eileenanddogs

Tag: aversive

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

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

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

The argument that bothers me is this:

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

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

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

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

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

How It Really Got There

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Up:

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

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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

5/25/14 Addendum

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

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

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

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

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

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

Version 1

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

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

I rewrote the statement to be more complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 2

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

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

Let’s go straight to examples on this one.

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

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

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

Natural vs Contrived Negative Reinforcement

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

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

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

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

A Message from My Heart

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

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

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

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

Regarding Comments

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

Coming Up

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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

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

Minus plus

Surprisingly, no. Not necessarily.

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

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

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

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

Aversives, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Punishment

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

Examples

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

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

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

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

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

Ramifications

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

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

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

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

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

I have dealt with that one above.

The second claim goes like this:

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

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

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

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Gorilla sitting on ground next to a tree. He is scratching his head with his left hand.
Gorilla scratching an itch

Quite often in discussions about negative reinforcement, someone brings up a plethora of examples from human life that sound harmless and benign. Here are some of the items that are often mentioned:

  • Scratching an itch
  • Washing your hands to remove dirt
  • Drying your hands on a towel to get the water off
  • Trimming your fingernails to reduce their length
  • Taking out the trash when the kitchen can gets full
  • Turning on the windshield wipers in the car to remove rain from the windshield
  • Taking an aspirin if you have a headache
  • Covering your ears if there is a loud sound
  • Putting on a coat when the temperature drops
  • Using an umbrella to stay dry

Reading these, one can come away with the impression that negative reinforcement is just no big deal. What’s the fuss about and why do some people try hard to avoid it in animal training?

All of the above examples have something in common. They are what B. F. Skinner termed “automatic reinforcement.” Here’s a typical definition:

Automatic reinforcement occurs when a person’s behaviour creates a favourable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Automatic reinforcement can be either positive or negative. The above examples are negative since they deal with removing an aversive condition. (For a review of the four processes of operant learning, you can read my post Operant Learning Illustrated By Examples.”)

We learn to do the things in that list, usually as children or teenagers, to make ourselves more comfortable. Some undesired condition develops, we take action to change it, and if successful we personally reap the benefit.

In applied behavior analysis, one analyzes operant behaviors like this: there is an Antecedent, a Behavior, and a Consequence. The antecedent and the consequence are in or from the environment. The behavior is that of the subject person or animal. Applying these “A B Cs” can be quite helpful in seeing what is going on.

In negative reinforcement, the antecedent is the undesirable condition. So for an example of automatic reinforcement:

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on Mike’s hands
  • Behavior: Mike washes his hands
  • Consequence: Dirt is gone from hands

Socially Mediated Reinforcement

The other type of reinforcement is called “socially mediated” reinforcement.

If another person is involved with the function of the behaviour this would be defined as “social reinforcement” or “socially mediated reinforcement” (Cooper et al., 2007).

In negative reinforcement this means that another person or group removes the aversive stimulus. And most important, they can intervene in the reinforcement process and can determine what behavior is required to get the aversive to stop or reduce in intensity.

In automatic negative reinforcement, the reinforced behaviors are directly related to solving the problem. The actions of opening the aspirin bottle and taking an aspirin are reinforced by the relief the aspirin provides from a painful condition.

But in socially mediated negative reinforcement, perhaps someone else has the keys to the medicine cabinet. That person could require some unrelated behavior from you (say, clapping your hands three times) before you got access to the aspirin. If they were consistent, that behavior could be reinforced by the relief provided the aspirin, and would increase. When you had a headache and needed an aspirin, you would probably clap your hands three times. That’s a big difference from being able to walk in the bathroom and get your own pill.

Connection to Dog Training

A springer spaniel, standing next to a body of water, is photographed while shaking water off
Shaking it off

Back to automatic negative reinforcement. Here are some examples for dogs:

  • shaking off water when wet
  • biting their own toenails when they get too long
  • scratching an itch
  • scooting on their butts when their anal glands bother them
  • coming in out of the rain
  • getting in the shade when hot
  • lying down in the kiddie pool to cool off

Those don’t sound so bad either, do they? Dog gets a little uncomfortable, takes action, gets comfortable again.

