eileenanddogs

Category: Training philosophy

Ist dieser Hund außer Kontrolle vor Freude oder aus Stress – falsche Frage

Ist dieser Hund außer Kontrolle vor Freude oder aus Stress – falsche Frage

Click here for the English version of this post. 

Immer wieder machen Videos von Agility Hunden die Runde im Internet, die die “Zoomies” kriegen, also ohne ihren Hundeführer vom Kurs abkommen und über den ganzen Parkour ihre Runden drehen und hüpfen.

Üblicherweise gibt es dann die Diskussion, ob das aus Übermut/Freude oder aus Stress passiert.

Das sind natürlich gute Fragen. Meine Meinung: ich habe deutlich mehr Hunde gesehen, die das aus Stress machen, viel seltener habe ich Hunde gesehen, die plötzlich aus lauter Freude einen Lauf- und Hüpf-Anfall kriegen.

Ich rede mal ein bisschen darüber, was diese “Zoomies” auslösen kann, aber letztendlich werde ich auf den Punkt kommen, den ich viel wichtiger finde als Spekulationen über die innere Motivation des Hundes. Weil für diesen wichtigen Aspekt ist es egal, ob ein Hund aus Übermut oder Stress unansprechbar losrennt.

Wie Zoomies häufig anfangen

Ich habe noch nie – im Video oder auf dem Platz – gesehen, dass ein Hund seinen Menschen stehen lässt um alleine loszupesen, wenn der Agility-Kurs gut verläuft und Hund und Halter gut in Verbindung stehen. Bestimmt passiert auch das, alles passiert mal im Agility. Aber typischerweise passiert so etwas nach einem Führfehler. Wenn man (noch) nicht gut im Agility ist, kann das aussehen wie ein Fehler des Hundes. Schließlich wissen wir Zuschauer, was das nächste Hindernis sein sollte – und der Hund läuft woanders hin. Aber oft rennt der Hund, der vom Kurs abweicht, genau dahin, wohin der Halter ihn (versehentlich) geschickt hat.

Ich höre noch wie Gerry Brown, mit dem ich mal trainieren durfte, sagt “schau auf deine Füße”. Als ich nach unten sah, schauten meine Füße genau in die Richtung in die mein Hund ganz pflichtbewusst gerannt war – in die falsche Richtung. Und auch meinen eigenen Trainer hab ich im Ohr „Du hast sie da hin geschickt.“ Warum auch immer, es ist für uns Agility-Anfänger schwierig zu verinnerlichen, dass der Hund oft genau das macht, was wir angezeigt haben, wenn er diese Art „Fehler“ macht.

Zoomies passieren also häufig, wenn wir den Hund ab ins Niemandsland schicken. Unsere Körpersprache kann dazu führen, dass der Hund vom Kurs abkommt und dann wie eine Rakete losgeht. Zoomies passieren auch, wenn man zu viel von einem Hund verlangt. Sie können vorkommen, wenn der Hund generell Stress hat, sie können auftreten, wenn wir immer wieder vom Hund verlangen, eine Sequenz oder ein Hindernis zu wiederholen, das am Anfang fehlerhaft ausgeführt wurde oder verweigert. Manchmal ist der Grund auch, dass wir den Übergang von Training zum Wettkampf nicht gut genug trainiert haben. Wenn der Hund nicht gelernt hat, auch mal ohne Belohnung zwischendurch einen Kurs zu laufen, dann leidet er unterwegs schon aus Mangel an positivem Feedback und sucht sich eine anderen Verstärker.

Man braucht Erfahrung, gute Anleitung und gute Beobachtungsgabe um zu erkennen, wenn man einen Fehler gemacht hat. Oft merken wir es mitten im Lauf nicht, besonders bei einem Wettbewerb und denken, der Hund hat einen Fehler gemacht.

Beispiel für Abweichung vom Kurs

Hier ein Beispiel dafür, wie es aussieht, wenn ein Hund dahin läuft, wohin er geschickt wurde, nicht dahin, wohin der Halter vorhatte ihn zu lotsen. In dieser Fotosequenz von einem Training bei uns im Hinterhof sende ich Zani in einen Wust von Slalomstangen im Blumenbeet statt über die zweite Hürde.

