  • Cue #2 Setting: kitchen, in the morning. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m getting ready to leave for work, and she’ll get a good treat when I crate her. So actually, now that I think about it, she has traced the cookie cue even farther back in time than I realized.
  • Cue #3 Setting: kitchen, in the late evening. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to the bedroom. Why: I’m getting ready to go to bed, and she loves getting in the bed. (So in these two, the time of day is a part of the antecedent that allows her to discriminate.)
  • Cue #4 Setting: kitchen or office, the rest of the day. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: All dogs jump up or come running from other parts of the house to see what will happen. Why: Whatever I do next will likely be more interesting to them than my working on the computer.

OK, you get that when I actually get off the computer, it’s a real event. And actually, my drawing a breath and reaching for the laptop cover is now becoming the cue.

A different computer cue:

  • Cue #5 Setting: office, early evening. Cue: I put my laptop in its cover. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m likely going out (I carry my laptop around a lot).

The All-Important Ball

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.
The Ball Game

As you can imagine, with a ball-crazy dog like Clara, she pays intense attention to any cue that might precede a game.

  • Cue #6 Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I clean up after the dogs and put the poop stuff away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #7 Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I finish raking and put the rake away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #8 Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I let the dogs out of their various areas after they eat their supper. Behavior: Clara runs to the back door, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #9 Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I walk towards the back door. Behavior: Clara runs ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.

OK, from the above four, you can see how important playing ball is to Clara! The other dogs usually come too, since there is fun stuff available for them as well.

Kitchen Stuff, Training Sessions, and Attention in General

  • Cue #10 Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I lean back in my chair after eating. Behavior: Clara comes running over and nuzzles my hands. Why: I am available to pay attention to her again.
  • Cue #11 Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I open the pill bottle for Summer’s thyroid medicine. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: they all get a little peanut butter when I give Summer her pill. This one is especially interesting because it has been several years since I used to open the bottle for Summer’s pills twice a day. These days I only open it once a week because I cut up the pills and put them in a pill sorter. And I don’t always do that when it’s time to administer the pill. So it is no longer a perfect predictor. No matter; they still all come running. The power of a variable reinforcement schedule.
  • Cue #12 Setting: Anywhere in the house. Cue: I pick up the camera tripod. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: Training session!
  • Cue #13 Setting: Anywhere in the house: Cue: I pick up one of the dogs’ mats. Behavior: All dogs come running and try to get on it even while it’s up in the air. Why: Training or mat session!
  • Cue #14 Setting: I am talking on the phone. Cue: I start making finishing remarks. My dogs can tell from my inflection that I am winding up the conversation even before I get to “Goodbye.” Dang, they are good! Behavior: All dogs gather around. Why: I will probably get up and do something.
  • Cue #15 Setting: Anywhere in house. Cue: A delivery truck comes by.  Behavior: Clara and Zani come running. Why: I have classically conditioned Summer’s barking to mean a shower of food, and it has morphed into a recall cue. However, Clara and Zani both learned what makes Summer bark, so they no longer wait for her to bark.
  • Cue #16 Setting: going outside. Another recall cue that I wrote a whole post about.


A small black and tan colored hound is looking up. She has flecks of snow all over her face
Zani in the snow

Cue #17 Here’s another one starring Zani. Back in 2011, when I was making this movie about negative and positive reinforcement, I trained Zani to run down my back steps on cue. I have not used that cue very much in our life together, since generally she goes down when she needs to and I don’t intervene if she thinks she doesn’t need to. Some of the training for that cue took place during some snow here, a relative rarity. Interestingly, the snow became a cue! See what happens.

Link to movie “A Snowy Antecedent”

There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. I discussed with some knowledgeable friends what kind of antecedent the snow likely was. Characteristics of the environment are often setting factors. However, the snow by itself is sufficient to get Zani to start running up and down the stairs. So I vote that it is an actual cue. 

What are some of your dogs’ more interesting cues? Planned or unplanned?

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* Keller and Schoenfeld, Principles of Psychology, 1950, p 118. A stimulus-delta is also a discriminative stimulus.

