eileenanddogs

Category: Training philosophy

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”

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

What should a dog trainer be willing and able to tell you about his or her techniques? And how valuable is it to get that information in clear, concrete language?

Renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson has put a lot of thought into this. We live in a world where dog training is a completely unlicensed industry, and it’s total chaos out there.

There are a dozen euphemisms for what is commonly known as an electric shock. Some trainers make positive reinforcement approaches out to be extremist.  There is plenty of talk of packs and wolves and being a leader, but sometimes little specificity about what these “leaders” do.

When asked about their methods, trainers who employ punishment and negative reinforcement often throw up verbal smoke screens about it. Some may talk about magical leadership powers that can solve problems all by themselves and will insist that they do nothing to hurt, scare, startle, or coerce the dog, claiming knowledge of the Magical Attention Signal  that works without having any consequences. Others will admit to using “corrections” but not punishment, which is overtly dishonest.

This latter is unlikely to be true. There are trainers all over the world who can train behaviors to fluency and solve behavioral problems without those corrections. I think it would be a huge step in the right direction if trainers who used methods such as  throwing things, kicking, poking, and hitting dogs, and of course “special” collars, would simply say so, and not hide between the buzz word of “positive.” Using aversives in this day and age is a choice, not a necessity, and that is what many trainers do not want people to know.

Jean Donaldson has developed three questions for consumers to ask prospective trainers before ever handing over their dog’s leash to them. The purpose of asking the questions–and continuing to ask until one gets a straight answer–is to insist on transparency of methods from anyone who purports to be an expert on helping a four-legged carnivore live in close proximity to, or even as a member of, a human family.

The Questions

Three questions

So these are the questions:

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

Informed Consent

Ms. Donaldson has also proposed that trainers describe their methods specifically, and inform the consumer of alternatives in written consent statement.

Here is a sample consent statement from Ms. Donaldson, quoted with permission. This is what a statement from a trainer who used a prong or shock collar exclusively might look like if they were truthful and transparent.

I propose using pain and fear to motivate your dog. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are X, Y, Z.

There are alternatives to what I propose. You could employ food, play, access to smells and patting as motivators. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are A, B, C. You could also seek the opinion of a veterinary behaviorist. Our goal is that you are fully informed before consenting to any dog training or behavior modification.

When I first heard these words in her webinar, I got the shivers at the boldness of the statement. Nobody says, “I propose to use pain and fear to motivate your dog.” But it shouldn’t be bold to suggest that at all, if it’s the truth. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to ask for–or be confronted with–with honesty from all trainers.  Can you imagine if the norm for discussing a medical procedure with a doctor were that she deliberately withheld possible side effects, didn’t tell you of alternatives, and wouldn’t be specific about what exactly she was going to do? And that there was no code of ethics or regulatory body to prevent that?

The Video Transparency Challenge

John McGuigan took Ms. Donaldson’s three questions and started a challenge for all trainers to answer them in a video.

So below I’m featuring a video that I believe does this well, and I’ll switch to a new one now and then. (You can find others on YouTube by searching using the title of this post.) You will get to hear from many different trainers who actually do use “modern, evidence-based, humane methods,” to use the language from the poster above.

Direct link to the video page for email subscribers.

Commonalities of the Answers

It’s fascinating to me how much these videos can have in common, but also how every trainer’s answer has a different “flavor.” The most important commonality to me is that trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement based training uniformly mention continuing education. In response to the third question, many will say that there are probably not any less invasive methods than what they use, but if they are out there, they want to know about them. They state that they are always educating themselves and learning more. Some mention that if they feel that a case is beyond their skill set, they will consult colleagues or even refer the case on, just as a family doctor might refer a patient to a specialist if she had a certain type of medical problem. This kind of honest self-assessment is a strong indicator of competency in my opinion. The truly skilled know their skills and are honest about both their breadth and limitations.

You will also hear almost all of them state that if a dog makes a “mistake” when working on a training task, it is their mistake, not the dog’s. This is not some romantic woo. It is the literal truth. It is up to the teacher to set the pace and difficulty of the learning for the student.

The video of my own answers to the Transparency Challenge can be found on the following page: My Training Philosophy.

