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Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Not All “Choices” Are Equal (Choice: Part 1)

Two paths diverging
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shout-outs to Companion Animal Psychology for the post, The Right to Walk Away” which covers the effects of offering that particular choice in animal experiments, and encourages us to apply the concept to our animals’ lives. Also to Yvette Van Veen for her piece,  “A” Sucks “B” Stinks What Kind of Choice is That? , which definitely has some “rant” commonalities with this post of mine.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 is: The Dog’s Choice.

We positive reinforcement-based trainers often point out that our dogs have the choice not to participate in a training session. I think giving the animal “the right to walk away” is a good and humane practice. I also believe it’s only the first step of consideration of our animals’ self-determination.

Trainers who exclusively use aversives to train employ the language of choice as well. Shock trainers will say that the dog “is in control of the shock” and that the dog has a choice. In that case the choice is to comply–or not. Neither of the choices yields positive reinforcement. But these trainers too can honestly claim their dogs have choices.

Most of us would say that theirs is a pretty strained use of the term, “choice.” It’s a very stacked deck, and even the best option–successful avoidance–is not a fun one for the dog. But using the definitions of learning theory, neither of those situations–the positive reinforcement-based trainer giving the dog the right to leave, nor the shock-only trainer–would qualify as giving the animal a “free choice.” 

I’m going to argue here that limiting choices is intrinsic to the process of training an animal, whatever method we use. It’s the nature of the process. And it’s actually not “choices” or “no choices” that define a method’s humaneness.  It’s what kinds of choices are available within the structure we set up that determines how humane it is. 

We all stack the deck.

When anyone talks about giving their animal choices, I believe we need to ask questions.

  • What can the animal choose between?
  • What processes of learning are involved?
  • Is an aversive stimulus a focal point of the choice making?
  • What choices are ruled out?
  • Will the choices broaden later in training?

Not all choice situations are equal, and I think we need to knock off the instant happy dances anytime a person mentions “choice” in reference to training. Instead, I think we should ask, “What are the choices?”

How Much Choice Are We Giving?

How many times have you read one of the following instructions in a positive reinforcement group or forum? They are often addressed to new trainers, or trainers with puppies.

  • Be sure and begin your training in an area of low distraction.
  • Control other possible reinforcers.
  • If you can’t get the dog’s attention, start in the bathroom with the door closed and wait him out.
  • Don’t let the dog practice undesirable behaviors.
  • Watch out for bootleg reinforcers!

All of those are about limiting choices by removing the availability of reinforcers. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we do that. But there is no contradiction here. As trainers using primarily positive reinforcement, we are in the best position to look at the ways that this kind of choice management affects our dogs’ lives, and examine the ways we can move forward to a more choice-rich environment for them.

The Desirability of Choice

Many experiments have shown that animals and humans prefer having multiple paths to a reinforcer, and of course options for different reinforcers as well.

This is from a webpage that describes one of the important experiments with animals regarding choice. The experiment introduced some interesting nomenclature.

The classic experiment on preference for free choice was done by A. Charles Catania and Terje Sagvolden and published in 1980 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, “Preference for Free Choice Over Forced Choice in Pigeons.”

The design was simple. In the first stage of each trial, pigeons could peck one of two keys. One key produced a “free choice” situation in which the pigeon saw a row of four keys: three green and one red. Pecks on the other key produced a “forced-choice” situation in which the pigeon saw one green key and three red keys. In either situation, pecking a green key produced food. Pecking a red key produced nothing. The arrangement of the colors varied from trial to trial.

Even though all the pigeons reliably pecked a green key in either situation, always earning food, they selected the free-choice situation about 70% of time. This shows that just having a choice is reinforcing, even if the rate of the reinforcement in both situations is exactly the same.  Behavior Analysis and Behaviorism Q & A

Another good article about the Catania experiments and other work on choice is, “On Choice, Preference, and Preference for Choice” by Toby Martin et al.

(In no way can this short post cover all the nuanced research about choice. For instance, abundance of choice has a downside, especially for humans. I am sticking to the issues of choice that are most applicable to the situations our companion animals find themselves in.)

“Forced Choice”

Note the definition of “forced choice” in the description of the experiments above. Nothing happened when the pigeon pecked the red key. The bird was not shocked or otherwise hurt. Forced choice was defined as a situation where only one behavior led to positive reinforcement (more correctly, a appetitive stimulus), and another behavior or behaviors led nowhere.

Having more than one behavioral path (in this case, multiple green keys to press) to get to the goodie was defined as “free choice.”

Now, think back to what we do in the early stages of training. Review my list above of the ways we remove “distractions,” i.e., other reinforcers. That type of training situation more closely resembles forced choice than free choice. The freedom to leave–especially in an environment that lacks other interesting stimuli–is not enough to designate a process as being free choice, at least in the nomenclature of this experiment and subsequent definitions in learning theory. But it’s a good first step.

Types of Choice

Here are the types of “choice” setups I see most commonly in dog training.

  1. Choice between different behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. See examples below.
  2. Choice between handler-mediated positively reinforced behaviors and nothing in particular. This is the typical “they can walk away” type of positive reinforcement training session.
  3. Choice between different positively reinforced behaviors with an aversive present.  This can happen in exposure protocols if the trigger is close enough that it is at an aversive level. The proximity limits the value of positive reinforcement, and, if the aversive gets too close, eliminates it, because of the sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
  4. Choice between enduring an aversive stimulus and performing a behavior that allows escaping it. Most shock collar training exemplifies this, as do operant exposure protocols that put contingencies on escaping the trigger.
  5. Choice between behaviors that are positively reinforced and behaviors that are positively punished. A training situation such as “walk in heel position, get a cookie; surge forward, get a collar pop.”
  6. Choice between behaviors that are positively punished and behaviors that get nothing in particular. This would be across-the-board suppression of behavior.

In all that I listed, even #6, the dog can be said to have a choice. But none of them, with the exception of #1, would likely be called “free choice” in learning theory nomenclature.

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses at the shopping mall

Now, about #1. The things I would tentatively put in the “free choice” bucket are:

  • Desensitization/counterconditioning with the trigger at a non-aversive level. The leash or other barrier prevents or controls the choice of movement towards the trigger, but there are no contingencies on behavior within the area and multiple reinforcers may be available.
  • Shaping, which can offer multiple choices of behavior along the path to a goal behavior.
  • Reinforcing offered behaviors in day-to-day life with an animal. (I’ll write about this in my followup post.)
  • Training techniques that allow the dog to leave in pursuit of another interest. However, these as well do tend to have a final goal of another behavior.

Note that we are not talking about using a variety of reinforcers. That’s easy to do in training. We are talking about different behaviors leading to reinforcement. When you are focused on a training goal, that one is a lot harder to include!

A Word About Preference

Preference is not the same as choice, though they are related.

From a review article about choice:

Preference is the relative strength of discriminated operants Researchers often measure preference as a pattern of choosing.  –Martin, Toby L., et al. “On choice, preference, and preference for choice.” The behavior analyst today 7.2 (2006): 234.

Pattern is a key word. I may not like my green tee-shirt very much, but I will choose it if my red ones are in the wash. It is only by observing my tee-shirt choice over time, noting circumstances and performing a bit of statistical analysis, that my choices will indicate my preference (red tee-shirts).

Observing our pets’ preferences, and giving them their preferred items, is a good and thoughtful thing, but doing so does not necessarily involve their making a choice.

In addition, I’ve written about how determining an animal’s preferences in a formal way can be more difficult than it sounds. But scientists are developing ways to determine choice in animals. The following article covers some of these:  Using Preference, Motivation, and Aversion Tests to Ask Scientific Questions about Animals’ Feelings.

