eileenanddogs

Category: Reinforcement

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

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

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

There are others who make claims who, I suspect, do understand the method they are using. For them, it’s a game of “let’s pretend I’m not using force.” Some trainers use those statements to entice customers that their methods are humane or based on positive reinforcement. Some may have an interest in throwing fog into arguments on social media.

These methods are the topic of this post. Here is why waving a stick (at a dog who has been hit with one), or showing the spray bottle (to a cat who has been sprayed by one), and countless other things that don’t touch the animal are working through aversive control.

The Little Whip

When I was a kid, we had horses. I rode from a young age until we moved to town when I was about 15. For gear, we usually used hackamores and perhaps a bareback pad. More often bareback. Very rarely did we actually saddle up the horses or use bridles. Before the equine folks step up to the podium, I now know that the hackamores, with their pressure on the sensitive nose, were likely not comfortable either. But it did appear that the hackamores were less intrusive to our particular horses than the bitted bridles they were also trained to accept.

But don’t be misled. The methods we used were not kindly, except in comparison to those of some of our neighbors. We used pressure/release, yanking on the lead rope, kicking with our heels, smacking the horses with the reins or a whip, and using the reins to turn or stop the horse. I may have had spurs; I know my sister did.

We didn’t use positive reinforcement when riding. There were no appetitives involved except whatever pleasure the horses got from getting out in the world to walk and gallop around, and the feed we gave them before and after, as we were preparing for and cooling down after rides.

A quirt, or small whip. Except for the metal, it looks like a great tug toy!

I used a quirt, a short whip. It looked something like the image to the right. I don’t remember where I got it or whose idea it was. But I remember using it when I rode.

When I wanted my horse to go faster, I would swing the quirt around so it struck her behind me on her butt. I’d do that a few times until she had sped up to my liking. We all know how to do that with the ends of the reins, too.

I noticed after I had used the quirt for a while that I didn’t actually have to hit her anymore. With her excellent peripheral vision, she would see me swing the quirt forward, winding up to land a blow on her butt. She started speeding up when she saw the quirt moving and before I actually hit her with it. I adapted my behavior, whether out of kindness or efficiency, I don’t know. But I rarely hit my horse after I learned that all I had to do was to threaten her with the little whip.

Even at that young age, I realized what was happening, although I didn’t have the words for it. I do now. In response to my use of the quirt, my horse was changing her behavior from escape (speed up to make Eileen stop hitting her) to avoidance (speed up sooner to prevent Eileen from hitting her).

Escape and avoidance are the two faces of negative reinforcement. My horse’s behavior was under aversive control.

What Did I Think about It?

I could have gone around saying, “Using the quirt isn’t cruel; I don’t touch her with it.” I don’t think I said that because I understood even then that the quirt worked because I had hit her with it, and could hit her with it at any time. The movement of the quirt had become a threat. That’s still aversive control.

If I had never hit her with the quirt, if she hadn’t gained that history, she would have had no reason to speed up in response to the swing of it unless the movement itself scared her. But she would probably have habituated to the movement if there had been no following slap. There would be no threat.

Note: If this post appears on the websites Runbalto, Scruffythedog, Snugdugs, or Petite-Pawz, or frankly, anywhere else, know that they are reposting without permission and in most cases without credit. This is my intellectual property, not theirs. I haven’t had time to file DMCA takedown notices yet.

Spray Bottles

When I was in my late teens and living on my own, I got a cat. Nobody I knew at that time talked about training cats. We lived with the “cat” things they did or interrupted them in unpleasant ways, usually yelling or using a spray bottle with water. Some people even used lemon juice or vinegar.

I used a spray bottle with water. I found out, over time, that the spray bottle worked the same way as the quirt. I remember using the spray bottle when my cat would get on the dining room table. I’d spray him as long as I needed to until he’d jump off. This was the escape flavor of negative reinforcement. He made the aversive stimulus stop with his action of jumping down.

But the same thing happened with the spray bottle that had happened with the quirt years before. It took fewer squirts to get him to move, and finally, all I had to do was wave the squirt bottle in his direction or even walk over to get it. I didn’t have to spray him at all. This was avoidance. Still negative reinforcement.

Was there also positive punishment involved? Maybe. I don’t remember for sure whether the behavior of getting on the table decreased, but I don’t think so. So there may not have been P+. But there was definitely negative reinforcement, two flavors of it.

