eileenanddogs

Tag: balanced training

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

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:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

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!”

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!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2013                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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!”

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