Im ersten Foto habe ich den Kurs eingezeichnet, den ich für sie geplant hatte. Agility-Kundige können sehen, dass ich nicht gut positioniert bin, Zani hat nicht genug Platz und sie sitzt schief zur ersten Hürde.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

Die folgenden Fotos zeigen was passiert ist als ich mich nicht schnell genug und nicht eng genug gedreht habe, um sie über die zweite Hürde zu schicken. Erstaunlicherweise hat sie die erste Kurve gekriegt (obwohl mein Handling nicht gepasst hat). Aber was passiert als nächstes?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence
Sehen Sie, dass sie nun genau dahin läuft, wo meine Gestik sie hinschickt?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away
Meine Drehung kommt viel zu spät.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed
Ab ins Blumenbeet!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani ending up in a flower bed

Ich hatte versucht, eine scharfe Rechtswendung anzuzeigen, aber meine Drehung war weder ausreichend schnell noch scharf genug. Außerdem wäre ich ihr im Weg gestanden. Als ehrliches treues Mädchen lief Zani genau dorthin, wo ich sie hingeschickt hatte.

Diese peinlichen Bilder veröffentliche ich, um zu zeigen wie üblich es ist, dass der Hund genau das macht, was wir angewiesen haben – ob wir das in dem Moment realisieren oder nicht! So bald Hunde die grundsätzliche Körpersprache beim Agility gelernt haben sprechen sie diese besser als wir. Hätte es kein Blumenbeet gegeben, hätte ich Zani weit voraus ins Nirwana geschickt. Und wenn das ein Wettbewerb gewesen wäre, je nach unserer Verbindung miteinander und danach, wie gestresst wir beide gewesen wären, hätte ich ziemliche Schwierigkeiten gehabt, sie wieder zu mir zu kriegen.

Was passiert, wenn ein Hund “Zoomies” hat?

Also, zurück zum aktuell kursierenden Zooming-Video. Nach einiger Überlegung habe ich entschieden es hier nicht zu verlinken. Man findet solche Videos sehr leicht auf YouTube.

Im letzten, das ich gesehen habe, scheint ein Führfehler oder Einschätzungsfehler zu einem Verlust der Verbindung zwischen Hund und Besitzer zu führen. (Der Fehler war, vom Hund wiederholt ein Hindernis zu verlangen, das er verweigert hatte) Man sieht, wie die Verbindung zu bröseln beginnt. Dann haut der Hund ab und vollführt diese faszinierenden Sprünge über alle möglichen Hindernisse (nicht Hürden). Die meisten Diskussionen über dieses Video drehen sich darum, ob der Hund aus Stess oder aus purer Freude herumzoomt. Zeitweise sieht es so aus, als würde sie Spaß haben.

Aber ich finde, „Stress oder Freude“ ist nicht die Frage, die wir eigentlich stellen sollten.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Hier gibts nichts zu sehen, bitte gehen sie weiter

Was, wenn wir nicht versuchen, was der Hund gerade fühlt, sondern anschauen, was der Hund tut? Was, wenn wir das Zooming exakt als Ablauf beschreiben? In den Videos, die ich gesehen habe, gibt es eins, das alle Hunde tun, während sie rennen und springen.

Sie meiden ihre Halter.

Die Halter winken, pfeifen oder rufen, versuchen genügend Verbindung zum Hund zu kriegen um weiterlaufen zu können. In einem der letzten Videos habe ich in 56 Sekunden Zooming 10 Versuche mit Rufen oder Winken gezählt. Erfolglos.

Dieser Halter hat mein volles Mitgefühl. Mir ist das auch schon passiert. Aber seinen Hund nicht zurückrufen zu können, der volle Pulle rennt, ist nicht witzig. Es ist auch nicht niedlich. Und es braucht nicht als Video mit netter Hintergrundmusik veröffentlicht zu werden. Es ist eine Frage der Sicherheit.

Im Hintergrundton zum Video hört man wie jemand von der Seite reinruft, die Richter sollen auf den Ausgang aufpassen. Ein hervorragender Vorschlag.

Wenn wir also vom Sofa aus gute Tipps geben und darüber diskutieren ob das jetzt Stress ist oder nicht, verlieren wir vielleicht das Wichtigste aus den Augen. Wir spekulieren über die Motivation des Hundes, und fühlen uns auf vertrautem Boden. Aber eigentlich schauen wir ein Video von einem unangeleinten Hund, der nicht auf einen Rückruf reagiert. Wiederholt. In einer Umgebung, die nicht geschlossen ist.