  • Antecedent: There is water on Fido’s coat and skin
  • Behavior: Fido shakes off
  • Consequence: There is less water on Fido

Reading these lists, you could come away mystified that so many people disapprove of using negative reinforcement in training. It sounds like no big deal.

The problem is that the application of negative reinforcement in  training is quite different. In training we are doing the equivalent of  “socially mediated reinforcement.” The animal is no longer autonomously in charge of removing an aversive condition. There is a human requiring a certain behavior before the aversive can be turned off or escaped.

Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training

In dog training, the human has control of the reinforcers (and the aversives, if used). So in negative reinforcement, rather than a dog performing a natural behavior to remove an aversive condition, the human has influence over the stopping of the aversive. And like the clapping hands for aspirin example above, the human can choose a behavior that is unrelated to the natural way the dog might escape the aversive.

Some examples of human controlled negative reinforcement in dog training:

Each one of these begins with particular situation or condition and requires the dog to perform a specific behavior to get it to stop or decrease.

So here’s what a sample ABC looks like now:

  • Antecedent: Human is pinching dog’s ear
  • Behavior: Dog opens mouth and accepts retrieve item
  • Consequence: Human stops pinching

Perceive the difference? The handler either creates the aversive condition, or utilizes one occurring in the environment. The handler cues or waits for a specific behavior. When that behavior is performed, the handler stops the aversive condition or moves the dog away from it.

The handler gets to create a contingency.

Zani and Summer's response to body pressure
Zani and Summer’s response to body pressure

People often think I am some sort of purist since I write critically about negative reinforcement. But it’s not the R- itself I’m a purist about. I’m a purist about being honest about it. We live in the real world, with our dogs, and it’s very hard to go through life without that quadrant sneaking in now and then. But we make choices all the time. Using an aversive to train our dogs, or to get through a tough situation, is a choice.

In the spirit of honesty, here are some things I have done.

  • I do agility, and pushing into the dog’s path with your body on occasion is pretty hard to avoid. But I’m learning to be a better handler, and there’s always a different way to handle just about any sequence.
  • I have taught response to leash pressure (put a tiny pressure on the leash, and when the dog yields to the pressure, treat). It is a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. See below for my comments about it.
  • I have used body pressure in the past to get my dogs to move or return to stay position or to walk down the stairs. I have a movie showing their sad reactions to that.  I have a third, less sensitive dog, on whom I occasionally perform a body block, for instance, if she is liable to bash into my other dogs if I don’t take action. However, that may not constitute negative reinforcement, since there doesn’t seem to be a behavioral change on her part and she is not getting more sensitized to the pressure. So it’s just plain application of pressure on my part, in a pinch.
  • I have also used negative reinforcement a few times when the other alternative would have been unintentionally positively reinforcing a behavior that I really don’t like. For instance, in the past when I was holding Zani or Summer and they started to struggle, a couple of times I hung on until they became still, and only then released them. I didn’t want to reinforce the struggling by putting them down right then. If I found myself doing something like that repeatedly I would take action about the problem. And actually, I did in that case. We do practice handling and associating being held with great things, and I think it’s been years since I had to apply that kind of restraint.
  • And of course through daily life with multiple dogs I probably unconsciously use body pressure more often than I know, although I make an effort to pay attention. And again, the dog I am most likely to use it on is not showing any particular behavior changes that I can see, so there may not be negative reinforcement going on.

It’s important to me to be honest about it.  But I also want to make it clear: I strive not to use these things. Please don’t interpret the above items as condoning negative reinforcement. I’m always looking for better ways. I hope you are too.

