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Category: Training philosophy

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Summer's new hand touch
Summer’s new hand target

In our last episode, I shared how I messed up Summer’s hand (and object) targeting behavior six ways from Sunday. Now I will share the process of retraining it.

When you follow directions from a book, such as the Training Levels, a lot of the planning is done for you. So I get a little lazy about training plans. I can just check little boxes off in the books.  (A reminder: I  acquired all these errors when I was brand new at training and using a mishmash of methods. Wish I’d known about the Levels earlier.)   But it’s a good idea to always have a plan, and collect data on what you are doing. Since I now need to do a unique retraining plan suited exactly to my dog and her needs, I am going to make a plan and share it, then share how well it works.

Training Plans

Training plans can be as simple or as detailed as the situation demands. For this situation, where I am trying to get rid of several superstitious behaviors that often follow my cue for hand target, I am going to make a thorough plan, and share it here.

Here are two posts about training plans, both by great trainers.

I combined parts of both of these to design the categories for my plan. I also made a record-keeping spreadsheet in Google Docs, loosely based on Melissa Alexander’s. Hers is accessible through her post above.

My Training Plan

  • Goal: a clean touch of Summer’s nose to my hand, followed by her generalizing that to similar touches to different objects. I want verbal cue recognition (will do tests with objects, see below).  But she doesn’t have to wait for a verbal if I do the hand signal.
  • Description:  A clean clear touch of nose to hand or object. She can be in any position that will allow her to reach the hand or object. It doesn’t have to be a hard touch, just definite touch of nose. No drivebys, and no just whiskers. No teeth, no open mouth. Minimal paw lifts. I define minimal as: her paw can lift about an inch higher than normal if she is walking or trotting to the target. Getting her mouth closed and preventing paw whacks are essential. A little leftover paw action is OK with me.
  • Methods: Capture the touch, then shape a firmer touch if necessary. I want to make the picture as different as possible for Summer from the very beginning, including changing the hand signal and verbal cue. I will follow the progression in Level 1 Target in the Training Levels. I will start with me seated. Use Sue Ailsby’s hand position (see “new position” above). Start off with my left hand rather than right, which I have used more often for hand targets before. I’ll drop treats rather than handing them to her (encourages mouth/hand contact) or throwing them (builds excitement).
  • Cue: Verbal. In the case of hand touch, presentation of hand.  Cue discrimination: the ability to distinguish from Sit and Down on verbal alone. For this I will use a standalone object, since the presentation of the hand will always be more salient than the verbal. When to start with the cue: TBD.
  • Sessions: Up to three sessions per day of 10 treats.
  • Criteria for advancement: In the early stages of the hand touch, 95% or above. This is because my goal is to clean out the old superstitious behaviors. Also I have observed that Summer doesn’t mind lots of repetition. Later I will build in her looking me in the eyes before I will give the cue. This is because of her habit of staring at the food or my food hand.
  • Duration? Not for this project.
  • Distance? 15 feet to object, or about that much if chasing me.
  • Distractions? Maybe near the end. Put down a mat for her to go by as she goes to touch an object.
  • Position: Hand touch from all different directions. Object touch from different positions. I will limit to objects already in her sight, i.e., she doesn’t have to turn around to find it. However, I plan to “try it cold” by cuing a Touch when she is not expecting it and when there is an obvious object to touch.
  • Where: Start in my den. Do other rooms in house, back porch, back yard. Possibly go on to front porch.
  • Reliability: I want 95% free from superstitious behaviors. Response to cue itself 80-90%.
  • Comments and caveats: Since we have an ongoing issue with staring at food, I will chain in eye contact after she is getting some fluency.  She is more likely to do the undesired behaviors if she is excited and moving fast, so I will start with her standing still. Observation: she is quite likely to offer an undesired behavior after failing to meet criteria and doing a light touch on the first one, instead of offering a firmer touch. I will need to be creative and use positioning to avoid errors. Also I stated earlier that I don’t want to use negative punishment at all if possible. That means I don’t want to rely on pulling the target away from her if she is approaching it with her paw or an open mouth. I want to prevent those things from happening to begin with. I want to tell her through reinforcement what is working.
  • Future:  Duration. Mix up Zen and target. Learn to distinguish target cue from retrieve cue.