Further Information on Transparency

This blog post from Pawsforpraise, Finding the Right Dog Trainer: Harder than You Think, delineates some more of Ms. Donaldson’s thinking on the questions consumers should ask prospective dog trainers. In her webinar “Out of What Box?” she further detailed her thinking on this, suggesting that trainers put the plans in writing for clients, informing them of the methods they will use, the risks and benefits, and whether there are alternatives. The webinar was a discussion on the development of standard operating procedures in pet dog training. Here is a link that describes the webinar, and here is a link to register for and purchase the recorded version.

And how about we all add to the information out there? This is a call to all trainers, professional and amateur, to think through and answer these questions for themselves. Publish your videos, graphics, or written answers online.  Be transparent, and challenge others to do so.

List of Previously Featured Videos

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

9 Effects of Punishment

9 Effects of Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing the Aversives Resource Page

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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Just a Trick?

Just a Trick?

Zani's useful "Trick"
Zani’s useful “Trick”

“Crossing over” is a phrase dog trainers use to refer to the act of giving up training that uses aversives and changing over to training that uses principally positive reinforcement: becoming a Humane Hierarchy trainer, a force-free trainer, or a clicker trainer. (We have lots of phrases to describe ourselves.) Folks who have made this change (and those who never trained traditionally) will attest that this is more than just a different set of skills. It is a change of world view, and it runs counter to the emphasis on and acceptance of punishment in our culture. For many of us, it is not an easy thing to do. Social and technical support are both very important.

My friend Marge Rogers is a crossover trainer who crossed over with no local mentor, although she would credit her wonderful dog Chase, as well as books and internet resources. She wanted to change the way she trained and she needed to do it on her own.  She came from a competitive obedience background. She decided, brilliantly, to throw off everything she knew, put her obedience goals temporarily on hold, and train her dogs to do tricks.

Why Tricks?

Here’s what she told me:

  1. Teaching tricks improves mechanical skills like observation and timing.
  2. Teaching tricks helps trainers learn to create training plans and break down behavior (cognitive skills).
  3. It helps develop critical thinking skills. (How different are the skills for teaching dust the coffee table or blow bubbles in water than teaching drop on recall?)
  4. There is no pressure for the handler. Or the dog.
  5. Trick training encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
  6. Trick training give immediate feedback for the handler (via the dog’s behavior).
  7. There is no handler baggage.
  8. And the best reason for teaching tricks – you’re not burdened by the curse of knowledge for stuff you’ve never trained before.  No old habits to unlearn. In short: it’s the perfect way to become a better trainer.

P.S. You can make your own chicken camp.

The Result of Chicken Camp
The Result of Chicken Camp

Marge is referring to Bob Bailey’s well known chicken camps where trainers learn to hone their mechanical skills. This picture is the outcome of one of her personal “chicken camps,” where she taught her Rhodesian Ridgeback Pride a high leg lift to emulate taking a pee (he normally squatted to pee, by the way). She shaped that leg lift all the way up from a twitch.

Marge’s trick skills resulted in her fame as the “Ridgeback lady” on YouTube, who featured her Rhodesian Ridgebacks in videos such as these:

By the way, Ridgebacks have a reputation among traditional trainers as being an untrainable breed.

Finally!

Many was the time that Marge exhorted me to train tricks. I generally declined, saying that it’s all tricks (true, but perhaps evading her point a little bit), and that I had my hands full with polite pet behaviors and agility (also tricks!)

So a funny thing happened. Recently I broke down and trained my dogs a couple of tricks. It was supposed to be just for the heck of it, but two of the tricks immediately became very useful.

Marge says, “That figures!”

1) Sit Pretty. I’ve been teaching little Zani to “sit pretty.” We went slowly, so she could build up her abdominal muscles, but she really took to it. What’s a more classic “trick” that sitting up? Adorable but useless, right? But no sooner did we have a few seconds’ duration than it came in incredibly handy.

I’m teaching all my dogs to sit or stand on the bathroom scale by themselves. I thought I would have to manipulate the dogs’ feet a little bit so that I could see the readout. But Zani solved that problem by offering her “useless” trick.

Link to video for email subscribers

If I were Marge, though, I’d probably teach the dogs to curl their tails around as well, so they didn’t brace any of their weight on them if they were on the floor. That’s a little more than I have the patience for, though. I’ll just elevate the scale if I need to.

2) Leg weaves. I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I taught Clara how to weave through my legs. Let me be frank: I think that is one of the silliest behaviors ever. Even when the most accomplished freestylers do it, it’s mostly a “yawn” from me.