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. 

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Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement

Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement

Hares escape a lot (if they are lucky)
Hares escape a lot (if they are lucky) — Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

Negative reinforcement is really, really easy to get mixed up about. Recently I read something that quite bothered me until I did a little research and figured it out. I’d like to share what I learned with you. What I’m talking about is this:

When I take my dog away from the thing he is concerned about, I am adding distance. Therefore this is positive reinforcement.

This is contrary to what you would read in most learning theory books, but it has its own seductive logic. We are primed to associate the word “add” with positive reinforcement (or positive punishment).  I love puzzles and problems, so I decided to do my best to tease out what, exactly, the problem with this statement is.

I  actually found two problems:

  • One is the confusion between positive and negative reinforcement.
  • The other is the focus on the word “distance” rather than the aversive thing itself.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Training

First, a review of definitions.

In positive reinforcement, the consequence of a behavior is the appearance of, or an increase in the intensity of, a stimulus. This stimulus, called a positive reinforcer, is ordinarily something the individual seeks out.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition

The stimulus can be lots of things. An object (food or toy), an event (door opening). The dog learns that performing a certain behavior (e.g. sitting), makes this thing available. If it is a desirable thing in that context, the dog sits more often.

In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of, a stimulus. This stimulus, called a negative reinforcer, is ordinarily something the individual tries to escape or avoid.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition

Again, it can be an object (snake) or event (fire alarm ringing). The dog learns that performing a certain behavior makes the thing stop or retreat, or lets him get away from it. If the thing is aversive for the dog in that context, the behavior that makes it go away will increase.

The positive and negative reinforcement processes are pretty different. But there are a handful of situations where it may be hard to tell one from the other. But usually, you can do that by identifying the antecedent. If the antecedent is the presence of an aversive stimulus, and a behavior is increasing, you’ve got negative reinforcement.

There are some people who have claimed that there is not a large difference between the two types of reinforcement,** and there are others who use that point of view to excuse the use of aversive stimuli in training, or do mental gymnastics to convert such use to positive reinforcement.  But luckily a well-known behaviorist has tackled those claims.


Here is one of the “strained” examples and how one well known behaviorist approaches it. It has been argued that turning off an electric shock in response to an animal’s behavior is actually “adding a shock free environment,” (and that adding makes it positive reinforcement).  That argument has been neatly dismantled by Dr. Murray Sidman.

He reminds us that a positive reinforcer must be something the animal is willing to work (perform behavior) to get. And if you take the bad thing (in this case, shock) out of the picture, a “shock free” environment is meaningless and can’t even be defined, much less worked for.

Let’s apply that method as a litmus test to some other examples. Let’s take out the “icky” thing and see what we have left.

These examples involve either negative or positive reinforcement or both.

• First, food. If you remove the drive of hunger (relieving the state of hunger can be negative reinforcement), is food a positive reinforcer? Yes. Anyone who owns a dog or eats dessert knows that. And I’ve written a whole post about it. You don’t have to be hungry to enjoy and be willing to work for food. Eating food can be both negative and positive reinforcement. (But as I pointed out in my previous post, experiments indicate that the positive reinforcement process is more powerful.)

• Now, how about using an umbrella to protect oneself from the rain? There is an unpleasant condition (getting rained on), you perform the behavior of obtaining an umbrella and opening it over your head, and you escape the rain. This is in most textbooks as a classic example of negative reinforcement. What happens if we say that using the umbrella is really positive reinforcement because you are adding the state of “freedom from rain” or even “dryness”? Let’s follow Dr. Sidman’s lead and take away the rain or other unpleasant weather. Would the behavior of opening an umbrella over your head get reinforced by the “addition” of a dry condition?  No. Carrying around and opening an umbrella is a tiresome, expensive behavior. We wouldn’t do it to add something so ill-defined and meaningless.

