Category: Terminology

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

Continue reading “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?”
A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning

A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning

This 2003 edition book is $4.89 on Amazon. Contents: priceless.

There is a science that deals directly with how organisms learn and how to use that information to change the environment in order to change behavior. It’s called applied behavior analysis (ABA). It is the applied version of behavior analysis, which was referred to as the experimental analysis of behavior earlier in the 20th century.  It is descended from the work of the behaviorists such as Skinner and is now classified as natural science.

It is a rich field of study. Universities offer graduate degrees. At the same time, it is approachable. Many of the entry-level ABA college textbooks currently in use are readable to someone with a strong high school education and certainly to someone with a college education. They are generally self-contained, in that they don’t require a lot of previous exposure to terminology to be able to work through.  The books contain fascinating information about what makes us tick, why we do what we do, and how we might go about changing behavior if we needed to. They also teach skills in ethics and kindness.

Because experts in learning write them, the texts are generally well organized, interesting, and approachable. A sidebar in Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior starts off, “What would you do if, while camping miles from the nearest hospital, you were bitten by a poisonous snake?” It goes on to discuss superstitious behavior. Other sidebars are titled “Punks and Skinheads,”  “Variable Ratio Harassment,” and “Learning from Lepers.” I’ll leave you to go find out the subject matter. This topic is a goldmine for the curious. It is relevant to everyday life and can teach knowledge and skills that are very practical. If you buy older editions of textbooks, as I usually do, the prices are quite reasonable. (For instance, here’s a link to Paul Chance’s Learning and Behavior, with the oldest editions first. You can scroll forward to newer editions as your pocketbook allows. The most recent edition is 2013.)

Like any field of study, ABA has its own terminology. When we first encounter it, two things typically happen. First, we think we know it already. Who doesn’t know what punishment is, right? Motivating operation—doesn’t sound too hard to figure out! Then we go a little deeper, and even though the words are familiar, the concepts may not be. Some are extremely unfamiliar. That can cause dismay. One of the problems in the dog training world is that a lot of people get stuck at that point.

Continue reading “A Quadrant by Any Other Name is Still a Cornerstone of Operant Learning”
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 happen 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 also focus on building a powerful 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? What’s being punished?

Maybe nothing. Just because someone’s frustrated and their feelings are hurt doesn’t mean they have been punished.

Behavior 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 or in that venue 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. We hope they will either change their opinion or shut up. In both cases, they have ceased the behavior of arguing their original 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.

cartoon of short creature in armor typing on a keyboard. Trolls like to get people to argue
Trolling behavior may be positively reinforced by the ensuing arguments

Possible Outcome 3: Behavioral Increase Through Positive Reinforcement

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 shows 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 result from negative reinforcement. 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 onetime 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 will 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 often 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 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 on 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.
  • 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.
  • Don’t assume that someone else is being mean when you are the recipient of critique. Try to identify what is contributing to your internal 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.
  • 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.
Summer arguing in play

What are the ways the cycle can stop? Some things I do are 1) make a final comment, announce it as such, 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 discussions 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 ‘nother topic on which I’m not well qualified. 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!

Related Post

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

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

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

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

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

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

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

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using behavior analysis. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.


Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

No Magical Attention Signal

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

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

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

Related Posts

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)

Graffiti on a brick building that says, "False"
Photo credit carnagenyc: see bottom of page

I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that Continue reading “I Failed to Falsify—Twice! (Falsifiability Part 2)”

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)

Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)

What if we had to know our animal training theory and practice so well that we could easily tell someone what would disprove the hypotheses that inform our methods? That’s what scientists do. If we are going to claim to base our training methods on science, I think we should get with the program. 

There’s a concept in science that is not much discussed in the world of dog training. The concept is falsifiability. Learning about it can save us a world of hurt in assessing statements about training methods. Focusing on how we would disprove our own methods may seem counterintuitive at first, but bear with me. Continue reading “Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1)”

Leave It: What Is the Behavior, Exactly?

Leave It: What Is the Behavior, Exactly?