But as soon as I taught Clara the rudiments, I discovered something. It’s fun! No wonder people do it. Clara and I both enjoyed it, although I’m sure we looked even dorkier than average. And no, I’m not sharing a video!

Two photos of a tan dog with a  black muzzle and tail pressing up against a woman's feet and legs. The woman is sitting in a chair and the dog is walking under her legs in one photo, and backed up and pressing into her feet in anther
Clara enjoying pressing against my feet and legs

The added benefit of this one is a little harder to describe, but no less real. Clara is a very “touchy” dog. She likes to lean against me, touch me, cuddle, and be as close as she can. So she loved the leg weaves. She got to be right “inside” my personal space. And darned if she didn’t make up a new game: she comes and weaves her way through my legs when I am sitting down, just for fun. Kind of like a very large, pushy cat. She clearly likes the sensation.

I couldn’t get a shot of the actual weaving when I was sitting down, but here she is walking under my leg and pressing against my foot. See how she is pushing toward me in both photos?

So Clara and I have not only discovered a new way to play one-on-one that needs no  toy or prop.  With a little finesse, I could even use it as a reinforcer. But right now, it’s just another way to have fun with my dog.

So thanks Marge, for urging me to train pure “tricks,” but they keep turning out to be useful! Or was that part of what you were trying to show me all along….?

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

One of the classifications in Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy that is pretty unfamiliar to most of us dog trainers is called “Antecedent Arrangements.” And look, it is on the more desirable end of the hierarchy! There’s no speed bump, caution sign, or stop sight. There’s an inviting little arrow. Worth looking into, don’t you think?

The Humane Hierarchy
The Humane Hierarchy

We are accustomed to manipulating consequences when trying to effect behavioral change, but that’s not the only thing we can do. We can make changes to the antecedents, the things that set the stage for behaviors. Antecedent arrangement is on the desirable end of the Humane Hierarchy because it is less intrusive. You are not actually trying to change the animal’s behavior via reinforcement, punishment, or extinction. You are manipulating the environment to enhance the likelihood of the behavior you want.

How do you do this? The three types of antecedents are cues, setting events, and motivating operations.

  • Cues: You can remove something that serves as a discriminative stimulus for a behavior that you don’t want, or don’t want right then and there. Or you can add something that will better signal the behavior you do want.
  • Setting events: You can make the behavior you want easier by changes in the environment, and make the undesired behavior more difficult.
  • Motivating operations: You can do something that affects the animal’s motivation, either to perform the behavior you want more, and/or to do the behavior you don’t want less.

I have an example of antecedent arrangement in my second post about the Humane Hierarchy.  But another one fell in my lap lately, so I thought I would share it.

The Dread Back Door

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior

Since Clara became an adolescent, then a young adult, I have struggled with back door behavior with my three dogs. Actually, since before then, since Summer is reactive and sometimes can’t respond well when she’s worried about what might be down in the yard.

My goal has always been for Clara and Summer to lie down in assigned places close to the back door. Zani can sit or lie down wherever she wants, because she already has nice door manners,  isn’t pushy, and had no agenda other then earning a treat if one is available. Summer needs to be back from the door to help her keep calm, and Clara is back from the door to keep her from bashing everybody else. Theoretically.

This is a generalization of a known behavior. I teach my dogs to get on mats and stay there as a stationing behavior, starting the day they come to me, in all sorts of situations. All around the house I use soft bath mats with rubber backing as dog stations, and they are like magnets to my dogs since they have been reinforced so highly for getting on them, lying down, and relaxing. But I was not able to use them to mark the places I had designated for Summer and Clara at the back door. This was because the den was the one room in the house in which Clara had free range as a youngster, and she would chew them up if not completely supervised. So I bought a couple of rubber non-skid bath inserts, like you put in the bottom of your tub or shower. They made decent station markers but were not attractive for her to chew.

I worked for a long time to get Clara to stay on her mat at the door. It was an “expensive” behavior for her, as Sue Ailsby calls it. There was just too much fun to be had dashing towards the door and knocking the other dogs aside like bowling pins. So it took a high level treat at first and some very consistent practice to get a nice wait on a mat. By the way, using going out of the door as the reinforcer didn’t work as an initial training strategy. Much too exciting. I needed to build the behavior up using high value treats. And since we went out the door many times a day, sometimes with very little preparation, Clara did get some chances to practice the undesirable things. I.e., I couldn’t always have great stuff and I had a hard time being consistent.