The difference between my old and new hand positions for target:

Notes about Future Steps

In the Training Levels, what follows the hand touch is:

  • Foot touch:  (Dog’s nose to human foot) Probably no problems here.
  • Wooden object: I’ll need to prevent teeth touches and grabbing by using a large, flat object, as described in the Levels (p 187) Need to watch for feet movement. How to discourage? Careful height of object. Experiment with stationary vs moving.
  • Plastic object: ditto.
  • Metal object: ditto.
  • Spot on wall: I’ll have to modify the instructions: I won’t use a post-it note or painter’s tape. (Watch the Targeting Mishaps movie to see why.)  I’ll draw or paint a target on a piece of poster board with non toxic paint. Start by holding the board. Shape touching the spot. When that is solid, get it onto the wall.

We have practiced all of the above behaviors before, but many incorrectly because of superstitious behaviors.

Session Planning

Session 1. I’ll sit in a chair. Treats on my right on a desk. Proffer left hand in position described by Sue. Correct iterations marked by Yes and drop (don’t throw) treat.

Link to video for email subscribers.

My Notes after the First Two Sessions

Wow, real life comes crashing in. So Summer did one touch/sniff, then the very next one she took all my fingers in her mouth. (A “bite” but very inhibited. Her teeth didn’t close.) I wasn’t ready for that at all. I was in the middle of saying “Yes” but aborted it. I was so surprised I just got up and turned off one of the cameras and took a break. In the meantime Summer heard me say most of “Yes” and was sniffing around looking for her treat, which I had made a split second decision about and didn’t give her.

Dang! An important goal for me is no negative punishment, but abruptly getting up and stopping a training session can be a big dose of that….

But the video taught me a lot. Both the times (yes, it happened again) Summer took my fingers in her mouth, I had presented my hand kind of flat. Must have looked like I was handing her a treat.

Besides the position of the hand, I need to make its presentation a little clearer (I don’t need to leave it halfway out there). Make it very clear: on/off. I’m still struggling a little with the hand position; that’s part of why I am so stiff. Also I’m trying to keep my body very quiet. A couple times I was too slow and she was already moving forward when I presented my hand.

I’m really really glad I counted reps and successes. I would have overestimated our success rate otherwise.

Also, I chose to go with 10 treats rather than 10 total iterations. 10 treats means 10 correct responses, but puts no limit on incorrect responses. Sometimes not advisable at the beginning. But even looking at the video I had a hard time deciding what “counted” as an iteration or not, so I’m glad I wasn’t trying to count while training.

Third and Fourth Sessions

We have already had our third and fourth sessions, although they’re not included in the movie. Our success rate got better and went up to 10 correct out of 13 both times, which comes to 77%. I tried to loosen up a little and move in Session 4 but I immediately got an open mouth from Summer. I’ll need to continue to be very conservative since movement on my part has typically triggered mouthiness on hers. There’s always a fine line between getting the behavior and not wedding it to a certain setup. I’ll do some other things to introduce some variety.

Here is my training tracker document. I’ll keep it up to date and publicly accessible.

Thanks for reading.

Now that it’s done, here is the whole series:

Also coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

Targeting done right! --credit Marge Rogers
Targeting done right! –credit Marge Rogers

Hand targeting is usually suggested as a great behavior for new clicker trainers since it is easy to get and easy to define criteria for.

I guess I didn’t read the brochure carefully enough because I messed up hand targeting for one of my dogs six ways from Sunday!

From time to time I share in the blog mistakes I have made in the past, Continue reading “6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting”

Calm Submissive

Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.
Is Zani calm? Check out her left front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.
Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry lying on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.
Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like any dog, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of the dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 3:19, he says, “See the relaxation.” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Although this post is about discussions and accusations about humane training, it doesn’t provide fodder for pithy sound bites or snappy answers. The whole point of it is why it can be difficult to explain succinctly our position as science-based, humane trainers in the face of opposition.  I hope it can be helpful for some folks. Gathering information, thinking this through, and writing about it has settled my nerves about a lot of things regarding the conflicts between trainers. Here we go.

