Category: Punishment

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

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

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

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

The Sound

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

Here’s the sound effect.

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

Positive Feedback for Blogging

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

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

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

The Classical Association and How It Was Built

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expulsion from Eden: The Association Changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Association Changes Yet Again

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

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

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

Cans of Spam on a grocery shelf

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

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

I turned off the chime.

Dogs

This post isn’t just about me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013, 2022 Eileen Anderson

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

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

Serpent photo from Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain.

The smartphone illustration is from CanStock Photo.

The two photos of Zani are copyright Eileen Anderson.

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

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

Photo of Polistes exclamans in nest

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

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

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

A New Experience

I’ve always gotten along very well with stinging insects. I am a gardener and around bees and wasps a lot in the yard. I have gotten very close to paper wasps on my porch before, in many situations. I’ve always felt friendly toward these creatures and have never panicked when they buzzed around me. When I sit on my porch steps, I sometimes hear the wasps chewing on the cardboard I have stapled there. You can tell how close I was when I made this cute video of a different species of paper wasp to capture the chomping noises.

I’ve had a few stings in my life. I got stung by honeybees a couple of times as a kid when I accidentally stepped on them. I’ve been stung three times by yellow jackets as an adult, but these were not bad stings. In each case, they felt like “warning” stings, as if they weren’t full strength. These stings didn’t swell up much and went away within a day.

This was different.

The Surprise Factor

The sting was painful. But the shock was worse. I’ve written before about my experience of drinking a big swig of sour milk as a kid. The experience was a disgusting shock, in part because I didn’t understand what was happening. I was young; I didn’t even know milk could go sour. That intense experience changed my behavior for life.

a woman's hands palms down on a surface. Her left hand is swollen from a wasp sting
Three days after the sting, my hand was still swelling

The wasp sting was similarly shocking. There was a sense of disorientation that came with the pain. A moment of pure physical response, while I was confused about what had happened, knowing only that I was somehow under attack.

Now I know that the wasps had defended their nest, which was under the tarp. But at the time my body only knew to run.

Behavior Change

I received an aversive stimulus from the environment. For people who are more experienced with them, a wasp sting might just be a normal day, a minor irritation. But for me, the sting and the shock were of high magnitude. My behavior changed.

I was curious to see how extensive and long-lasting the effects were, so I kept track.

I’ve written about the fallout from the use of aversives, and this includes that fear and avoidance can attach to the location and other elements of the environment besides what directly hurt us. This is one of the many risks of the use of aversives in animal training. Did this generalization happen to me? You bet, even with my human cognition and the fact that I was analyzing the experience.

This one event caused fear conditioning, punished several of my behaviors, and negatively reinforced even more.

Changes in Emotions and Respondent Behaviors

Here are the respondent behavior and emotional changes I’m aware of.

  • The sound and sight of a wasp was followed by pain, so I underwent respondent fear conditioning.
  • After that, I experienced what is called a fear-potentiated startle reflex. I startled when I heard buzzing or when I saw an insect flying toward me. This response was heightened when I was in the area where the sting happened. Previously, these stimuli would have evoked only caution.
  • I retained a bad feeling about the tarp.

Behaviors That Were Punished

Punishment, even from a strong aversive stimulus, doesn’t always last forever. These behaviors stopped for several days, then gradually came back into my repertoire after I got rid of the wasps (see the reinforcement section below). Even then, most of the behaviors were still less frequent for quite a while.

  • I stopped moving the tarp. At some point I would have to, but it would probably be a long time before I reached up thoughtlessly to move it. That behavior was punished.
  • I stopped going out my back door and stopped hanging out on my back porch.
  • I didn’t use any of the tools from my cabinet, even though the door was open. Reaching into the cabinet was punished. The wasps might be in there, too!
  • I didn’t close the cabinet door because I would’ve had to move the tarp.

Behaviors That Were Negatively Reinforced

The first three of these behaviors were escape behaviors; the rest were avoidance behaviors. All negatively reinforced.