Und das ist das Problem mit Zoomies und Zoomie-Videos. Sich erfolglos in öffentlicher Umgebung um die Aufmerksamkeit unseres Hundes zu bemühen ist kein Spaß. Die Sicherheit des Hundes, anderer Hunde und sogar von Menschen kann auf dem Spiel stehen.

Many thanks to translator Eva Kahnt!

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

Brown, mixed breed dog zooming

Auf Deutsch. (German version of this post.)

There’s a video going around (there always is, right?) of an agility dog getting the “zoomies” and taking off on her own, running and jumping all over the ring without her handler.

As usual, there is plenty of discussion about it. Is the zooming dog stressed out? Or is she expressing fun and joy?

I think these are good questions to ask. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen far more stressed dogs zooming.  I think it’s rarer to see dogs who are suddenly possessed with an urge to run around joyfully by themselves on an agility course.

I’m going to talk just a little bit about what can prompt zooming behavior. But I will focus on an issue that I believe is much bigger than speculating about the dog’s inner state. Because in one important way, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is running from joy or stress.

How Zoomies Often Start

I have never seen, in a video or in person, a dog leave her handler to go running around by herself when the agility run is going well and the dog and handler are connected. I’m sure it happens—everything happens in agility. But the more typical time for it to happen is after a handler error. If you’re not familiar with agility, this can look like the dog is in error. After all, we spectators can usually tell what the next obstacle is supposed to be, and the dog is going somewhere else. But often when the dog “runs off,” she is going exactly where the handler (accidentally) sent her.

I can hear Gerry Brown, whom I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and a seminar spot with, saying, “Look at your feet!” When I looked down, they were pointing in the direction my dog was dutifully running—the “wrong” way. And I can hear my own teacher saying many times: “You sent her there.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for us beginning agility folks to grasp that the dog is often doing exactly what we indicated when they make this kind of “error.”

So zoomies often happen after we send the dog off into no man’s land. Our moves can result in the dog going off-course and then taking off like a rocket. Zoomies can also start when we ask too much of a dog. They can start when the dog is generally stressed out. They can start when we keep asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that was executed incorrectly or avoided the first time. Or sometimes they happen because we have not worked at transitioning to trial situations well enough. If the dog is not used to running without added reinforcement, she may already be suffering from lack of positive feedback and will seek alternative reinforcement.

It takes some experience, good instruction, and good observation skills to see when we made an error. We often don’t realize it in the middle of a run, especially in competition. We think the dog made a mistake.

Off-Course Example

Here’s what it looks like when a dog goes where the handler directs her instead of where the handler intended. In this photo sequence of some backyard practice, I accidentally send Zani into a clump of weave polls in the flowerbed instead of sending her over a second jump. Yes, this was a real practice.

I have marked on the first photo where I intended for her to go. Agility folks can see that I am not positioned well, there’s not enough room, and Zani is not facing the jump.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

The subsequent photos show what happened when I didn’t turn tightly or soon enough to send her over the second jump. Miraculously, she made the first turn, no thanks to my handling. But what’s going to happen next?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence

Can you see that she now goes exactly where my gestures indicate she should go?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away

My turn is way too late!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

Into the flowerbed!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

I was trying to cue a hard right turn but didn’t turn quickly enough or sharply enough. Not to mention I would have been in her way. Being an honest and truehearted girl, Zani went exactly where I asked her to!

I offer these embarrassing photos to show how common it is for the dog to be doing exactly what we asked, whether we think so at the time or not. Once they learn the basic language of agility, they speak it better than we do. If there had been no flowerbed, I would have sent Zani off into the wild blue yonder. And if this were in a trial, depending on our connection and both of our stress levels, I could have had a heck of a time getting her back.

What’s Happening If the Dog Gets the Zoomies?

So, back to the latest zooming dog video. After some consideration, I decided not to link to it here. You can easily find several on YouTube that feature what I’m discussing.

In the latest one I’ve seen, a possible handler error of judgment seems to prompt a disconnect between dog and handler. (The error was to repeatedly ask the dog to make another attempt at a failed obstacle.) You can see the connection starting to break. Then the dog takes off, circling the ring and doing these stupendous jumps over non-jump obstacles. Most discussions I have seen about the video are about whether the dog is zooming out of stress or just having a good time. It does appear that at times she is enjoying herself.

