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Category: Negative Reinforcement

9 Effects of Punishment

9 Effects of Punishment

Here are nine documented possible side effects of the use of punishment, negative reinforcement, and of aversives in general.

  1. Escape/Avoidance: If you hurt or scare your dog, she will likely try to avoid you, the places you frequent, and whatever else she associates with the hurt.
  2. Operant Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, he may hurt you back.
  3. Elicited Aggression: If you hurt or scare your dog, she may hurt your other dog or your kid.
  4. Generalization (related to #1 and #2 above): If you scare or hurt your dog, she can become afraid of (or aggressive toward) other things associated with your actions, like locations and objects.
  5. Apathy: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot, she may become apathetic and not do much of anything.
  6. Conditioned Suppression/Learned Helplessness: If you hurt or scare your dog a lot unpredictably, she will live in a state of fear and also may not do much of anything.
  7. Injury: If you hurt your dog you could cause him injury. 
  8. Reinforcement of the Punisher: If you hurt or scare your dog regularly, your actions will easily be reinforced and become habitual. On the occasion that your actions don’t work to interrupt or decrease behavior, you will tend to escalate the hurt.
  9. Copying: If you see someone training their dog through pain or intimidation, it can influence you to do it yourself.

These are the things you risk if you use pain, fear, force, coercion, intimidation, or even startling to train your dog. The effects are not limited to training “tools” such as are featured in the picture below.

Not all of them will happen all the time. But they are all possible, and we can’t know ahead of time which dogs (and which owners) will be strongly affected by the use of aversive methods.

That’s the short version. For scientific references, check the resource page described and linked below.

Prong collars, air horns, squirt bottles, penny cans, and throwing bags
Some aversives used in dog training

Introducing the Aversives Resource Page

Here it is:

Danger sign homemadeFallout from Use of Aversives in Punishment and Negative Reinforcement: A Reference List

This resource page cites articles, most of them classics from peer-reviewed journals, on the above types of fallout. It is provided for people who need or want to investigate the original sources.

Most types of aversive fallout are so well documented that the reader can check out the original article and follow a cascade of research following it.

Besides classic sources for the above effects, I’ve listed the main studies that document side effects of painful or scary training for dogs, and also a couple of other important references. Like many of my projects, the page is ongoing.

If it is helpful to you, please share it. If I have left out something important, please let me know!

Related Posts:

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Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

A speech balloon with the words, "This method is OK because..." in it.

Today’s post is about how people often justify the use of aversives. I’m going to use my own experience as an example.

  • I am going to present a description of an aversive method I used to use.
  • I am going to list many common justifications that could be offered as reasons why that method could be OK.
  • I’m going to describe the possible fallout from the method for the dog and for the handler.

Aversives

Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defined aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!”
How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement protocols, the ethical and definitional difference is not about how the aversive got there. To say so is to invoke the naturalistic fallacy.  The ethical difference rides on whether the trainer chooses to put a contingency on the animal getting away from it, not whether the aversive is “natural.” Do they ask for or wait for a certain behavior before retreating? Because that is a choice. If the dog gets close enough to the trigger that she starts showing stress, there is always the option of getting her humanely out of there, with no requirements on her behavior from the handler.

Where the aversive came from is ethically irrelevant, since the trainer makes a choice whether or not to use it, however it got there. Most would agree that such a use is an ethical choice, to be carefully considered.

So the fact that people are still mentioning this irrelevancy about “who put it there” seems like a lot of hand waving to shoo away the real issue: choosing to use an aversive.

But wait–in case it matters–how did it get there?

How It Really Got There

My hand, my voice, my phone.
My hand, my voice, my phone.

I have a formerly feral dog with whom I have been working for a few years, gradually getting her socialized to people, and making lovely progress with DS/CC.

Even though my goal is to keep the triggers (people, in her case) under the threshold of aversiveness, I realize that I am dealing with potentially aversive situations when we go out into the world. And I arrange for and seek out those situations for her sessions. For instance, I make phone calls at times to arrange for a controlled session with a person unknown or partially known to her.