Even some of the more benign-sounding techniques in the list of links above I have seen to be quite unpleasant to dogs. I used to do leash pressure exercises with my dogs as part of leash training, and when I look at video footage of those training sessions, I can tell they didn’t enjoy the training as much as most of the other things we do, especially at first, even though they got a treat every time they yielded to the (tiny!) pressure. Perhaps more skill on my part would have helped, but nothing would remove the fact that I was putting physical pressure on their necks.

Defenses of Using Negative Reinforcement in Training

Some people say, “I’d rather take something away that my dog doesn’t like (negative reinforcement) than take away something that he does like (negative punishment).”

This comment erases that important distinction: the contingency from the handler. I take away things my dogs don’t like frequently. But I have a choice about how to do that. I almost always choose NOT to make them do something to “work” for it first. I don’t want to come to view an untoward environmental condition as an opportunity to get behavior out of my dog. My dogs rely on me for their safety and happiness. If something unpleasant happens, I do my best to get them out of the situation.

Others stipulate that they do not cause or create aversives, but only use them when they occur naturally in the environment.  This is a very minor point. I think a more important point is that they are using the aversive to get behavior. Wherever the aversive is coming from, they are choosing to use it. And usually there are other choices.

I wrote this piece because I think equating the type of negative reinforcement used in most training with scratching an itch or washing one’s hands is seriously confusing and misleading. I hope it is helpful.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

Have you heard the one about the toolbox?

This is the sixth in a series that details and rebuts fallacious arguments against force free training. Today’s erroneous argument is directly related to “But Every Dog is Different!” in that it claims that training without punishment (certain “tools”) is just too limiting. But since it centers on the potent metaphor of the toolbox, I’m treating it separately.

OK, about that metaphor. Naturally, I went and got a public domain graphic of a toolbox for an illustration. Here it is.

Toolbox
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thought experiment. Is this really a good metaphor for our methods when training dogs? Tools for cutting, prying, banging, twisting? Yipes!

This led me to do a little research. It may well be the great trainer and author Terry Ryan who originated the toolbox metaphor with her two books, “The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog,” and “The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog.”

The blurb for the “Remodeling” book says,

The toolbox is a set of principles and practices you can use to analyze and address any behavior problem you encounter.

She goes all the way with the building metaphor in those books, with chapters on raw materials, building supplies, the foundation, etc. But I think something really interesting has happened.

Ms. Ryan’s metaphorical toolbox was a “set of principles and practices.” The metaphor caught on, but started to change a bit. The expression came to mean a set of training methods. Get the difference? That’s a little narrower and more concrete. Methods rather than principles. And finally, nowadays for many trainers, the tools they are referring to are often, well, physical tools. Gear including correction collars of various sorts.

I personally may be done with using that metaphor–if only I can think of something else!

Who’s Got a Bigger One?

But on with the discussion. First, I would wager that the average trainer who relies mainly on positive reinforcement and negative punishment already has a much bigger toolbox than someone who uses aversives. The aversive “tools” (for instance prong and shock collars) are pretty one-dimensional. Not that they can’t be used with more or less skill. Sure they can. But as I’ve mentioned before, it takes no special expertise or devotion to figure out how to hurt an animal. Countless Joes and Joannes on the street have figured out how to do it.

But trainers who seek to use positive reinforcement would already have a big toolbox to begin with, and if they found the dog difficult to motivate, the onus would be on themselves to expand it. They would be working hard to find all possible wholesome motivators for their dog, with the goal of getting reliable behavior with a happy dog, free of fear and threats. So this image of the big gleaming toolbox with certain wondrous tools “off limits” for force-free trainers is not accurate.

Please see “But Every Dog Is Different!” for an expansion of this point.

Are you back? Great!

See if you think the following logic holds.

(Almost) Everybody Has A Limit

I propose that the problem with a force or balanced trainer saying, “I don’t want to limit myself to only certain parts of the toolbox like you do”  is that in almost every case there is another trainer further down the line who can say that to them.

I put forth that almost every trainer knows about some aversive techniques they will not use. It is not only the force free trainers who ignore certain sections of the huge fictitious toolbox. Most trainers have their limits.