Summer trying to make eye contact at the back door
An old photo of Summer trying to make eye contact at the back door when her whole body and mind are already outside

Finally I did some intensive work  over a couple of weeks and got some pretty consistent behavior. Once I got Clara’s behavior in shape, I started working on Summer. That was just as hard, in a different way, because I was working against some emotional patterning. Summer is anxious and predatory, and easily gets worked up into quite a state, anticipating what kind of animal might be in the back yard, especially at night.

So I finally got the general idea across to both of them (along with perfect little Zani), but the reliability of the behavior was not where I wanted it. My walking toward the back door was the main cue, but we were a long way from three dogs slamming into their places. I was still putting up with charging ahead from Clara every once in a while and glassy eyed standing around from Summer more often than that.

Then I had a bright idea. I got our door behavior very close to 100% without a struggle. The short video shows the solution. With one change, I got an improved  cue and setting. Note that in this example, as in much of life, there is not just one learning process happening. The change in antecedent worked in tandem with the positive reinforcement (and differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior) that had already been going on. But it sure gave it a huge boost!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Link to a script of the movie for those who can’t view it.

And that’s the power of antecedent arrangement.

I bet some of you out there have some good examples. How about sharing?

Coming up:

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Haters

Haters

A black and white cartoon of an angry looking man shaking his fist
Photo Credit–Wikimedia Commons

We interrupt this dog blog for a rant about rhetoric and civil discourse. 

Here is why I plan never to call anyone a “hater” or refer to them as such.

History: Haters Gonna Hate

It’s a good bet that the contemporary use of the term “hater” was taken from the song lyric, “Haters gonna hate” from the song “Playas Gon’ Play.”  A  history of the phrase is here on the Know Your Meme site. The “Haters gonna hate” phrase came to be a call for people to disregard hostile criticism. It supports strength, individualism, and in the early usages, being true to romantic love. Most current usages are similar to the older phrase,  “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” It gave rise to some cool artistic applications (do an image search on the term if you are interested).

So far so good. I’ve got no problem with that as an inspirational meme, especially for a downtrodden individual or group. I do have a real problem with extracting the word “hater” and aiming it at one’s opponents in a discussion or argument.

Reviewing the Dictionary Definitions

Here’s the traditional dictionary definition:

A person who hates.

Here’s a transitional one from Dictionary.com:

1. a grudging or spiteful person, esp one who disparages others: “a woman-hater”; “a cop-hater”; “Don’t let the haters get you down”

a. someone who hates a specified person or thing: “a passionate hater of tyranny”

Here’s the one from Urban dictionary.com, which is said to be the earliest version of the “comtemporary” definition:

A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person.

Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock someone else down a notch.

And finally from Wikipedia:

A derogatory term in reference to critics of a person or object. Associated with jealousy/envy. 

And the Online Slang Dictionary:

A person who disapproves of something; a person who is jealous; a person who criticizes something.

Here’s Why I Won’t Use the Word Myself

1. Traditional Definition

First, by the traditional definition, I am a hater. I hate racism, sexism, animal abuse, bullying and plenty of other attitudes and behaviors. I’m human so sometimes I hate the people who do those things. I have hated people who have wronged me or ones I love. I don’t think it’s wholesome to dwell in hatred, and hating can make a terrible motivation to action. It easily becomes infected and unwholesome. But I think it can be a natural reaction to a horrifying act. I won’t pretend to be immune to it.  And I believe that there are worse things than being honest about hating something or someone. Waaaaay worse things.

2. All the Other Definitions

Second, every single one of the other definitions, when used in argument, are ad hominem attacks, or even plain old name calling. The worst sorts of arguments in civil discourse. They are basically insults that try to discredit one’s opponent in discussion (or behind their back) rather than address their points. And I think they are particularly insidious because they have a Polyanna quality of characterizing oneself as innocent and wounded, while one is actually slinging an insult. It’s an attempt at claiming the moral high ground and simultaneously throwing a cheap shot. And incidentally failing at rational argument.

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement--credit Wikimedia Commons
Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement–credit Wikimedia Commons

Calling someone a “hater” is calling someone a name while pretending you’re not. It’s an insult, like “jerk” or “asshole.” I’m not fond of name-calling, but I admit to a preference for someone who calls another person a jerk over calling them a hater.

Some people actually accuse others of being divisive of a community and call them haters. But to me, calling someone a “hater” is the epitome of divisive. It is “otherizing” someone. Calling someone an asshole comes across pretty much as your opinion. There are lots of different “asshole” qualities. Calling someone a “hater” attempts to put them deliberately in an inferior group and dismiss whatever they say.