The other day I was pondering the trend of referring to “self-control” and “impulse control” in our dogs. I got to thinking about “leave it,” both the term and the behavior. I realized a couple of things. First, the term “leave it” doesn’t pass the dead-man test. (I’ll get to that below.) Second, the behavior “leave it” is not just one, but several behaviors. Third, I realized that this combination of problems could present some difficulties when training.

What is your dog actually doing when she successfully “leaves it”? Continue reading “Leave It: What Is the Behavior, Exactly?”

Local Enhancement and Socially Facilitated Behaviors in Dogs

Local Enhancement and Socially Facilitated Behaviors in Dogs

Three dogs lying on the grass as seen from above. It is local enhancement, imitation, or just that they agree on the best place for sun baths?

This post started out as one thing and transformed into another as I went along, as many of mine do. I have been familiar for a while with the term local enhancement for a type of social learning in dogs. I had some videos that I felt were good examples. But while researching this post and putting the clips together into a movie, I learned that the concepts and definitions were a lot less cut and dried than I thought.

This topic is up for lots of interpretation and discussion in the literature and I have found it to be underrepresented in discussions about dog behavior. I felt that at least an introduction to the subject would be helpful. I have gone with the most thorough, most recent, and most cited sources.  I am open to additional information and hope for a good discussion.

Terms and Definitions

There are several different types of socially facilitated behaviors and social learning. These are two separate terms since behaviors can be socially facilitated without subsequent learning (Heyes, 1994, p. 214). Also the types of social facilitation overlap, and more than one can be going on at the same time. Among the types are behavioral contagion, local enhancement, stimulus enhancement, observational conditioning, copying, emulation, and imitation.

I got interested in local enhancement since I was pretty sure I saw it happening with my dogs.  Like most of the other types, it involves animals performing similar behaviors as a result of observation or other perception of another animal. But it is not classified as imitation.

Here are a definition and an example of local enhancement from textbooks:

Local enhancement occurs when, after or during a demonstrator’s presence, or interaction with objects at a particular location, an observer is more likely to visit or interact with objects at that location (Hoppitt, 2013, p. 66).

…When local enhancement is in play, a model simply draws attention to some aspect of the environment by the action he undertakes there (for example, digging for worms). Once the observer is drawn to the area, he learns on his own (Dugatkin, 2004, p. 154-5).

Note that the observer animal doesn’t have to see the demonstrator animal. The observer can happen upon odors the demonstrator left or other signs of its actions in the area.

But if you have more than one dog, I bet you have seen local enhancement now and again.

Socially Facilitated Behaviors Without Learning

One thing that tripped me up is that it turns out local enhancement doesn’t have to involve learning (Thorpe, 1963, p. 154). Sometimes behavior is elicited socially but there is no behavior change in the future. The examples in my movie are probably of this type.

Some researchers say that local enhancement only takes place if the observer animal interacts at the location after the demonstrator has left (Heyes, 1994, p. 215).  That is true in the first of my video examples but is not required by most definitions.

William Hoppitt (2013, p.66), whose definition I included first above, believes that the term local enhancement should be inclusive:

…We suggest that local enhancement be retained to refer to all such location effects, irrespective of whether they result in learning.

He also includes in his definition that the demonstrator animal may be either present or absent. Under that definition, both of the examples in my movie would qualify. When the demonstrator animal is still there, the classification of the observer’s behavior is more difficult. If the observer is interacting at the location at the same time as the demonstrator, we could be seeing general social facilitation. This is the tendency of animals to behave as others in their group are doing (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 467). Consider such contagious behaviors as yawning in humans and barking or fence running in dogs. In one of my examples in the movie, the dogs are attracted to a location but also running around excitedly in a group. Local enhancement and social facilitation are both probably involved.

Thus, local enhancement can end up with two animals doing the same thing at more or less the same place. But it is different from imitation or emulation. These are separate and precisely defined learning methods.

Not Imitation or Emulation

The term imitation has a specific meaning in learning theory.