I would guess that most balanced trainers would not use Koehler’s method to remedy digging: filling the hole with water and holding the dog’s head under. Neither would most use a method I read about in a bird dog training book on teaching the dog to hold steady:

“You’ll need your checkcord, a choke or spike collar, and an assistant who is strong enough and willing to jerk a dog over backward with the checkcord at the proper moment…  When he hears the shot and sees the bird fall, the dog will break. Don’t say a word, and be sure your assistant remains silent but braces his feet and gives the dog the somersault of his life when he hits the end of the check cord.”–Ultimate Guide to Bird Dog Training, Jerome Robinson

You certainly could find people who still do these things.  A quick perusal of YouTube can show these methods and worse. But even for those trainers–there might be a method they wouldn’t employ.

Next time a trainer says they want “access to every tool in the toolbox,” try asking them whether there is any method in the world they wouldn’t use. If they need prompting, you could name some. The point is not to be aggressive about it.  The point is that you might get across that it is not at all “limiting” to avoid methods that don’t fit into your ethical stance. Especially when your “toolbox” is gloriously full and varied already.

If someone uses the toolbox metaphor to you, I think you could get in some really interesting discussions if you asked them why they don’t employ certain methods. Doesn’t the same metaphor apply? If it breaks down, then why are they saying it to you?

A Different Metaphor?

Like I said above, the toolbox metaphor is much too entrenched to fight. But for me, the more I think about it the less it fits. Besides the harshness of the idea of applying hardware to dog training, the whole tool thing fails to highlight the mutual learning that goes on between a trainer and a dog. I’m really not as interested in sculpting my dog into some ideal as much as I am interested in that magical partnership that is born when we learn together.

So I thought about it. I tossed aside “cornucopia,” “toybox,” and “treasure chest.” My new metaphor is a “bag of tricks.” And it’s a bag that my dogs and I can both open.

Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/
Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth! http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/

This post is part of a series:

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

We Don’t Need to Stop Discussing “The Quadrants”

We Don’t Need to Stop Discussing “The Quadrants”

Every so often, in the midst of a discussion about operant learning,  someone will write,

The quadrants* don’t matter. Talking about the quadrants just confuses people and makes them pay more attention to theory than what is going on in front of them. To be truly humane we need to pay attention to the individual dogs and how they react to each teaching method.

I really wonder about that.

Of course the dog is the arbiter of what is pleasant and what is aversive and to what degree. But how good are most people at reading dogs, really? How many pictures and videos can you find on the Internet in 30 seconds that look roughly like the one below?

Head shot of handsome young man smiling with his eyes closed and holding a dog (black and rust; perhaps a min pin) with their heads very close. Dog's ears are back, mouth is tight, and it does not look happy.The background appears to be a swimming pool. The photo appears "slick" and staged and is titled, "True Friends."
Public Domain Image of Unhappy Dog Being Held Too Close By a Human

[If you are new to the blog or new to the concepts or nomenclature of operant learning, you may just want to skip down to the movie. It is an example of what I will be discussing here: using theory to inform our practice. It is particularly geared towards folks to whom the theory is new. Or if you really want to go for it, here is a whole post, including a video, that gives examples of all the processes of operant learning.]

Setting up “the quadrants” and observation of the dog as exclusive from one another is a false dichotomy. That is a rhetorical fallacy that implies that there are only two choices when there are actually more, or implies that two choices are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t have to be either or, folks, and I will put forth that that attitude can be harmful.

Learning theory and dog body language observation inform each other. Why encourage people to depend on just one and not the other? Why leave a gap in people’s understanding about the processes of learning, certain ones of which have been shown repeatedly in research and real life to have undesirable side effects?

I know that many pet owners who have hired trainers look at them like they have two heads if they start speaking about learning theory. I get that. Clients often just want a method to solve the problem. But when someone is eager to learn and serious about working with their dog, I think it’s a disservice not to share the nuts and bolts of how animals and humans learn. And it’s a disservice to discourage Internet discussions about the processes of learning. Yes, I know they can be tiresome. But just like with any other aspect of humane training, there are always people new to the subject who can benefit.