But I put it to you that “stressed-out versus having fun” is not the question we should be asking.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Humorous picture of a woman holding an agility tunnel with a small black dog sitting inside it
Nothing to see here, folks, move along

What if we look at what the dog is actually doing rather than trying to assess her demeanor? What if we operationalize the zooming, try to describe it exactly? In the videos I have in mind, there is something most dogs are very obviously doing while also running and jumping.

They are avoiding their handlers.

The handlers beckon and call, trying to get connected enough to resume the run together. In the video I saw recently, the handler either called or beckoned to the dog 10 times during 56 seconds of zooming by my count. Unsuccessfully.

I have all the empathy in the world for that handler. I’ve been there. But not being able to recall your dog who is running around at full speed is not a joke. It’s not cute. It doesn’t need to be published as a video with cute background music.  It’s an issue of safety.

During part of that video, you can hear someone on the sidelines warning the stewards to watch the gate. That’s an excellent idea.

So as we discuss and play armchair quarterback about whether the dog is stressed or not, we are perhaps not perceiving the bigger issue. We are so comfortable speculating about a dog’s motivations. That’s familiar ground. But we are actually watching a video of an off-leash dog not responding to being called. We are seeing a failed recall cue. Repeatedly. In an environment that is not completely enclosed.

And that’s the problem with zoomies and zoomie videos. Trying unsuccessfully to get our dog’s attention in a public environment is no joke. The dog’s safety, that of other dogs, and even of people, are at risk.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

The Opposite of Force

The Opposite of Force

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants
Clara playing by herself in her pool

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. Continue reading “The Opposite of Force”

The Joy of Training With Food

The Joy of Training With Food

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs, who pointed out that many training videos do not include the important moment when the trainer feeds her dog. We need to see more of that. 

Training your dog with food is not only effective. It’s also fun. Do it for a while and your dog may start preferring his training sessions to his meals, even if it’s the same food. You will learn things too, and will enjoy seeing your dog get enthusiastic and attentive.

People who are new to it can profit from seeing what training with food looks like, so I’ve put together a video. I am most definitely an amateur, but I don’t mind showing my imperfect training. I’m not trying to model the perfect use of food delivery—I don’t have that level of skill. But I can give people an idea of what a high rate of reinforcement looks like. I can let them see what a good time the dogs are having. Hopefully, it will help people who are newer to the game than I am.

It seems to be human nature to be a little cheap with the food at first. That’s another reason for the video. I’m showing high rates of reinforcement in the clips. Most people are surprised at first by how much food positive reinforcement-based trainers use. But if you are going to do it, do it right. Using a high rate of reinforcement makes it fun, helps keep your dog’s interest, and builds a strong behavior.

Some people talk imply using food and building a good relationship are mutually exclusive. But the opposite is true. Have you ever heard a new mom say, “I don’t want to nurse my baby because I don’t want her to associate me with food and comfort. I want her to love me for me!”? Has your grandmother ever said, “I was going to make you some cookies, but I didn’t want them to get in the way of our relationship”? Being the magical source of all sorts of good food for your dogs doesn’t hurt your relationship at all. Likewise, finding your dog a source of comfort when the human world is harsh doesn’t cheapen your love for her.

I know, I know. The analogies with the new mom and grandmother are flawed. Those are classical associations and in the case of our dogs, we are talking about training with food. Making food contingent on behavior. Please give me a pass on that for now. The net effect of using lots of food gets you the classical association anyway.

Why Train at All?

Poster: "Don't let anyone tell you that working on good mechanical skills is making yoerself (or your dog) into a robot. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love.When I first started training my dog (Summer was the first) it was because of behavior problems. Then I found out we both enjoyed it. So we kept on. My next purpose for training was to compete. We competed and titled in obedience, rally obedience, and our favorite, agility.

Zani needed minimal training to fit into my household. She is the proverbial “easy” dog. But she turned out to be a natural agility dog, so we did a lot of that. Clara did need training to fit into the household, and even more to be comfortable in the world.

Today, with my dogs at ages 11, 8, and 5, we don’t have any big problems getting along at home. I’ve trained them alternatives to behaviors that don’t work well in human environments. Things like peeing on any available absorbent surface, chewing anything attractive, and hurling themselves at me. In turn, they’ve taught me their preferences and the ways they like to do things.