Imitation: Performing the same action as a demonstrator by virtue of having seen the action performed. The action must be novel… (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468)

Some definitions stipulate that the observing animal must use the same body parts to perform the behavior they observe. For example, in one study, marmosets watched a demonstrator open a canister. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its hands to remove the lids used only their hands. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its mouth also used their mouths to remove the lids (Voelkl, 2000). That difference marked their behavior as true imitation.

Emulation means that the observer copies only some of the elements of a complex action (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468).  The behavior by the observer may be different and may or may not achieve the same end as the demonstrator.

Local enhancement is a much looser concept than both of these. But the more I read about it, the more obvious it seems to me that since animals of the same species would respond similarly to the same stimuli in the same location, it would make sense for them to pay attention to what their conspecifics are doing and where. This could be advantageous and selected for.

When Do We See Local Enhancement?

Almost all studies of local enhancement in the natural environment involve foraging behavior. For instance, one animal will see that another has found a good source of food and will go to that area. Or an animal will happen on the scent of a conspecific and will learn to consume the food in that area or of that type.

Lab experiments follow this model as well. Rather than involving foraging, they generally involve a learned behavior that results in food.

Several domesticated species respond to humans in ways that involve local enhancement. One study shows local enhancement behaviors in horses as a response to the presence of a human near food (Krueger, 2011).  There are several studies with dogs. Some of the human gestural and pointing studies with canids may involve local enhancement.

One of my examples shows two of my dogs investigating a spot in the grass after another dog had appeared to snap at and possibly eat an insect there. The two other dogs waited until the first dog left, then both went to the spot and sniffed for a while. Anthropomorphically speaking, here’s what I imagine going through their heads. “That was interesting. Is it something I need to know more about? Did she maybe leave a piece or is there another one of those? Do they live here?” In the second example, one dog discovers something alive and exciting under a step on my back porch. This is the one where you can see both local enhancement and socially facilitated behavior. After all the dogs arrived, they ran around excitedly and tried to get at the animal (which stayed safe).

Link to the video in case the above embed doesn’t work for you. 

Social Learning Is…Learning

Some dog trainers treat social learning as exempt from learning theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on the type, social learning includes antecedents, behaviors, consequences, and/or classical associations. It’s just that some of the elements are a little different from what we are used to.

How about your dogs or other animals? Do you see local enhancement? How about between different species?


Dugatkin, L. A. (2004). Principles of animal behavior (No. Sirsi) i9780393976595). New York: WW Norton.

Heyes, C. M. (1994). Social learning in animals: categories and mechanisms. Biological Reviews, 69(2), 207-231.

Hoppitt, W., & Laland, K. N. (2013). Social learning: an introduction to mechanisms, methods, and models. Princeton University Press.

Krueger, K., Flauger, B., Farmer, K., & Maros, K. (2011). Horses (Equus caballus) use human local enhancement cues and adjust to human attention.Animal cognition, 14(2), 187-201.

Shettleworth, S. J. (2009). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.

Thorpe, W. H. (1956). Learning and instinct in animals.

Voelkl, B., & Huber, L. (2000). True imitation in marmosets. Animal Behaviour, 60(2), 195-202.

Thank you to Yvette Van Veen and Debbie Jacobs for leading me to some good resources on this topic. All conclusions are my own.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

A white dog is wearing an orange harness with a leash attached. The leash is taut, and being pulled ahead. The dog is braced and throwing his weight backwards. Many would call this an example of the opposition reflex

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman who made suggestions about this. All conclusions and any errors are my own. 

Have you heard the term “opposition reflex” used in dog training? It’s used pretty often. But recently I got to wondering whether the opposition reflex was really a reflex. (Quick answer: “No.” Shortest blog post I’ve ever written.)

Would you like to hear the story anyway?

First, some context. I gathered the following quotes about the “opposition reflex” from a selection of dog training articles.

  • The dog’s opposition reflex [is the] instinctive reaction to push against a push.
  • Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure called the opposition reflex.
  • If dogs are pulled in one direction, they will automatically pull in the other direction.
  • The opposition reflex is your dog’s natural instinct to resist pressure.

Wow. Instinctive! Natural! Automatic! But then I started looking for the term “opposition reflex” in lists of actual reflexes. I looked in biology, physiology, and learning theory textbooks. I looked in scholarly articles.

Results: nothing.

Virtually all mentions of the so-called “opposition reflex” are in lay articles about dog and horse training. So where did this term come from and why do we use it? It’s not in the textbooks.


We have Pavlov to thank for part of the confusion about the opposition reflex. Interesting, since he was a physiologist. Pavlov came up with the term “freedom reflex” for the escape behaviors of a dog who strongly resisted the harness he used in his laboratory. He generalized it to all organisms. (It turns out that Pavlov liked to call all sorts of things reflexes. That is a whole other discussion.)

Most scholars agree that Pavlov grossly over-generalized from the actions of the dog, and was mistaken in calling what was essentially resistance to coercion as a reflex. As one of his critics states:

There is of course no reflex of freedom, although it is easy to see resistance to coercion in animals and humans. Herding cats is nearly impossible, and it is equally hard to keep male dogs from sniffing females in heat. Wild horses resist taming, and most animals cannot be domesticated at all. Human beings fiercely resist unwanted control. But struggling against coercion is not a reflex — it is nothing like a simple atom of behaviour. –Baars, Bernard. “IP Pavlov and the freedom reflex.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, no. 11 (2003): 19-40.

But decades after Pavlov, trainers grabbed onto the concept of the freedom or opposition reflex. Mentions start to appear in the mid-1990s in training literature, first applied to horses, then to dogs, as far as I could tell. Some authors connected the two terms, as in this article: “Opposition Reflex in Horses.” It’s pretty clear that what many people refer to now as the opposition reflex is a direct descendent of Pavlov’s freedom reflex. The problem? It never was a reflex and it’s still not a reflex.

What Is a Reflex?

Reflexes are involuntary, discrete, and consistent behaviors. As Baars mentions in the quote above, they can be thought of as “atoms of behavior.”

A reflex is an automatic response to nerve stimulation. –Alters, Sandra. Biology: understanding life. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2000.

Some examples of reflexes in dogs are:

  • the scratch reflex (dog’s leg kicks when you scratch them on certain parts of the body);
  • the palpebral reflex (dog blinks when the skin below the corner of the eye is tapped);
  • the pupillary light reflex (the pupil of the dog’s eye contracts when a bright light is shined on it);
  • the withdrawal reflex (dog pulls foot away when toe is pinched);
  • and many more, including at least 10 other reflexes having to do with stimulation and response of parts of dogs’ legs.

These are immediate, involuntary responses.

Pavlov’s so-called freedom reflex consists of much more varied behavior, sometimes chains of behaviors, which comprise methods of escape or regaining balance. These behaviors vary to the extreme by species and individuals. A large, gentle animal might just walk away if you tried to restrain it without any special equipment. But anyone who has ever tried to handle feral kittens knows that their methods of trying to escape are typically painful and actually dangerous (because of the possibility of infection from scratches and bites) to humans.

What are typical situations in which an animal might exhibit these compensatory or escape behaviors?

  1. The animal is trying to get to something and is being restrained
  2. The animal is trying to get away from something and is being restrained
  3. The opposite can also occur: the animal is being forced to move and is resisting, as when a trainer tries to force a sit by pushing the dog’s butt down.
  4. The animal has been knocked off balance and is trying to regain equilibrium.

(I’m omitting situations where the animal has been trained to create or maintain pressure, such as a roping horse who can hold a cowboy’s line taut, or all sorts of animals that pull sleds or carts.)

Do you see the pattern here? In all cases, the animal is resisting force, confinement, or physical discomfort. When we use the phrase “opposition reflex,” we are often neatly sidestepping the fact that we are trying to get the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. It’s a shortcut, a label that unfortunately encourages us to leave out our agency in the matter.

When Is This Discussed in Dog Training?

The so-called opposition reflex is generally brought up in discussions about leash walking, molding behaviors, and play.