Here’s something that force-free trainers hear a lot:

“There’s no such thing as force-free training because…”

  • “You use leashes and that’s force, the same or worse than a shock collar”
  • If your dog ran out into traffic you would grab him or pull on the leash”
  • “You all use force too, you’re just hypocrites about it”
  • “Harnesses are more cruel than prong collars”

Here Comes the Continuum Fallacy 

Color spectrum, from left to right (in order of frequency): red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet ROY G BIV
There is no such thing as green because we can’t say precisely where the green starts. Really? (credit Wikimedia Commons)

I have previously written a bit on the continuum fallacy, in But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic? I wrote:

Likening pulling on a leash (in an emergency no less) with the habitual use of a shock collar to force a dog’s compliance is an example of the logical fallacy called the continuum fallacy… The continuum fallacy erroneously claims that because there is a range of possibilities between two extremes, there is no meaningful difference between them. In this case the extremes are pulling on a leash one time to remove a dog from danger, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a  shock collar as a training method to teach them via force to come when called…

The examples cited above both employ negative reinforcement, or at least aversive pressure (we can’t really say if reinforcement occurred in the emergency situation since it’s a one trial example). Therefore there is a continuum of such usages between them.

More commonly the extremes cited are two types of training:  training based as much as possible on positive reinforcement (along with desensitization and classical conditioning), and training based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and flooding, such as shock collar training.

You wouldn’t think there was any common ground between these two. But there is, or rather, there are intermediate states between them. Please bear with me if the idea offends you. My point is that they are absolutely different in essence, even though there exists the continuum.

So on the continuum,  next to the trainers who use shock exclusively are the ones who do use some food or play as positive reinforcement in addition to the shock used aversively. Next to them are the “balanced” trainers who combine positive reinforcement with “corrections.” Next to them are the ones who use a shock or prong collar for proofing only. Then the ones who use a shock collar in only one specific situation. And so on. (These could be split more finely of course.)

Going past the middle to the R+ paradigm side are the folks  who don’t intentionally use any aversive tools, but carry old habits (Eileen raises hand). We occasionally do something that is aversive to the dog, for instance, taking a step forward to apply pressure if a dog breaks a stay. We do this because of old habits or lack of knowledge of other ways, but no matter why, it’s still aversive to the dog.

I’m not going to describe every step from here on out. But we can travel farther and farther into R+ territory as other methods drop away.  But truthfully, most people don’t get to the point of never using negative reinforcement or negative punishment or extinction. As I’ve mentioned, that necessitates an almost godlike ability to predict every possible behavioral interaction if you live with your animal. And even if we consider only formal training sessions, it depends on the dedication and creativity of the trainer to unlearn our human punishment programming and get more and more fluent in humane methods.

Because of the infinite gradations between the two extremes, there are those who would argue you can’t make a distinction between them. They would be employing the continuum fallacy.  This link has a good definition and some nice examples of it.

One common application of the continuum fallacy is to claim that the concept the other party is describing does not even exist. Does that sound familiar? Punishment based trainers, particularly shock collar trainers, like to claim that there is “no such thing as force free training.” Since we use things like leashes and collars that are naturally agents of force (although we take pains to ameliorate that), and because some aversive situations are just going to occur in life, they claim that there can be no distinction, none, made between what we do and what they do with their specifically-designed-to-hurt tools. This argument is incorrect (especially when they throw in the straw man of “purely positive”), and a way of trying to talk us out of existence. I’ve written an entire post on it.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. The continuum fallacy is connected to something called an “open concept.”  This really enlightened me about why it’s so hard for us in the force free community to come up with a single name for ourselves, and why we are repeatedly told we don’t exist. What we are trying to describe is a complex combination of a training philosophy, methods, and a mesh of practices. “The kind of trainers we are” is an open concept.

Open and Closed Concepts

So many things fell into place when I read about this.

A closed concept is something that can be exactly defined, such as a triangle. But many of the most important things in life can not be exactly defined. From “Open and Closed Concepts and the Continuum Fallacy” by Sandra LaFave:

An open concept is one for which the connotation cannot be precisely specified; rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.

Here are some examples. Vegetarian. Christian. Pacifist. Have you ever heard someone arguing about the definition of any of these or over who belongs to the group? I thought so. Yet the various individuals who identify with these terms can define their habits and belief systems beautifully, and they are often at the core of the person’s identity.

A portrait in pencil of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His face is angular and he looks intense and pensive.
Ludwig Wittgenstein worrying about open concepts (credit Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889-1951) wrote about open concepts. His example was the concept of “game.” He advised the reader to think of different games and to try to think of what was common to them all. (My suggestion: use the examples of patty-cake, football (American or world), board games, and the often deadly games played in the Roman Coliseum, and try the exercise.) He wrote that you cannot identify one single characteristic common to all examples of games.