If I do this and blow it and let her get too close or stay too long, I have exposed her to an aversive. How’d it get there? Me! Entirely through my choices! I arranged it. I deliberately sought it out with her. I made the phone call, drove my dog to the meeting place, and exposed her to the trigger. I added it to her environment, or added her to an environment where I knew it to be.*

People following any protocol generally arrange for triggers to be present in this way, including people, dogs, specific things like people on bikes or scooters, or other animals. So if someone is doing any type of exposure treatment, how can they claim that they are not responsible for the aversive being there? Did the Tooth Fairy bring it? Can their dog pick up the phone and drive the car?

It is not logical to claim to have nothing to do with the aversive being in the environment if you planned it, arranged for it, or sought it out in the first place. And that includes stealth sessions. If you are out there looking for triggers to use without their knowledge, you are still the one choosing to expose your dog to them. Finding = adding.

Empathy

You can probably detect that I find this irritating, but I seek to look at it in an empathetic way.

I have been reading some posts by Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) practitioners in particular who express that they feel attacked and beleaguered by questions about negative reinforcement and humane training attached to their protocol. I get that they feel pushed into a corner.

I can empathize with that. Here is something you believe in, and people are asking difficult, pointed questions about it. Sure, anybody would be defensive. As a blogger, I have to deal with all levels of criticism. Even the most reasonable of criticism hurts.

There are people who react to these questions with dignity, though. They say yes, they are using negative reinforcement at times if they use certain protocols. They have thought it out, see good results, usually use other protocols as well, and are ultra careful about side effects. They don’t play like the presence of the aversive has nothing to do with them. Although I may not agree about all methods these folks use, I can appreciate their transparency and honesty about the science.

But it really worries me that there are still people who claim not to be responsible for getting the aversive into the environment. If they are trying to elude responsibility for that, even though it’s completely a side issue, what else are they willing to overlook, justify, or push out of their minds?

Thank you to all the people who do their best not to adjust the science (or even basic logical thinking) to justify their own preferences.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* I am not confusing positive punishment and negative reinforcement, here. To use negative reinforcement, there has to be an aversive in the environment to be removed or escaped. We’re talking about how the aversive got there in the first place.

5/25/14 Addendum

This post is an urge to be honest about one aspect of the use of aversives.  I believe that all trainers, regardless of method, should be honest about their training choices and philosophy. You do it: own it. That’s the message in a nutshell. And I directed it to an argument that I believe does the opposite of “owning it.”

However, one of the common responses I have gotten over the past week  is comparisons of the ranges and setups of DS/CC protocols and those using negative reinforcement, often in an apparent attempt to minimize the differences.

I have previously provided a webinar and a movie on the differences and similarities of the major protocols for addressing fear in animals, with particular emphasis on their ranges and setups.

To review a few relevant points: Debating who starts further from the stimulus is a moot point.  No matter how far away you start, you are required to go into the aversive range for a negative reinforcement protocol to work.  In desensitization and counterconditioning you have no need to cross into the range of stimulus aversiveness in order to get effective results. In R-, aversive exposure is necessary. The protocol depends on it. In DS/CC, aversive exposure is by accident and hopefully rare. That is an important distinction between DS/CC and negative reinforcement-based protocols.

The other important distinction is that you can get a positive conditioned emotional response from DS/CC. With DS/CC and negative reinforcement there are two very different types of learning going on.

 

 

Thresholds: The Movie

Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.
Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a complete script of the video; or expand the audio (only) transcript below the video.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Threshold Movie Script

[Dogs barking]

>>EILEEN ANDERSON:

Have you ever heard a dog trainer use the term “over threshold” and wondered what it meant?

A threshold is the point or level at which something begins or changes. That’s the standard dictionary definition. But the interesting thing is that there are actually three physiological and psychological thresholds that are important when we are training our animals.