Acknowledging Limitations on Choice

I think that when we talk about giving dogs choices, or describe protocols that supposedly do this, we should consider two things. First what are the choices? Are there multiple possibilities for positive reinforcement, or are there choices between positive reinforcement and nothing, or only crappy choices?

Second, we should consider how we are limiting choices. Are the limitations temporary or permanent? Are there ways we can give our dogs ways to express their preferences and make choices in their lives with us? Even in training?

There is no barb intended for positive reinforcement-based trainers in this post. Giving the animal the right to walk away is revolutionary in the recent training climate. We are the ones taking that step. Sometimes it’s the most control we can give them. But I believe we can do more.

Part 2 of this post will include my attempts–successful or not so–in giving my dogs choices in different situations.

How about you out there? In what ways do you give your animals choices–in day-to-day life or in training?

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“Good Sit!”

“Good Sit!”

Summer Zani sit stay

Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.

  1. What part of speech is the word, “Sit”?
  2. Then, what part of speech is the same word if we say, “Good sit!” afterwards?

That was a trick.

If we were talking to a human who speaks the same language we do, the first “Sit” could be an imperative or command verb. The second “Sit” would be a noun.

But neither of those, while grammatically correct, applies to training a dog. Dogs are not humans. “Sit” is something else entirely to them.

In dog training based on positive reinforcement, “sit” is a discriminative stimulus. To the dog it is not a word. It is not English. It is not eligible for grammatical analysis. It is an antecedent, in this case a specific sound that comes to indicate that reinforcement is likely available for the act of sitting. (I include the word “likely” because sometimes we don’t reinforce every single sit.)

Examples of other discriminative stimuli for dogs are hand signals we give them, auditory cues such as whistles, and all sorts of things in life that act as cues that certain behaviors will be reinforced. These life events are not necessarily deliberate actions by us, and may not even be known to us. I wrote about some in my post called, “16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real).”

So if “Sit” is a discriminative stimulus, what is “Good sit”? I’ll get there. First I need to talk about this problem with words and meanings.

I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

We humans have an enormous problem to overcome when we use words as cues. When we hear the sounds that comprise the word “Sit,” in whatever language we speak, we can’t divorce the meaning of the word “Sit.” We generally pick verbal cues that are descriptions of the behaviors they apply to. Convenient for us, but unfortunate for the dogs. We can’t help but think they understand the cues as language.

Sometimes we pick more colorful words for cues for our amusement or because the standard word is inconvenient. My friend Marge’s cue for her dog Zip to sit is, “Senta,” the Portuguese word for sit. “Sit” was too close to his name, plus she didn’t want to spend his life sputtering out, “Zip, sit!” And although he’s a Portuguese Water Dog, she didn’t pick “Senta” because he innately understood it. He doesn’t. She picked it because it’s fun, clear, and didn’t resemble any of her other cues.

I have a couple of fun cues. I use “Yoga” to cue Zani into the bow position (downward dog, get it?). I use “Rewind” to cue Summer to do a funny little backwards crawl/scoot. But hey, I’m a human, so I still hear these as words, with meanings. Not just a group of sounds. (And of course, the “funny” part has to do with their meanings…just can’t get away from that, can we?)

The Curse of Knowledge

This inability to get the meanings of words out of our heads on behalf of our dogs is an intra-species example of the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to a situation where someone who knows something (in this case the human) can’t imagine not knowing it. Here is a link to a good synopsis of a famous study, “tappers and listeners,” about the curse of knowledge.

In the tappers and listeners study, one person in a team of two would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners could guess correctly only about 2.5% of the time. But get this: the tappers predicted that the listeners would know the answer 50% of the time.

The tappers heard the song in their heads as they tapped, and couldn’t put themselves accurately in the place of the listeners, who were only hearing tapping. Even the most empathetic of us can’t turn off the songs in our own heads.

In dog training, we are the tappers and the dogs are the listeners. It’s worse though, because not only do they not know all these meanings and subtexts that are there for us, they are not capable of knowing most of them. Yet they read situations so well and are typically so attuned to us that they give the impression of knowing these things in the same way we know them. They have their own geniuses, but it is not likely that any dog understands language and grammar as we do.

By the way, I am not the first to tell about the “tappers and listeners” study with regard to some characteristics of dog training. Kathy Sdao describes it and even demonstrates it in her DVD “What Not to Err.” My friend Marge incorporates it into her orientation for beginning clicker trainers.

“Good Sit!”

OK, I finally made my way back around to this phrase. You can easily find dozens of websites that instruct you to say, “Good sit!” after your dog sits. Probably some of you have been instructed to do that. I have. I was told the following by an obedience instructor: “You should say, “Good sit” after your dog sits so they will know what it is they did right.”

This assumes that the dog can follow the leap from “Sit” as a noise meaning that sit will be reinforced, to “Sit” as a noun, modified by “Good.” This makes no sense. It only makes sense in our twisted world where verbal cues unfortunately have meanings that correspond to the actions we attach to them.

Here is an example that I hope demonstrates the faulty logic of “Good sit.”

The starter's pistol is a discriminative stimulus.
The starter’s pistol is a discriminative stimulus. Photo credit: Stewsnews on Flickr. License at bottom of the page.

The starter’s pistol going off is a discriminative stimulus for people who run track. It indicates that pushing off the starting block and starting to run will likely be reinforced. So please envision this. A runner is practicing her starts. Today the coach is using a real starter’s pistol so she’ll get used to it. The coach fires the pistol, and the runner makes an excellent start. She runs a few yards, stops, and turns back. The coach says, “Good…” and BANG! fires the pistol in the air again. The runner startles and says, “Why did you fire again? I’m not ready! I’m not even in the block.” The coach says, “I was telling you that you made a good…” BANG! and fires the pistol one more time.

With this example, we can clearly see that that the cue is not the same as the action. The coach means to tell the runner that she made a good start. **BANG** is not a description of the action of start. It’s just the cue that indicates a certain action will be reinforced. Likewise, “Sit” is the noise that indicates to a dog that sitting will be reinforced. It does not somehow “mean” that action to the dog.

Frankly, I can keep this in my head only for short periods. It slides away so easily.

It’s Not Harmless

Some might say, OK, it doesn’t mean what we think it does, but it doesn’t hurt anything to say it anyway. Well yes, there are worse things. But using, “Sit” as part of a praise phrase is not a desirable practice.

First, you are repeating the cue when the dog is already doing the behavior. This dilutes the one-to-one pairing of the cue and the action, diminishing the power of the cue. It also adds more chatter to the training session, creating more verbiage for the dog to sift through to try to catch words that might be cues. Or to learn to ignore them. Finally, I believe we need to do everything possible to understand the dog’s point of view. Choose cues thoughtfully. Make sure they all sound different. Use them consistently, and only for that purpose. What if, instead of words in English (or your own native language), you had to use a randomly assigned color flash card or a complete nonsense phrase for every cue? Wouldn’t they be kind of hard to remember? That’s the position our dogs are in. They have to use brute memory on cues.

That last reason is the big one. Saying, “Good sit!” every once in a while or even regularly does little harm to the dog in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I do half a dozen things to my dogs that are more confusing than that. The harm is to us as trainers. It keeps us entrenched in the belief that dogs understand language the same way we do.

If you are going to praise, far better to say, “Good!” or “Good girl!” or “Good dog!” And to say the same thing consistently. If you say it regularly before you give the treat, you are also building up a nice little conditioned reinforcer. But that’s a post for another day!

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The Humane Hierarchy, Part 2 of 2: Examples

The Humane Hierarchy, Part 2 of 2: Examples

This is the second of two posts on Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy. Here is Humane Hierarchy Part 1 in case you missed it.

In this part, I present examples of each of the methods listed in the Humane Hierarchy. My examples all center around crate training.