Like all name calling, it goes circular very fast. “No, YOU are the hater!” “No YOU are the hater!” This gets a discussion nowhere.

Finally, to me it often comes across as juvenile. I admit to some bias here, since the first place I heard the term was by fans of Cesar Millan, who often have an instantaneous defensive reaction of the slightest criticism of Millan’s techniques.  They cry, “You are haters; you’re just jealous of his success and all the money he makes!”

That’s a great way to avoid arguing actual issues.

Coming up:

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The False Hypothesis of the Pack

The False Hypothesis of the Pack

Hey! “Pack theory” is not a theory at all!

Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to "pack theory"
Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to “pack theory” –Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theories vs Hypotheses

One of the biggest misunderstandings between science folk and lay folk is the definition of the word, “theory,” and here we are adding to that misunderstanding.

In science, the term “theory” has a specific meaning. It is much stronger than how we use the word in casual conversation.

From the National Academy of Sciences:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.

Heliocentricity is a theory although there is virtually no question that the earth revolves around the sun. Gravity is also a theory. So is learning theory (take that, you quadrants bashers!).

Actually, the scientific meaning of a “hypothesis” is closer to what people mean when they say in everyday settings that they have a theory, although it too has some specific criteria for usage.

Also from the National Academy of Sciences:

A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.

Both theories and hypotheses can be disproven, but not proven.

Pack Theory

So why are we still using the term “pack theory”? On the one hand a lot of us are trying to teach people the scientific definition of the word, “theory.” On the other we are referring to “pack theory,” which was never was a theory to begin with.

It was an initial idea and statement about the natural world, and maybe qualified as a hypothesis.

This post is not about the incorrectness of the pack hypothesis. If you are interested, here are two articles I wrote about that. There are some original sources at the bottom of the post as well.

This post is just a small rant about nomenclature and its effects on thinking.

In addition to “pack theory,” one can also see references to “alpha theory,” and “dominance theory,” the latter even in a publication by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior.** So I think putting a lot of energy into trying to eradicate the terms is probably useless. But personally, I’m going to try to remember to call it “outdated pack hypothesis,” or even better, “pack nonsense.”

Hey, I’m Not the Only One!

I was wondering whether to post this. Figured it might appeal only to other word nerds, but I decided to put it out there anyway. I did one more Google search, and found out that I got scooped! The wonderful trainer and blogger Sam Tatters wrote about this in July 2013! Here is her piece: Where We’re Going Wrong.

Thanks, Sam! I think you were right on target, and more succinct than I was. And why am I not surprised to find the “awesome” Yvette Van Veen chiming in over there as well!

By the way, no disrespect meant to L. David Mech, who is a scientific hero as far as I’m concerned. His book came out of those early observations of captive wolves, and he has corrected the misinformation and is actively rectifying the incorrect application of those early ideas to wild wolves. Here are an article and a video he made.

Thanks for reading! So how are you going to refer to “pack stuff” now?

Wolves
Wolves: Do you think this is a family group? (Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons)

**Comments by a couple of readers made me realize that the term “dominance” is in a slightly different category from the other two, since it is defined and used in ethology. But since it also doesn’t mean what lay people generally think it means, I’m not going to write extensively about that here. Dr. Patricia McConnell has the creds to do so, so here is one of her articles. Thanks, Cynthia and Laura in the Canine Skeptics FaceBook group.

Coming up:

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But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

It would probably be good to decrease this behavior
It would probably be good to decrease this behavior–photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Lots and lots of people think that if you withhold the treat you are punishing the dog. Some will ask the above question in a gleeful, challenging way, feeling certain that they have caught the positive reinforcement based trainers in an inconsistency. But let’s see what is really happening.

Here is a scenario. In the past, you have given your puppy attention and played with him when he jumped on you. But he’s getting big and you really don’t want him jumping on you anymore. You decide to teach him to sit to greet you. He already has a good reinforcement history for sitting, so the likelihood that he will do it in any given situation is fairly high.

So here you are with your excited pup and you are clicking and giving a treat whenever he sits.

  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup jumps on you. Nothing.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.
  • Pup sits. Click/treat.

OK, what happened when the pup chose to jump instead of sitting? You didn’t click. The treats stayed in your hand, your pocket, or the bowl. (You meanie!) You stood still and didn’t react. You are paying for sits, not jumping up.