The first threshold we need to know about is the sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here’s a definition: “The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.” Have you ever heard the term, “threshold of hearing?” Right now during this slide I am playing a high frequency hum. Can you hear it? If not, it is under your threshold of hearing for that frequency. If you can hear it, it is over the threshold.

The sensory threshold is involved when our dogs are able to see, hear, or smell something new in their environment.

Another threshold is the threshold of reactivity or fear. This is the one people usually mean when they say their dog is over threshold. The most general definition of this threshold is the point at which the sympathetic nervous system responds when the animal is afraid. This causes chemical changes in the body and overt behaviors usually falling into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.

Dogs who are aggressing are generally over the threshold of fear. Here are two other examples of dogs over that threshold.

[vet clinic noises]

>>EILEEN:

She’s panting, but it’s not hot.

She’s hyper vigilant.

Trying to escape, or hide.

And trembling.

This dog is practically paralyzed with fear.

But there’s one more threshold, and it’s located behaviorally between the other two. If one threshold is where the dog sees something, and another is where the dog freaks out about it, what’s in between?

The point at which the thing becomes aversive, where the dog starts to be uncomfortable with it.  This could be called the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Here is an example of a dog in a situation where a stimulus is over the threshold of aversiveness. In other words, she is stressed about something in her environment, but so far she is holding it together.

[Neighborhood noises: siren in distance, children talking, birds, a sudden thump]

>>EILEEN:

She repeatedly licks her lips and looks behind her.

She’s responding to my cues, but she’s worried about the noises.

In my webinar on thresholds in dog training, I made diagrams of these thresholds, and discussed where each of our common training protocols falls among the thresholds. Here is a summary of those diagrams.

The black line represents distance from or intensity of the stimulus.

All three of the protocols discussed here take place over the threshold of stimulus perception, since the animal has to perceive the stimulus to learn about it.

The combination of desensitization and counterconditioning is correctly practiced under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Protocols that use negative reinforcement straddle the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The animal is exposed to the stimulus at an aversive level, and escape from the aversive level of the stimulus is used as a negative reinforcer for appropriate behaviors.

The closest proximity to the aversive stimulus may be more or less than I show here; the important point is that negative reinforcement protocols have to cross the threshold of stimulus aversiveness to work.

Flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear.

The thresholds aren’t always spaced out nicely. For example, if the threshold of perception and the threshold of aversiveness are very close together in space, a trainer using desensitization/counter conditioning would probably not use distance as the initial way to keep the stimulus non-aversive. The trainer would probably use a different form of the stimulus first. This configuration of the thresholds is probably common with wild animals.

Likewise, if the threshold of stimulus aversiveness and the threshold of fear are very close together, a negative reinforcement protocol would be very difficult to perform without risking flooding.

Finally, the thresholds move because of environmental factors, the animal’s stamina and psychological state, and of course as we train. This is what we hope will happen as we train.

For more information on thresholds, please see the links to my webinar and blog in the video description. Thanks for watching!


Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

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

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

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

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

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

Version 1

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

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

I rewrote the statement to be more complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 2

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

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

Let’s go straight to examples on this one.

Monsoon_Lightning_Strike,_Table_Mesa
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Natural vs Contrived Negative Reinforcement

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

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

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

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

A Message from My Heart

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

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

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

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

Regarding Comments

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

Coming Up

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Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping it Out

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Related Posts

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Is Hide and Seek All Fun and Games?

Is Hide and Seek All Fun and Games?

Lonely Dog

Eric Brad posted a really great question this last summer on his FaceBook page, Canine Nation. Yes, it’s December now. It takes me this long to mull things over sometimes.

Have any of you ever used a technique for teaching/encouraging recalls called “Runaways”? It involves running away from your dog, hiding from your dog, or even getting in the car without them when they choose not to come when called.

Can you explain the premise on which this technique is based and why it can be effective in getting the dog to come back more reliably?