  • I ran away from the wasps.
  • I closed the door between them and me.
  • I leaned on the door and scanned for wasps inside the house.
  • For the first few days, if I had to go into the back yard, I went out the front door, then went in the side gate.
  • I did the same for the dogs.
  • I was hypervigilant when outside, and scanned frequently for wasps.
  • When I did venture out my back door, I closed it quietly and skirted the other side of the porch. These wasps were defensive, not out to get me, but I didn’t know where their nest was or whether there might be more than one.
  • I hired an exterminator. I hated to do that. I had a lifetime of experience getting along just fine with these small creatures, and I try to treat these little lives with respect. I hated to kill a bunch of them because they made their house in the wrong place. But I needed to use my tools and to close the door of the cabinet and to keep my dogs safe.
  • Well after the exterminator had come, I gingerly pulled the tarp off the cabinets. Wasps couldn’t live in there out of my sight anymore!
  • I laid the tarp out on the grass to “cook” in the heat for a couple of days, then rinsed it with water before drying it and putting it away.
  • I Googled a bit because I got a large localized response to the sting. My entire hand swelled over the course of about four days and stayed that way for another three. I found out that my high magnitude localized response might mean I would be more likely to have a systemic response (anaphylaxis) if I were stung in the future. This made me redouble both my reasonable and over-the-top precautions.

Aftermath

It’s now a year later. Most of my behaviors that were punished have returned to baseline, and I have some last remnants of the avoidance behaviors.

Until recently, all that remained was some slight watchfulness; I was no longer blasé about wasps, but the fear and avoidance had ramped down. I’m more careful than I used to be when they fly around me, but that’s about it. That lifetime of good and neutral experiences with stinging insects buried most of the fear.

Then it happened. One day last week, I went to the back door, opened it, and a yellow paper wasp flew in and lit on the inside of the door as I closed it. But I didn’t startle or panic. My former, pre-sting self was back in charge, even though I was in the situation I had tried so hard to prevent before: a wasp was in the house with me.

But this was a situation I had dealt with many times in the past. I kept an eye on the wasp and slowly opened the door again. The wasp stayed put for a while, then started walking around a little on the door. Then it took off and flew in the right direction (the porch). It circled very fast, then flew away. I didn’t startle or flinch.

A storm door with the key in the lock and a shiny metal chain hanging down from the key
Seeing the flashing chain out of the corner of my eye triggered a “WASP!” response

I was thinking about my behavior changes and how things had about gone back to baseline when the metal chain on the key on the lock caught the light as it swung. I startled! The proximity of the wasp had woken up that response again. The quick flash in my peripheral vision was similar enough to the flash of a fast-moving insect that the reflex got triggered.

I’m a little out of my depth to be making any generalizations, but I think it’s fascinating that my operant responses are mostly back to where they were before, but the automatic, respondent behaviors were waiting right there to jump into action again. Thank you, sympathetic nervous system, for remembering and working to keep me safe. Thank you also for reminding me of the persistence of the fear response.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

Related Posts

Photo credits: Wasp illustration is a CanStock photo. Linked wasp photograph is a public domain image by Alex Wild via Wikimedia Commons. Photos of the cabinet, hands, and keychain are copyright Eileen Anderson.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thank you to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any mistakes are my own.

Some terminology in behavior science is notoriously hard to get one’s head around. One of these terms is negative reinforcement. Not only is this learning process itself a challenge to understand, but the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Behavior scientists specialize in training, teaching, and learning, so naturally, if a term from their own field trips people up, they are going to analyze the problem. The terminology for negative reinforcement has already been changed once, in the 1950s to early 1960s. There has been more discussion since then. This post is about the article that started the more recent discussion, and how it is often misunderstood in the animal training community.

Continue reading “Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article”
All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

I’ve written a lot about the behavior science definitions of reinforcement and punishment. That’s because they can trip us up so easily. Something can be attractive, but not always reinforce behavior. Something can be unpleasant, but not serve to decrease behavior even when it looks like it should. This story is about a natural consequence that seemed like it would decrease behavior but didn’t.

Continue reading “All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish”
Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Correction is a term used in certain segments of the dog training world. It commonly applies to jerking the dog’s leash (also called a “leash correction). Sometimes “correction” refers to other physical things people might do to a dog.