Leash Walking

Countless writers highlight a dog’s supposed opposition reflex when discussing why a dog won’t yield to leash pressure, but instead, might pull the other way. Reducing the reasons a dog might not yield to leash pressure, or will take action to create it, to an “opposition reflex” is simply applying a label. It gives us no insight into the situation. Many writers grab onto the phrase without considering the many sources and reasons for this behavior:

  • First and foremost, many dogs naturally travel much faster than we do. They want to get moving. This creates a taut leash as our slowness holds them back.
  • They are trying to get to something interesting, and we are passively or actively slowing them down. Again, this creates a taut leash.
  • We are trying to get them away from something interesting, and they want to stay there. This time, we are actively creating the taut leash.
  • They are frightened and trying to get away from us, the leash, or something else they perceive as threatening.

Positive reinforcement-based trainers try to avoid these situations anyway. We don’t want to drag our dogs around. To me, it seems much more helpful to understand that the dog is wanting to go at a different speed or to a different location than to reduce it to “opposition reflex.” The “opposition” part can make them sound downright contrary, instead of being creatures with their own agency and interests. On the other hand, the “reflex” part obscures that their behavior may be a visible indication of what they want or intend. Reflex sounds like they pull because they can’t help it, not because they are motivated by something.

Training by Molding Behaviors

The second place you read about the “opposition reflex” is in discussions of molding as a training technique. This is not a method that positive reinforcement-based trainers use, but it bears mentioning because people who do use it bring up the opposition reflex. It’s found in the old “push the dog’s butt down to teach him to sit” method. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ve probably experienced what people call the opposition reflex. It is an instant resistance by the dog to being pushed. It’s very common. It’s resistance to being thrown off balance and/or coerced. But again, labeling it “opposition” can even make it sound like this resistance is naughty or defiant.

Play and Restrained Recalls

A final situation in which people discuss the opposition reflex is in activities that involve drive and enthusiasm. For instance, some agility trainers use what are called “restrained recalls.” A partner restrains the dog while the handler calls her. The dog’s struggle to escape can result in a faster recall when she is released.

Note that the latter situation matches my description #1 above: the dog is trying to get to something and is being restrained. If you have a play history with your dog, this can be fun for the dog. But it’s pretty obvious it’s not a reflex–they are trying to get to something.

Here’s an example where I am restraining my dog in a training/play situation. Check out 0:26 in the video.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

I contend that Summer’s pushing against my hands as I pull her backward is not a reflex. We’re seeing a dog who wants to run forward and get to the garden hose.

What’s the Problem With the Phrase?

I think we should question our use of the phrase “opposition reflex” because:

  • It’s a label–it can stand for dozens of different behaviors.
  • The behaviors it is used to describe are generally not reflexes.
  • It discourages us from analyzing and asking why the behavior is being performed. (E.g., the leashed dog simply wants to go faster.)
  • It discourages us from looking at our role in setting the stage for the behavior.
  • It discourages us from determining the consequences that are driving the behavior.
  • It sounds automatic, nonvolitional.
  • It also sounds negative. Opposition sounds like defiance.
  • It promotes confusion about respondent and operant behaviors.

I don’t think the term is going away anytime soon. But I hope we can get better at actually observing and describing behavior and understanding its causes and consequences. If we did that, this term would be left behind.

Have you heard the phrase in more contexts that I have listed? Have you ever seen a true reflex mentioned when discussing the opposition reflex?


Wow, opposition in the trenches. (I’m going to avoid the obvious joke there.)

First, yes, I’m aware of the term thigmotaxis. I know it is mentioned in Steven Lindsay’s book with regard to the opposition reflex. He uses the word “reflex” in many different senses in the book. Also, in Volume 3, he rescinds his recommendation of the term thigmotaxis for response to leash pressure and returns to using opposition reflex. It’s pretty clear that his original citing of thigmotaxis was an educated opinion. He changed his mind.

Positive thigmotaxis (turning **toward** touch or pressure) is known in neonate puppies. Other than that I haven’t seen it listed as present in dogs.