I looked around and there are several variants of this. Most people recommend the human running away and hiding as a consequence for a dog not coming when called. Ian Dunbar recommends it (as a one-time exercise) without the recall. Just leave the puppy when he is preoccupied and hide from him. Yet other people use running away from a puppy and even playing hide and seek as a game and a motivator. And Trish King of Canine Behavior Associates has a protocol called Abandonment Training that has some similarities but also important differences.

Let’s look in depth to see how this “runaway” thing can work.

First, here is  how people seem to think the first version is supposed to work.

Version 1: Negative Punishment

Just to be clear: the following is not a good behavioral analysis.

  • Antecedent: Human calls dog
  • Behavior: Dog fails to come (Note: NOT a good behavioral description)
  • Consequence: Human runs away and hides
  • Prediction: Failing to come when called decreases (probably untrue)

I believe that people think they are using negative punishment in this scenario. Negative punishment is the process where something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. The human removes him or herself from the dog’s environment. But Houston, we’ve got a problem.

In behavior analysis, we need to specify a behavior, in this case, whatever is thought to be punished. And we didn’t. “Failing to come” when called is not a behavioral description. People try to make it into one when they say the dog is “blowing them off” or “giving them the paw.” The fact those also are not realistic  descriptions either should give us pause.

So let’s think about what the dog might be doing instead of coming when called.

  • Sniffing
  • Chasing a squirrel
  • Digging a hole
  • Staring at something in the distance
  • Rolling
  • Barking at a stag beetle
  • Et cetera! The possibilities are infinite.

Problem #1. If we think we are punishing a behavior, what is it? We can’t be punishing an individual behavior if the dog is doing something different every time he doesn’t come when called and we left, and he probably is.  However, it gets worse.

Problem #2. Timing. Let’s say Fido is sniffing the ground. You call him. He keeps sniffing. You disappear. Sometime later, he notices you are gone. The problem is that your leaving and his sniffing are not connected. We can’t really expect Fido to review the last two minutes and think, “Oh let’s see, she called me. What was I doing then? Oh yeah, I was sniffing. Now she has disappeared. I’d better not sniff anymore.”

So this may feel like punishment from the human’s standpoint. “I’ll show him! I’ll go get in the car if he doesn’t come!” Just like some beleaguered parents end up threatening to do with their kids. But the analysis doesn’t work out that way. (See below under Abandonment Training for a protocol that removes these problems.)

In truth, we are not looking to punish something as much as we are trying to get behavior.  We are trying to increase the behaviors of the dog staying connected and coming when called. So let’s re-analyze it as a reinforcement scenario. We will have to move our behavioral lens over one notch and start with the human leaving. So now we get the Dunbar version.

Version 2: Negative Reinforcement

  • Antecedent: Human hides, leaving puppy alone
  • Behavior: Pup looks for and finds human
  • Consequence: State of being alone ends
  • Prediction: Pup looking for human increases

The behavioral mathematics work out better here, although it’s a tricky scenario.  I’ll be discussing it in more depth in a later post**. The aversive is being alone, which is very scary for many animals, especially young ones. The puppy can learn to escape being ditched or shorten the time by looking for the human more often, and noticing sooner when the human disappears. The pup can learn to avoid it entirely by looking for (or paying attention to the whereabouts of) the human all the time.

Let’s think about what the dog learns and how, though. Here is a true story from a friend, in her words:

Years ago I had my little sensitive Sheltie down at the oval. She was off leash and running around sniffing the ground, hot on the trail of something or other. Not having much experience at the time I called her to come however, she was that intent on sniffing that she was oblivious to my recall. A Trainer told me to go and hide berhind a car so that she could not see me. I did as I was asked and after hiding for a few minutes Elsa finally realised that I was gone. I will never forget the terrified look on her little face as she ran up to everyone checking them out to see if any of them were me. Broke my heart. I would never put my dog through that again. She obviously was not well trained at the time and should not even have been off leash in that environment. I had set my dear little friend up to fail.

This method to me seems quite extreme, especially since teaching a dog to check in frequently and come when called is not rocket science. If you have built a great foundation and relationship with the dog, you would have a very hard time even doing this test. I personally don’t want to teach, “Stay with me or else.” It’s using coercion as an unpleasant topping on a really nice cake.