What’s the main reason we train now? Because it enriches my dogs’ lives and it’s fun for all of us. Training with food and working together to problem-solve help create a great bond. And training with positive reinforcement is a game the dogs can never lose. We all learn so much! I train things like tricks, agility behaviors, and safety behaviors. For instance, right now I am working on everyone’s “down at a distance” using a hand signal. Oh, and husbandry! Any money I can put in that particular bank means less stressful vet visits for my dear girls.

What Training with Food Looks Like

I compiled a short video that comprises six training clips using food. A lot of food. Each behavior gets at least one treat. Sometimes I use a second behavior (such as a hand target) as a release and I treat for the second behavior too. In some cases when I am capturing a behavior for the first time, or working a little duration, I am giving multiple, “rapid-fired” treats. So in that case, one behavior gets many treats! Sometimes I’ll toss treats to “re-set” the dog for the next behavior and sometimes I’ll treat in position.

Almost all the videos are “headless trainer” vids, but that’s OK with me. I want you to be able to see the dog performing behaviors and eating.

I am using kibble in most of the clips, but if you are new to this, you should use something more exciting. Be generous. My dogs will work happily for kibble now because over the years they have come to love the games. And they don’t always get kibble. They also get things like chicken breast, roast, moist dog food roll, canned cat food, dehydrated raw food, and other exciting stuff.

A small black and tan dog is delicately accepting a treat from a woman's hand while training with food.
I appreciate Zani’s gentleness when I hand her a treat!

The behaviors in the movie are, in order:

  • Zani crossing her paws in response to a hand signal cue. On the latter reps, I am giving her more than one treat while she stays in position.
  • Clara working on one of her rehabilitation exercises for hind end strength. I am feeding in position. I’m giving lots of treats because we are just starting to add duration to this difficult behavior. After this session, I started treating after the behavior, since it’s a bit awkward for her to eat when she is stretched up vertically.
  • Summer targeting my hand with her nose. This was after I had cleaned up the results of my previous sloppy training. My rate of reinforcement in these clips was 27 reps per minute. (Not all repetitions are shown.) That’s 27 cues, 27 behaviors, and 27 food reinforcers per minute. Pretty good for me. I’m not usually that fast, and of course, there are tons of variables. (One is that Summer rarely chews small pieces of food! That helps with the speedy delivery.) If you’d like to see an exercise for rate of reinforcement and speedy treat delivery, check out this video from Yvette Van Veen. 
  • An old video of Zani drilling what I call “Level One Breakfast” from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We were practicing sits, downs, and hand targets.
  • Summer filing down her front toenails on a scratch board. If you want to learn about this and other ways to make nail trimming a pleasant experience for your dog, visit the Facebook group Nail Maintenance for Dogs.
  • Clara’s very first try at “two on, two off” agility behavior on an elevated board. (Note: many people teach this with a nose target on the ground, but I don’t include that. I don’t plan to do agility with her and was just experimenting. ) When she gets in the correct position, I don’t mark, but just start feeding, feeding, and feeding in position.

Link to my video for email subscribers.

The one thing missing from the above video is a magnitude reinforcer: a large extended reinforcement period. Magnitude reinforcement is a great consequence for something the dog put real effort into. I give them mainly after agility runs, or when my dogs do something unexpectedly impressive in real life. The latter happened just the other day when I cued Zani to drop a stinky dead snake and come to me…and she did! Sadly, there was no camera running while I thanked her and showered her with all the goodies I had.

Luckily, my friend Marge Rogers has a great video of Rounder, her Rhodesian Ridgeback, practicing his Reliable Recall (from Leslie Nelson’s great DVD). Note in particular what is happening at 0:54 – 1:02. After she successfully calls him away from a yummy plate of food, he gets a constant stream of fabulous food and praise. If you don’t think eight seconds is a long time for food and praise, try it sometime!

Link to Marge’s video for email subscribers.

Other Reinforcers

Using food doesn’t mean I neglect other fabulous reinforcers. I use tugging, playing ball, sniffing, personal play, find-it games, and playing in water with my dogs. All these are great relationship builders too. I talk to and praise my dogs all the time, and have even used praise to shape behaviors with them. But you know what? Praise would be empty if we didn’t have a bond already. Praise gains value only after we are connected.

So Don’t Forget the Food!