It would have been easy to eliminate, decrease, or prevent my cat from getting on the table to begin with. I could have used management and positive reinforcement. I could have provided him with several elevated beds and perches. And I could have taught him to target my hand or a target stick so I could move him off the table using positive reinforcement. I had no idea of those options then.

Is Avoidance Better than Escape?

Most dogs will work to escape or avoid body pressure

You will hear people proclaiming that they don’t have to use force anymore.

  • “I don’t have to vibrate the collar anymore; he behaves when I just make it beep.”
  • “I just show him the spray bottle.”
  • “I just start to roll up a newspaper and he shapes right up.”
  • “I just walk toward him and he pops back into a sit.”
  • “I don’t have to throw the chain anymore; she stops when I wind up to throw.”

Is this force-free training? Of course not. There would be no avoidance if the animal hadn’t experienced the unpleasant thing first. And not usually just once. They likely experienced it repeatedly until 1) they learned how to make it stop, and 2) learned the predictors that it was about to happen and responded earlier.

In learning to avoid the unpleasant stimulus, the animal may be preventing pain or even injury. So of course those are benefits. But is that an advantage to brag on? What about the pain or injury it took to get there? “I don’t have to whip the horse anymore. That was so unpleasant that she learned how to avoid it.” Yay?

How to Tell When Avoidance Is Involved

Avoidance is complex. A lot of behavior scientists have put their minds to the question of why an organism will work for the goal of nothing happening. I’m not even going to get into that here, but if you are interested, most behavior analysis books have a section on it.

Besides being complex, avoidance can be hard to spot. Again, it’s because we don’t see a blatant aversive in use. Think of the videos by aversive trainers of a bunch of dogs on platforms lying very still for long minutes. We don’t see them getting hit, yelled at, or shocked. But they are usually frozen and shut down. They have learned that the way to avoid being hurt is to stay on their platform. Body language is one tell. They are often crouched, not relaxed. Their eyes are either fixed on the human, or they have checked out and are going, “La la la” in their heads. They are not casually looking around the room or wagging their tails.

But the other thing to look for is this. Do you see any appetitives in the picture? Is anyone going around giving the dogs a nice morsel of food every few minutes or even more often? Rewarding them with a game of tug? Granted, some trainers use both aversives and positive reinforcement. So even if you do see food, there still may be aversives involved. But if you see frozen dogs not moving a muscle and no food or toys in evidence, you are probably seeing avoidance.

Another easy place to see it is in traditional horse videos. Horses are so attractive and look so beautiful being put through their paces that us dog people can often be fooled. There will be some nice verbiage about the natural method or the “think” method or what neuroscience proves. But look for the appetitive. Look for the yummy treat or the butt scratches. Something the horse enjoys, not the relief of something uncomfortable stopping. If you don’t see the fun stuff, the good stuff, you are probably seeing aversive control. The horse is performing because of discomfort or the threat of it: avoidance.

Things That Can Work through Avoidance

  • Squirt bottles
  • Shock or vibration collars, both manually triggered or as part of boundary systems
  • Prong collars
  • Choke collars
  • Bark collars
  • Body pressure
  • Eye contact
  • Citronella spray
  • Whips
  • Plastic bags on a stick
  • Verbal threats
  • Chains or “bean bags” that are thrown near the dog
  • Penny cans
  • Picking up a stick or anything you might hit your dog with

Aggression

The use of aversive tools and methods can prompt an aggressive response. Granted, some of the milder aversives are probably less likely to do that with the average animal. But it’s the animal that gets to define “mild” or not. I watched a YouTube video of a domestic cat aggressing at a woman who is threatening to spray him with a spray bottle. I’m not embedding or linking it because I don’t want to give it that support, but it’s among the first hits if you search for cats vs. spray bottles on YouTube. Here’s a description (not an exact transcription):

A small orange tabby cat is sitting on a wooden table next to a potted plant. A woman’s arm and hand come into the frame. She is holding a squirt bottle. The cat squints his eyes when the spray bottle first appears. She shoves the spray bottle nozzle into his face as she says things like, “Back up from the plant.” “I said, back up from the plant.” The cat responds to her movement and statements by repeatedly slapping the woman’s hand holding the bottle with his paw. He meows and whips his tail around. He actually advances on the hand with the spray bottle rather than retreating. She finally squirts him point-blank in the face, and he shrinks back a little and moves laterally but doesn’t get off the table. He goes to the other side of the plant. There are at least three aspects to her threat: the spray bottle itself, her advancing on him, and her verbal threats.