Version #3: Running Away

Now the cool thing, and I think the point Eric Brad was getting to, is that you can also use running away as part of a positive reinforcement protocol. My original title for this piece was about the continuum, and how the same actions, running away and hiding, can range from extremely rewarding to completely aversive. Here is the other end of the spectrum from what I described above. Take a look at these puppies practicing running after and with their people.

This is a much happier scenario:

  • Antecedent: Human runs ahead of puppy (optionally calling to them)
  • Behavior: Puppy chases and catches up
  • Consequence: Treat and/or play is added
  • Prediction: Pup running after human increases

And you can see it increase in the movie, can’t you? By the end of their turn, many of the puppies can hardly be left behind anymore and are happily running with their humans.

A small dog, a black and white rat terrier with very large ears that stand up, is running towards the side of a human (you can see only the human's pant leg. The dog's mouth is open, her foot is raised in mid stride, and she looks excited and happy.
Cricket (14 years old in this photo)  liked playing chase games 

So what’s different? First, the humans didn’t hide. They just ran a few feet away from the puppy in wide open spaces. They didn’t lump straight to disappearing. Second, the puppies got a fun treat when they caught up. Third, they got to chase something, a favored activity for many dogs!

Now let’s compare the three different behavioral analyses. In Version #1, the human running away and hiding is the consequence, not the antecedent. It is performed as a result of something the dog did (or didn’t do). It is not an antecedent, or cue for a behavior.

In Version #2 it is an aversive antecedent. The human hides without warning from a young, dependent animal. The puppy is prompted to relieve the stress of being left alone by finding the human.

But in Version #3, the running away scenario, it is a non-stressful or very low stress antecedent. There might be a couple of moments early on where the puppy is going “Huh? where did he go?” But the humans stay close and out in plain sight and the pup learns the game. The difference was that they started out with baby steps. And at that point in the game they called the pups after they were coming to help teach them the cue.

And that leads us to…

Version #4 Hide and Seek

So if hiding is aversive, as described in Version #2, how come some people play it as a game?

The hiding as described in Versions 1 and 2, if used as a training technique, is lumping. In some cases deliberate lumping. The pup has not learned a fun game based on trying to find mom or dad. Suddenly disappearing on a puppy is quite different from doing a careful buildup. The people who do play hide and seek as part of a recall game take it in steps, just like with any other good training. They start off like the people in the puppy video I linked to above. They take care not to push too far and lose the pup’s trust.

Here’s a a short post and video by Mary Hunter, playing hide and seek with her parents’ dog Ginger. Ginger clearly thinks this is fun. Notice that Mary barely even goes out of sight before she calls Ginger. She is demonstrating a great way to start. Building very carefully on this foundation will probably result in a dog who associates looking for and finding her human with some of the best fun ever.

I will mention that I failed to make hide and seek fun for two of my three dogs when I tried it.  It’s easy to go too fast, or fail to notice signs of stress. Clara, the formerly feral dog, and Zani, the sensitive one, both got a little stressed out when I tried this game. Summer was fine and had quite the drive for it. My failure with the others may be solely a result of lumping on my part, or could be connected with their temperaments. But I shudder to think of the effect on them if I suddenly disappeared on them in real life as some kind of test.

Version #5: Abandonment Training

I want to mention that there is a formal training protocol for reactive/aggressive dogs that fits into the “runaway” category. It is Trish King of Canine Behavior Associates’ Abandonment Training for Aggression. And although it is not something I would choose to do because of where it lands on the Humane Hierarchy (negative punishment and arguably positive punishment), it addresses the problems I noted in Version #1 above.

It is a protocol for when the dog performs aggressive behavior. It consists of the handler throwing the leash at the dog as a tactile cue and leaving. (There is also a long line on the dog.) But there are some preparations set for the exercise.