But lo and behold, the jumping up starts to decrease! Decreasing behavior means punishment, right? You must have punished your puppy for jumping!

No. Let’s look at the definitions of positive and negative punishment.

Punishment

  • Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. Example:
    • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
    • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
    • Consequence: You step on the dog’s back foot, hard. (I’m not recommending this, of course. Just want a clear example of positive punishment.)
    • Prediction: Jumping up on you will decrease.
  • Negative punishment: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. Example:
    • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
    • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
    • Consequence: You turn around and leave.
    • Prediction: Jumping up on you will decrease.

In the positive punishment example you added painful pressure to your dog’s foot. (Please don’t ever do this.) If the dog finds having his feet stepped on sufficiently painful, jumping will decrease. In the negative punishment example you removed your presence and attention from the dog.  If he likes your presence and attention well enough, and if you are consistent, (and if there is no competing reinforcer–that’s a big if!) this also will cause jumping on you to decrease.

So that’s what positive and negative punishment look like. Now back to our original example. Let’s map it out as well.

  • Antecedent: You approach your dog.
  • Behavior: Dog jumps on you.
  • Consequence: You just stand there.

You don’t respond with physical actions or increase or decrease your attention. Admittedly, this is hard to do, and remember, the lack of response has to be from the dog’s point of view. Even looking down at them is a response. Future blog on this point!

The cookies stayed put
The cookies staying put

Nothing was added: therefore no positive punishment. Nothing was removed: therefore no negative punishment.

(By the way, some people who are very new to learning theory think that the above example is negative reinforcement. Sit, give treat = positive reinforcement. Then jump, withhold treat = negative reinforcement. No, no, no! It has an attractive symmetry, but that is not what the term means at all. Here’s a review.)

So What Is Happening?

OK, back to the first scenario, where you are working on sits with your puppy. Let’s say that after that one time when the puppy jumped and you didn’t treat, the puppy didn’t jump up again. Jumping on you decreased during training. Let’s also say that that decrease continues over time. Why isn’t that punishment again?

Because punishment is not the only process that involves a decrease in behavior. There is another: extinction.

Extinction is the nonreinforcement of a previously reinforced response, the result of which is a decrease in the strength of that response.

In other words, extinction is what happens when the behavior you used to do to achieve some thing doesn’t work anymore. So you stop doing it.

So here comes the big question, especially for those folks who think they’ve somehow caught us out on the withholding the treat business.

How Humane is Extinction?

As with so many things, the answer is, “It depends.” But in this case there is a pretty clear demarcation. In the Humane Hierarchy, extinction by itself is at the same level of negative reinforcement (which involves an aversive) and negative punishment (which involves a penalty for behavior). Not great as first choices. We know that from life. If a machine we use all the time stops working, or a method we use of interacting with another person we care about suddenly gets no response with no explanation, we are left high and dry. It is not fun.

However, extinction also happens in tandem with a process called Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors (DRA). This is how trainers who aim to train primarily with positive reinforcement use it. (There are other differential reinforcement methods, but this is a good general one to discuss right now.) It consists of reinforcement of an alternative behavior while reinforcement for the target behavior is withheld. Done with some care and skill, it can involve very little frustration for the animal, and it is one step closer to the “most humane” end of the Humane Hierarchy. And this is what is happening in the example above. As long as the trainer is being quite clear that sits are being paid for, the fact that jumping up on her no longer gets attention is not so hard on the pup. He has another thing he can do to get something good. He gets attention and food.

The trainer has communicated to the pup a new behavior to “fill the hole” where jumping used to be.

Japanese Drink Vending Machine
 

I’m borrowing this great example of how DRA works from my friend Kim Pike. Let’s say the soda machine at a workplace is not working. People will push the button repeatedly. Some will perhaps pound on the machine or kick it. This is typical when extinction is in play by itself. The people have no alternative, and get frustrated. (I’ll be covering extinction bursts and and extinction aggression in a later post.) Gradually people will stop going to the machine and give up pushing the buttons. Individuals will probably forget, and now and then go try the machine again, then perhaps give it another kick or shove. But after a while no one goes to the machine anymore.

But when the soda machine is fixed, there will likely be a crowd of people ready to buy their sodas. It’s easier than going to the corner store, and involves less planning than bringing drinks from home. The behaviors attendant to getting a soda are all still fluent and easy for people to perform. And they once again get reinforced.