But that doesn’t negate the concept of game. He analyzed the similarities and differences in several types of games and concluded:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. –Wittgenstein  in his Philosophical Investigations as quoted by Donald Palmer in “Does the Center Hold?”, p. 394

Glupling Training

As I mentioned, I think the lack of a commonly agreed upon name by all in the community is one bit of evidence that “the kind of training we do” is an open concept. For that reason, for brevity, and to introduce a little levity into a heavy subject, I’m going to call force-free, science-based, humane, primarily positive reinforcement training “Glupling Training.”

It would be easier to live in a world where we could say, “If you do these five things, and don’t do these five things, then you are a bona fide Glupling trainer.” Nice clean line in the sand. But we don’t live in that world. Glupling training is a philosophy; a group of methods; a paradigm. I strive for it. I think most of you out there reading this are striving for it. I’ve got certain great trainers and thinkers in mind as my role models and perhaps you do too. But we need to acknowledge that the edges of the definition are not universally agreed upon.

For instance, within the Glupling community there are heated discussions about head halters and front attach harnesses, and whether these are OK as permanent solutions, temporary management aids during training, or never OK. People disagree about the use of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Some people seek to be two-quadrant trainers (positive reinforcement and negative punishment). For some trainers negative reinforcement protocols are OK in general, others go case by case, still others try for “never.”  How about No Reward Markers? Or whether it’s OK to yelp as a training technique when a puppy bites you?

I have watched other groups in similar throes of self definition. Organic gardening discussion groups talk about whether the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) disqualifies someone from the group. “Childless by choice” people argue whether people who never had kids of their own but then marry people with children still “count.” There is discussion about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to people who are or have been dependent on alcohol. This is just a completely typical situation with open concepts. I would even argue that these discussions can be healthy, as long as they don’t start to eat up your life.

The bigger troubles start with the people outside of the particular community who object to it. With regard to Glupling training, these are the folks who want force-based methods to be socially acceptable and so attack the Glupling paradigm. These folks have two main strategies.

  1. Some trot out straw men and the continuum fallacy and simply claim that Glupling training does not exist. These are the ones whom I describe in my blog post, “But Purely Positive is a LIE!
  2. Others jump onto the Glupling bandwagon and market themselves as Glupling trainers, prong or shock collars included. This method has the effect of diffusing the definition of Glupling training and confusing the public. You can find lots of folks on the Internet who salt the word “positive” throughout their website, even if they use physical dominance techniques, prong collars, or shock. These folks accomplish several things by adopting the term, “positive.” First, it is popular right now and it sounds wholesome and good. Second, they add to the confusion (some groups have actually created credentials and initialisms that are identical or similar to established organizations). Third, they help maintain the public’s confusion about the processes of operant learning, since “positive” in the behavioral sense absolutely does not equal “wholesome and good.” And fourth, as added by an early reader of this post, who would want to market themselves as someone who will throw things at your dog and yell “bah”? “Positive” sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?

One observation I have about these continuum fallacy arguments: it seems to always be the side with the less restrictive definition that is arguing that the other side doesn’t exist, not the other way around. Vegetarians never argue that omnivores don’t exist. Organic gardeners never argue that gardeners who use non-organic techniques don’t exist.

This disagreement is typified by a group of people (or an individual) seeking to distinguish themselves from others who are simultaneously trying to negate the distinction.

Static vs Dynamic

I said above that it would be nice to live in a world where Glupling training was easy to define. But actually…one of the hallmarks of Glupling trainers is that we are always using the science to find ways to be more humane, more fair, and better trainers for our animals. The research moves us forward.  So perhaps two of my (fictional) five things that might have defined Glupling training in 1998 are completely out of date in 2013. But that’s a good thing. Given a choice between an approach that is static and claims to know everything and be perfectly complete and definable, and one that allows room for growth and speculation and doesn’t claim to be perfect this very instant….well, you know which one I would choose.

By the way, that is one of the reasons I keep my hand in the discussions and arguments on the Internet. I learn stuff that way.

Conclusion

I have recently written a handful of posts with a deliberate intention of publishing talking points for Glupling trainers who are confronted by the same rhetoric from force-based trainers over and over. The posts are listed below.