To anyone who wants to claim that the opposition reflex in dogs is a true reflex/respondent behavior/thigmotaxis, the burden of proof is on you. I have already tried and failed. You may succeed, then I’ll retract appropriate statements and amend my post. To provide evidence you will need to do the following:

  1. Cite a source listing the “opposition reflex” as a true reflex from a canine anatomy/physiology, neurology, or another veterinary textbook.
  2. Show that near 100% of neurologically healthy dogs demonstrate it in the same way.
  3. Show the body part that can receive the stimulus and nerve group involved.
  4. Show that the same physiological response is consistent.
  5. Show that it can’t be punished or reinforced (though it could be attached to a new stimulus).

As I mentioned, I have already tried and failed to find these things. Please let me know if you find them.

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Vishneveckiy

Text copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

“The dog decides what is reinforcing.” Positive reinforcement trainers frequently say that to their human students.  What they mean is that people can easily be mistaken about whether something constitutes reinforcement. For instance, we may think praising or petting our dogs are reinforcers, but if they do not cause behavior to increase or maintain, they are not.

Dogs don’t sit down and make cognitive “decisions” about reinforcers; that’s just a semantic shortcut. But their subsequent behavior is what tells us whether something is a reinforcer or not. If you give your dog a piece of chicken each time she sits and she sits more, yep, that chicken is reinforcing. If instead you give her a few gentle taps on the head when she sits and she doesn’t sit more, or only sits a little more, then that tap is not a reinforcer, or is a very weak one. She might even sit less, in which case the head tap is punishing.

It’s not only newbies who need this reminder. It’s very easy to get it stuck in one’s head that something ought to be a good reinforcer. Sometimes it takes a while for our powers of observation to kick in and tell us, for example, that no, popcorn is just not reinforcing for this particular dog.

The way we tell whether something is reinforcing is to look for an increase in the relevant behavior.

Dogs Summer and Clara have determined that broccoli is not reinforcing and might be aversive.
It’s pretty obvious that broccoli stems are not potential reinforcers for either of these dogs

The Dog Decides Whether “Special” Collars are Aversive

Some trainers who use aversive methods, particularly prong and shock collars, are starting to use a similar phrase with the result of further muddying the waters about aversives. Just to be sure, let’s review the meaning of aversive stimuli, or aversives.

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

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

"The Dog Decides." Photo shows a brown dog being sprayed with water from a garden hose. Her mouth is open, tail is up, and she is very happy.
A spray of water would not be aversive for Summer

That’s a straightforward definition. But I have now started to read remarks from trainers who use prong and shock collars seeking to defend their use by saying that “the dog defines what is aversive.”


That is true. But the implication that such collars can work without being aversive is dead wrong.

Shock and prong collars work via positive punishment and negative reinforcement. They can be used to punish unwanted behavior (positive punishment). They can also be used to coerce desirable behavior (negative reinforcement). If you need a brush-up on this terminology, check out my post: Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples. To counter some of the common BS about aversive use, you can also check this post out: It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

So yes indeed. The dog decides what is aversive. And just as with reinforcement, the way we determine whether something is aversive is to see if it changed behavior, in this case via positive punishment or negative reinforcement. We also may see fallout from the use of aversives. 

If the dog “decides” that a shock or prong collar is not aversive, that collar will not work to change behavior. It’s as simple as that.

Why Bother with These Definitions?

People write about this stuff a lot on Internet articles, comment sections, and discussion groups. I read a fair amount of it. I have a drive to clarify things and an urge to get people using a common terminology. I personally learn a lot by writing about it. I also want to persuade people, in an up-front and honest way, to consider and perform more humane training.

I’m aware of the research that says that even rational arguments can backfire and make people more entrenched in their beliefs. I frequently consider whether I should even write these pieces. But the people who are dedicated to using aversive tools are not my audience. The thousands reading on the sidelines going, “Hmmmm” are.

I get positive feedback from those people. I also get lots of positive feedback from trainers who use my articles to help explain concepts to their students who are learning about positive reinforcement-based training in real life. That feedback, knowing that my articles are useful in the sense that I intend them, is positive reinforcement for me. So I continue.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

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