A black scorpion -- photo credit, Wikimedia Commons
A black scorpion — photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

• So now to tackle the scenario in the subject. Escaping scary things. Let’s say you are phobic of scorpions. If you accidentally get close to one, it is a great relief to leave the area and go somewhere that you believe is scorpion-free. You escape the scorpion. Now, remove scorpions from the picture. Completely. Not just that scorpion, or even scorpions in general, but the threat or mildest hint of scorpions. They don’t exist. What does a scorpion-free environment look like? Well, anything, right?  As long as there are no scorpions. And is it a positive reinforcer? Well, for starters, we can’t even describe it.  Anytime you start thinking of the environment you ran to as reinforcing, it’s because you are comparing it to one with scorpions or some other scary thing.

The Huge Variety of “Scorpion-Free” Environments

A scorpion free environment
A scorpion free environment — photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

Your scorpion free environment could range from freezing to firestorms to 200 mph winds to vacuum to a 70 degree Sunday afternoon,  and all could be scorpion free. That makes the “scorpion-free” environment impossible to nail down to define.

Not only that, but Sidman points out that the environment could be changing.  As long as it doesn’t have a scorpion in it, it qualifies as scorpion free. But reinforcers generally need to sit still. A piece of meat doesn’t usually morph into a paperclip, nor does a book turn into a clock. If they did, they would lose their reinforcing qualities for hungry people or bookworms respectively.

Reinforcers are definable and describable. I don’t believe a “scorpion-free environment” is.  Compare that to the simple description of a scorpion (ick). That’s very concrete. And to the clear action of becoming aware of the scorpion and getting away from it. The scorpion is extremely well defined. And many people (including me) can’t get away from them fast enough.

Can Distance Itself be a Reinforcer or Punisher?

Here is the second problem. Even if you are in the camp that believes that any negative reinforcement situation can be equally argued to be positive, there is still a big problem. Most of us have learned that using the word “add” is an indicator that positive reinforcement (or punishment) is at play. Something is added to the environment after a behavior that in the future leads to the increase (or decrease) of the behavior.

So at first reading, the idea of adding distance or space from something scary sounds at least similar to positive reinforcement. You are adding something (maybe). But let’s go back to Sidman’s exercise. If you take the aversive, scary thing out, what you are “adding” is nothing at all. If you are standing at the 50-yard line in a football field and move to the 20-yard line, what have you added? The distance or space are meaningless except as escapes from the aversive.

So here’s the important part. It is not distance that is being added or removed.  Distance is an abstraction, not a stimulus. It is the aversive or reinforcer that is being added or removed. Distance is merely a description of the escape (or approach) process. The aversive is the scary monster. Only it can be removed or added. Controlling one’s distance from it is just a way of describing the mechanism of the appearance/disappearance of the aversive.

Also, it is a trick of wording. If you wanted, instead of “adding” distance you could say you were “removing” proximity. Focusing on distance is a red herring. And it neatly removes the real aversive from the picture.

I wrote the following in jest, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I have written for the other quadrants is exactly parallel to the claims about adding distance being positive reinforcement. It’s just that the other quadrants are easier to understand, so it’s easier to be aware of flawed logic.


These are the results if we treat distance as the focus. They are obviously untrue. That’s because the aversives and reinforcers are not “distance.” They are the scary monster, the cookie, and the stick. If you talk about “adding distance” what happens to the actual thing we are trying to get away from? It falls out of the equation.

So did this help at all? Does it make sense? Hope so!

Coming up:

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I should mention that there has been a movement for some time to do away with the distinctions between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. This is mostly because of the few challenging cases, and because the processes of reinforcement and punishment are difficult enough to discuss and explain without the plusses and minuses. But it is not usually argued that there is no difference between adding and subtracting at all. I’m working on a summary of that research, so stay tuned. But in the meantime–you will still see the plusses and minuses in any learning theory book.


But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

It would probably be good to decrease this behavior
It would probably be good to decrease this behavior–photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Lots and lots of people think that if you withhold the treat you are punishing the dog. Some will ask the above question in a gleeful, challenging way, feeling certain that they have caught the positive reinforcement based trainers in an inconsistency. But let’s see what is really happening.

