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The “Choice” Challenge

The “Choice” Challenge

Thanks to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman for their input on this topic. Any weird conclusions are mine alone.

I have come to believe that most of us who thought we were using “choice” as a reinforcer were mistaken.

Wait! Before you come running after me with pitchforks, let me explain. I’m not saying that choice isn’t a wonderful, enriching, and humane thing to provide for our dogs. It can be all that! Rather, I’m concerned about the trend of glomming onto attractive-sounding language without proper analysis of what is actually happening. The problems attending that go a lot further than nomenclature. They can affect the quality of our dogs’ lives.

Choice as a Reinforcer

I’ve written before about misunderstandings regarding choice, but this is the biggest misunderstanding of all. When we say that choice can be reinforcing we may be technically correct, according to some studies, but we are probably not using it that way ourselves. Let’s analyze it.

The Choice Challenge: Zani, a small black dog, is lying on an elevated bed with her eyes open and paying close attention. She is keeping her options open.
Zani keeping her options open

Let’s say I give my dog Zani the choice of coming indoors or not. There are nice things to do both indoors and outdoors in her opinion, so the choice is between two R+ scenarios. (I actually do have a real-life cue that has come to signal a choice about that.  More on that in a future post!)

  • Antecedent: I stand at the door and ask Zani if she wants to come in
  • Behavior: Zani trots inside
  • Consequence: Low value treat
  • Prediction: Behavior of coming inside when given that option will maintain or increase

Where was the choice in this description/analysis?

Let’s say she chooses the other option.

  • Antecedent: I stand at the door and ask Zani if she wants to come in
  • Behavior: Zani ignores me and eats grass
  • Consequence: Grass
  • Prediction: Behavior of staying outside when given that option will maintain or increase

Where was the choice in this description/analysis?

How about this one? Context: I always let my dogs walk away from a toenail trimming session whenever they want.

  • Antecedent: Clara sees paraphernalia for a toenail trim: clippers, treats
  • Behavior: Clara leaves the room
  • Consequence: Clara escapes the stress of a nail trim
  • Prediction: Leaving nail trim when stressed will increase

Where was the choice?

The choice was between behaviors and it was offered in the antecedent.

In all of the scenarios above, and almost anytime we are talking about “offering” the dog a choice, giving the choice is part of the antecedent, not the consequence. We set up the environment (antecedent) so there is more than one possible, hopefully pleasant activity (behavior). The consequence is the reinforcer for the chosen behavior. In the above scenarios the reinforcers were a low value treat, grass, and escape.

This kind of choice can’t be a reinforcer, at least not of the behavior we are analyzing. And a reminder: as I mentioned in a previous post, the animal always has a choice about their behavior, whether we want it to be there or not. As we train a behavior to fluency and consistency, we are actually trying to prevent the possibility of the animal making other choices.

So Let’s Try It As a Reinforcer

OK, perhaps I have convinced you that the choices we offer are usually in the antecedent. “Would you like to do this, or this?” So instead, can we create a different scenario where the dog needs to perform one particular behavior correctly but then has a choice of two different reinforcers? That scenario at least has the potential of the choice being part of the consequence.

Choices diagram
Two possible (simplified) scenarios for choice-making for our companion animals 

Here is how I would go about that. Let’s say I’m going to ask my dog Clara to perform a sit. A couple of feet away from her I have her red rubber ball and a favorite toy, with a little space between them.

  • Antecedent: I cue a sit
  • Behavior: Clara sits
  • Consequence: Whichever thing Clara grabs after I mark the sit: ball or toy

What role would the choice after the behavior perform? In this case, I believe very little. The ball and the toy would each have a much stronger and more direct effect than the fact that the dog got to choose. The choice aspect would likely be overwhelmed. And by the way, we can’t assume that whichever item she grabs is preferred, in general or even at that moment. Preference testing is a lot more complicated than that.

When scientists study choice as a reinforcer, they have to go to great lengths to separate its influence from the obvious reinforcer of the animal’s behavior–the thing the animal chooses. They have done it, including in a series of studies I described in another post on choice. Even if we agree that choice itself had a reinforcing effect (and not all scientists do agree), the work they had to perform to isolate it means it just is not going to get isolated often in the real world.