Here is the Humane Hierarchy again so we’ll have it handy.

A graphic that shows 6 levels of behavioral intervention, starting with the least invasive at the bottom, going to the most invasive at the top. The graphic looks like a road going straight ahead, with a right turn for each behavioral intervention. They are, in order: Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting; Antecedent Arrangements; Positive Reinforcement; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors; Extinction, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment; Positive Punishment.
 

And here is a link to a different version of the Humane Hierarchy graphic that may be visually easier than the roadmap version.

Examples!

Remember, these interventions run from the least intrusive first, to the most intrusive last.

Intervention 1: Health, nutrition, and physical setting,  This means to check for physical reason for a behavior first, either a physical problem with the animal or something environmental that is affecting her.

Behavior 1: Dog just stands there when you ask her to go into her crate. Your old dog seems to have unlearned her crate behavior. Instead of going in eagerly when you cue it, she stands there licking her lips. She resists when you try to lead her in. You take her to the vet. It turns out that her vision is impaired. There is a glare coming off the stainless steel water bucket in her crate and it is scaring her. Your intervention: get a plastic bucket (and maybe a plastic crate).

Small black and white rat terrier with very big ears is lying down inside a wire crate with the door open.
My old dog Cricket in a crate

When considering a problem behavior, checking for a health-related reason should be the first step. This doesn’t apply only to old dogs, either!

Just think if you had tried to retrain the behavior, even with positive reinforcement. You would have had an apparently “stubborn” dog. Even worse, what if you had punished her?

Here is a beautiful video by Sonya Bevan of Dog Charming that shows some  “mis-behaviors” by dogs with some very interesting causes, including at least one that has to do with the physical environment: “There’s always a reason dogs do what they do.”

Intervention 2: Antecedent Arrangements. 

Antecedents are those stimuli, events or conditions that occur immediately before the behavior, which function to set the occasion for the animal to exhibit the behavior. — Susan Friedman.  A framework for solving behavior problems: Functional Assessment and Intervention Planning. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine. 16,(1) 6-10.)

Cues are antecedents that we teach deliberately, but antecedents are happening in your dog’s life all the time. Antecedent arrangement means that sometimes you can deal with an animal’s unwanted behavior by changing what comes before it, rather than the consequences that come after it, as we do via the more familiar processes of  reinforcement and punishment.

Behavior 2: Puppy whines in crate. Your puppy’s crate is in the dog playroom. Your other dogs are loose in another part of the house. As part of the process of taking them outside when you get home, you let the other dogs into the playroom while the puppy is still crated. The puppy whines and screams in excitement when the others come in. Then you are in a quandary. Let the puppy out while he is whining? If so, you would probably reinforce it.  But what if he has to go to the bathroom?

The antecedent in this case is the entry of the other dogs. This precedes vocalizing by the puppy. The noise making might be OK in other circumstances, but whining and screaming in the crate cause problems. Here are three possible antecedent changes that could solve this problem:

  1. Complete elimination of the antecedent: Take the other dogs outside through another part of the house. Then go get the puppy separately to take him outside.
  2. Change puppy’s location during the antecedent: Let the puppy out first. Either take him outside, or let him be loose in the room when the older dogs come in. He may get excited and vocalize, but this doesn’t put you in the quandary that it does if he is in his crate.
  3. Change puppy’s location so he is no longer present for the former antecedent: Move the puppy to another part of the house and take the big dogs out through the dog playroom first, then release him to join them.

Any of these should solve this particular instance of whining in the crate without having to reinforce or punish anything, or train anything at all.

OK, here come the operant learning processes with which many of us are familiar. If you need a brush up, please see my blog post Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples, or go straight to my movie: Examples of the Four Procedures of Operant Learning.

Intervention 3: Positive Reinforcement. Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Behavior 3: Dog goes in crate and stays there. This is something you want to teach your dog. To do so using positive reinforcement, you could use any of these three methods of training: luring, capturing, or shaping.

  • You could leave good stuff in there for him to find (luring).
  • If he went in there on his own, you could immediately mark and reinforce (capturing going in).
  • If he is in the crate and being quiet, you could drop him a treat or chewable as you go by (capturing quiet stay in crate).
  • You could play training games where you shape him to go into his crate from different areas of the room (shaping).

Brace yourself for inordinate cuteness in the video.

Link to the video on capturing crate behavior for email subscribers.

Intervention 4: Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors. This means a replacement behavior is (positively) reinforced while the unwanted behavior is extinguished (see extinction below).

Behavior 4: Your dog goes in her crate when visitors come (instead of leaping on them). This is something you want to teach. Your adolescent dog loves everybody and is thrilled when someone comes to the door. She jumps all over them. This is not your preferred way for her to greet visitors.

You start by training your dog to go to her crate using positive reinforcement, without visitors present. You train it really well until she is absolutely thrilled to go to her crate and runs top speed when cued.

Then teach her that the doorbell ringing is a cue for her to go to her crate. After this cue is very solid, you start practicing with people coming in, but not in real life yet. Use setups.

You will not get extinction of the jumping on people unless it ceases to be reinforced, so you will also take some management measures. For the beginning period you might keep an ex-pen around the inside of the doorway in case your dog makes a booboo and runs for the door like before. She still can’t get to the visitor and practice jumping.

For practice setups, you must train your visitors. You need them to absolutely ignore your dog if she does get to them and jump on them. This is the removal of the previous reinforcement for jumping up, which is generally human attention. But it’s best to try to avoid the situation entirely, because some dogs enjoy jumping even when the human is ignoring them.

A rule of thumb is that the reinforcement of the new behavior has to be more potent, or at least as potent, as the original reinforcement. So the finishing touch will be to teach your dog that after she has gone to her crate, she will sometimes be released to visit (if she enjoys that). She can calmly visit with the guests and get human attention as long as she has four feet on the floor. You will have to train that as well.

Here is an example of differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior where I taught Clara to lie down when I bent over, rather than mugging my face.

Intervention 5: Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment. Dr. Friedman does not give a hierarchical ranking order within these three. The degree of humaneness will depend on the application of each method and the individual animal.

Intervention 5a: Extinction. Extinction of a behavior occurs when the consequence that was previously reinforcing the behavior is permanently removed.

Behavior 5a: Puppy barks to be let out of crate at night. When you first got your puppy, sometimes when you were late letting him out to potty in the night he would give a little bark to wake you up. You would immediately get up and let him out to potty. As he got older you got tired of this. You were sure he really didn’t need to go. He would bark and you would stay in bed. So he barked longer. Finally when you couldn’t ignore it any longer, you would let him out. This has been going on for some time.

You get on the Internet to see how to get the dog to stop barking. Someone writes that you just have to outlast him. So the next night when he starts barking, you ignore him. And ignore and ignore and ignore. When he finally gives up and is quiet for a minute or two, you may let him out.

This scenario demonstrates the drawback of using extinction by itself. This situation is a mess. It’s horribly unfair to your dog, who may really need to go to the bathroom and is trying his best to tell you say in the way that was previously reinforced. His world has turned upside down and what used to work beautifully fails. Your dog has no clue now how to get out to potty. You waited until he was quiet to let him out, but you can’t use “being quiet” as a cue to be let out if he is quiet most of the night. Unless you want to start a behavior chain of: make noise, be quiet, get let out.

This is one of the reasons why using extinction alone is “farther down the road” than Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior. In that case, you are deliberately developing and reinforcing a new behavior to take the place of the old. The dog gets a big fat clue about what to do instead.

Intervention 5b: Negative reinforcement. Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Behavior 5b: Puppy stays in the crate. You are teaching your puppy to stay in the crate when you tell him to, without your closing the crate door. You put your puppy in and tell him to stay. He stays for a few seconds, then gets up and heads out the door. You get there first and keep walking forward, walking into his space and pushing him with body pressure until he backs up back into the crate.