Trish King knows her learning theory, so this method is superior to the “just up and leave” method in terms of coherence to the dog. First, the dog is taught a cue that means the handler is leaving, and is positively reinforced for coming along. (That cue includes the tactile experience of having a leash dropped on its back.) So the dog develops some fluency, in neutral situations, of turning and leaving with its handler on cue. Second, a specific behavior (or set of behaviors) is the target for the punishment. In this case, it is barking and other aggressive behaviors, not a “non-behavior” such as not coming when called). Third, the cue for leaving is delivered exactly when the dog is performing the undesired behavior, so the relationship between the two is clear.

Good Methods for Teaching Attention and Recall

Black and tan dog rushing up steps
Zani comes when called

Except for the puppy recall video, it appears that most of the above is about what not to do. So here are some more resources for kindly and fun methods for training recalls, and a couple of inspirational vids as well.

And for some inspiration:

Amy the rat shows that small animals can learn verbal cues and have a splendid recall.

Promoting Positive Reinforcement Training: A compilation of positively reinforced recalls. This one gives me goosebumps. Special thanks to Ines Gaschot for this showcase.

Thanks to Conekt (Andy Ferra) on Flickr for the top photo, “Lonely Dog.”

Note: In case you regularly check out what is coming up, this post is the one that was formerly referred to as, “OMG Could she really be talking about the Continuum again?”

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

**In Version #2, there could be some positive reinforcement as well: adding the human back into the environment could cause joy as well as relief. Whether the aversive is present depends on the internal responses of the animal, but that’s not uncommon. We can’t “see” if a shock collar causes pain, but we can tell whether it can be used to drive behavior or not. And in both cases we can study the visible behavioral responses and body language of the dog. A third party, present when the puppy was left, could tell pretty easily in most cases whether the puppy was panicked or having a great time searching.

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Would you like to see how to teach a dog to back up without walking into them? Today I’m featuring a video I made about that in 2011 that is quite popular on YouTube, but that I have never shown here.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

The video features the “channel” technique to teach backing up. You build a little channel out of furniture or household items, get your dog to go to the front of it by throwing a treat up there, then capture (click/treat) their backing up when they back out. This is only a good technique if your dog doesn’t mind small spaces. (Wait until you see my little demo dog! Kaci the rat terrier is fearless and very “in the game.”)

Continue reading “Teaching A Dog to Back Up”
Sharing the Blog

Sharing the Blog

Share!
Share!

Every once in a while someone asks me if it’s OK to share one of my posts or videos, or perhaps link to them from their webpage. How polite of them to ask!

And, um, the answer is YES! If you want to, please link. If you are moved to, please share.

I decided to write this invitation since I deliberately do not plead with people to share my stuff, to sign up to follow the blog, or to Like my FaceBook page. Those options are there for those who want them, but I promote them almost not at all.

It occurred to me, since people ask, that people may not really know that I would love my stuff to be shared around. So here is an invitation.

Pressure Tactics

I write a lot about negative reinforcement. One of the reasons, I admit, is that I personally hate pressure, nagging, and attempts to influence my behavior, especially by self-interested people. A good friend says of me, “You’ll get along just fine with Eileen as long as you don’t try to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do.” I have a huge opposition reflex.

Applying pressure on the web is easy. You know those pop up windows that either prompt or actually require you to put in your email address before you can see some content? That, my friends, is classic negative reinforcement. Even without the annoying window, it can be R-, if the reader feels pressure to sign up for something or share personal information or take any particular action in order to get to something that interests them.

Here’s one that popped up while I was reading the first few paragraphs of an article. I decided it wasn’t worth it. Even though they gave an option to bypass the window, I decided I didn’t like them anymore.

Caption
A pop up window that came up multiple times while I was glancing at an article

Here’s one that appeared after I scanned an SEO company and decided I wasn’t interested and was heading for the button to close the window.

A popup that appears when you try to leave this website
A pop up that appears when you try to leave this website without signing up for their services

After that I really wasn’t interested!