However! What if, when the machine broke, someone immediately set up a system where folks could buy a soda they liked as well or better for less money? Perhaps there was a cooler, or an honor system with soda in the fridge. If that alternative were in place immediately, would the thirsty people typically have experienced the same level of frustration at the broken machine? Nope! (Except perhaps for the engineers and mechanics, grin.)

And the most important question: What will the folks who just want a soda do when the machine gets fixed? As long as the cheaper, better alternative is still available, they will keep heading for it. The machine will have become irrelevant. Maybe once in a while someone will forget, and go to the machine. But they’d then remember that they can get a better drink, cheaper, out of the fridge.

This is what we are doing when we allow an extinction process in tandem with positive reinforcement of an alternative behavior. We clearly offer the animal an attractive alternative and remind them of it to keep it front and center. It’s important that the reinforcer for the new behavior be the same or better than that of the old behavior. This makes for a process with much less frustration.

Extinction in a Specific Circumstance

In my post, How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong? I address “failing to click” during a training session. I feature a short video example from the great trainer Sue Ailsby teaching her young Portuguese Water Dog, Sync, to stand and stay. In the video you can see Sync’s immediate bounce back after the couple of times she tries something other than a stand and doesn’t earn a click.

In that case, sits and downs are not going to decrease into oblivion in every situation, as we might want the jumping up to do in our other example.  But they will go into extinction during training sessions of “Stand” and later when Sync learns a cue for it. Since  dogs can discriminate this easily, it also tells us that when we want a behavior to go away completely, we need to practice reinforcing our alternative behavior in many locations and situations.

Conclusion

So in answer to the critics, no, withholding the cookie in itself is not punishment. And if used in tandem with reinforcing another behavior, it is quite humane. If we put even a moderate amount of thought and planning into the situation, we can set the dog up to succeed. There will be minimal frustration when he does miss the mark on occasion and fails to earn the treat.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on extinction. I’ll be talking in more detail about what happens when extinction is used by itself, and comparing that with differential reinforcement in some human and dog case studies.

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My Dogs Are Not in Charge

My Dogs Are Not in Charge

As a Humane Hierarchy trainer, it is part of my value system to help my dogs get what they want, within the confines of our mutual comfort and safety. It’s important for me to give them choices and let them operate on their environment. To have an enriched existence not overcontrolled by me.

Until I read this brilliant post, “Threshold Roulette or Choice,” by Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs, I would have said without much thought that more control and choices for pet dogs are always better. But Yvette is way ahead of me. There’s a big fat exception to that. So if you have time only to read one post today, go read hers. It is show stopping. I’m just riffing off of it. But here is the learning that she triggered.

Is Putting the Dog in Control a Good Thing?

I think most of us who are dedicated to avoiding force in training would put a high value on freedom, choices, and the ability for our dogs to have control over their environments. So where’s the problem?

There are two problems that I perceive.

  1. As magical as dogs are, with their fascinating intelligences, we are the ones with the bigger brains and with the majority culture. We protect them, care for them, and make decisions for them to the best of our abilities. In so many situations, the one who knows more (the human) needs to be making the major decisions. Yvette made this point beautifully in her post.
  2. This one is more insidious. It’s not a problem with putting them in control per se. It’s just the observation that that even when we think we are putting them in control, most often we are not. Their choices are limited inside the structures that we create and we are feeding the illusion of giving them control. Refusal or inability to acknowledge the power differential provides a mask for doing abominable things to dogs and still claiming that “they are in charge.”

Exploring the Idea

Hypothetical situation: If giving my dogs as much control as possible is a good thing, does that mean that they should be able to eat what and when they want? I love for my dogs to enjoy life and have lots of pleasures. So is more food, tastier food, or more available food better?

I could do this:

I could put out for my dogs an ever-refilling bowl of pork cracklings and another of peanut butter cookies and perhaps some chicken to round things out. They would LOVE that.

But the problems that would cause include:

  • obesity;
  • pancreatitis;
  • bloat;
  • other digestive problems;
  • aggression and possible likely injuries from inter-household resource guarding;
  • danger from vermin or predators if this were set up outside;
  • and more.
My dogs would find this very cool
My dogs would find this very cool

I’ve described this in extremes to get a point across. Setting up situations where their free choice would have ruinous consequences is not humane. Even just giving them free access to kibble at all times has problems. I used to free feed. I stopped when my 60 lb dog gave my 15 lb dog a warning bite to the neck as they squabbled over the feeder while I wasn’t home. (A neighbor saw.) They were both overweight, and also I had a rat problem that went on for years after that.