Negative reinforcement uses an aversive, something the animal does not like. Because of that it can have fallout. My movie, Negative Reinforcement vs Positive Reinforcement, shows the difference in my dogs’ behavior when trained the same behavior with those two methods.

Intervention 5c: Negative punishment. Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

Behavior 5c: Puppy whines in crate. Your puppy is in her crate. You enter the room and she starts to whine in excitement. (She has never done this before.) You immediately turn on a dime and leave the room.

Intervention 6: Positive punishment. Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

Behavior 6: Puppy runs out of the crate door when it is opened. Your pup has developed an unnerving habit of dashing out the crate door as soon as you open it. So you decide to show him who’s boss. You get a spray bottle of water and add some lemon juice. You walk up to the crate, open the door, and squirt him in the face as he tries to dash out.

A stuffed brown and white dog is positioned emerging from a dog crate. There is a hand and arm emerging into the photo from the other side. The hand is holding a squirt bottle and it is aimed at Feisty's face.
Feisty gets sprayed as she darts out of the crate

This demonstrates the many drawbacks of positive punishment. First, it may not be absolutely clear to the dog what he was squirted for. Looking out? Crossing the threhold? Whatever happened next?

Perhaps you haven’t even taught him the proper behavior that you do want, such as to sit quietly in the crate until released. So the next time you open the crate door, your dog may be afraid to come out at all. Or afraid whenever he sees the squirt bottle. His affection and trust for you may wane, since it was abundantly clear that it was you who were squirting him with the painful stuff. His anxiety level has probably shot up from the whole experience. What’s going to happen next time?

This scenario also illustrates what Dr. Friedman calls the “double whammy” of positive punishment. First, the dog didn’t get the consequence he was seeking: getting out of the crate. Second, he got squirted painfully in the eyes. And as Dr. Friedman wrote in the article that introduced the Humane Hierarchy,

Positive punishment is rarely necessary (or suggested by standards of best practice) when one has the requisite knowledge of behavior  change and teaching skills.

And she has kindly arranged a list for us of seven other things to try first!

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

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The Humane Hierarchy, Part 1 of 2: Overview

The Humane Hierarchy, Part 1 of 2: Overview

I am a Humane Hierarchy trainer. That is the name of the roadmap I use to make ethical choices about the training methods I use. I’m going to describe the method in this post.

(Humane Hierarchy Part 2, which is now also published, comprises real world examples of all the methods in the Hierarchy.)

I don’t call myself a clicker trainer, although I have used one, nor do I call myself a force-free trainer, although that is certainly a goal, nor do I call myself “all positive,” since that could include positive reinforcement and punishment both. I do use the first two terms, along with several others, to refer casually to trainers who use those names and have similar goals to mine. The people who use these terms are part of my community.

But the Humane Hierarchy is a concept I love, and a name I take on for myself comfortably and with pride. And I was born a non-conformist, and throw off labels as fast as anyone can put them on me. But this one I’ll take. Because it’s a non-label of a label. You’ll see.

Susan Friedman, PhD, published “What’s Wrong with this Picture: When Effectiveness is Not Enough” in 2008, and in that article proposed the Humane Hierarchy. The article is about incorporating ethics into the choices we make when training animals, rather than considering only “what works.”

I have written about Dr. Friedman frequently. She is a behavior analyst and strong proponent of humane, ethical treatment of all animals. Here is my review of her course on Living and Learning with Animals, and here is her website, Behaviorworks.org. Be sure and check the free articles.

The Humane Hierarchy is not a set of “rules.” It is a general ranking of training methods, starting with the least intrusive for the animal and ending with the most intrusive. Least intrusive is defined as the procedure that leaves the animal with the most control over its outcomes. Any person who uses the Hierarchy as a guideline must inform herself about the species of animal she is working with and carefully observe the behavior of the individual animal, because different animals will respond differently to different methods.

Dr. Friedman takes behavioral intervention seriously. It is a large responsibility to intervene in the behavior of an animal, and her approach directs the user to consider the animal first: its needs, wants, likes and dislikes. What does the animal want, and how can we figure out if there is an acceptable method for it to get it? It’s only fair, since in all cases we are the ones with the keys to the cabinet, the cage, the car. But that’s a pretty radical concept for a lot of people.

So here is her new graphic of the Humane Hierarchy. To use it, think of a behavior of your animal that you might want to change. Then start at the bottom of the picture, in the little car, drive forward very slowly, and take every right turn. If the consideration on the side street is irrelevant or doesn’t work when tried with full information and skill, you can drive forward again and take the next right turn, or consult a trainer or colleague. Note the stop sign before you get to positive punishment!

A graphic that shows 6 levels of behavioral intervention, starting with the least invasive at the bottom, going to the most invasive at the top. The graphic looks like a road going straight ahead, with a right turn for each behavioral intervention. They are, in order: Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting; Antecedent Arrangements; Positive Reinforcement; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors; Extinction, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment; Positive Punishment.
 

Here is a link to a different version of the Humane Hierarchy graphic that may be visually easier than the roadmap version.

In a previous post, “But Every Dog is Different!,” I hope I showed that the claims that trainers who avoid force are somehow employing a cookie cutter method or limiting themselves are wrong.  This graphic makes it explicit. But the speedbumps, caution sign, and stop sign warn us to take care as we reach the more intrusive actions. The path a person will take will be absolutely different with every animal she trains.

The fact that no procedure is ruled out does not mean that for me personally, and I dare say most people who use this roadmap, that certain commonly used tools are under consideration. If I ever did get to the positive punishment turnoff, unlikely in itself, you can be pretty sure I would not be strapping something around my dog’s neck to administer it. I would be consulting a professional who did not use such tools.

Someone who habitually shoots up to the end of the road with only a nod in the direction of the other turnoffs is showing their limitations. I don’t mean this in a snarky way. I mean that each turnoff and its method requires care, consideration, and often creativity to employ well. As an amateur, I know that the limitations of my skill level could further endanger an animal if I tried to employ some aversives. Even professionals I know consult with colleagues before going that far down the road.

Dr. Friedman describes employing a negative reinforcement protocol with a zoo animal after other methods were tried for a **year**. In hindsight, that may seem like too long to some people, since the goal was to get the animal to enter a more enriching environment. However, any method including aversive stimuli involves risks of fallout, and the keepers were unwilling to take those risks if they were unnecessary. As it turned out, the aversive method only had to be used once, and no fallout was perceived.

Note that positive reinforcement is third on the list. The first two considerations are new to lots of people, and discussed much too infrequently in my opinion. The magic of the Humane Hierarchy is on the “most humane” end in my opinion. There is so much to be learned there.

Part 2 of this post will give an example of every method on the map, all centering around a common theme: crate behavior. So come back to read about “antecedent arrangements” if you’ve never heard the term before. 1)Added note 1/7/14: I have a whole post about antecedent arrangements now.

Labeling

One of Dr. Friedman’s foci is that labels are not useful in observing and documenting behavior. “The dog is dominant” and “the parrot is acting hormonal” tell us nothing about actual behavior. One of the skills I am always working on, and which got greatly exercised when I took her class, was observing my dogs’ behavior and working on putting it accurately into words. That’s harder than it first seems! (Again I’ll refer to the great FaceBook group Observation Skills for Training Dogs. There’s the place to go practice.)

So even though I very much support the “Unlabel me!” campaign for our animals, as a writer I really struggled with some kind of term to refer to the type of training I do! I welcomed a term for my training approach. I sure didn’t need to write a paragraph about quadrants and force and aversives and management every time I refer to my training.

“Humane Hierarchy trainer” describes perfectly what I seek to do. It’s not a rubber stamp. I don’t have to qualify it or explain away anything. I just need to define it from time to time, since it is new to some folks. Thanks again, Dr. Friedman!