Here is a scenario. In the past, you have given your puppy attention and played with him when he jumped on you. But he’s getting big and you really don’t want him jumping on you anymore. You decide to teach him to sit to greet you. He already has a good reinforcement history for sitting, so the likelihood that he will do it in any given situation is fairly high.

So here you are with your excited pup and you are clicking and giving a treat whenever he sits.

  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup jumps on you. Nothing.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.

OK, what happened when the pup chose to jump instead of sitting? You didn’t click. The treats stayed in your hand, your pocket, or the bowl. (You meanie!) You stood still and didn’t react. You are paying for sits, not jumping up.

But lo and behold, the jumping up starts to decrease! Decreasing behavior means punishment, right? You must have punished your puppy for jumping!

No. Let’s look at the definitions of positive and negative punishment.


  • Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. Example:
    • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
    • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
    • Consequence: You step on the dog’s back foot, hard. (I’m not recommending this, of course. Just want a clear example of positive punishment.)
    • Prediction: Jumping up on you will decrease.
  • Negative punishment: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. Example:
    • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
    • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
    • Consequence: You turn around and leave.
    • Prediction: Jumping up on you will decrease.

In the positive punishment example you added painful pressure to your dog’s foot. (Please don’t ever do this.) If the dog finds having his feet stepped on sufficiently painful, jumping will decrease. In the negative punishment example you removed your presence and attention from the dog.  If he likes your presence and attention well enough, and if you are consistent, (and if there is no competing reinforcer–that’s a big if!) this also will cause jumping on you to decrease.

So that’s what positive and negative punishment look like. Now back to our original example. Let’s map it out as well.

  • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
  • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
  • Consequence: You just stand there.

You don’t respond with physical actions or increase or decrease your attention. Admittedly, this is hard to do, and remember, the lack of response has to be from the dog’s point of view. Even looking down at them is a response. Future blog on this point!

The cookies stayed put
The cookies staying put

Nothing was added: therefore no positive punishment. Nothing was removed: therefore no negative punishment.

(By the way, some people who are very new to learning theory think that the above example is negative reinforcement. Sit, give treat = positive reinforcement. Then jump, withhold treat = negative reinforcement. No, no, no! It has an attractive symmetry, but that is not what the term means at all. Here’s a review.)

So What Is Happening?

OK, back to the first scenario, where you are working on sits with your puppy. Let’s say that after that one time when the puppy jumped and you didn’t treat, the puppy didn’t jump up again. Jumping on you decreased during training. Let’s also say that that decrease continues over time. Why isn’t that punishment again?

Because punishment is not the only process that involves a decrease in behavior. There is another: extinction.

Extinction is the nonreinforcement of a previously reinforced response, the result of which is a decrease in the strength of that response.

In other words, extinction is what happens when the behavior you used to do to achieve some thing doesn’t work anymore. So you stop doing it.

So here comes the big question, especially for those folks who think they’ve somehow caught us out on the withholding the treat business.

How Humane is Extinction?

As with so many things, the answer is, “It depends.” But in this case there is a pretty clear demarcation. In the Humane Hierarchy, extinction by itself is at the same level of negative reinforcement (which involves an aversive) and negative punishment (which involves a penalty for behavior). Not great as first choices. We know that from life. If a machine we use all the time stops working, or a method we use of interacting with another person we care about suddenly gets no response with no explanation, we are left high and dry. It is not fun.

However, extinction also happens in tandem with a process called Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors (DRA). This is how trainers who aim to train primarily with positive reinforcement use it. (There are other differential reinforcement methods, but this is a good general one to discuss right now.) It consists of reinforcement of an alternative behavior while reinforcement for the target behavior is withheld. Done with some care and skill, it can involve very little frustration for the animal, and it is one step closer to the “most humane” end of the Humane Hierarchy. And this is what is happening in the example above. As long as the trainer is being quite clear that sits are being paid for, the fact that jumping up on her no longer gets attention is not so hard on the pup. He has another thing he can do to get something good. He gets attention and food.

The trainer has communicated to the pup a new behavior to “fill the hole” where jumping used to be.

Japanese Drink Vending Machine

I’m borrowing this great example of how DRA works from my friend Kim Pike. Let’s say the soda machine at a workplace is not working. People will push the button repeatedly. Some will perhaps pound on the machine or kick it. This is typical when extinction is in play by itself. The people have no alternative, and get frustrated. (I’ll be covering extinction bursts and and extinction aggression in a later post.) Gradually people will stop going to the machine and give up pushing the buttons. Individuals will probably forget, and now and then go try the machine again, then perhaps give it another kick or shove. But after a while no one goes to the machine anymore.

But when the soda machine is fixed, there will likely be a crowd of people ready to buy their sodas. It’s easier than going to the corner store, and involves less planning than bringing drinks from home. The behaviors attendant to getting a soda are all still fluent and easy for people to perform. And they once again get reinforced.

However! What if, when the machine broke, someone immediately set up a system where folks could buy a soda they liked as well or better for less money? Perhaps there was a cooler, or an honor system with soda in the fridge. If that alternative were in place immediately, would the thirsty people typically have experienced the same level of frustration at the broken machine? Nope! (Except perhaps for the engineers and mechanics, grin.)

And the most important question: What will the folks who just want a soda do when the machine gets fixed? As long as the cheaper, better alternative is still available, they will keep heading for it. The machine will have become irrelevant. Maybe once in a while someone will forget, and go to the machine. But they’d then remember that they can get a better drink, cheaper, out of the fridge.

This is what we are doing when we allow an extinction process in tandem with positive reinforcement of an alternative behavior. We clearly offer the animal an attractive alternative and remind them of it to keep it front and center. It’s important that the reinforcer for the new behavior be the same or better than that of the old behavior. This makes for a process with much less frustration.

Extinction in a Specific Circumstance

In my post, How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong? I address “failing to click” during a training session. I feature a short video example from the great trainer Sue Ailsby teaching her young Portuguese Water Dog, Sync, to stand and stay. In the video you can see Sync’s immediate bounce back after the couple of times she tries something other than a stand and doesn’t earn a click.

In that case, sits and downs are not going to decrease into oblivion in every situation, as we might want the jumping up to do in our other example.  But they will go into extinction during training sessions of “Stand” and later when Sync learns a cue for it. Since  dogs can discriminate this easily, it also tells us that when we want a behavior to go away completely, we need to practice reinforcing our alternative behavior in many locations and situations.


So in answer to the critics, no, withholding the cookie in itself is not punishment. And if used in tandem with reinforcing another behavior, it is quite humane. If we put even a moderate amount of thought and planning into the situation, we can set the dog up to succeed. There will be minimal frustration when he does miss the mark on occasion and fails to earn the treat.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on extinction. I’ll be talking in more detail about what happens when extinction is used by itself, and comparing that with differential reinforcement in some human and dog case studies.

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Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Only if the Behavior Decreases!

This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

You knew I would get around to talking about punishment, right?

Cricket demand barking
Cricket demand barking. I reinforced this for years. But not by yelling.

Q: If you yell at your dog when she barks, is that positive punishment?

A: Only if the barking decreases over time. (And how often does THAT happen?)

So the answer is, “Not usually.” Or honestly, “Almost never.”

Positive punishment is the presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that decreases the strength of the behavior.

Positive punishment is not merely doing something a dog doesn’t like after they do something you don’t like. Again, we must look at the consequences, just like with reinforcement.

What usually happens in the barking scenario, if we are honest about it, is that the barking is interrupted. This has nothing to do with whether punishment is happening or not, however. Punishment depends on future behavior. We’re looking for that decrease. So if your dog barks Every. Single. Time. the doorbell rings even though you yell at her Every, Single. Time–no punishment is going on there since she is just as barky the next time. (And you know she’s likely practicing it when you’re not there too, right?)

I’m serious about the most common outcome in the barking situation being that there was no punishment.  How often have you heard someone say, “I yelled at my dog after he barked, and he barks a whole lot less now! Now I only have to yell every once in a while to keep him from barking at all!”