But this cat is not demonstrating avoidance. He only retreats when sprayed directly in the face, and then only a few steps. But instead of avoidance, his go-to method is to lash out. My cat, on the other hand, was more easygoing and merely worked to avoid the spray.

I’m not ashamed to say I was rooting for the cat in the video, but with a mental caveat. He’s lucky he’s small. If this were a large dog or a horse, similar behaviors would be extremely dangerous for the human, and the animal would be in danger of being euthanized for aggression. Even the small cat could be in danger of losing his home of life if he escalates further, except that his owner is making money on YouTube.

I include this story for two reasons: progressing to avoidance is not inevitable, and we can’t predict what kind of aversive use will elicit an aggressive response.

Avoidance Doesn’t Earn You a Pass

Teaching behaviors through escape and avoidance is generally unpleasant for the learner. Even in situations where we can’t see anything bad happening. if the animal is working to avoid something, something bad did happen. It could happen again, and the animal knows it.

Copyright 2021 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.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael published an article named, “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things” in the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is widely mischaracterized, in my opinion. It is commonly quoted by people who use aversives in training and seek to minimize that when discussing or defending their methods. And certainly, the title sounds very promising for just that purpose. But only if you ignore the last phrase about “bad things.”

Some people claim the article says that the distinction between the learning processes of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They say that the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is blurred and can’t always be determined. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all the possible reasons for maintaining a distinction between the two. This is false (see page 43 in the paper).

Michael’s paper centers on better ways to make descriptions of and determinations about the contingent processes of operant learning. The claim that Michael states that there is little difference between positive and negative reinforcement is false. This claim misrepresents both the focus and the conclusions of the article. Note again the last part of the title: “A better way to talk about bad things.” 

In the article, Michael asks whether we need to make the distinction between what we call positive and negative reinforcement. His final answer is yes, that we need the distinction. He concludes, “We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world.” (page 43)

Dr. Michael is concerned about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He wants to get rid of positive/negative and present/remove in the descriptions for different types of reinforcement.
  2. He wants to find a better nomenclature to indicate when an aversive is involved.

He proposes a solution, which I will describe below.

There are four major parts to the paper: a history of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the current terminology, a section that explores whether we need the distinction or not (his answer: yes), and a proposed solution. I’ll summarize each briefly. The following four sections are headed with the subtitles used in the paper.

1. A Brief History of the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This section comprises 75% of the paper and is devoted to a retrospective of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, starting with Skinner in 1938. As some people know, what Skinner initially called “negative reinforcement” is what we now call punishment.

A textbook published in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his usage of the terms in his own textbook, defining them as we know them today. There was a period of transition—Michael mentions that it had to have been especially tough for the students who attended courses at the same time that employed different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised usage, what we use today, was in common use.

I am not going into detail here, but Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are dedicated to the changes in definitions and usages of the terms and the resultant confusion. This is a major focus of the article and a major part of his criticism of the use of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What is Wrong with the Present Usage?

In this section, Michael says, “Since 1953 there must have been thousands of man-hours spent in the attempt to prevent the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Even though I am not credentialed in that field, I know what he means. I have spent many hours myself figuring out the processes of operant learning, with bonus time on negative reinforcement, and many hours as well trying to pass on my basic understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses can be confusing, especially since almost all the words used have other meanings or common metaphorical uses.

Michael goes on to describe another problem that includes semantics, in this often-quoted section:

Another difficulty with current usages is that the critical distinction between positive and negative reinforcement depends upon being able to distinguish stimulus changes which are presentations from those which are removals or withdrawals, and these latter terms are not very satisfactory descriptions of changes. The circumstances under which we have a tendency to say “present” certainly seem to differ from those where we say “remove” in vernacular usage, but some of these differences are irrelevant to a science of behavior, and there are a number of circumstances where the distinction is not easily made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Note that he is not saying that it’s difficult to detect the differences between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The issue he objects to is the use of the terminology of presenting and removing stimuli.

