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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?

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* 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.

 

 

Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Alligator ellipticalI have an elliptical training machine in my back room. I’ve had it for three years. Zani loves that room because that’s where the kibble, some human food, and other interesting things are stored.

But when I get on the elliptical to exercise, she’s outta there. It doesn’t really have alligator jaws attached to it, but I think that’s a good portrayal of  how Zani used to see it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these exercise machines, here is a video of an elliptical in motion. It is similar to mine. You can see where a sensitive dog could be alarmed with the motion.

I have mats in that room for dogs to hang out on, and Summer and Clara stay on their mats and get the occasional treat while I exercise. Cricket did so too in her day. But not Zani, until now.

The other day I realized I could probably help Zani get over her fears. It took all of 5 days, and I did it while I was exercising.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

The techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are often used together to help animals, including humans, recover from fears. They are not bandaid solutions that mask the symptoms. When done correctly, they change the animal’s emotional response.

Systematic desensitization is a procedure in which learned fear of a neutral stimulus is extinguished by exposing the animal to the stimulus so gradually that involuntary fear responses are never triggered. –Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary.  When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it. Dr. Friedman points out that desensitization can only get the animal from scary to neutral. It doesn’t make the animal delighted or happy with the stimulus. But it can get the animal OK with it.

With counterconditioning, the animal’s respondent behavior to a stimulus is replaced with an opposite automatic response.–Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.

Here is an article that defines the terms desensitization and counterconditioning and lays out how to design a training protocol.

Zani’s DS/CC Story

…is very short.

Starting point: Typically when I would get on the elliptical, she would leave and go into the bedroom across the hall. She often went out of sight and got on the bed. That was her comfortable distance from the elliptical, so that’s where we started.

Picture 1: Since I was tossing treats to the other dogs anyway, I started tossing some into  that bedroom (bank shot!). She learned to hang out by that doorway and get the treats. She could be out of sight of the elliptical if she chose. Distance: 16 – 19 feet.

Pictures 2a and 2b: Soon she started waiting in the hallway instead of in the doorway to the bedroom, so I started aiming the treats into the hall. I could tell she was comfortable because she didn’t retreat to the bedroom anymore or show any signs of concern, just happily chased down the treats. Distance: 12.5 – 16 feet.

Picture 3: All my dogs are trained to get on mats. The mats have good associations with relaxation and treats. So I threw a mat down in the area where Zani was already comfortable. She immediately got on it and stayed there happily when I got on the elliptical and started tossing treats. This was a big step, because previously she had been on her feet and moving. If she had had any residual fear, she was free to trot away farther. Staying still in the presence of the elliptical was a big step. Hence, I didn’t cue her to get on the mat. I gave her the choice. I would have tossed treats either way. But she immediately plopped down on the mat and stayed there.

Technically this was a switch to the technique of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, or DRI, from counterconditioning, since Zani was now also being reinforced for getting on her mat. However, as I mention below, operant and respondent behaviors can be all knotted up at times. Distance 12.5 feet.

Picture 4: Over two more days I moved the mat closer. I could tell that Zani was fine with that because her body language was comfortable, and she always got on the very front of the mat. Final distance: 10.5 feet.

That’s it! She can now participate in the “Eileen exercises and dogs lie on their mats and get treats” event. She is within my treat throwing range and she is completely comfortable. I don’t want any of the dogs closer than the current “front row” while I’m exercising since the moving parts of the elliptical could be dangerous for them. Since Zani generally likes a front row seat, it will be interesting to see if she moves up to try to join or displace another dog. I’m betting she will. I may have to train her to stay back from the elliptical!

Here is a slide show of the steps we took.

I apologize for the poor photos. I wanted to show my view from the elliptical, and the actual distances involved. The light (and the clutter in the room) was not conducive to that. Pictures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 are reconstructions by the way. I didn’t take photos during the process.

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Slow Techniques?

To review: the desensitization part was moving Zani gradually closer to the doorway of the back room while the elliptical was in motion. The counterconditioning part was the yummy treats that accompanied the process. DRI came into play when Zani started settling on the mat. It worked because I didn’t rush. I watched Zani to be sure she wasn’t scared and just venturing forth to get the treats, then retreating to safety again. She had to feel safe with every step.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow. They certainly can be. Depending on the history and intensity of the adverse reaction, the attractiveness of the counterconditioning item (usually really good food or fun play), correct timing, and the skill of the trainer, these techniques can take a while.

But guess what? Not always. I was frankly amazed at how fast Zani got over her mistrust of the elliptical, and felt badly that I hadn’t tried to help her in any systematic way before.

Even when these techniques take time, they are always my choice, along with operant learning using positive reinforcement**,  for helping an animal overcome its fears. They are completely humane, and the science has supported for decades that they create a true emotional response in an animal. I am privileged to watch my formerly feral dog Clara, under the care of a skilled trainer, blossoming into a comfortable, sociable dog, using these methods.

By the way, the treats I use for the elliptical mat game are pieces of Prairie kibble (which is small) and the undersized leftover pieces from when I cut up Natural Balance rolls. My dogs don’t typically need much encouragement to hang out on mats, and since I am throwing the treats while in motion, I don’t want to cause a scuffle if I were to toss something high value right between two dogs. But if I had planned better I would have used something higher value during Zani’s rehabilitation. The animal’s ultimate conditioned response can only be as positive as its response to that particular item, so one usually uses something really spectacular.  Luckily it turned out I didn’t need to. But perhaps to cap things off I’ll surprise them all with a piece of liverwurst (hand-delivered) now and then.

Do you have any great DS/CC success stories?