Training with food builds your bond with your dog. It’s not mechanistic or objectifying. Working up good mechanical skills is an act of love, and so is using a great reinforcer. These will help you communicate with your dog. And the observation skills you will gain as you improve as a trainer will help you learn what your dog is saying to you!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Being Open-Minded About Training

Being Open-Minded About Training

Has anyone ever accused you of being “closed-minded” because you base your training on positive reinforcement?

It’s pretty common. Some people come right out and say it. Others imply it by going on about their own open-mindedness. Here is a typical comment Continue reading “Being Open-Minded About Training”

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.

History

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 a 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, most 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?

Addendum

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.”

Uh.

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.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.1)Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a downside, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making
In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous—to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one—to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that they come with a price. Please comment!

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes   [ + ]

1. Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”
Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Two paths diverging
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shout-outs to Companion Animal Psychology for the post, The Right to Walk Away” which covers the effects of offering that particular choice in animal experiments, and encourages us to apply the concept to our animals’ lives. Also to Yvette Van Veen for her piece,  “A” Sucks “B” Stinks What Kind of Choice is That? , which definitely has some “rant” commonalities with this post of mine.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 is: The Dog’s Choice.

We positive reinforcement-based trainers often point out that our dogs have the choice not to participate in a training session. I think giving the animal “the right to walk away” is a good and humane practice. I also believe it’s only the first step of consideration of our animals’ self-determination.

Trainers who exclusively use aversives to train employ the language of choice as well. Shock trainers will say that the dog “is in control of the shock” and that the dog has a choice. In that case the choice is to comply–or not. Neither of the choices yields positive reinforcement. But these trainers too can honestly claim their dogs have choices.

Most of us would say that theirs is a pretty strained use of the term, “choice.” It’s a very stacked deck, and even the best option–successful avoidance–is not a fun one for the dog. But using the definitions of learning theory, neither of those situations–the positive reinforcement-based trainer giving the dog the right to leave, nor the shock-only trainer–would qualify as giving the animal a “free choice.” 

I’m going to argue here that limiting choices is intrinsic to the process of training an animal, whatever method we use. It’s the nature of the process. And it’s actually not “choices” or “no choices” that define a method’s humaneness.  It’s what kinds of choices are available within the structure we set up that determines how humane it is. 

We all stack the deck.

When anyone talks about giving their animal choices, I believe we need to ask questions.

  • What can the animal choose between?
  • What processes of learning are involved?
  • Is an aversive stimulus a focal point of the choice making?
  • What choices are ruled out?
  • Will the choices broaden later in training?

Not all choice situations are equal, and I think we need to knock off the instant happy dances anytime a person mentions “choice” in reference to training. Instead, I think we should ask, “What are the choices?”

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

How many times have you read one of the following instructions in a positive reinforcement group or forum? They are often addressed to new trainers, or trainers with puppies.

  • Be sure and begin your training in an area of low distraction.
  • Control other possible reinforcers.
  • If you can’t get the dog’s attention, start in the bathroom with the door closed and wait him out.
  • Don’t let the dog practice undesirable behaviors.
  • Watch out for bootleg reinforcers!

All of those are about limiting choices by removing the availability of reinforcers. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we do that. But there is no contradiction here. As trainers using primarily positive reinforcement, we are in the best position to look at the ways that this kind of choice management affects our dogs’ lives, and examine the ways we can move forward to a more choice-rich environment for them.

The Desirability of Choice

Many experiments have shown that animals and humans prefer having multiple paths to a reinforcer, and of course options for different reinforcers as well.

This is from a webpage that describes one of the important experiments with animals regarding choice. The experiment introduced some interesting nomenclature.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, “Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons.”

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.  Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

Another good article about the Catania experiments and other work on choice is, “On Choice, Preference, and Preference for Choice” by Toby Martin et al.

(In no way can this short post cover all the nuanced research about choice. For instance, abundance of choice has a downside, especially for humans. I am sticking to the issues of choice that are most applicable to the situations our companion animals find themselves in.)

“Forced Choice”

Note the definition of “forced choice” in the description of the experiments above. Nothing happened when the pigeon pecked the red key. The bird was not shocked or otherwise hurt. Forced choice was defined as a situation where only one behavior led to positive reinforcement (more correctly, a appetitive stimulus), and another behavior or behaviors led nowhere.

Having more than one behavioral path (in this case, multiple green keys to press) to get to the goodie was defined as “free choice.”