I had hoped for this post to join that group, but I’m not sure how  helpful it is. It has been very helpful for me as I mentioned above because it has clarified some difficult things in my mind. Like, why do these fights keep going on and on? But this post is not the kind of thing a person can quote in an argument and say, “Hah! Read this! It proves my point!” Not even close.

But I will throw in some tips on dealing with the continuum fallacy when confronted with a version of it in debate. Dr. LaFave suggests a simple statement that even if there may be a continuum between extremes, the concepts at each end are meaningful. I mean, nobody really believes that black and white are the same because there are shades of gray in between. And she suggests that people who use words in eccentric ways (my example: like shock collar trainers who say the method is positive and force-free) should be called on to defend their eccentric usages of these terms and give good reasons for them.

And this from me: When I have encountered the continuum fallacy, in my observation it has not usually been an innocent misunderstanding. It is usually from someone who, in my opinion, is determined to obfuscate. If I find that to be the case, I will state my position once, if at all (and for the benefit of others who may be reading, and not with the hope of convincing the other person) and move on. In short, as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t argue with someone you have to educate.”

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

This remark has been hurled at me. How about you?

I certainly don’t call myself “purely positive” or particularly like the term. But here it comes at me, predictable as clockwork, anyway.

The reason this keeps happening is in the “short version” below. I also talk about why I don’t care for the term. But that’s not quite the whole story. The “long version” covers why we might not want to estrange ourselves completely from the goal of positive reinforcement training.

The Short Version

“Purely positive,” or sometimes, “all positive,” are terms most often used as epithets by force trainers to refer to trainers who avoid force and aversives.  They are used as a straw men in arguments.

A Straw Man is a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument that is usually laughably extreme and easy to disprove. That’s its purpose. The person who creates the Straw Man can knock it down and play like they have disproved their opponent’s actual argument.

Here is an example of a Straw Man. Judith runs a landscaping business.

Closeup of pink petunias--soft, bright pink flowers dark centers and large petals
Pink Petunias or Straw Man?

Judith: “The pink petunias withered up and died back early this year. I guess they are more attractive to certain pests or maybe it’s because they came from a different supplier and just weren’t as healthy to start with. Since the pure red ones did so much better I guess I’ll use red next year whenever possible.”

Cindy: “What have you got against pink? If you stop using pink flowers of any kind you’ll lose customers! Whoever heard of a landscaper who doesn’t use pink? That’s ridiculous!”

Cindy recast Judith’s concerns about a problem specific to pink petunias, as a global, irrational objection to all pink flowers. Note that Cindy could have argued logically against Judith’s actual reasons. She could have said, “That didn’t look like a pest-borne problem,” or “But you ordered other plants from that supplier that did just fine,” or “I read that this was an especially bad year for the Pink Petunia Bug but they emerge on a seven year cycle. Pink petunias will probably do fine next year.”   These statements would have addressed what Judith actually said and they might have had a good discussion. Instead, Cindy instantly morphed Judith’s statement into something else, then acted as if Judith were being extremely unreasonable.

People generally construct Straw Men when they have a dearth of logical arguments. Once in a while they have an honest misunderstanding. If that happens, the person who built the Straw Man can be gently presented with one’s real point of view and a discussion of its true merits and faults may ensue. But sometimes Straw Men are constructed by people who just want to win at all costs, the truth be damned, or are used consciously by people who know that what they are saying is untrue. When someone does that, it’s generally the case that they are not going to listen to your true point of view or play by the rules of polite conduct in an argument.

The reason that bringing up “purely positive” is a Straw Man is that virtually no one is claiming to be a 100% positive reinforcement trainer.

I’m sure not, but I’ve been reamed up one side and down the other for supposedly claiming to be “all positive.” The person got a real kick out of “proving” that all positive wasn’t possible, when that wasn’t even relevant to our discussion and certainly not to my training.

If someone starts ranting about “Purely Positive Zealots” at this point I will only go one round in a discussion, then quit. I seek to be calm in the face of their misrepresentation. Whatever I write will be done with others who may be reading in mind. Then I’m out. There’s no point in having a discussion with someone who is clinging to irrelevancies, not to mention mocking me.