Coming up:

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** Operant learning played a role in this protocol as well. Dr. Friedman talks about the “Gordian Knot,” of operant and respondent learning frequently. They become almost instantly intertwined in most training protocols. Once the good feelings associated with the unconditioned stimulus start spreading to the previously feared items, the animal will often on its own develop behaviors to hasten its access to the goodies. In this instance, Zani performed the operant behaviors of chasing treats and lying on her mat. Both of these are familiar, comfortable, and pleasant for her. Sometimes just having a job to do is a great help. On the other hand, the mat itself has already been classically conditioned as a very nice place to be.

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Ever since she arrived at my home at the age of 10 weeks, Clara has been a challenge.

One of her more problematic behaviors was her mugging of my face whenever it got within range. It happened all the time. How many times a day do you lean over your puppy, or lean over in her presence to pick up something off the floor? Most often something that she either dropped or shouldn’t have. Answer: a lot. Except not me, anymore, because she shaped me not to. If a strong, speedy puppy came barreling at your head every time you bent over, you might modify your behavior, too. So I do this embarrassing dance whenever I need to pick something up: distracting her, sneaking past, or trying to move REALLY FAST (which of course makes her all the more excited when she does catch me).

Young Clara mugging my face
Young Clara mugging my face

I took a stab at modifying her behavior early on, but I didn’t pick a viable method. What I did was treat it rather like a combination of a desensitization exercise and proofing a stay. I would put her in a sit stay and move over her very gradually, treating each movement. Slight lean, treat. Slight knee bend, treat. I did lots of sessions of this. Way too many for the good I got out of it. And while it may have helped somewhat with her being comfortable with those movements or the proximity of my face, it didn’t even begin to address the problem. I still had a small, then medium sized (then large, I admit it) puppy coming for me at the speed of light when I bent over. Because she wasn’t already in a stay to begin with. Duh.

Also sometime during her puppyhood I had another not so bright idea. I thought, Premack! Premack’s Principle states that more probable behaviors (bumping my face) can reinforce less probable behaviors (performing a sit stay when my face is close by). If she so strongly wants to lick and nuzzle and bump my face, wouldn’t that the ultimate reward for doing what I want first?

Does anyone see why this might not work, even if I could keep her from hurting me?

It was such a newbie error. I had never had a dog who got aroused this easily before. When your dog is excited, it is so easy to assume that she is happy. But the face licking is much more likely to be a stress and appeasement behavior.  I checked with my teacher, who knows Clara well and observed her. She said Clara did not look comfortable to her when doing the face seeking stuff. And that fits with the Clara I know, when I just stop to consider. She has a huge palette of appeasement behaviors and drops into those patterns at the drop of a hat.

So my idea was like saying to someone, “OK I see you bite your nails when you are nervous. Your reward after filling out this difficult form correctly is the opportunity to bite your nails.” OK, it might be just the thing. But a stress behavior like that has specific triggers, and is not always rewarding if those triggers aren’t there. After the form filling is done, the person may have no desire at all to bite their nails. In that case the chance to perform that behavior would not be reinforcing.

And that’s the reaction I got when I tried it with Clara. I got a good stay out of her, then knelt down and invited her to come lick my face. And got a big, fat “Huh?”

So the Premack experiment was short-lived. I should mention also that inviting a dog to come mug your face is, in many situations, not a good idea.  Lots of dogs are bothered by proximity of faces, and lots of bite incidents happen to people who thought their dog was fine with that kind of thing. And in any case, even if had worked it would have had the same problem as my desensitization approach. It didn’t address the problem directly because she was not already in a stay when my face approached.

So I quit and was basically living with it while I worked on things for which I got a better return on my time. One day I mentioned it to my teacher again while she was here at the house to work with Clara. I mentioned my gradual “stay” approach. She said she wouldn’t do it like that, instead, why not make bending over a cue to go to her crate? And in four repetitions of “new cue/old cue” little Clara was running to her crate when Lisa bent over.

In operant learning this is called “Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior,” or DRI. It’s a widely used technique to get an animal (including a person) to stop doing something by making an incompatible behavior pay off really, really well. Clara cannot go straight to her crate and stay there and simultaneously leap up and mug a face.

Yargh, why didn’t I think of that? I said some rude things out of frustration if I recall.

But even then it didn’t make it to the top of my priority list. I played with it a couple if times, considering making bending over be a cue for crate or go to mat, but never got off the ground.

Clara still mugging my face

But I train Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and one day there it was. Level 2 Down, Step 5. Teaching default cues. Is there a situation in which you would always like the dog automatically to lie down? Sue describes teaching a default down and stay when putting food dishes down, when meeting children or old people, or even when talking on the telephone.

Where do you need Level 2 Down? And the answer was obvious. Every time I lean over. I won’t always have a crate for her to go into, or a mat for her to get on. But by golly she can virtually always lie down. This finally gave me the incentive to do something about the behavior. So I used the New Cue/Old Cue method, as Lisa had done with the crate, and had the basic behavior in four iterations. (I think it went so quickly because it is much faster for a dog to go from a verbal to a body cue than the other way around.) After that it was just reminding her and expanding it into more difficult situations.

There are a few real life ramifications of my body cue for Clara’s down, and for once I may have thought them through. Mostly that if leaning over is a cue for down, I need to keep that in mind when practicing other behaviors, especially duration behaviors. If I have put her in a sit/stay and then lean over her, I have given her two conflicting cues. I can train her which one takes priority, but for now I’ll probably avoid that situation, while I’m strengthening the default down. If I were planning competition obedience with her or some other precise work where the difference between the two behaviors was crucial, I would need to choose another solution or else pay some keen attention to the discrimination/priority of the cues. But basically right now it is a very high priority to get her out of my face.

Anybody else have unusual cues for default behaviors? I’d love to hear about them.

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