Category: Reinforcement

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.

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

A tan and black dog lies on the grass holding a ball and a brown and white puppy runs toward her

Or: The Magic Buffalo Tug

In my post about the challenges of living with and training Lewis, I mentioned that the worst problem we faced was his hassling Clara to play. We’ve made some progress.

When he first came, his most frequent behavior toward her was humping. I remember telling Marge Rogers I had removed him or called him away dozens of times in a day. The humping diminished, thankfully. He does it far less frequently and less intensely and will happily dismount when I call him away.

But the next phase was tougher.

Continue reading “You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog”
That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

It took only four pieces of kibble to fix a problem I’ve had for about eight years.

Long ago, I sought to stop using body pressure to move my dogs around in space. This was a conscious and serious effort. For me, and for my dogs, using body pressure was not a benign endeavor. You can see two of my very early YouTube videos about it. Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement and Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure.

Continue reading “That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior”
Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy

There are thousands of people searching for that perfect stuffed toy: the one their dog will love playing with and which will last longer than a couple of days.

The Tearrible sounds like that toy, but for us, it wasn’t. It’s a toy meant to be played with in one limited way—a way a dog might or might not enjoy. Surely there are dogs for whom this would be a great toy. But be sure to understand how the toy actually works before you assume your dog is one of them.

Continue reading “Tearribles Review: Neither a Chew Toy nor a Tug Toy”
The Day I Got Paid for Crying

The Day I Got Paid for Crying

Lately I’ve been thinking about something that happened to me in my early 20s, a pivotal day when I had an emotional reaction unlike any before or since. The experience has remained vivid to me all these years, but only recently has it snapped into place among my thoughts about behavior. It’s a human corollary to “you don’t need to worry about reinforcing your dog’s fear.” I underwent an intense, long period of extended respondent behavior followed by something that would be a huge reinforcer for operant behavior. Did my respondent behavior get reinforced?

Here’s the story.

i finished my master’s in music when I was 21 and was already working professionally. I played the harpsichord, and although I gave solo performances now and then, I specialized in the improvised “accompaniment” of the Baroque period: basso continuo. This meant that I got to play in ensembles from duos up to full orchestras, including opera orchestras.

Continue reading “The Day I Got Paid for Crying”
Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog Title: More Tricks, More Lessons Learned

Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog Title: More Tricks, More Lessons Learned

It’s an oxymoron, as my friend Carol pointed out, but Clara and I earned her Novice Masters Trick Dog title recently. I haven’t had time to post about it until now.

Things We Learned

As usual, the balance between stuff she already knew (get in a crate), tricks we could adapt quickly from stuff she already knew (get in a cardboard box), and completely new stuff (roll out the carpet) was…interesting.

Practicing the cookie balancing trick by starting with kibble on the top of Clara’s head

Here are some highlights.

Stand: We finally have a nice stand on cue after our long running debacle. Her stance is a bit crouchy (no idea where that came from), but it’s fixable. What I’ve got is a moderately calm dog with four on the floor and I’m happy! I’m using a hand signal and have no plans for a verbal one. No, no, no way!

Continue reading “Clara’s Novice Masters Trick Dog Title: More Tricks, More Lessons Learned”
That Damn “Roll Out the Carpet” Trick

That Damn “Roll Out the Carpet” Trick

Tan dog with black muzzle sits next to a tightly rolled up maroon carpet. She is sitting on the tiny part of it that is not unrolled.
Clara dutifully sitting on her sliver of mat

I picked the “Roll out the carpet” trick from the novice trick list from Do More with Your Dog because it looked fun and more trick-like than a lot of the other behaviors. We had been doing things like sits and downs and walking on leash and targeting. This was more like a real trick. It would be new, but still looked like a fairly straightforward one because Clara knows how to push things with her nose.

The definition of the trick is:

Dog will use his nose to unroll a rolled-up carpet. Carpet can be a yoga mat, rug or towel and should be roughly 5 feet/~2 meters in length.

DMWYD Novice Trick List

I have rolled food up in towels for Clara before as enrichment, so that seemed like an obvious way to practice. So I took a 5-foot rubber-backed rug

Continue reading “That Damn “Roll Out the Carpet” Trick”
Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

tan dog with black muzzle stands on all four feet on a mat
This calm stand happened during a time when we weren’t working on it, of course

I considered titling this post “Eileen’s Stand Disaster,” but I thought that might be too confusing. Clara was the one standing, but the disaster part was definitely on me.

Thousands of people worldwide have used Susan’ Garrett’s fun method for teaching the stand and gotten fabulous results. I wasn’t one of them, but I blame myself, not the method.

The method is to have the dog in heel position in a sit, and to use a hand target above the dog’s head

Continue reading “Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops”
I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!

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

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

Continue reading “I Just Show Him the Water Bottle and He Behaves—I Don’t Have to Squirt Him!”
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”
Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.