Nomenclature Problems

Large plus sign in black on a white backgroundAs has been pointed out by many trainers, since the operant learning nomenclature uses “positive” in a mathematical sense and it can apply both to reinforcement and punishment, the waters get muddy immediately if one calls oneself (or is called) a “positive trainer.” In operant learning, positive just means you add something as a consequence to a behavior, and it can be a good something or a bad something. So there are both positive reinforcement and positive punishment under the umbrella of positive. Oops! And we’ve left negative punishment, the type that does not involve applying an aversive, by the wayside.

The term “positive trainer” is not even close to accurate.

Even though like most other people I do fall into using the term sometimes as a shorthand, I think calling ourselves “positive” anything is a bad idea. It muddies the waters. It adds a glamour to a term that we need to be un-glamourizing. “Positive” has, and needs to have, a specific, quasi-mathematical meaning.

The Longer Version, Or, What if it Were Possible After All?

However. It’s more complicated than what I wrote above.

The problem with saying, “Hey, ‘purely positive’ is a myth and an insult” and leaving it at that is that it erases it as a beautiful paradigm. It implies that one must use something farther down the Humane Hierarchy than positive reinforcement to train an animal successfully. We don’t want to imply that, do we?

I’ve discussed before that research has shown that animals do not need to make mistakes to learn a behavior. Although this is counterintuitive to us, they do not have to know “what is wrong” to know what is right. Also, punishment (including negative punishment) is not necessary to teach a behavior well, or to “prepare an animal for real life,” or toughen the animal up. I wrote a whole post about that too.

I think that those of us who are aiming for the positive reinforcement paradigm are the ones who are in the best position to know exactly how much success we are having. We are confronted with real life every day with our animals and know when we’re not using positive reinforcement exclusively and are grown up enough to be honest about it. The force avoiding trainers I know are extremely willing to identify and classify every training technique they use. For instance, when they are using negative punishment or extinction, they will say so, and they will define the terms for those who don’t understand.

Then there’s the fact that we live with our dogs. Negative reinforcement is probably a daily occurrence in most households with dogs (think spatial issues; body blocking; momentary leash pressure). My opinion is that a person would have to have godlike foresight to be able to avoid every situation in which it could occur. And believe me, I work to avoid it!

A tan dog with a black muzzle and black tail is running very fast
Clara’s recall was trained with positive reinforcement

The important thing is that I can’t think of a time when aiming for a method more centered on positive reinforcement (or an intervention even less intrusive) has harmed my training. It has helped numerous times. It helps me and my dogs for me to think about the ways I teach things and get creative about training behaviors without negative punishment or negative reinforcement (or positive punishment of course) when possible. I know for me it is easy to get set in my ways, and something really nice can emerge when I apply myself to thinking about a familiar behavior as if it is the first time I’ve taught it.

Aiming to train without punishment at all (including without negative punishment) and without negative reinforcement is a beautiful goal and I don’t think we need to be apologizing for that.

This post is part of a series:

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But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

Here’s another remark often addressed to reinforcement based trainers, sometimes in a mocking tone, sometimes seriously:

A woman's hand is suspended over a clear glass cookie jar. The jar is full of Vanilla Wafers, a small, disc shaped light brown cookie. The hand is holding a cookie (has just pulled one out of the jar). But we don’t give our kids a cookie every time they tie their shoes or pay them a nickel every time they say thank you!

The writer often further implies that to do that with children would be the worst sort of bribery, indulgence, and permissive parenting (and-by-the-way-it’s-responsible-for-all-the-current-evils-of-society). And we’re being just as weak willed when training our dogs!

But the “cookie” objection is so easy to address. Continue reading “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!”

Crossing Over

Crossing Over

A small dog, a black and white rat terrier with very large ears that stand up, is running towards the side of a human (you can see only the human's pant leg. The dog's mouth is open, her foot is raised in mid stride, and she looks excited and happy.
Cricket performing a recall in a training session after I crossed over

I am a crossover trainer, and we tend to like to tell our stories.

“Crossing over,” and “crossover trainer” refer to a trainer who switched from punishment based, or mixed training that included aversives, to training that is centered around positive reinforcement and avoids force, pain, and actions intended to “dominate” the dog.

I have written the story of my transformation, and Ines Gaschot is graciously hosting it at her blog, “The Crossover Trainer.” She has lots of interesting crossover stories over there as well as many other lovely blog posts. I hope you’ll not only go over and read mine, but check out the rest of her blog and website too if you haven’t already.

So here is how to get to my crossover story, complete with an embarrassing picture of Summer and me graduating from our first obedience class in 2006. (She didn’t much like the mortarboard.)

Crossing Over: A Pet Owner’s Story

Thanks for reading!

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But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

Not all training sessions are stressful
Not all training sessions are stressful

“But it’s unhealthy to protect your dog from everything! If you do that, it’s just like overprotecting your child. They won’t be able to cope with the real world!”

This is another one of the criticisms one often reads about force-free training. It is generally presented by someone advocating the use of aversives in training. They’ve found another reason to say training with pain is necessary. They can say it’s all for the future good of the dog!

What is Stress?

The question of stress is one that I have given some careful consideration to. Stress has many definitions, but here are a few pertinent ones:

“A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”–Merriam-Webster online

“The non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”–Hans Selye, 1936, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the word.

(Selye also coined the word eustress: “Stress that is healthy or gives you a sense of fulfillment.”)

Is Stress OK At All?

Clearly stress is a serious deal, but maybe not all bad. I believe:

  • little stress can be beneficial to learning; and
  • the optimal amount of stress for learning varies inversely with the difficulty of the task.

How to Use this Information About Stress

If little bit of stress can sometimes be a good thing, how on earth would you do that in a humane way? In the first place, not with positive punishment or negative reinforcement. That means not by hurting, scaring, or pressuring your dog if they make a mistake or to get them to do the “right” thing.

Introducing aversives into training as a way of preparing the student for the real world doesn’t make sense. That’s like deciding, “I want my kids to be able to cope with the real world, so I’m going to pinch them whenever they make a mistake doing their math homework.” 

Huh? I really hope that’s not the type of world you’re planning for your child or dog. As strange as our world may be, that’s not something that happens very often. (Plus, way to go! Isn’t your kid going to just LOVE math now!) Much more often, if your daughter grows up to use math in her job, the difficulty will come if she has to do it while 1) the person in the next cube in her office is playing music; 2) her boss just fussed at her; or 3) she has a sick kid at home.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Those are real life stressors.

In psych experiments, stress is induced in humans in a variety of ways, but generally by exposing the humans to something stressful before or during the actual work of the experiment that is not contingent on their performance of a task. It may be social pressure, a self control exercise, or something like a cold pressor test, where a person is asked to leave his or her arm immersed in extremely cold water as long as they can stand it. (There are certainly experiments with all sorts of animals and humans where various unpleasant or painful things are used for punishment, and we would do well to heed the outcome of those experiments. My point here is that you don’t need contingent aversives to raise a person or animal’s stress level.)

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.56.53 PM
Summer attentive and involved in leash practice

So if a little stress could be OK, can we get any ideas about how to fit it into a humane training structure? You bet!

Summer stress on porch
Summer stressed and distracted in same session

Enter Mr. Skinner and his cohorts. Contrary to his popular image as someone overly cerebral in a white lab coat who trained animals in a completely sterile environment, Skinner was also passionately interested in human education. Preparation for real world situations was a cornerstone of his methods.

Skinner believed that an animal or human did not have to make mistakes to learn the correct behavior or answer. I haven’t gotten to the original Skinnerian source yet, but this has been borne out in subsequent research. (Here’s one of several articles: “The Implicit Benefits of Training Without Errors“)

This brings up so called “errorless learning” again, since making errors is generally considered to cause stress, even when teaching with positive reinforcement. During Skinner’s time there was much discussion about whether stress was necessary or beneficial to learning.

Here is a very interesting quote from “B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal,” by Marc Richelle:

Skinner […] insisted on building the required behavior with as few errors as possible, the ideal being errorless learning. This was subject to debate among the first generation of specialists, some of them arguing, on the contrary, that errors have some virtues and that in any case they can never be completely eliminated in practice. One must admit that a natural life environment does not provide many occasions for errorless learning, and that education should prepare for real life, which implies some tolerance of failure and frustration. (bold added)

Skinner didn’t even consider the use of punishment in teaching. He said, in “The Technology of Teaching, A Review Lecture” (1965):

“Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn.”

and

“…aversive control is the most shameful of irrelevancies.”

Punishment is not considered. So when he says that education should prepare students for tolerance of failure and frustration, how did he mean to do that?  By making the learning process more challenging to the student. And there are at least two ways to do that:

  1. By deliberately making the presentation of the material itself faster or more challenging; and
  2. By allowing the learning to take place in progressively more difficult and distracting environments.

I submit that in training our dogs, it takes no special effort to expose them to environmental stressors. They happen all the time! It does take an effort to make sure that the challenges we give our dogs are gradual and fair.  Noise, activity from other dogs, riding in the car, being left alone, meeting strangers, uncertainty in a routine, extremes of temperature, being boxed in or confined, being on leash, being in a new environment, and dozens of other things can all cause stress in your dog, especially if she has not been prepared for it. People ask their dogs to perform in these situations frequently.

Don’t you think there is much more danger of overdoing it than underdoing it?

Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session
Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session

Real Life Example

Here’s an example video of something that sounds pretty benign: I was practicing leash, Zen (self control), and attention exercises with my dogs Zani and Summer on my front porch. There was quite a bit going on. In the video you can see Zani give a little flurry of stress signals when a dog barks loudly. She works at paying attention and recovers nicely. Summer was also working hard to pay attention but the situation was more difficult for her. They both got practice dealing with a stressful distraction, but I think Zani’s was just at the right level, and Summer’s was a little too tough for her. See what you think.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

By the way, we practiced the next day, and Summer handled some similar distractions with less apparent stress. The video on my post about my dogs working for kibble has  some of the footage of Summer from the next day. (The footage of Zani in that video is mostly the same as that in the video above in this post.)

Most of us do need to teach our dogs to be able to pay attention in challenging environments, just like we ourselves need to learn that. Think of all the times you had to learn something or perform a task where perhaps there was lots of noise. Or you had a sore toe. Or you just had a fight with a loved one. We ask our dogs to the the doggie equivalents of those frequently and we often don’t even know it!

The argument that you need to use aversives in training in order to teach your dog coping skills is a completely empty one.

Are you conscious of what makes your dogs stress out? Have you been able to teach them to cope? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

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© Eileen Anderson 2013                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Introduction to the Exercise Ball

Introduction to the Exercise Ball

Small black and rust colored hound dog is putting her front paw on a red exercise ball (peanut shaped). Her mouth is open, anticipating a treat.
Zani’s ready for a treat for foot targeting the peanut

I bought an exercise ball, a FitPAWS peanut, from CleanRun a couple of years ago. It’s a device to help dogs develop core strength and balance.

After seeing some YouTube videos and even a professional DVD that showed dogs and puppies being placed on exercise balls and held there while they were clearly stressed and uncomfortable, I decided to make a video showing how I introduced my dogs to the ball. We went comparatively slowly, over the course of a few days, with no force or pressure. I wanted my dogs to have a great association with the ball and no anxiety attached to it. So from the very beginning they always had a choice; they could walk away, jump off, take a break.

As is typical, giving them choice in the matter and building good associations made them absolutely fanatically fixated on getting on the ball! And once more, going slow turned out to be fast!

Small black and rust colored hound dog has both  her front paws on a red exercise ball (peanut shaped).
Zani has her whole front end up on the peanut!

You can see in the short video that I used a combination of shaping, targeting, and treat placement to get Zani happily on the ball in a few daily sessions. This method can be used to introduce a dog to all sorts of unfamiliar objects and equipment.

Small black and rust colored hound is standing on top of a red exercise ball (peanut shaped).
And she’s up on the peanut!

Zani’s a confident little dog and I probably could have done it all in one day, but 1) I wanted to take no risks of rushing her psychologically; and 2) we are dealing with a physical skill that builds muscles, and I didn’t want to overdo.

If you are considering getting an exercise ball for your dog, be sure and check it out with your vet. Also, size the ball correctly (CleanRun and the ball vendors such as  can help with that). I hope your dog enjoys it as much as Zani does.

I like easy ways (for me!) to exercise my dogs. Don’t forget flirt poles, too!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Thanks for watching!

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Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ?

Picture of a small black and tan dog leaning away and giving "whale eye," where a small crescent of white shows at the edge of her eyes, as a person reaches out to pet her.
Zani dit NON.

Pour mes visiteurs français.

Est-ce que votre chien veut VRAIMENT être caressé ? (lien)

En anglais

Merci à Stéphanie Michenaud et Nathalie Perret du Cray de Balade Ton Chien pour leur aide.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Stéphanie and Nathalie, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Merci d’avoir regardé !

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

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