…In other words, from the point of view of the behaving organism presentations and removals are both simply types of environmental changes. If they differ, the difference must not be based upon the variables controlling the person who causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This section merits careful reading. His major objections to the concepts of “presenting” and “removing” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the environment or a third party and that they have societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removal can sound negative). He says what is really important to the subject organism is simply that something changed, and it is the point of view of the subject that we should be concerned about describing. We don’t need to talk about adding or removing stimuli, we need to describe bad changes and good changes from the standpoint of the subject. (Michael uses the terminology of “bad” and “good” throughout the article, which is also a deviation from standard practice.)

In other words, it appears that “present” and “remove” are abbreviations that can sometimes stand in place of a more complete description of both the pre-change and  post-change condition. The abbreviation is usually possible in the case of unconditioned reinforcements, although even here it must always be possible to infer the characteristics of both pre- and post-change conditions if we are to imply behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An interesting point: he states “present” and “remove” are incomplete descriptions. He is not arguing to ignore the nature of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He is arguing against shorthand. He is arguing that we need to describe the state of the environment and the nature of the change more accurately in order to determine the learning process in play.

There is much more in this section about presentations and removals not being specific enough for scientific usage, and it is in this section one really gets a sense of Dr. Michael’s concerns.

He also addresses an argument that has been going on for a long time in behavior science. It goes like this:

You can’t tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement if you train using food because you don’t know if you are adding food or removing hunger.

Various people

Experts in the field discuss this question earnestly and with goodwill. But you will also see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who seek to mask their use of aversives (it’s is a favorite among force trainers). I humbly offer my own study of this question, but here’s a surprise. Dr. Michael addresses this very situation in his paper.

When we say that we present a food pellet to the rat the listener can always assume that the pre-change condition is one in which no food is available. We could say that we remove the “no-food” condition, but then the behaviorally important aspect of the change would remain to be described. When we say that we terminate a 50 volt electric shock, the subsequent “no-shock” condition can generally go without further description, but if it were described alone little information would be provided.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He is saying that only one description is typically accurate in a particular situation because the other one fails to describe crucial parts of the situation. Again, he is arguing that we need to analyze the reinforcement situation with information about the environment before and after the change, not by focusing on one stimulus and whether someone “presented” or “removed” it. What is happening from the animal’s point of view? Is it a “good” change or a “bad” change, and does it involve a bad thing (aversive)?

3. Why Do We Bother?

In this section of the paper, Michael examines possible differences between negative and positive reinforcement and discusses whether each particular aspect could or should be the reason we need to make a distinction.

As we find ourselves applying behavioral analysis to more and more complex human situations we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between presenting and removing, or we find an increasing number of situations that seem to involve both. A fairly common response to this situation is to avoid making the distinction, and simply refer to the relevant environmental change as “reinforcement,” without attempting to determine whether a positive reinforcer is being presented or a negative removed. One might well ask, then, why we bother making the distinction even in those cases where it can easily be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

If your goal is to generally minimize fallout of the use of negative reinforcement, you can cherrypick the above paragraph without continuing and make it look like Michael is saying the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is the section where he specifically rejects that interpretation. He considers four reasons for making the distinction. He discounts the first three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening effects of R+ and R- different? He answers that they are not any more different than the differences between different forms of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  involve different physiological structures or processes? He doesn’t think trying to make this distinction is a good idea in view of the changing field, but he leaves room for future research. This article was published in 1975, before most of the current discoveries that showed exactly that: that different physiological processes are likely involved (Overall, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Should we keep the current terminology so as to warn people only to use “positive,” not “negative”? He appears to be asking whether we should actually appeal to the double meaning of positive. Again he answers no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Note that in using the term “social distinction” he is referring to the words “positive” and “negative,” not to the actual learning processes.)

So he rejects three reasons for making the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. Then, in a section that is rarely quoted, he goes on to answer his original question in the affirmative, saying that we do need a way to distinguish the difference. He says:

The layman frequently finds it necessary to identify an environmental event or condition as one which he doesn’t like, which he attempts to escape, or avoid. He may refer to such an event as “bad” (without the moral implications of this term), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” etc., and he also has “punishment” to use as a contrast with “reward.” A science of behavior also needs a way of identifying such events.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And finally:

We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He is arguing that we need the distinction between what is currently called negative and positive reinforcement so as to be able to specify when a “bad thing” is involved. So it is incongruous that this paper is cited in support of arguments to blur and erase the use of aversives.

4. The Solution

Michael spends so much time focusing on confusing terminology in the paper that it is strange he doesn’t devote more space to making his solution clear.

But here is what he wrote.

So, the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement and call the bad things punishers and punishment. One set of terms refers to changes which have a strengthening effect on the preceding behavior; the other to changes which have a weakening effect. The distinction between two types of reinforcement, based in turn upon the distinction between presentation and removal simply can be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, bold added by Eileen

The last sentence of that quotation can also be taken out of context in a misleading way. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can claim Michael is saying that there is no difference between the learning processes we call R+ and R-. But he has already said that we need to specify when there is a bad thing involved. He is arguing not to base the distinction on the terminology of presentation and removal. 

Finally he writes:

The arguments set forth above convinced me about 6 years ago to stop making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and to refer to the bad things as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That is the way he achieves his goals of getting rid of the terminology of presentations and removals and finding a better way to describe the “bad things.”

It’s a shame that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of applying his terminology. But I would suggest a couple of examples, following his lead. Both of these are what we would now call negative reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the goal of increasing behavior, the learning process could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol where an animal’s behavior is reinforced by giving them more distance from a scary thing, the learning process involved could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It seems clunky at first, but once you realize a bad thing (“punisher”) can be involved in reinforcement in only one way, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we need to stipulate when there is a bad thing included as part of the learning process. He also states that what we call negative reinforcement includes a bad thing, and presents a cogent argument that the differences between what we currently call R+ and R- are important and are distinct from each other in real-life situations.

Epilogue

In 2013 (yes, I’ve been working on this post for seven years), I tried to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he applied his terminology: how and when he made the distinction that a punisher was involved. I reached his wife, who said he was not able to discuss such things any longer due to dementia. He passed away this year: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted several others in the same vein, questioning the terminology of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement. In my reading, the arguments had some of the same flavor but were not exactly the same. I’ve included those articles in the references below. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers usually get a footnote in behavior science textbooks, but the standard nomenclature hasn’t changed to reflect the ideas put forth, which Michael himself later noted (Michael, 2005). I recently heard a behavior analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice a similar concern with “presentations and removals.” She mentioned that in her work it is most important to observe whether behavior is under aversive or appetitive control, and those are the classifications she uses.

And permit me one moment of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use negative reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal leave or take a break from a difficult procedure means that R- is a planned part of a training plan. Most of us would agree that allowing escape is less intrusive than flooding, but we also try mightily to train with enough skill that the animal doesn’t want to leave in the first place. So my aim here is not to preach purity, although I try to avoid the use of R- in every possible way. My argument is with people who are disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to attempt to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant learning.

Rest in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts here have done this famous paper justice.

References

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?. The Behavior Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Teaching the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The behavior analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior.

Lattal, K. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And Yet…: Further comments on distinguishing positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Comment on Baron and Galizio (2005). The Behavior Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Speculation and Explicit Identification as Judgmental Standards for Positive or Negative Reinforcement: A Comment on. The Behavior Analyst29(2), 269. 

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Sidman The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis.

Photo Credit

Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

If the idea of giving junk food to your dog appalls you, don’t read this. But I will say that my concoction of goopy stuff is healthier than the original.

I won’t make you read the history of the world before presenting the recipe. To save some of you from scrolling down, here’s my best substitute for canned spray cheese. But feel free to read the story of my experimentation. It will probably help with your own. Also, Cheez Whiz is a U.S. product; I have ideas for my friends in other countries at the end of the post.

Continue reading “A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats”
The Stages of Crossover

The Stages of Crossover

When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.

Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.

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Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!

Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!

What if your dog’s recall is so good that she comes before you call her?

The little movie featured in this post shows the myriad ways a smart dog can mess up your plans.

small black dog running to come when called, to a recall

The Original Goal: Film That Recall!

This post brings together a lot of ideas I like to explore. Among them are cues, offered behaviors, and stimulus control. And like many of my posts, this one features an unintended consequence. I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!”
The “Invention” of Cues in Training

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper

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 play as reinforcement.   

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She used a little platform 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 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 pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

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Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. I changed the title after publication in this version. Please see the note about that at the end of the article.


Three dogs looking through a fence. Continuously reinforcement. A recall trained via variable reinforcement probably won't get their attention.
If I’ve trained recall on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, how likely are my dogs to come away from the fascinating distraction behind the fence?