Trainers who use corrections do such things when a dog is performing an undesirable behavior. For example, they will perform a “leash correction” when a dog is pulling on the leash, is in the wrong position, or is not focused on the handler. The magnitude of a leash correction can range from a twitch of the leash to jerking hard enough to lift the dog partially off the ground or knock him off balance.

Continue reading “Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)”
Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Trick question, because we don’t have enough information yet to answer. We need the whole scenario: antecedents (including those that are farther back in time), behavior, and more detail about the consequence.

Here’s a true story.

When I was about 20, I was driving in my hometown. I was home from college and driving down my own street. I think I was going about 45. I think the speed limit was 35. I don’t remember why I was speeding. I didn’t commonly drive fast. But that day I did.

Continue reading “Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?”
Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

Positive reinforcement-based trainers never use positive punishment, right? At least we certainly try not to. But it can sneak into our training all the same.

Brown and white dog being grabbed by the collar in example of positive punishment
Collar grabs can be aversive

Punishment, in behavior analysis, means that a behavior decreases after the addition or removal of a stimulus. In positive punishment (the addition case), the stimulus is undesirable in some way. It gets added after the dog’s behavior, and that behavior decreases in the future. Some examples of that kind of stimulus would be kicking the dog, jerking its collar, shocking it, or startling it with a loud noise. You can see why positive reinforcement-based trainers seek not to use positive punishment.

Continue reading “Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident”
Why Prong Collars Hurt

Why Prong Collars Hurt

Please see the additional note at the bottom of the post.

14 inch prong collar

Prong collars, also called pinch collars, are metal chain collars for dogs that include links of prongs whose ends press into the dog’s neck.

When a dog pulls on leash, moves out of position, or is “corrected” with a quick snap of the leash, force is exerted on the dog’s neck through the points of contact of the prongs.

Continue reading “Why Prong Collars Hurt”
Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current behavior science textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The conclusions are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.
This is a typical response to application of a mild-to-moderate aversive. I created this graph because 1) I don’t have rights to the ones in textbooks, and 2) standard behavior change graphs are difficult to interpret if you are unfamiliar with them. I made a different type of graph, but what I have represented is the same response you see in the textbooks and research papers. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis shows the ratio of behavioral decrease. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to the frequency of the behavior and shows that the suppression of behavior was only temporary.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But the immediate risk of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog is not the only problem with using aversives. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In behavior science, it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become habituated to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something. (I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree on this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior. Check out this post for a recounting of my experience with a high-intensity punisher and how long the related behaviors stayed suppressed.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, this situation usually comes from a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully performing desensitization to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the researchers determined that the rats had reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised in nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in behavior science, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off in behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. Raising the level of the punishment is reinforcing to the human.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and punishment’s known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see habituation to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence. My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that can destroy our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.

References

Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Using Annoying or Scary Sounds for Dog Training

Using Annoying or Scary Sounds for Dog Training

Let’s pretend you saw an ad for a new dog training product. It read something like this:

Introducing the Noise-Aided Obedience Device (NOD)! Never have trouble with your dog again. When you jerk or flap the lead attached to your dog’s collar or harness to punish him or to force him into the correct position, the device adds a noise that makes the leash jerking or flapping extra unpleasant. You can get instant compliance! That is, for some dogs. Some won’t be bothered by the noise or will get used to it. Some noise-sensitive dogs will be so traumatized you may never get them out from under the bed again. But for the majority of dogs, the “NOD” makes the leash correction just a bit worse. And for you as the trainer it feels great! You are actually DOING something about your dog’s naughty behavior.

Add an auditory aversive to the physical one! Buy the NOD (along with my DVD and special gear) today!