The more I see people objecting to “the quadrants”, the more I notice that most of them are attempting to veil their use of less humane techniques.

Here are the two main reasons I think teaching people about the processes of operant learning is important:

  1. Generalization of a behavior is one of the steps to fluency. One of our ongoing goals with dogs is to help them generalize. So I hope that trainers and teachers would want to help their human students generalize as well. With the humans it’s not only about generalizing behaviors, but about learning concepts and generalizing them as well. Studying the processes of learning and recognizing and naming them helps with this. If negative punishment in one situation stressed my dog out, wouldn’t I want to keep a special eye out for other negative punishment scenarios? Why would I not want that conceptual assistance?
  2. I also know from painful personal experience, and observation of, like, all of YouTube, that reading the body language of a dog and getting past one’s own assumptions is a difficult and time-consuming task. It’s easy for an experienced trainer to say, “Just look at the dog.” But can all students really do that and perceive what the dog is saying? I don’t think my observation skills are below average, but I gotta say, it took me lots less time to get the basics of operant learning processes than it did to learn to read dogs well. I’m still working very hard on that. Being informed by the theory about what kinds of situations to look out for can really make a difference for anyone who is  learning to observe and learning the language.

There was a video making semi-viral rounds on the clicker training community recently, often accompanied by comments like, “The power of positive reinforcement!” The video has an adorable, tiny young Yorkie with a bow in her hair doing all sorts of tricks. I saw it posted on a list of thousands of people, and not one person spoke up to discuss the stress signals the dog seemed to be throwing. (Not to mention that some of the tricks might have been physically too demanding for a pup.) Perhaps people were just being polite. I didn’t say anything myself because I had dealt with enough controversy that week, sigh. But the dog did not appear delighted with the training interaction at all.

I’m not linking to the video here, but will send a link privately to any curious folk who make a request through email (sidebar) or a comment.

It sure confirms my doubts about the advisability of just having everybody depend on “watching the dog.”

Examples

The following two stories are true. They both happened to me. One tells how my observation of dog body language led me to analyze and classify the reason for my dog’s stress. After the classification I could be alert to other similarly stressful situations. The other example tells how being informed of what quadrant/process I was using made me question a decision I had made, gain more empathy for my dog, and change my behavior. My (beginner) knowledge of learning processes helped in both cases.

Example #1: From Body Language To Learning and Generalization

My puppy Clara has always loved doing stuff with me and has great attention and a great work ethic. However, I have noticed that shaping can be quite stressful for her. I even wrote a post about shaping and stress. I started thinking about why it might be so. I realized that with my imperfect skills, the changing of criteria was hard on her. Riding the little extinction trails where one version of something ceases to be marked and reinforced and another behavior is desired was quite hard for her.

In the photos, Clara is doing a fast counterclockwise circle, which is a default stress behavior for her. Ironically, the behavior we were working on was, “Relax.” (We’re doing a lot better with that now.)

Clara circle 1
Clara circling during a shaping session (1)
Clara circle 3
Clara circling during a shaping session (2)

I have since learned more about shaping and know that if it’s done with careful manipulation of the environment like Skinner suggested and the great trainers can do, there can be much less of this type of stress. I like to think that my skills have improved. Clara has also grown up a little, and doesn’t think the world will end when she doesn’t get clicked.

But my realization that extinction in shaping was hard on Clara made me both more empathetic to her situation and also proactive in avoiding extinction in other scenarios. Her stressed body language made me analyze the cause of the stress, and being able to put a term to it allowed me to learn more about it and look for similar problems in other situations.

(Extinction is not one of the four operant learning processes that people call the quadrants. Extinction is when a behavior that has been previously reinforced ceases to get reinforcement. It is a process that can happen with both operantly learned and classically conditioned behavior. What’s important for my point is that it is a learning method that is often under my control and that I can choose whether or not to employ, and one that can definitely be stressful.)

