Bootleg Reinforcement

Auf Deutsch!

-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.

A sand colored dog with a black tail and muzzle is in a play bow position, sniffing a person's boots.
Clara excitedly sniffing my boot. Really!

Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?

Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–scienceofbehavior.com

The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.

Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump.  Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.

When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:

  • Food on the counter.
  • Scraps in the trashcan.
  • Food the dog can grab if she runs away from you on the agility field and back to your setup area.
  • All manner of critters on the agility field.
  • Rat trails along the walls of an indoor agility course (this happened to me and my dog once).
  • Books on the bookshelf available to chew.
  • Buried cat poop that the dog can dig up.
  • Neighbor dog available to fence fight (there are bootleg negative reinforcers, now that I think of it).
  • Whatever happens to be reinforcing about barking (either positively or negatively reinforcing).
  • Whatever the dogs gets access to when she pulls on leash. And that leads to…

Odors

The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.

Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans, she is extremely neophilic, that is, 1)An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.  she is fascinated with and drawn to investigate anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.

Clara sniffing
Copping a drive-by sniff

So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)

I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.

The Movies

Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.

I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here).  I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.

I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.

The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?

When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.

If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 1.

 

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 2.

I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?

Related Posts

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Addendum: History of the Term “Bootleg”

Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:

bootleg (n.) Look up bootleg at Dictionary.com“leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.

Bootleg items
Bootleg items courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (click photo for license)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes   [ + ]

1. An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.