Now, think back to what we do in the early stages of training. Review my list above of the ways we remove “distractions,” i.e., other reinforcers. That type of training situation more closely resembles forced choice than free choice. The freedom to leave–especially in an environment that lacks other interesting stimuli–is not enough to designate a process as being free choice, at least in the nomenclature of this experiment and subsequent definitions in learning theory. But it’s a good first step.

Types of Choice

Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.

  1. Choice between different behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. See examples below.
  2. Choice between handler-mediated positively reinforced behaviors and nothing in particular. This is the typical “they can walk away” type of positive reinforcement training session.
  3. Choice between different positively reinforced behaviors with an aversive present.  This can happen in exposure protocols if the trigger is close enough that it is at an aversive level. The proximity limits the value of positive reinforcement, and, if the aversive gets too close, eliminates it, because of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
  4. Choice between enduring an aversive stimulus and performing a behavior that allows escaping it. Most shock collar training exemplifies this, as do operant exposure protocols that put contingencies on escaping the trigger.
  5. Choice between behaviors that are positively reinforced and behaviors that are positively punished. A training situation such as “walk in heel position, get a cookie; surge forward, get a collar pop.”
  6. Choice between behaviors that are positively punished and behaviors that get nothing in particular. This would be across-the-board suppression of behavior.

In all that I listed, even #6, the dog can be said to have a choice. But none of them, with the exception of #1, would likely be called “free choice” in learning theory nomenclature.

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:

  • Desensitization/counterconditioning with the trigger at a non-aversive level. The leash or other barrier prevents or controls the choice of movement towards the trigger, but there are no contingencies on behavior within the area and multiple reinforcers may be available.
  • Shaping, which can offer multiple choices of behavior along the path to a goal behavior.
  • Reinforcing offered behaviors in day-to-day life with an animal. (I’ll write about this in my followup post.)
  • Training techniques that allow the dog to leave in pursuit of another interest. However, these as well do tend to have a final goal of another behavior.

Note that we are not talking about using a variety of reinforcers. That’s easy to do in training. We are talking about different behaviors leading to reinforcement. When you are focused on a training goal, that one is a lot harder to include!

A Word About Preference

Preference is not the same as choice, though they are related.

From a review article about choice:

Preference is the relative strength of discriminated operants Researchers often measure preference as a pattern of choosing.  –Martin, Toby L., et al. “On choice, preference, and preference for choice.” The behavior analyst today 7.2 (2006): 234.

Pattern is a key word. I may not like my green tee-shirt very much, but I will choose it if my red ones are in the wash. It is only by observing my tee-shirt choice over time, noting circumstances and performing a bit of statistical analysis, that my choices will indicate my preference (red tee-shirts).

Observing our pets’ preferences, and giving them their preferred items, is a good and thoughtful thing, but doing so does not necessarily involve their making a choice.

In addition, I’ve written about how determining an animal’s preferences in a formal way can be more difficult than it sounds. But scientists are developing ways to determine choice in animals. The following article covers some of these:  Using Preference, Motivation, and Aversion Tests to Ask Scientific Questions about Animals’ Feelings.

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

I think that when we talk about giving dogs choices, or describe protocols that supposedly do this, we should consider two things. First what are the choices? Are there multiple possibilities for positive reinforcement, or are there choices between positive reinforcement and nothing, or only crappy choices?

Second, we should consider how we are limiting choices. Are the limitations temporary or permanent? Are there ways we can give our dogs ways to express their preferences and make choices in their lives with us? Even in training?

There is no barb intended for positive reinforcement-based trainers in this post. Giving the animal the right to walk away is revolutionary in the recent training climate. We are the ones taking that step. Sometimes it’s the most control we can give them. But I believe we can do more.

Part 2 of this post will include my attempts–successful or not so–in giving my dogs choices in different situations.

How about you out there? In what ways do you give your animals choices–in day-to-day life or in training?

Articles Mentioned

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

What Dog Training Really Taught Me

What Dog Training Really Taught Me

Have you ever had an epiphany? Wherein all of a sudden some information you had been turning over and over in your mind fell into place and created an entire new picture? It has happened to me a handful of times in my life, and in each case the result was that I changed some basic beliefs.

Trainers who have switched to positive-reinforcement based training from more aversive-inclusive methods often refer to that process as “crossing over.” I have written about crossing over in many bits and pieces over the years,  plus in a couple of longer articles (I’ve linked some at the bottom of this post).

For me, crossing over brought an epiphany. Continue reading “What Dog Training Really Taught Me”

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