So can we separate out a possible effect of the choice part from these strong reinforcers? We could try. We could keep excellent records. In some trials, there would be only the ball. In others, there would be the ball and the toy (the choice scenario), but she only gets one. (We would also have to watch out for possible punishing effects of removing one item–most dogs would want both!) If Clara’s sit-on-cue response percentage was higher when both items were present, no matter which item she chose, we could claim that “having a choice” was a reinforcer. Not the only reinforcer or the strongest, but one with a possibly traceable effect. But in a home scenario it is almost impossible to control for all possible reinforcers and other competing stimuli that could make the scenarios non-identical. I think even in the best attempt at a clean experiment, we probably wouldn’t be able to say that we demonstrated at home that choice was a reinforcer.

I’m starting to flinch a little bit when people talk about choice being a reinforcer. When it comes to their animals, how do they know?

The “Choice” Challenge

So here is the challenge. If you have been trying to use “choice” as a reinforcer, try these questions on for size.

  • What behavior was reinforced by offering a choice? Remember, the choice has to come after the behavior for choice to be in the running as a reinforcer.
  • What other reinforcers were involved? (What was the dog choosing between?)
  • How did you separate the effect of the choice from the effect of the reinforcer the dog chose?
  • How did you track the data of the choice/non-choice situations? How substantial was the effect of choice?
  • How did you allow for the possible aversive effects of removing an option when the dog chose the other item or activity?

So maybe you aren’t using choice as a reinforcer. If, instead, you are giving your dogs lots of choices between behaviors, great! That’s wonderful. But that’s different from asking for a behavior and using choice as a theoretical part of the reinforcer.

IMG_1449

Why Am I Being So Picky?

We all agree that offering our animals choices and freedom and the ability to exert their preferences are good, humane things. So why do I keep nitpicking about the language we use? It’s because when we focus on choice, we may turn our attention away from what is actually driving the animal’s behavior. If I congratulate myself on how my dog is free to leave a husbandry session whenever she wants, I may neglect to notice that 1) I could be taking steps to make the session less stressful so she wouldn’t feel it necessary to leave; and 2) she is repeatedly practicing escape behavior–and practice makes perfect. I would far rather my dog take actual enjoyment from getting her nails trimmed and want to be there in the first place. I bet she would too. The ability to leave when she wants is essential, but is a sad, paltry, negative reinforcer compared to enjoying the activity in the first place. If it happens a lot, it’s an indicator that I should rethink my approach.

Even when the choice is between two positive reinforcers, it can be unfortunate to over-focus on “choice” rather than the reinforcers themselves.  For instance, I can pat myself on the back for giving my dogs the choice to be inside the house or out in the back yard, both of which have reinforcers available. Yay, choice! But I can tell you right now that any of my dogs would rather go on a walk down to the corner of my street where the pee-mail is so fine. On that walk our actions would be structured and the dog would be on a leash. Leashes are usually choice limiters. The dogs would be far less free to choose on the walk down my street than they are when they are in my back yard. But the sniff-fest that would be available when we got to the corner (not to mention the one on the way) is so hugely interesting that it would dwarf most “choices” they have in the back yard. In this case the “less choice” situation would have richer reinforcement than the “more choice” situation.

Finally, the exploration of choice leads us into constructs. We can get focused on teaching our dogs a special way to say yes or no, for example. That can be a cool thing to teach, but I think there’s something more important for us to learn. Our dogs are telling us “yes” and “no” in their own ways all the time. We just need to pay attention.  Requiring the dogs to learn our language, to say things the way we want them to, may even reduce choice if it means we pay less attention to what they say in their own ways. It means we have put the onus on them to learn our language rather than the other way around.

Anybody up for the choice challenge? Can you separate out reinforcing effects of choice on a behavior?

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Training Limits Choice

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

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

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

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

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

Offering Pleasant Choices

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

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

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

Scavenging Treats

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

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

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

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

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

Keeping the Ball

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

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

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

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

The Dog Might Create a New Game

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

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

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

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

The Price of Choice

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes

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