But do I have to carry around treats or toys forever?

This is a common question from trainers who are new to positive reinforcement techniques. And most of us have heard the following typical answer.

Continue reading “Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?”
Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training

Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training

Chocolate cookies on a cookie sheet. The baker may do other activities while the cookies are baking as long as she shows up at the right time. Her behavior follows the matching law.
When we bake cookies, some reinforcement is on a variable interval schedule.

What Is the Matching Law?

Have you heard trainers talking about the matching law? This post covers a bit of its history and the nuts and bolts of what it is about. I am providing this rather technical article because I want something to link to in some other written pieces about how the matching law has affected my own training of my dogs.

Continue reading “Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training”
Finding the Joy in Agility

Finding the Joy in Agility

What do you see in this professional photo of Summer on an agility A-frame in a competition?

She’s so pretty in that photo, and running nicely, but you know what? She wasn’t happy.

Here are a couple more photos from that same trial.

Summer was not miserable. She was responsive and doing what I was asking her to do. (What a good girl!) But she was stressed. And she was not joyful. I can tell it from her face, which was drawn, even a bit grim. For some dogs, that particular look might just be focus. But for her, it shows unpleasant stress. Can you tell?

How Was She Trained?

Summer’s agility behaviors were trained with positive reinforcement. She was never forced onto the equipment, but was taught gradually and gently. She wasn’t scared of it. She was physically confident and generally enjoyed the activity. So why did she look grim in these trial photos? I can identify three reasons.

  • She was undertrained. She just didn’t have that much experience yet and wasn’t solid. The behaviors weren’t “can do it in her sleep” fluent.
  • She was stressed in the trial environment. It was outdoors, there were lots of dogs, it was muddy and rainy, and she didn’t have enough experience in challenging public situations.
  • This is actually the big one. I had trained her with positive reinforcement, but I had not sought out and used reinforcers that she was wildly crazy about.

Fixing the last one sent us well on our way to fixing all three.

Finding the Joy in Agility

At the time these photos were taken in 2008, I had recently found a new teacher. She helped me realize that even though Summer could perform most of the behaviors, and had even had some qualifying runs, I was trialing her too early.

So, we worked on Summer’s and my agility behaviors. We worked on her distractibility, especially her penchant for hunting turtles. We worked on my handling, so I could be consistent and clear. She showed me that almost anything Summer did (except to run after a turtle) was because I had cued it with my body. We cut down and practically eliminated the times when Summer might just run off after a bad cue of mine, both because my cues got better, and because Summer found it worthwhile to stick around even when I messed up.

At my teacher’s encouragement, I found very high-value treats that turned Summer’s attention on high. And we used a novel reinforcer—playing in the spray of a garden hose—as a reinforcer for a whole sequence.* The water play not only upped her excitement about agility in general, it was also great for proofing her performance. She learned that if she ran straight to the hose rather than following my signals, no water came out. But finish the sequence correctly, and there was a party with the hose. She loved it!

Transfer of Value

In my last blog post I described how I became a conditioned reinforcer to my dogs over the years through regular association with food and fun. The same thing happened with agility.  All those good feelings associated with the high-value goodies, the fun, and the hose bled right over into agility behaviors.

Three years later, we competed again. We had practiced going to new environments. The fun of agility was so strong, and our behaviors were that much more fluent, that this is how she now looked in competition.

sable dog jumping an agility jump with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

sable dog exiting an agility chute with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

Summer came to love agility. She sprang from the start line when released. She ran fast and happy. She was an unlikely agility dog with her penchant for turtles and other prey. But she not only got good at it, she loved it. And I loved doing it with her. Even after I got Zani, who was young, physically apt and very responsive—running with Summer was always like coming home.

I thought about calling this post “Going Beyond Positive Reinforcement,” but I decided that was inaccurate. I didn’t need to go beyond it. The difference was just better positive reinforcement training.  More thorough, more general, more thoughtful. And the result was joy.

If you want to see just how joyful, watch the following video. The first clip is from 2012, at a trial. Even though it was late in the day and I made some clumsy errors, she ran happy! The comparison in her demeanor from the previous competition is striking. It is followed by the best example of her speed I have on film: a run we did in 2014 at an agility field (with distractions). Finally, I show some messing around we did at home in 2016, just to share how delighted we were to be playing with one another. She was 10 years old then, and that winter was the last time shared the joy of agility together. (She passed away in August, 2017.)

Link to the agility joy video for email subscribers.

My teacher, and other great trainers who have influenced me, have taught me to set the bar (ha-ha) high. It’s not enough that a dog can do the behaviors. It’s not enough that they can qualify. It’s not enough that they can get ribbons. It’s not enough that they are happy to get their treat at the end of the run or get to go explore the barn area at the fairgrounds.

What’s enough is getting the joy.

*If you allow your dog to play in water, especially with a hose, make sure she doesn’t ingest too much. Drinking too much water can be deadly.

Related Posts

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

two hippos with their mouths open, arguing

What behavioral processes may be happening when we argue? They may not be what we think.*

Let’s dive straight into an example. Sadie has just commented online in a dog training group, expressing an opinion I find to be dangerous and wrong. I write a carefully crafted post that I believe addresses her argument with clear and concrete evidence. I am polite. I’m also focused on building a strong argument.

What happens next?

Likely this. First, Sadie keeps right on arguing her point, frequently and more vociferously. Second, some of Sadie’s friends join in, criticizing me for being “punishing” and “not force free.” But how can it be punishing if Sadie’s behavior of writing her opinion is still going on, even perhaps increasing?

Behavioral Analysis

Let’s look at the learning and behavior processes involved. For the moment we will pretend that my comment is the only thing affecting Sadie’s behavior, and let’s agree that it got under her skin. Here’s how it went. (See the bottom of the post for a note on the analysis of verbal behavior.)

  • Antecedent: There’s a discussion about a topic that interests Sadie on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie writes and posts her opinion
  • Consequence: I post a counter-opinion
  • Question: Does her behavior of posting on the topic decrease, maintain, or increase?

Possible Outcome 1: Behavioral Decrease Through Positive Punishment

Outcome #1: Sadie doesn’t post on that subject anymore. Her behavior of writing about the topic has decreased. That would likely be the learning process of positive punishment at work. My post was immediately and severely aversive. I think this is what we usually expect to happen when we argue with someone, even if it almost never does. The idea is that they will either change their opinion or shut up. In both cases, they have ceased the behavior of arguing their opinion. This does happen. The person will leave the group or discussion. But it’s not the most common response, in my observation.

Possible Outcome 2: Behavioral Decrease Through Extinction

Outcome #2: This one is less likely, but let’s not forget extinction, another way for the behavior to decrease. Maybe Sadie didn’t see my comment or doesn’t give one whit about my opinion. But nobody else chimed in and encouraged her, so she drifted off to greener pastures of discourse. This is extinction, where a behavior that has been previously reinforced gets no reinforcement, then decreases.

Possible Outcome 3: Behavioral Increase Through Positive Reinforcement

cartoon of short creature in armor typing on a keyboard. Trolls like to get people to argue
Trolls may be positively reinforced by getting people to argue

Outcome #3: Sadie keeps posting at the same or an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This could be the process of positive reinforcement. Perhaps Sadie is thick-skinned and doesn’t care what I think, but my comment indicates that someone is paying attention so her posting behavior increases. Or Sadie may be a troll, and this is fun for her. My response means she continues her game.

Possible Outcome 4: Behavioral Increase Through Negative Reinforcement

Outcome #4: Sadie keeps posting the same or at an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This subsequent behavior can be a result of a negative reinforcement scenario. I think it is the most common occurrence and quite an interesting one. We tend to visualize a zinger of a response as a one-time deal. Pow! and done. Positive punishment. Knock the person out, and they don’t come back to the discussion. That can happen. But we are humans. What usually happens when we receive a verbal correction? We get upset. We obsess about it! It’s not a one-time aversive; it has duration. The comment is still there. People are reading about it. Sadie is thinking about it. And that sets the stage for the next set of behaviors. We know what a duration aversive leads to, right? Some action to escape it. And how will she likely escape the discomfort? By writing more words on Facebook.

If this happens, what does the analysis of Sadie’s next behavior look like?

  • Antecedent: Sadie is uncomfortable because of what I said to her on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie posts back to argue her case
  • Consequence: Sadie’s stress of being corrected or publicly embarrassed is relieved
  • Prediction: Sadie will continue to respond when argued with

This is negative reinforcement, and it often leads to an infinite loop.

The Infinite Argument Loop

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what is happening to me? Potentially the same thing that’s happening to Sadie. When I post, she becomes uncomfortable. She relieves it by arguing back. And when she argues back, this is aversive to me. If I get pulled in, I take action to relieve the discomfort by posting again. Ad infinitum. When both people are sucked into ego responses, the loop is sure to keep going and going.

There are probably other behaviors spinning off from the aversive exchange as well. Sadie or I may be having intense conversations with friends. We may be sending each other personal messages. One of us may have a drink or perform some self-soothing behavior. But if Sadie started off by posting in a public forum, she is probably continuing to do so at a more and more intense level. And so am I.

The Argument of Tone

Kindness and respect don’t always erase the human response to being corrected. I’ve specified that my original response in this scenario was polite and kindly for a reason. A big problem with humans is that no matter how nice it is, we can receive criticism or correction as meanness, even if it’s not coming from that place at all. We are a social species and discord can touch very deep, survival-related feelings in us. This can send us back into some primitive responses.

There’s a name for this one. Objecting to some words because they “feel mean” is the argument of tone, a rhetorical fallacy that positive reinforcement trainers get pummeled with all the time. It’s a type of ad hominem attack, or just pure insult if it doesn’t address the content of the argument. No matter what your motivations or how respectful your discourse, someone is going to pop up and say, “You’re not force-free with people!” Make no mistake: if all you’ve done is to present fact or an opinion that they disagree with, this is a diversion and an insult.

It can also be true. I’m not a mud-slinger, but there have definitely been times when I have been less than thoughtful. Oh yeah. But I do my best at being kind and respectful when I am in the position of contradicting someone. Much of the time now I can tell the difference between my arguing principally to relieve pressure and “be right” and arguing to exchange and further knowledge. Because if we work for it, good argument can happen, even if one or both parties feel stung. We can put on our big girl panties and concentrate on the issues rather than our feelings.

What To Do

This post was born because I started thinking of the misuse of the term punishment. But negative reinforcement involves an aversive, too.  The more I think about this infinite loop of argument, the more I can see how so much of this unhappy discourse works. Here are some observations about the loop and how one might escape it.

  • Recognize that even kindly critique presented in a constructive way can be unpleasant. This negative reinforcement loop can happen even when people are being very nice.
  • Summer arguing in play

    Don’t assume that someone else is being mean when you are the recipient of critique. Try to identify what is contributing to your response.  Sometimes it takes me days before I can lose my righteousness enough to see another point of view. When you get to that point, you may still disagree, but you can see your way through to answer decently. Arguing with the goal of mutual learning greatly lessens the aversive state, in my experience.

  • At the same time, don’t stick around and put up with rude behavior and cognitive fallacies. If it’s in an environment where you can exert some control, you can do that. For instance, you can have a comments policy and enforce it when you are on your own Facebook page or on your blog. But if it’s out of your control, consider quitting. If someone persists in cognitive fallacies, you aren’t going to get through.
  • Clarify your goals. Is your goal to persuade this person? Is your goal to shut her up? (Be honest. It’s possible for this to be a valid goal when her statements are dangerous or provocative.) Is your goal to persuade lurking readers? Is your goal to have an argument that is polite, fair, and furthers knowledge on both sides even if you don’t reach an accord? Are you just pissed off and want to vent? (That’s a good time to wait a while.) Your goal should help you make a plan.

What are the ways the cycle can stop? Some things I do are 1) agree to disagree then stop reading the thread; 2) continue writing but with the other people in the thread in mind—the silent lurkers—and don’t engage with the original person from then on; or 3) take some notes and go write about the situation somewhere else. I don’t mean to go and Vaguebook. I mean leave the personal stuff and the grudges out and address the topic itself after some time has elapsed. (Ahem. Like this post.)

When I’m the recipient of correction, I make an effort not to blame others for my emotional response.  When I succeed with this, and the other person does too, we may get to experience one of those great arguments where both parties are reasonable, nobody takes pot shots at anybody else, and everybody gains some understanding. It can happen!

Have you been part of a fair and productive argument lately?

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

*ABA with humans involving verbal behavior is a whole separate branch of learning theory. I am not touching on that part; just the major motivators. Thank you to the board-certified behavior analyst who looked over this post and agreed that what I covered, I got right. I’m open to other ideas about what is going on, of course!

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