If we only had to yell a couple of times to get a behavior to stop, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

I’ve read that yelling is even less effective with birds. Apparently, some screaming parrots think human yelling is quite a lot of fun!

What Is It, Then?

In all seriousness though, am I saying that therefore yelling is intrinsically great and harmless and OK? Of course not. For some dogs, it’s very aversive. And if a behavior is not changing, you can’t hide behind that and say it’s OK since there is no P+. That’s still no excuse to hurt, intimidate, or scare your dogs. Many of the ineffective uses of aversives we see come down to plain abuse, not punishment or negative reinforcement.

On the other hand, a yell can be neutral, or it can be a great thing. And some rough and tumble dogs living in noisy households think nothing of yelling. They don’t even notice.

And for dogs who are initially bothered by yelling, that can be changed. When I’m startled, I tend to yell, “Hey!” I’m a pretty quiet person and have a quiet household and yelling “Hey”  used to scare a couple of my dogs. So I took some time earlier this year to classically condition it, just as I conditioned Clara to have a positive response to other dogs barking.  I would take a dog out of earshot of the others, yell “Hey,” a few times, and pay up each time with a nice treat. I built up in intensity. After each dog had a few turns over a few days, I did it with all three together, then we took it to real life. Now they know that if I lose it and yell, it’s “yippie!” time. My yelling is a predictor of a treat. The yelling is similar to the sound of a can opener, a dish being scraped, or supper being measured out.  I did the conditioning because I’m human, and I absolutely do not want my dogs to be scared of me.

So I have to smile when people insist that yelling is positive punishment. Not in my household it ain’t!

Some people include “angry” tones of voice when conditioning their dogs to respond to their names, and I think this is brilliant. (Just don’t start out that way! Do a few thousand repetitions with a nice voice first. Check out the “Classical Conditioning” section of this post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So even if the human is tired and cranky when they call their dog or speak to him, the dog still associates their name with great stuff.


I was inspired to write these two posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.

This is not nitpicking. This is the guts of the science.

Go back and check out the other post in this pair:  “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Only if the Behavior Increases!

Only if the Behavior Increases!

This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Pop quiz:

Zani can sit on a crate
Zani sits all sorts of places. 

Q: If I give my dog a piece of kibble whenever she sits, is that positive reinforcement?

A: Only if sitting increases.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it, but the second part is so easy to forget! We casually say, “I reinforced that behavior” or even worse, “I reinforced the dog.” (Thanks Eric Brad, who the other day reminded several of us that you can’t reinforce animals, only behaviors.)

A definition of positive reinforcement:

The presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that maintains, or increases, the strength of the behavior. Positive reinforcers tend to be pleasant stimuli, at least valued, from the learner’s perspective. — Susan Friedman, Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

So most of us remember the part about adding or presenting something. But that’s only half the definition. The other half is that the behavior must maintain or increase.

It makes sense that when one first learns about positive reinforcement, one tends to focus on the added thing because that’s the thing we are learning to do. Add the cookie, the toy. A beginner (including me) might define positive reinforcement as, “Adding something good after a behavior,” or even “Adding something that the animal likes to the environment after a behavior.” Those definitions focus on our action.

There are two problems here. One is that it isn’t always something generally thought of as “good” or even something the animal likes.  For instance, yelling at an animal can be a reinforcer if very little attention is paid to that animal otherwise. And even if they don’t like it it’s often not a punisher. See below. But the more insidious problem is that that definition leaves out the consequence: that the behavior must increase or maintain.

It is not just an aphorism when a behavior analyst says that behavior is defined by its consequences. Look again at definition above. It’s all about the consequences.

Why Wouldn’t Sitting Increase?

OK, so with my little example above. You give your dog a piece of kibble every time she sits, but sitting doesn’t increase. Why might it not? And let’s say that the dog does like the kibble well enough to eat it.

I had a section here with three examples, but I’ve decided instead to be coy (and buy some time to check my terminology). Let’s have a discussion about it. Why might the behavior not increase?


Full disclosure: I was inspired to write this pair of posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.

Check out the other post in this pair: Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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