You won’t see popups on my blog or FaceBook page, as long as I am in control. (I can’t imagine a situation where I would lose that control, but I tend to avoid absolute statements. Especially regarding FaceBook!) And as long as I have the means, and the online providers don’t change the rules, you won’t see ads or anything else you have to click away on my blog or YouTube channel.

I do have empathy and respect for people who earn their living, or part of it, through providing online products and resources. I understand that the basic marketing principle is to provide some information for free, develop an email list, and use it to sell the product. Lots of folks are very generous with their information, and it’s fair to promote their goods or services that have a price tag as well. But just FYI, you marketers out there, I personally don’t respond well to:

  • Popups that appear before I can see anything at all on the website;
  • Popups that appear when I’ve spent 30 seconds on a website just trying to get the sense of it;
  • Popups that appear repeatedly after I close them;
  • And popups that appear when I try to leave.

It’s so ham-handed. I can make my own decisions, thank-you-very-much. Buh-bye.

I will certainly sign up for someone’s email list on occasion if they take a low pressure approach and put a signup box on the page somewhere, or if a popup comes up after I click to say I’m interested. And I have been known to pay for an ebook or other resource from someone after I sign up for their email distribution list. I’m not looking for a free lunch. I just want to make decisions on the merits that I perceive, not because someone got pushy.

There’s a difference between making it easy to buy something and hard not to.

My, this turned into a little bit of a rant, didn’t it?

Spreading the Word

So given all that, I’m an unlikely candidate for a proselyte, but that just goes to show you never know where life will take you.

One of my big motivations for writing is to share the message about training as free from force, pain, and pressure as we possibly can. Sure, I have an ego. I’m a writer. I want to be read. But I have an additional motivation. I want to share good training practices with the people who are teetering on the edge of what methods to use and are tired of battling with their dogs. I also want to reach those who always knew that was the way they wanted to go and support them. Anyone who wants to listen. I get huge positive reinforcement when people respond to my posts, riff off them, and spread them around.

So, I’m saying to you: if you think my stuff is helpful, I would LOVE it if you share it.

One of the main ways that a website, including a blog, gets ranked highly on Google is if other sites link to it. And sites that rank highly on Google get on the first page of results. For instance, wouldn’t you love it if this site came up high in the results if someone is searching on terms related to shock collars?  I would.

What to Share

Share whatever you like the most, feel the best about, and whatever you think will help spread the word about training without pressure and pain.

In the menu at the top of the blog, there are four menu items that lead to topical pages, but I will link them here as well:

But there are lots of posts that don’t fit into those categories. Along the sidebar there is a search box where you can look up an old favorite; a list of the currently most popular posts; and an archive where you can view older posts  by date.

How to Share It

At the bottom of each post and page is a panel that says “Share this:” with lots of sharing options. Feel free to pick one and click it! And if you have your own website or blog, feel free to link to any posts here that you like. You can highlight the URL at the top of your browser, copy it, and paste it to share.

How to Follow the Blog

In case you didn’t know of these options:

  • If you want WordPress to send you an email every time I publish a post, click “Follow Blog via Email” in the sidebar at the left.
  • If you want to follow me on Twitter, click here, then click Follow. I am not very active there, but I do tweet every new post and the occasional post from someone else.
  • If you want to get an announcement of each post on FaceBook, you can Like my FaceBook page.
  • If you want to follow via RSS, click on the RSS link in the sidebar.

Other Favorites

Just to share the love a little, here are my current top four favorite posts from other folks. Feel free to share them, too! (Note that I am breaking a cardinal rule here, and may be shooting myself in the foot by sending you off somewhere else right at this crucial moment. But hey, these are GREAT posts.)

Thank you, most of all, for reading!

And for sharing if you choose to.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But if You Use Negative Reinforcement Aren’t You Also Using Positive Punishment?

But if You Use Negative Reinforcement Aren’t You Also Using Positive Punishment?

Minus plus

Surprisingly, no. Not necessarily.

You could actually get my answer to this question by reading this other post: Only If The Behavior Decreases!  But of course I’m writing some more anyway.