I don’t usually use the term “dog guardian,” as it’s just a little too touchie-feelie for me, but it is a accurate description nonetheless. We make decisions on our dogs’ behalf all the time. We protect them. They will always be dependent on us, and living in a world that is at least partly foreign.

The obvious limit to giving dogs freedom and control over their lives and environment is safety. The considerations are both immediate (protection from mishap and injury) and long-term (keeping them healthy).

So just as we wouldn’t overfeed our dogs, we need to consider that putting some other bounds on the choices and control they have may be a good thing.

Enrichment

Many of us who love our dogs is enrich their lives by arranging challenges that allow them to express instinctive or naturally expressed behaviors. Instead of free-feeding, many of us use some of their food to train. We arrange for them to forage for some of it. Or we freeze or melt some into food toys.

Some days I choose this for them
But some days I choose this for them

These things we set up are enriching and even empowering to our dogs. You bet! And within the structure of the games we set up, they do get to make choices and exert control. Not to mention develop some skills that express their their natural aptitudes.

But we set up the structure. We don’t ask the dog if she’d rather snack on kibble from a never ending bowl all day or hone her extraction skills with a frozen Kong. We can’t ask her. We make decisions for her based on our observation, knowledge, and best guesses. And we keep in mind the concepts that she cannot. Perhaps she would have chosen the big pot o’ kibble, but we know that eating out of a Kong will assuage some boredom and give her something to chew on for a little longer. So we make the latter choice for her. And we take away her choice of an easy meal for that day.

Who’s In Charge?

I am.

I think the attraction of the idea of “putting the dog in control” is partly a rebound from the practice of punishment and valuing dominance, and in that sense is partly a good thing. At its best, it is an ethical imperative to make up for the strictures that domestication puts on their lives. However, “putting the dog in control” has the same unthinking attraction that the label on food of “all-natural” has for many of us. We like to think that our animals are expressing themselves in unfettered ways. It feels good and wholesome to many of us.

But denying the control we have and need to have is a dangerous slope. We cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that we are the ones with the big brains, we are the ones who have the keys to the cabinet, we put on and take off the leashes, and make health decisions. We spay and neuter our dogs or do not allow them to breed (how natural is that?). And people are free in many countries to strap on shock collars and hold the remote and hurt their dogs.

Many people say jokingly or not-so-jokingly that their dogs are always in charge. Sure, they shape our behavior. Certainly those of us who care for pets dutifully feel like we are their servants at times. But you know, I try not to even joke along those lines. It’s part of the cultural fog about learning and behavior to ignore the power that we have when we control the reinforcers and punishers and set the contingencies. I have read more than one shock trainer claim, in all seriousness, that the dog is in control of the training process. They mistake the fact that the dog can learn how to behave to turn off the shock with the dog being in charge. Really? Did the dog go pick out the shock collar, put it on, hand the human the remote and order him to start pressing the button or else? If the dog is in charge, in what way exactly does he hold sway over the human that would be even nearly equivalent to the humans’ power of holding the shock remote?

Recently protocols that include negative reinforcement have become popular among some trainers who consider themselves part of the force free community. Some practitioners (not all) make similar claims about the subject dog being in control or in charge of the process. This is what Yvette discusses so eloquently. But, as she points out, the dog did not participate in the decision making that arrived at that training session. She didn’t set up the rules. She might have preferred not to participate in that whole situation entirely. (And Yvette’s major point: that letting the dog make the decisions in a potentially explosive situation is a bad idea anyway.)

As in any situation involving operant learning, including with positive reinforcement, the dog learns behaviors according to a rule structure set up by the humans. She is not in control except in responding to the situation that we set up.  We don’t need to unthinkingly attach ourselves to this idea of the dog being in control because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Certainly sometimes the safer and more humane choice is for the human to make the decisions in the dog’s best interest.

Feral dog Clara at the mall
Formerly feral dog Clara at the mall

One of the things I do in this blog is to attempt to clarify misapprehensions about the learning processes, to the best of my ability. Sometimes they are things I read, sometimes they are my own errors in reasoning. I like to explore my own value system and discuss ethical choices. So I really appreciate that Yvette has widened my comprehension with her post. I’m still thinking about what she wrote.

Coming up:

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