Closeup of the face of a caramel colored dog. Her eyes are squinted, her facial muscles are relaxed, and her ears are back. You can barely see a hand under her neck, petting her.
A commenter on one of my movies yesterday called Summer “dominant.” Is that a useful description for what she is doing here while I pet her?

Thanks for reading!

Proceed to Part 2 of the Humane Hierarchy (examples of each method)

Afternote, 5/29/13: Because of the comments of a reader, I realized that I did not mention something important. The hierarchy applies to operant learning only. If your dog is fearful or aggressive, you will almost certainly be using classical conditioning and desensitization techniques.  In those situations, no knowledgable trainer will ever recommend that you try any aversives. Although classical conditioning usually involves food, it is not the same as positive reinforcement because there is no contingency on the animal’s behavior. The goal is to elicit a respondent reaction that changes its emotional state. Thanks for helping me clarify!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

Notes   [ + ]

1. Added note 1/7/14: I have a whole post about antecedent arrangements now.
Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Thank You Susan Friedman and Associates: A Personal Review of the BehaviorWorks Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course

Home page photo from behaviorworks.org

Imagine if you could drop out of this world for two months and live somewhere where positive reinforcement ruled rather than punishment. Where teachers understood how people best learn. Where people taking a class were there to learn, not work for a grade. Where people noticed what was good and remarked upon it. Where people said please and thank you. A lot. Where “cheating” didn’t even need to be discussed. Where the teacher understood the qualities of effective reinforcement so well that she made herself available by email and text to EVERYONE and often responded in less than 5 minutes.

I got to live there for two months, mostly on Thursday nights but also for a large part of my weekends. I took Dr. Susan Friedman’s class: Living & Learning with Animals (LLA).

The best thing about the class for me was not the course material. People who have taken it are free to gasp in dismay at this point because the course material is absolutely  incredible. But I bet they know where I am going. For me it was even overshadowed by the application of learning theory to our experiences as students.

I’m one of those perennial students. A couple of decades ago I found myself working at a university where I could get essentially free tuition. After a background in performing arts, I thought it would be fun to exercise a part of my mind that had had little former training. I had always been “good in math” but had taken the music path instead. So I started taking math, science, and engineering classes. This culminated in a master’s degree in engineering science in a rigorous program. With a bachelors and masters in music performance, I had to get into the program through a loophole and basically work my ass off for years to catch up with those who had “appropriate” undergraduate degrees. But I did it. For fun.

I had little to no interest in a career in a related field. I was curious. I was there to learn. So I became keenly aware of the conflict between how to learn in order to understand the material, and and how to learn to get a good grade.  At first I was naturally inclined, and later I made a conscious effort to keep to the former method. For example, I was amazed one day when a chemistry professor said to the class, “Now, I hardly expect you to do ALL the problems at the end of each chapter.” Oh, naive me. That’s what I had been doing.

As I got in over my head and my life got busier, working to get a good grade started to hold sway. I lasted several years after the masters, was an ABD,  but eventually quit because it just wasn’t a pleasure anymore.

Fast forward back to today. The first thing I fell in love with in LLA was the approach to our homework. The teaching assistants work one on one with each student on their homework assignments. They employ what Dr. Friedman calls a soft Socratic method. Whatever your answers, whatever your level of experience, they will ask you questions to improve your understanding and gently guide you along.

I’ve been in a lot of situations where my work was critiqued. I used to be an orchestral musician. (That means I had to live with a very public level of critique.) I worked as an academic editor for someone with a PhD in English (a great job with lovely bosses, by the way). My major professor in engineering was, if possible, even more particular about my writing. I’ve always wanted feedback, but it was really really hard on my ego. When I would get my work back with the red pen marks, I would literally put it aside so I could gird myself for the corrections.  I’m not kidding: I would look at it out of the corners of my eyes at first. Finally I would get up the courage to go through it and quickly make the corrections, then hide it from myself again.

It took only one iteration of the homework exchange in LLA  for all of that trepidation to vanish into thin air. A lifetime of performance anxiety took its leave. This exchange was FUN. The teachers were there to help. You could write casually, with an occasional joke or casual remark, and they would be real people right back at ya! And with incredible expertise at helping you lead yourself to understanding. You could write things like, “Man, this part is hard but I think….” and “Am I on the right track here?” For the first time in my life I looked with happy, non-stressful anticipation for the responses to my homework. And believe me, those hardworking people were fast, too!

I realized that this is what my animals might feel like when I am doing really good training with them. It’s a game they can’t lose. The worst thing that can happen is a gentle delay of reinforcement before “getting it.” The homework game was incredibly fun. I loved being the trainee.

Another thing I loved was the method of participation in the actual teleconference.  Early on Dr. Friedman mentioned that she doesn’t use the webinar software providers where people have a visual display of the presenter’s PowerPoint presentation on the computer. She has participants from all over the world and has found that the webinar technology is just not up to the challenge of serving everyone well. But there is another benefit to her format, which I am positive she is aware of. She uses an audio conference call (group telephone call) system. She gives us all a link to her presentation with embedded graphics and playable videos. So while we listen to the audio, we have control over switching from slide to slide and playing the videos ourselves on our computers. Also we can unmute our phones to ask questions or text them in using a standalone chat program.

It made a huge difference to me. I’ve generally disliked webinars,  and find it irritating to watch someone controlling their presentation from afar. (Besides which most people have no clue how to use AV materials well and merely read their PowerPoint presentation to the audience.) Also it’s irritating especially at the beginning when their screen is already visual and we get to watch them struggling to open their presentation and get it on full screen.

Dr Friedman presented evidence in a lecture that control over one’s environment may be a primary reinforcer. Primary or secondary, it’s powerful. That small difference of advancing the slides myself and hitting Play on the videos; well, silly as it seems, it was really empowering. I could even go back to look at something again, although I had to be quick about it!

Also, the fact that she answered people’s texts during the class was so cool. Usually in “webinars” the questions texted in are handled by a moderator and passed on to the presenter at the end. Whenever the rest of us were watching a video, Susan was obviously catching up on her texts and answering questions in real time, right when they were relevant. Occasionally she would pause her lecture–and say so–to do the same. The opposite of the impersonal, inexorable drone of a disconnected lecturer. She would answer some questions online and share some on the call. Far from bring an interruption, it was helpful. We got a breather too, got another reminder that she and all the others were real people too, and got a sense of community. And she stayed after class on the phone! Opportunities for more questions.

Speaking of community: the students are broken up into four groups who submit their homework and questions through a Yahoo group. Everyone’s homework exchanges are visible to anyone else in the group. Dr. Friedman never said ONCE not to copy other people’s homework. The assumption is that we were there to learn, we were adults, and we were in charge of optimizing our own learning experience. Which obviously would be better if we did the work ourselves. I made a point of not looking at anyone else’s before submitting my own each time. (OK, in the very first assignment I opened one email and took a glance, literally a glance, to see the format of their answer to make sure my presentation method was at least in the ballpark.) Then afterwards I would dive into the wealth of teaching and information exchange going on with the other folks. We got to watch the process of the others and learn even more about learning.

Now for the two things in the actual course material that changed my life. First, I have always had a knee jerk reaction when people joke about using positive reinforcement or punishment to their own ends. Often in husband and wife jokes. I have been really uneasy with the idea of one person in a relationship with an animal or human making contingencies on the other’s behavior. This is not something to be taken lightly. Part of this is probably related to the “cultural fog” around behavior and learning that exists. Susan mentions that people so often express trepidation to her about using positive reinforcement: isn’t it just a bribe? Won’t we make the person dependent on it? Won’t it kill their intrinsic interest? etc. And she says that not once has anyone expressed those trepidations about punishment. I’m sure part of my distrust came from the cultural fog. But part of it I think was a valid concern. It applies to using both punishment and reinforcement. What gives us the right to consciously affect another’s behavior with either method?

Susan Friedman rested my heart with one statement.  First, the outside world reacts to behavior “problems” with punishment. Better, we as thoughtful trainers improve on that; we approach the problem humanely and with an eye to training a new behavior rather than punishing the old. Our approach is usually, how do we fix the problem?

Best:  Dr Friedman’s approach: FIRST what does the animal (or person) want? That’s the starting point. It comes before “how are we going to change its behavior to suit us.” With that small (HUGE) difference in approach, it all became OK for me. It recognizes that particularly with animals, but certainly with children too, we are the ones holding the cards. We have the key to the food cabinet and the outdoors and connection with society and all the good stuff. The power difference is acknowledged. So we must always start with what the other guy wants and needs. It’s only fair. She puts a huge amount of consideration into ethics before intervening in an animal’s behavior. She respects the animal. And the person.

That’s love, folks.

The other piece of the puzzle for me was in the very last lecture. She mentioned that it goes all over her when someone responds to an encouraging comment from her with, “oh, you are using that training stuff on me aren’t you!” (Actually I think she said something closer to, “It ticks me off.” I don’t remember exactly.) She then proceeded to talk about praise needing to be genuine. Well, sure. But how does one do that? By paying attention. By being a keen observer. And when you are on the receiving end of that, you can tell instantly. The praise resounds like a bell inside you. This person SAW me. They noticed who I am. And they noticed a partially good thing I did. And they SHARED it with me. That is the first thing you will notice about Susan and her teaching associates. They are so very genuine. And they are paying attention.

In the homework, we typically received a comment on every section or paragraph that we wrote. Anything from a “Yes,” to “I loved how you worded that,” to “Not quite, have you considered…?” I have the utmost respect for the stamina and the level of attention of those folks! Their comments were never false, empty, or automatic.

As a dog trainer, I had already been learning about the importance of learning dog behavior and body language. In the course I learned all over again how that observation, with whatever species, is absolutely essential in our lives with others.

I just got a glimpse of utopia for two months. I’m doing my best to bring it home with me and share it. Thank you to Susan, Billie, Julie, Dana, Shauna, Margo, Wendy, and Cynthia. And all the rest whom I didn’t get to work with this time but look forward to for next time.

P.S. Dang it, now I want a parrot.

Thanks, Susan and associates!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks from me, too!

 

© Eileen Anderson 2012                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Letting the Treat Fit the Feat: Real World Application

Letting the Treat Fit the Feat: Real World Application

One upon a time there was an adolescent dog in an open admission shelter who had one day left.

And a woman who knew nothing about dog training, already had a smaller dog, and made an impulsive decision to go get the shelter dog. Some problems ensued.

That’s how a lot of people discover dog training, I think. And I suspect that I’m not the only one for whom that dog who started it all has a special place in the heart.

As a positive reinforcement trainer, I know that just about whatever a dog is physically capable of, you can train and put on cue. If you can figure out what is reinforcing to the dog, you can get reliable behavior. And you can even create new reinforcers by pairing them with ones the dog already has.

On the other hand.

In 1961 Keller and Marian Breland published a paper called The Misbehavior of Organisms. It was in part a response  to B. F. Skinner’s work The Behavior of Organisms. The Brelands outlined examples of training difficulties having to do with countering the natural, instinctive tendencies of animals.

I think of this when I look over my motley crew of dogs, noticing not only their individual quirks but how their personalities and interests might be related to their breeds (mixed in most cases). There are certain breeds of dogs that have been selectively bred for generations to thrive on work with humans. Herding dogs and retrievers come to mind. My dog Clara exhibits the tendencies I’m talking about. A strong valuing of almost any kind of activity with a human and a strong focus and attention span to work.

My dog Summer is different. She has an abundance of independent varmint dog genes. Her are some shots of her in her element.

I hadn’t put any of this together when I decided to go into competitive dog sports with her. Summer is a non-traditional obedience breed mix, putting it lightly. I’ve related part of my painful learning curve in the post, “Ant Sized Treats.” I talk about how I finally learned how to really motivate her with food. But I didn’t mention in that post the work I have put in on trying to use tug as a reinforcer.

Summer does like to tug. She will tug very heartily with me for a little while. And I have had a tiny bit of success using tug as a reinforcer. But only when there is no food in the picture. If we are already playing tug, I can ask for behaviors and reward them with tug. But if it is a “training session,” food trumps tug. (And playing in the hose trumps some food, even.) Problems like this with food and tug are perfectly solvable. Here is a nice video my friend Marge made teaching  Maple, a boxer puppy, how to enjoy multiple reinforcers in a session. So please let me be clear that this is my choice as a trainer not to pursue food and tug issues with Summer until they are solved. I’m sure it could be done. But I have four dogs and plenty of essentials to train. With Summer it would be uphill. Zani and Clara will both tug in the presence of food and vice versa, and I’ve done much less work with them on it.

What Summer loves to do is to carry off and dismember toys. Perform squeakerectomies, fuzz-ectomies and anything-that-sticks-out-ectomies. That is by far her favored part of the predatory sequence. Allowing this type of self-reinforcement (with the human out of the picture) is somewhat Frowned Upon by many of the sports dogs trainers. We are supposed to make sure that the dog plays with toys with us, not on her own, or certainly not extensively by herself.

But Summer is a beloved pet and I am fine with her tearing up toys on her own. So: how then should I handle the challenge in our upcoming AKC Rally Advanced trial where a dog must heel past distractions on the floor including food and toys? We have practiced a lot with food and have a protocol for that. So I wanted also to figure out a way to reward Summer with a toy in such a way that would 1) maintain the Zen behavior she has and build on it, 2) be fair to her, and 3) be truly reinforcing. Letting the Treat Fit the Feat, as I’ve written about previously.

For this dog, grabbing up a toy and whooping it up expecting her to tug with me would not be reinforcing, especially if I took the toy away before she could rip it up.

With help from the Training Levels list and my teacher I came up with the following plan:  In Rally context (recognizable to her), Summer never gets the treat off the floor or the toy off the floor, even after the run is over. She has to exercise Zen self control and for her, I can better accomplish it with giving her a treat that is separate from the one on the floor. She gets a great reward at the end of the run and it fits the challenge: big bite of some great food, or yes, a toy to shred, or both. Both come out of my pocket or outside of the Rally setup premises (mimicking what we will do in a trial). Summer already knows that routine: long behavior chain, then run to the crating area for something great.

I bought a bunch of very cheap stuffed toys so shredding could be part of the routine each time we practiced.

My plan was to finish the run, make a big deal about the food and toy, then leave her to her shredding. But the first day I implemented my new plan I found out something amazing. It turns out I AM part of Summer’s play with the toy. I gave her the toy, she was surprised, but immediately made it clear that she wanted me to sit with her while she pulled it apart. She simply didn’t want it unless I was there, too. I was touched almost to tears. This is my independent dog. This is after years of on and off work on my part to make playing with me fun, but then watching her continue to prefer to take the toy into a corner and shred it herself.  So she had her toy, I hung out with her and bragged on her for 5 or 10 minutes, and she was SO happy. The second day we had our routine down better and She. Started. Bringing. Me. The. Toy. Again, you’d have to know the history. But it turns out that all the other stuff I had done to get a toy fetch, rewarded with tugging, was too much pressure. When I gave her some time, she went back and forth between shredding it herself and bringing it to me to tug and handle together. I left my jaw on the floor somewhere that day. The whole experience also brought home to me that for her (in a household of four dogs), time alone with me is very special.

So we ended up having, rather than an instantaneous reinforcer (even a whole jar of baby food takes less than a minute for her to eat), but a reinforcement period. There are some tricks to that–some things the trainer chooses to offer are bound to be of lower value than others so there may be moments of disappointment–and perhaps I’ll write about that in another post. But I feel like spending several minutes with my attention entirely on my dog and what she would like to do was a Treat that Fit the Feat.

On the third day, I brought out the video recorder. What you will see in the video are excerpts from an 8 minute session that Summer and I had in the back yard. I set out the plates of distractions, we did rally practice for about four minutes, then we finished, I released her, and we ran to another part of the yard. I gave her two huge bites of pumpkin cake, then gave her a disposable toy. I hung out with her. She gutted the toy. We tugged a little. She never once turned around to check out the former distractions, but just hung out with me in a relaxed way. She was free to leave and choose a different reinforcing activity at any time. After a time we went together (not cued by me) and I picked up the plates (during this part you can see that she is still very interested in them), then went back and hung out some more and she solicited some petting.

This will probably look pretty low key to a lot of you.  Unless she is aroused about something, Summer is a pretty low energy dog. But check out the photos at the top again and compare them to her demeanor in the video. In the video Summer pays lovely attention to our work. After she is released, she doesn’t leave. We don’t see her patrolling the perimeter, digging, hunting turtles, or going up to the top of the porch to check out the neighbors, or any other favorite activity. She reacts not at all when a dog barks or the neighbors use their chain saw. She doesn’t take the toy off to a corner. She doesn’t prowl back to the plates. This is the most amazing thing. I mean, our Zen cue does not have anything like that duration. She is choosing to hang out with me over the chance to sniff and pilfer some stuff off the ground, which is always hugely enticing to her. (I would have picked up the plates if she had tried, as part of our rule structure. But the point is she didn’t even seem to think about them.)

So my hypervigilant dog chose, out of all the available reinforcers, to hang out with me in a relaxed way in a distraction filled area.

My miracle dog.

Addendum, 9/27/12

I realized after some discussion in the comments that I had not talked at all about the fact that in my video and in my practice lately, there is a delay between the behavior and the reinforcement period. As most of you probably know, in most cases a delay between behavior and reinforcement makes for ineffective training. The relationship between the two can break down, or never form in the first place. On the other hand, there is ample research about delayed reinforcement that shows that animals can learn to connect delayed reinforcers with the behavior. Sue Ailsby in the Training Levels and some other trainers have techniques to teach the dog about this connection.

With Summer I have followed Sue’s technique and am pretty sure that she does make the connection. I spent several weeks a year or two back going to Rally practice wherein I didn’t give any treats during the run, but afterwards we ran back to our crate area and she got a whole jar of baby food. Her performance and enthusiasm improved markedly during that period, evidence that she connected the great food treat with the rally sequence. We do the same thing for agility runs, and have a routine that even includes putting her leash back on before running for her goodies.

I don’t give training advice on this blog but I want to give a simple caution that if you have not taught your dog about delayed reinforcement, a period of food treats, play, and attention such as I show in the video would likely not be connected to a previous behavior chain. And frankly, I don’t think that by the end of my hanging out with Summer she was thinking, “This is all because I did my Rally moves so nicely!” But I think at the beginning she probably did experience the doggie equivalent of that. And if we are going to have fun and hang out together, it certainly doesn’t hurt to pair it with an activity that I want to have good associations for her.

Let the Treat Fit the Feat

Let the Treat Fit the Feat

I am taking Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals professional online course. Woo hoo! It is incredible. My brain is so happy with all the new stuff I am feeding it. And the sense of community created by how the class is run is incredible. One gets glimpses of How the World Could Be.

I’ve got training and learning and behavior on my mind even MORE than usual.

So the other day I was explaining to a friend why I was buying multiple cheap toys at the Dollar Store for Summer to shred. We are preparing to compete in AKC Rally Advanced, where one of the exercises is to ignore either food on the floor (no problem) or toys (possible problem) while heeling off leash. Summer’s biggest fun by far with toys has always been to dismember them. She is a very “doggie dog” and I am happy to oblige her since she does these silly competitions with me. I wanted to treat her with a toy she could shred after successfully ignoring one on the floor, and to be able to do this daily or so for a while.

Adolescent Summer in 2006 with a favorite toy

I realized as I was telling my friend about it that we have a phrase in English, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” And a resonating cultural tradition for that that goes way back. An eye for an eye…. But I was grasping around for the positive corollary for that expression and it wasn’t there. Where is the saying for letting the reinforcer fit the task?

Dr. Friedman refers to the global confusion about behavior, learning, reinforcement and punishment as the Cultural Fog. I realized I had blundered into a really good example of it.

Then it came to me. The next time you, your companion human, or your companion animal does something really spectacular:

“Let the treat fit the feat.”

Here’s a nice example of it. Marge Rogers is reinforcing her dog for recalling to her away from eating a plateful of tasty food. At 0:50 when she calls him and he comes quickly and immediately, she gives him really high value food, a piece at a time from her hands, which extends the duration of the reward experience. She is also praising him and giving him her undivided attention. She is telling Rounder that he has done something really spectacular.

Here’s another one. Could you imagine Summer giving this kind of enthusiasm for one piece of kibble?

Soon back to our regularly scheduled blog entries.

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

So maybe you are new to clicker training and you keep hearing people talking about lumping and how bad it is. Be a splitter, not a lumper, they say. You have a vague idea about it but maybe aren’t exactly sure what they mean except that lumping is bad.

Or maybe you are a teacher and you would like a really clear example of lumping vs splitting to show your students.

Do I have a video for you! Continue reading “Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement”

Fixing What I Broke

Fixing What I Broke

Part 2 of Dogs Notice Everything.

The three “Missed Cue” videos were among the first videos I posted publicly wherein I tried to illuminate an aspect of dog training.

Imagine my surprise when, after showing how Zani and Summer didn’t understand their “Go to Mat” cue at a certain distance from the mat, people started asking me how I would fix that.

Oh dear. I was so proud of myself for showing the world the result of this disconnect between dogs’ and humans’ perceptions. Now people wanted me to fix it?

Let me say again: I’m not a professional trainer. I am not qualified to teach people how to train their dogs or to diagnose or treat behavior problems. But these were my dogs (and this was my mistake!). I thought about it, and decided I would feel OK about posting a solution. I could show what worked for us.

I consulted Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (the old version) and saw where she recommended moving the mat around from the very beginning. I hadn’t followed the directions, tending to stick the mat in one place and sending the dog to it from various positions. Sue wrote:

When you finally get the mat far enough away from you that she’s not going to hit it naturally, she might go looking for it (EE HAH), or you might have to switch from waiting to shaping.

— Old Training Levels, Level 2 Distance

Well, if I had done that from the beginning I never could have made the “Missed Cue” video. But going back and retraining it was fun for both Summer and myself.

Find the Mat

In the “solution” video I moved the mat farther and farther from Summer so that part of the behavior became looking for it. I put it some strange places as well; draped over a step and on top of the couch. After a couple of days’ practice of this (covered in the 3 minute video) I tested her in the original setup with the mat at the end of the hall, and actually slightly out of sight into a bedroom. She found it and ran to it confidently, going much farther than the point at which the behavior had previously fallen apart.

As usual, we didn’t do perfectly though. I did the exercise with Zani as well, and I have an unexplainable “outtake” at the end of the video where she comes up with a pretty strange alternative to finding the mat.

By the way, my dogs are free to move after I mark the behavior with a click or a yes. But since I treat so much in position in mat and other duration behaviors, they tend to stay there. That’s why you see me doing various things to re-set the dogs in these videos.

The Missed Cue: Generalization

This is the video where Zani failed to generalize the “going around” behavior from a pole lamp to a short plastic box. Or rather, I failed to help her generalize it.  Since the video was short, I included a suggested way to retrain the behavior, where I took a third object, a fire extinguisher, which has a vertical profile, and cued her to go around that as a transition between the dissimilar objects. She ran to the fire extinguisher, offered a couple of behaviors towards it, then tried going around. The second time I gave the cue she responded quickly. Looking back now, I would do this differently. I took a risk using the cue. It is usually not recommended to use the cue unless and until the dog is very solid on the behavior. What I would do today, and what I am doing with puppy Clara as she learns this behavior, is re-shape the behavior each time I introduce a new object in the beginning, and not use the cue until she is offering it regularly. That way I don’t “dilute” the meaning of the cue. As Sue Ailsby says, “Remind, review, reteach.”

Here is a short video of Clara “re-learning” the go around behavior on a new object for her. It only took a few clicks for her to get it. Let me reiterate that this is a re-shaping, not the initial shaping of the behavior. If I recall, that took about 5 minutes and many more approximations, and of course she wasn’t doing it with such ease at the end of that session. I will do the re-shaping on various objects in several environments before I use the cue “cold” on a new thing.

Clara Re-Learning Go Around

Here are two short examples of how well you can generalize the “go around” behavior (called “Distance” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) if you use the reteach method and are very thorough, as my friend lynnherself is.

Going Around a Car

Going Around a Building (holding a leash!)

We’ve already had one very nice description of how another trainer solved the distance problem with Go to Mat. How about the rest of you? Have you solved this kind of problem? Do you want to share that in a comment or a video?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

Dogs Notice Everything

Dogs Notice Everything

There is a purple bathmat on the floor with a small piece of kibble next to it. We can see the head and shoulders of a sand-colored dog, who is looking warily at the treat with her body language pulling backwards.
Conflicting Cues: Clara can’t figure out how to get past the treat on the floor to get to her mat.

I am fascinated by how dogs perceive the world.

Dog experts and ethologists have been telling us for a while that dogs discriminate beautifully, but generalize poorly.

What this means in our training lives is that dogs notice all the little things that we, as trainers, tend to do the same every time. Humans fall into patterns easily and we randomize with difficulty.  Dogs notice the patterns. When I teach my dog to run a few feet to go around something and return, I usually use a lamp pole or fire extinguisher. So when I get out one of those items, it’s obvious to her what we are going to practice. It is _so_ obvious in fact, that uttering the verbal cue as she performs the behavior is probably just so much background noise to her. At the beginning stages of learning the behavior, this works to our advantage. I can get her to do the behavior just from context. But later, as we teach the verbal cue, it’s our job as trainers to vary everything else possible.

I can vary a lot of things with the “go around” behavior. These include the following.

  • the object
  • where I stand
  • the direction of travel
  • the distance to the object
  • the room we practice in
  • the presence of my other dogs

And you know what? I can vary all that, and even then she probably doesn’t know the cue. I left out a big factor. She has been watching my body language the whole time. Just try to teach a dog to go around something without clueing them into that with your body. (OK you herding people, I know you all have to do it all the time.) Sometimes we have to take the extreme measure of getting out of sight of our dogs to know whether they know the cue.

The dog starts to understand that it is all about that little sound we were making after we winnow out the contextual cues. Some breeds are better than this than others, and experienced dogs learn it faster. But none of us trainers can afford to skip generalization.

There has been quite a bit written on reasons a dog might not respond to a cue. Here are three nice blog posts about it:

Three Reasons Why Your Dog Isn’t Responding  by Eric Brad at Life as a Human.

The Disappearing Sit by Kevin Myers at DogLovers Digest.

“He Blew Me Off!” by Nicole Wilde at Wilde About Dogs.

Sue Ailsby in her Training Levels books approaches generalization in the best way I have seen in any book or system. She includes explicit instructions on generalizing in every behavior in the Levels. (Full disclosure: I helped edit the book.)

Sue writes in her colorful way about asking her service dog Stitch for a favorite behavior (spin to the right) in a new context:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those 3 little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her.

— Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, p. 226

Once you are in on it, the difference between dogs’ and humans’ perceptions is fun. But this disconnect can be bad news for some unlucky dogs. Force-based trainers seem to glory in the idea that when this communication breakdown happens, their dog is indeed “giving them the paw.” I have heard this expression uttered more than once in complete earnest.

Burch and Bailey wrote in “How Dogs Learn,”:

Well-intended owners sign up for classes at their local obedience school, only to get instruction on heeling and figure-8s…….Obedience instructors who run classes designed around formal exercises think their training will ultimately result in a well-behaved dog at home. They firmly believe the behaviors taught in class will generalize to the home. But the majority of obedience class dropouts in a 1991 study told us they quit obedience classes because they saw no changes in their dog’s behavior at home. This suggests that training is not generalizing the way some trainers think it is.

— How Dogs Learn, Mary Burch and Jon Bailey, 1999, p 78-79

The world of dog training schools and classes has doubtless improved since 1991. But at every obedience trial I have ever attended, I have seen handlers in states of rage or at least confusion at their dogs’ surprise inability to perform. Even if you attribute the dogs’ problems to “stress,” where did the stress come from? Changes in the dog’s usual training environment. Changes that in addition to differences in the visual environment involve strange dogs, strange people, new noises, a road trip, etc.

I have seen the furious trainer phenomenon once too many times. So I made a series of videos showing my dogs confounded by small changes in the environment, the props, and in one case, the effect of a previous reinforcement history.

In other words, I set them up to fail.

I admit it; I experiment on my dogs. I push the envelope at times. But just so you don’t think I am a complete meanie: in the videos, they have already succeeded and been rewarded several times. After they fail, I give them an opportunity to perform an alternative behavior and get rewarded again. So from their point of view, this is a normal training session with an imperfect trainer where one time they fail to get the behavior and fail to get the reward. The only difference is that this time, for once, I actually had a clue it was coming.

The Missed Cue

In the Missed Cue video, I move my dogs farther and farther from their mat in a boring hallway and cue them to go to it. And then we see it. Here the respond confidently to my verbal cue. A few inches away, they respond to it in utter bewilderment.  Some viewers have pointed out that in addition to the difference in distance, the dogs fail when the starting place is near the end of the hall with an open door next to them. So yes, it may have been more than just the inches. But think how different that is from how our minds work. The same word doesn’t compute when suddenly there is a familiar bedroom door to our left?

Missed Cue: Paw Touch

In the paw touch video, I let Summer practice her paw whack, a favorite behavior, on several objects, including a little basket lying upside down. Then I turn the basket over. Summer, who learned to fetch in 17 shaping sessions using that same little basket, is helpless in the face of that history. She fetches the basket proudly and prances around with it. Her discrimination is so fine that she reacts differently to the same small object depending on whether it is right side up or upside down.

The Missed Cue: Generalization

The generalization video shows Zani going around some objects. I flummox her by substituting a short plastic box for the pole lamp we had been using. She interacts with the box with a variety of behaviors, then checks back with me for further instruction. I then substitute a fire extinguisher, which is a vertical object like the pole lamp. This time she figures it out. (Nowadays I would have handled that a little differently. Stay tuned for the next blog entry for more about that.)

By the way, I know there are times when dogs understand our cues and do something else. But I believe that happens a lot less frequently than many trainers think. And when it does happen: that’s just a different training challenge.

I would love to hear from you readers about times your dogs surprised you by not understanding a cue. I hope to get some replies down below. Also if you have a video that would be great. Submit it on YouTube as a response to one of mine. (Send me an email if you don’t know how to do this.) Wouldn’t it be educational to have a whole string of these?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Addendum, 8/22/12

There is a new Missed Cue video in the series. Attack of the Zen Field.

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