This issue was a big stumbling block for me when I first started studying operant learning. If negative reinforcement requires for an aversive to be removed, then it had to get there in the first place, right? That’s only logical. So whenever it appeared, there must have been punishment, right? I used to argue about this in my head all the time. But the answer is no, it doesn’t follow that there necessarily was punishment. There absolutely could have been, but it is not logically necessary after all. Here’s why.

Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

Look at the second half of the definition. I’ve harped on this before, largely because I need a lot of reminding myself. The definition of punishment (and reinforcement also) is recursive. We can only know if punishment has occurred by traveling to the future. If the behavior didn’t decrease, there was no punishment.

Aversives, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Punishment

Employing an aversive and using negative reinforcement do not mean one is also positively punishing a behavior. I have this from the words of Susan Friedman, PhD, in one of her lectures in her Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course. For punishment to have occurred, a behavior must decrease in frequency. That’s the definition. And if one is in a negative reinforcement scenario, the behavior the animal is performing at the onset of the aversive could very well be randomized, because that is not the focus of the training. The animal may not always be doing the same thing when the aversive (e.g. shock,  pinch, pressure, nagging, or appearance of scary monster) starts.

Examples

R- collage 2
Some typical implements and examples of negative reinforcement. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons (cat o’ nine tails; man scratching), Alan Cleaver (alarm clock), Eileen Anderson (shock collar and stuffed dog with tight leash)

If I decided to teach my sensitive dog Zani to back up by consistently walking into her whenever we were both in a certain hallway (note: I don’t teach backing up that way), her behavior of coming into that hallway when I was there would definitely decrease. Coming into the hallway with me would have been positively punished.

But let’s say in another training scenario I play a mildly aversive noise whenever I want Zani to come get on her mat in the kitchen, and the noise stays on until she gets there. The mat is a “safe place” and getting on it turns off the noise. (Again, I would not do this.) Zani could be anywhere in the house when the noise starts. Her behavior at the onset is randomized, so nothing gets punished. But if I started doing it consistently when she was sitting in a particular chair, she would likely stop getting in that chair.

Since we humans fall into patterns so easily, it is very easy for positive punishment to start happening when we regularly use an aversive. But the point is that it does not have to happen.

Let’s face it, people use noxious stimuli all the time without behavior decreasing. That’s one of the many problems with trying to use positive punishment: unless the noxious stimulus is strong enough (and well timed enough, and several other criteria), the original behavior may maintain its strength.

Ramifications

So does this mean that negative reinforcement is OK? No. An aversive is an aversive. Just because there is no positive punishment going on doesn’t mean that the training is humane.

If you wanted to reword the question in the title, you could say, “But if you use negative reinforcement aren’t you also using an aversive, just like in positive punishment?” As long as it is recognized that the aversive is used in a different way, the answer is yes.

But the funny thing is, I’ve heard the relationship between the two processes that use aversives used to make two opposite claims, neither of them true in my opinion.

First is the claim implicit in the title. It usually goes like this:

If you use negative reinforcement, therefore you are using positive punishment, so neeter neeter neeter.

I have dealt with that one above.

The second claim goes like this:

Yes, you can have negative reinforcement without positive punishment. And that’s the GOOD kind of negative reinforcement. As long as there is not positive punishment going on,  negative reinforcement can actually be kind of nice.

Excuse me? The existence or non-existence of concomitant positive punishment is irrelevant to how aversive a stimulus is. It is possible to train with a shock collar using a negative reinforcement protocol, for instance.   Again, as long as the point at which the shock is turned on is fairly random with regard to the dog’s behavior, you may not necessarily see a decrease in a behavior as a result of the commencement of the shock.

Negative reinforcement is only one notch up from positive punishment on the Humane Hierarchy, and for good reason.  It always involves an aversive, and employs escape and avoidance, pure and simple. So don’t anybody dare use my argument above showing that there is not necessarily positive punishment in order to say that negative reinforcement is OK.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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