Actual Products on the Market

The ad is fake but unfortunately, the products are real. A reader introduced me to two different products that operate as I described above. Both attach to or are part of the dog’s gear. These are mechanical, not electronic. (There are electronic devices that work similarly as well.) One makes a zipping noise and one rings like a bell. They make these noises when the handler shakes, pulls, or jerks the leash. But the creators of these products don’t describe them the way I did above. Instead, they use words and phrases like the following:

  • Gentle method
  • Sound-based training
  • Gets the dog’s attention
  • Strengthens your dog’s concentration abilities
  • Technologically superior
  • Helps dogs understand cause and effect
  • Kind training method
  • Helps the dog focus
  • Helps you guide your dog to the correct position
  • Dog learns to pay attention to you
  • Enables communication with the dog
  • Hastens the learning process

The soft marketing language for both products strongly implies that there is something intrinsic to the sound that causes the dog to become obedient. It supposedly allows some kind of special communication between the owner and dog. Also, they don’t explain exactly what you do to operate the product. This neatly skirts the real consequences being used: the trainer is performing actions that cause physical pressure, commotion, and noise. When these devices work, they work by helping to annoy, startle, or scare the dog into compliance.

Word cloud
Misleading marketing language for a device that makes a noise when the leash is flapped or jerked

No Free Lunch

This type of product marketing, common in the dog training world, masks the actual consequences used to attempt to change dogs’ behavior. The focus is on the “special” sound. This draws attention away from the leash jerking or flapping and the commotion close to the dog’s ears. Even though the noises are probably unpleasant for most dogs, they are not necessarily the main source of discomfort. And make no mistake: it is discomfort that is driving the behavior change. The sound isn’t magically making the dog feel great for correct choices.

Even though it is a favorite marketing claim, a neutral stimulus can’t be used (without conditioning) to change a dog’s behavior. Here’s a previous post on that: “It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!” To change behavior you generally need either an appetitive stimulus (for example, food) or an aversive stimulus (for example, shock). You can also use stimuli that have been conditioned to predict these things. An example of a typical predictor of an appetitive stimulus would be a clicker.  An example of a predictor of an aversive stimulus would be the warning beep used on some shock collars.

The odd thing is that the noises these particular products make do not fit neatly into a category. The sounds and sensations they make may be intrinsically aversive or not, depending on the dog. The one thing that is certain is that they are not used as predictors. Thus, the claims about their special communication functions are off the mark.

The noise happens at the same time as the leash motion. Not before. The sounds can’t be used as warnings. They are about as communicative as throwing sand at someone you are already yelling at.

Turn Off the Sound

It can be hard to find a video that shows the methods. Makers of these types of products generally display “before and after” type videos. To see the device in action, you often need to buy a DVD. But if you look hard enough, you can usually find a couple of short examples of the actual process.

If you have a question about such a product, try to find a video of it in use. (If you can’t find one, that tells you something as well.)  If you do find such a video, watch with the sound turned off. In general, that will show you the actions and actual consequences being used to train the dog. Watch the body language of the dog as well, and heed the edits. It’s pretty common to edit or switch the camera angle immediately after a “correction” is made so the dog’s response is not visible.

Transparency

IMG_3331I’ve written before about trainer Jean Donaldson’s idea of encouraging dog owners to ask for transparency from prospective trainers. My fabricated “ad” above was an example of what transparency could look like regarding one of these sound annoyance devices. To continue in that vein, here is how an honest trainer who used such a device might answer Ms. Donaldson’s questions.

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right? I will stop the annoying movements and sounds. Sometimes I will also praise her, and in some cases I will give her food.
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong? I will flap or jerk the leash, and my product will additionally make a noise close to her head.
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? Yes. Leash walking and other behaviors can be taught using food, toys, play, or other things the dog likes and wants. These are less invasive since there is little chance of scaring or hurting the dog. That type of training is generally enjoyable for the dog when done well. I should also note that using an irritating stimulus such as my product can cause redirected aggression towards the handler, i.e., the dog could bite you.  Also, the use of my product could be permanently damaging to a sound-sensitive dog. Finally, the responses to sound by individual dogs vary. So some dogs will habituate to the noise and stop responding.

The above answers depend on very basic behavior analysis and what we know about the negative effects of aversive use. If you actually ask these questions and get non-specific answers about communication and focus and getting the dog’s attention instead, that should tell you what you need to know.

The devices I saw were not magically communicative or innovative in any way. It’s sad that such things are still being marketed and that their producers do not describe how they really work.

A big thanks to Vicky Carne, publisher of Dog Coach Videos, who brought these types of products to my attention.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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