Example #2: From Quadrants to Empathy

Early in my life with my dog Zani I picked her up and carried her into a public place. She is very friendly and immediately started to struggle to get me to put her down. Since I was just learning about reinforcement, and had learned that what you reinforce is what you get, I decided to hold onto her until she stopped. I didn’t want to positively reinforce her struggling by giving her immediately what she wanted. She finally stopped, I waited a few seconds, then put her down.

I mentioned this episode to my teacher, who said, ah yes, you used negative reinforcement instead! Up until that moment it had not trickled into my head that I had been using a mild aversive. Zani did not want to be held. She was struggling to get away. I not only hung onto her but I had tightened my grip until she figured out that struggling wouldn’t work. (There could be an element of positive punishment in here as well. But the duration of the tight grip, and the requirement for Zani to come up with a different behavior to escape it, even if the behavior was relaxing her body–these indicate that the major process was that of negative reinforcement.)

I grew up spending a lot of time in the country and was around a fair number of small animals and farm animals. Holding or holding down a struggling animal with force was just something you took for granted. You had to do it sometimes “for their own good” and it was something I was absolutely comfortable with.  I was 50 years old before I realized that there are things you can do to help prevent you and your animal from getting into this situation in the first place, and ways you can give them more of a say about things. And it was in part because my teacher reminded me of the different processes of operant learning. This led to empathy for Zani on my part, and for me not only to work on that specific situation but to be more aware of the negative reinforcement moments in the future.

Education about Learning Theory

Here is an example of the kind of thing that I believe can be helpful. This is a video I made that demonstrates what negative reinforcement can look like, and shows the same behavior trained with negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement. It is a modest attempt at linking the theory, practice, and dog body language.

I’d be interested to know what the rest of you think. Can we train humanely without knowing learning theory? For me, the theory definitely helps.

Four quadrants of operant conditioning
Four quadrants of operant conditioning

*NOTE “The quadrants” is not optimal nomenclature in learning theory. I use the term throughout this piece because that is how the argument is almost always stated, and people might not know what I was talking about otherwise. Better nomenclature is “the processes of operant learning.” “The quadrants” is just a description of the shape of the diagram they fit in, as Dr. Susan Friedman points out.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But Every Dog is Different!

But Every Dog is Different!

Cookie cutter in the shape of a dog. The dog is seated.But every dog is different!

This is another common argument against trainers who train without force. It usually goes like this:

  • But every dog is different! You can’t just use a cookie cutter!
  • But every dog is different! Why limit yourself to only one method?
  • But every dog is different! Some tools just don’t work with some dogs!

The implication is clear: Trainers who use primarily positive reinforcement are slaves to one method, which we apply to all dogs. We deliberately limit ourselves, despite the wealth of methods available to us. We ignore some of the tools in the toolbox. We are close-minded.

In addition, we just don’t seem to recognize, Continue reading “But Every Dog is Different!”

But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

A traffic light with three colored bulbs: red, yellow, and green. The red light is lit up.
Stop. It’s not safe to proceed.

Anyone who spends any time on FaceBook reading the arguments between trainers who train mainly with positive reinforcement and those who don’t has seen this question. Just lately I have seen three different versions of it:

  1. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? Are you going to save him by throwing cookies at him?
  2. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? You’re going to pull on the leash. That’s negative reinforcement and the same as using a shock collar.
  3. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? If you grab him that could cause stress, and I thought you’re supposed to be 100% stress free?

Continue reading “But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?”

Operant Learning (Quadrants) Illustrated by Examples

Operant Learning (Quadrants) Illustrated by Examples

Many thanks to Ruth Byrn, Marge Rogers, and Susan Friedman for their generous assistance with the movie.

Sable dog is play-biting at a stream of water from a garden hose. She is all wet.
Does Summer’s weave behavior get reinforced by a spray of water?

In the terminology of behavior science, positive does not always mean good. Actually it never means good. Likewise, negative does not mean bad. Also, reinforcement is not always about giving the dog something she wants. And punishment is not always about hurting, intimidating or confining her.

Continue reading “Operant Learning (Quadrants) Illustrated by Examples”
Being Tough

Being Tough

One of the toughest dogs I know
One of the toughest dogs I know

I think one of the most interesting criticisms of force free training by trainers who use aversives is that we aren’t “tough enough” with our dogs.

What does “being tough” actually mean here and why should it be so laudable? I think it’s fair to say that folks touting toughness are touting punishment. Leash pops, shock collars, and a mindset that says the dog must be shown who’s boss.

Does “being tough” take special skill or practice?

Except in rare cases where a rather small person has a very large dog, we are generally a lot bigger than our dogs. We have a lot more tools at our disposal. We have the ability to control their environment, feed them or not, contain them, and make all their life decisions for them.

Yet it’s thought to be important to get tough or dominant with one’s dog whether you have a Chihuahua or an Akita; whether the dog is aggressive to humans or you are just trying to teach her to sit.

Folks promoting this approach often have a jeering attitude to trainers who choose less aversive methods. We’ve all heard it; I need not repeat it here. It seems to me they are claiming some sort of superior, moral high ground. They are the “real” dog trainers. And we clicker trainers, force free trainers, humane hierarchy trainers, least-invasive-minimally-aversive trainers, behavior analysis folks, and trainers who just want learning to be fun for both parties, whatever we call ourselves: we live in some sort of lala land and get walked all over by our dogs.

I’ve got news.

Being tough with a dog is easy.

It is not a skill that is available only to some elite group of wise people. It’s a reflection of our culture and how many of us were raised. It’s a meme that resonates seductively. It’s not some Masonic secret.

I’m not saying it takes no skill to train with punishment. Using any of the quadrants of operant conditioning well takes skill. But that’s not what the meme is about. And when you can squash down behavior in a crude way, you have less motivation to develop those skills.

It’s physically easy for humans to hurt and apply force to dogs. If you aren’t physically big enough, you can go to your local big box pet supply store and buy any number of devices to hurt your dog or grossly curtail her mobility. And because they have evolved as our companions for tens of thousands of years, they generally don’t fight back, and when they do, they often pull their punches. As horrifying as it is to read of maulings and even killings of humans by dogs, it is still exceedingly rare, given their numbers in our society and the mismatch between human and dog body language and communication. They are amazingly tolerant of the things we do.

More important, in addition to the physical ease, most of us have been psychologically groomed to punish as well. Punishing comes pretty naturally to us, I’m afraid. Our approach to many problems, not just with dogs, tends to be: how do I stop this? We notice what is wrong. We notice what we don’t like. Then we try to stop it. Here’s a post about fighting that tendency.

The corollary is that training a dog in a minimally aversive way takes thought, planning, and understanding. For many people it requires overcoming what feel like instinctual responses. Manipulating the environment and being mindful of our own responses can be hard work at first. Leaving the punishment mindset behind requires an epiphany of sorts. It requires a different way of thinking.

The Science of Dogs wrote a great post about Cesar Milan called “My Way is Not The Only Way.” This writer really put it better than I have here. Even Cesar acknowledges that there are other ways than his to train dogs. The writer asks, with very persuasive examples, why then, if there are alternatives, he chooses to hurt dogs.

I’m preaching to the choir, I know. I try not to write pointless rants or whines or be unnecessarily divisive. But I do have a final point here, thanks to a great friend and training buddy, who helped me with this post when it was all over the place. She said it so well I’m going to quote her:

In the end, positive trainers are MORE accountable for their training skills. Punishment based trainers get to blame the dog (he’s dominant, giving you the paw, blowing you off).  With punishment training you don’t have to accept responsibility for the dog’s behavior or work to improve your observation and timing skills. Just blame the dog.

In other words, people seeking to use the least aversive methods with their dogs are tough after all. We are tough on ourselves.

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa