Tag: fear conditioning

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

Experiencing a High Magnitude Punisher and Its Fallout

Black and white cartoon drawings of two stinging insects flying together in a threatening manner
Cartoon stinging insects, since I don’t want to trigger any phobias. See the link immediately below for photo of Polistes exclamans, the common paper wasp species that was living on my porch.

Photo of Polistes exclamans in nest

silver metal storage cabinet with a blue tarp on top. The cabinet door is partially open.
This was the cabinet on the day that I found out there was a wasp nest under the blue tarp

One day last summer (2021), I was on my back porch. I lifted a tarp I keep over my cabinets so I could close the door, something I’ve done without thought dozens of times. A wasp flew out from under the tarp at warp speed and stung my hand so hard and painfully that it felt like a blow. For a moment I didn’t know what happened, but my hand hurt like hell, and I realized that a stinging insect had gotten me and that there were more of them.

I yelled and scrambled back into my house, frantically scanning to make sure no wasps had come in the door with me. I slammed the storm door and the wooden door inside it. But the wooden door doesn’t latch all the way in the summer and wouldn’t stay shut. I needed to get away from that wasp and its colleagues so badly that I leaned on the wooden door with all my body weight for an embarrassingly long time, on the off chance that a wasp might be between the doors. I recovered slowly from my scare. My hand throbbed and started to swell.

A New Experience

I’ve always gotten along very well with stinging insects. I am a gardener and around bees and wasps a lot in the yard. I have gotten very close to paper wasps on my porch before, in many situations. I’ve always felt friendly toward these creatures and have never panicked when they buzzed around me. When I sit on my porch steps, I sometimes hear the wasps chewing on the cardboard I have stapled there. You can tell how close I was when I made this cute video of a different species of paper wasp to capture the chomping noises.

I’ve had a few stings in my life. I got stung by honeybees a couple of times as a kid when I accidentally stepped on them. I’ve been stung three times by yellow jackets as an adult, but these were not bad stings. In each case, they felt like “warning” stings, as if they weren’t full strength. These stings didn’t swell up much and went away within a day.

This was different.

The Surprise Factor

The sting was painful. But the shock was worse. I’ve written before about my experience of drinking a big swig of sour milk as a kid. The experience was a disgusting shock, in part because I didn’t understand what was happening. I was young; I didn’t even know milk could go sour. That intense experience changed my behavior for life.

a woman's hands palms down on a surface. Her left hand is swollen from a wasp sting
Three days after the sting, my hand was still swelling

The wasp sting was similarly shocking. There was a sense of disorientation that came with the pain. A moment of pure physical response, while I was confused about what had happened, knowing only that I was somehow under attack.

Now I know that the wasps had defended their nest, which was under the tarp. But at the time my body only knew to run.

Behavior Change

I received an aversive stimulus from the environment. For people who are more experienced with them, a wasp sting might just be a normal day, a minor irritation. But for me, the sting and the shock were of high magnitude. My behavior changed.

I was curious to see how extensive and long-lasting the effects were, so I kept track.

I’ve written about the fallout from the use of aversives, and this includes that fear and avoidance can attach to the location and other elements of the environment besides what directly hurt us. This is one of the many risks of the use of aversives in animal training. Did this generalization happen to me? You bet, even with my human cognition and the fact that I was analyzing the experience.

This one event caused fear conditioning, punished several of my behaviors, and negatively reinforced even more.

Changes in Emotions and Respondent Behaviors

Here are the respondent behavior and emotional changes I’m aware of.

  • The sound and sight of a wasp was followed by pain, so I underwent respondent fear conditioning.
  • After that, I experienced what is called a fear-potentiated startle reflex. I startled when I heard buzzing or when I saw an insect flying toward me. This response was heightened when I was in the area where the sting happened. Previously, these stimuli would have evoked only caution.
  • I retained a bad feeling about the tarp.

Behaviors That Were Punished

Punishment, even from a strong aversive stimulus, doesn’t always last forever. These behaviors stopped for several days, then gradually came back into my repertoire after I got rid of the wasps (see the reinforcement section below). Even then, most of the behaviors were still less frequent for quite a while.

  • I stopped moving the tarp. At some point I would have to, but it would probably be a long time before I reached up thoughtlessly to move it. That behavior was punished.
  • I stopped going out my back door and stopped hanging out on my back porch.
  • I didn’t use any of the tools from my cabinet, even though the door was open. Reaching into the cabinet was punished. The wasps might be in there, too!
  • I didn’t close the cabinet door because I would’ve had to move the tarp.

Behaviors That Were Negatively Reinforced

The first three of these behaviors were escape behaviors; the rest were avoidance behaviors. All negatively reinforced.

  • I ran away from the wasps.
  • I closed the door between them and me.
  • I leaned on the door and scanned for wasps inside the house.
  • For the first few days, if I had to go into the back yard, I went out the front door, then went in the side gate.
  • I did the same for the dogs.
  • I was hypervigilant when outside, and scanned frequently for wasps.
  • When I did venture out my back door, I closed it quietly and skirted the other side of the porch. These wasps were defensive, not out to get me, but I didn’t know where their nest was or whether there might be more than one.
  • I hired an exterminator. I hated to do that. I had a lifetime of experience getting along just fine with these small creatures, and I try to treat these little lives with respect. I hated to kill a bunch of them because they made their house in the wrong place. But I needed to use my tools and to close the door of the cabinet and to keep my dogs safe.
  • Well after the exterminator had come, I gingerly pulled the tarp off the cabinets. Wasps couldn’t live in there out of my sight anymore!
  • I laid the tarp out on the grass to “cook” in the heat for a couple of days, then rinsed it with water before drying it and putting it away.
  • I Googled a bit because I got a large localized response to the sting. My entire hand swelled over the course of about four days and stayed that way for another three. I found out that my high magnitude localized response might mean I would be more likely to have a systemic response (anaphylaxis) if I were stung in the future. This made me redouble both my reasonable and over-the-top precautions.

Aftermath

It’s now a year later. Most of my behaviors that were punished have returned to baseline, and I have some last remnants of the avoidance behaviors.

Until recently, all that remained was some slight watchfulness; I was no longer blasé about wasps, but the fear and avoidance had ramped down. I’m more careful than I used to be when they fly around me, but that’s about it. That lifetime of good and neutral experiences with stinging insects buried most of the fear.

Then it happened. One day last week, I went to the back door, opened it, and a yellow paper wasp flew in and lit on the inside of the door as I closed it. But I didn’t startle or panic. My former, pre-sting self was back in charge, even though I was in the situation I had tried so hard to prevent before: a wasp was in the house with me.

But this was a situation I had dealt with many times in the past. I kept an eye on the wasp and slowly opened the door again. The wasp stayed put for a while, then started walking around a little on the door. Then it took off and flew in the right direction (the porch). It circled very fast, then flew away. I didn’t startle or flinch.

A storm door with the key in the lock and a shiny metal chain hanging down from the key
Seeing the flashing chain out of the corner of my eye triggered a “WASP!” response

I was thinking about my behavior changes and how things had about gone back to baseline when the metal chain on the key on the lock caught the light as it swung. I startled! The proximity of the wasp had woken up that response again. The quick flash in my peripheral vision was similar enough to the flash of a fast-moving insect that the reflex got triggered.

I’m a little out of my depth to be making any generalizations, but I think it’s fascinating that my operant responses are mostly back to where they were before, but the automatic, respondent behaviors were waiting right there to jump into action again. Thank you, sympathetic nervous system, for remembering and working to keep me safe. Thank you also for reminding me of the persistence of the fear response.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

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Photo credits: Wasp illustration is a CanStock photo. Linked wasp photograph is a public domain image by Alex Wild via Wikimedia Commons. Photos of the cabinet, hands, and keychain are copyright Eileen Anderson.

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder?

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder?

Which Pavlov Is on Your Shoulder? Two photos of Pavlov, side by side, one with a halo and one with devil's horns.

The trainer Bob Bailey is often quoted as saying that when one is training an animal, “Pavlov is on your shoulder.” He is reminding us that while we are training operant behaviors (sit, down, fetch, weave), there are also respondent behaviors and respondent conditioning occurring. Respondent behaviors are behaviors that are generally involuntary and include both outwardly visible reflexes and internal surges of hormones.

But there’s another part that is not quoted as often. Bob Bailey also says that while Pavlov is on one of your shoulders, Skinner is on the other. (B.F. Skinner was known for exploring operant conditioning.) In his Fundamentals of Animal Training DVD, Bailey states that both fellows are always on your shoulders. Depending on what you are doing, one may shrink while the other grows in importance. (Great visual, eh?)

When we are training operantly, there are still classical associations going on. And when we are doing classical conditioning, there are operant behaviors that come along and get reinforced.

I find these mixtures fascinating and have some posts and video examples.

• In this post, I describe and show how I was using Skinner for operant behaviors but Pavlov was on my shoulder. You can see the results of good associations (food, play) with agility behaviors. I was teaching operant behaviors, but many aspects of the training (including me) got a positive dose of classical conditioning.

• In this post and video, I discuss how I performed Pavlovian conditioning. But Skinner came tagging along close behind. You can see the results of classically conditioning my dog Clara to respond favorably to another dog barking. Yes, she even drools. We can assume that her body is getting ready to ingest food. But we also see tail wagging, orientation to me (food lady), and in the end, running to me when she hears barking. Those are all operant behaviors. She was performing operant behaviors that reflected her emotional state and expedited the food delivery, and those behaviors got reinforced.

What About Fear Conditioning?

Wait, what?

skinner box with rat inside. The box has a food dispenser, a floor with an electrified grid, an audio speaker, and lights that can blink
Skinner box. Note electrified grid in the floor.

We often use classical conditioning procedures with the goal of alleviating fear. We do this by classically conditioning an appetitive response, and, via desensitization, slip it in place of the fear response. But the term “fear conditioning” means something else in the literature. It refers to using classical pairing to create a fear response to a formerly neutral stimulus. Scientists including Pavlov did this. Such experiments have been performed for decades. Animals learned that a buzzer, light, or other stimulus predicted a shock to the floor of their cage or to some apparatus. They started showing fearful behaviors and a general suppression of behavior when exposed to the predictive (conditioned) stimulus.

carolina wren closeup
Carolina wren: I am little and very noisy

These pairings happen in life all the time. Some years back, a pair of Carolina wrens were nesting in a rubber bucket on my back porch, but I didn’t know it. The bucket was up on a table and one day I went to put it away. I grabbed it and a bird flew out noisily right into my face. It scared the crap out of me. Even though the startle wasn’t painful, nor was my life in danger, that’s the way I reacted. And I got leery of that bucket. I avoided moving it again until six months later in the dead of winter. Even then I touched it only after getting on a ladder to peer into it from a distance. I remained wary of the bucket for a year or two after as well. The bucket was not directly responsible for my scare. It was just a bucket. But I couldn’t shake the anxiety that got attached to it for quite a while.

Not all associations are dramatic or come from trauma. Repeated unpleasant experiences can become associated with the place they happened or the sight of the person who caused them. How about when that person who bugs you comments on Facebook? All you have to see is her name—not the content of the current remarks—to get a sinking feeling.

I’ve written another post about a stimulus that changed from appetitive to aversive to dismally neutral.

Back to dog training. People who train using aversive stimuli also have Pavlov on their shoulders. But trainers who use shock and prong collars, molding and body pressure, or who throw things are not generally accompanied by Nice Pavlov*. Not the one who floods the animal’s body with “let’s eat!” or “let’s play!” chemicals and causes pleasant anticipation. They get Bad Pavlov, the one associated with fear conditioning. You can see some examples of that in my Shut Down Dogs post.

There’s nuance in reading the body language, of course. If an animal has enough training to know how to control the aversive stimulus with its behavior, it won’t necessarily look miserable. Also, you can see happy body language on an animal being trained with aversives if the activity itself is fun. Hence the dogs who are said to “get excited” when the prong collar comes out—because it predicts a walk. Disassociate the walk and you will find that the prong collar—surprise—is not intrinsically fun. In a mixed case like this, though, I envision the aversive control as a heavy weight that always has the potential to pull the dog’s emotions in a negative direction or to suppress its behavior. The dog’s happiness is despite the aversive stimulus, not because of it.

Nice Pavlov Is Not Automatic

Just as the presence of aversives doesn’t always squelch all of the pleasure out of a situation, the presence of appetitive stimuli doesn’t guarantee rainbows and unicorns. We tend to assume that if you train with positive reinforcement, you automatically get a positive conditioned emotional response.  But it ain’t automatic. There are ways to mess it up.

Bad Pavlov was on my shoulder
See below for the reason Bad Pavlov is hanging around poor Clara.

If you are generous with reinforcement, minimize extinction frustration, and don’t frustrate or scare your dog—Nice Pavlov is probably on your shoulder. Your dog will build good associations to the training experience and to you.  But what if you frustrate or scare your dog? What if you repeatedly get in your dog’s space and don’t notice that she doesn’t like the pressure? Is Nice Pavlov going to show up and save the day just because you are using food? Probably not. You are not going to get a sweet, positive conditioned emotional response to your cues, to your training sessions, or to you if you are regularly letting aversive events creep into your training.

Here’s what it can look like if our own training session—with food—is less than fun for the dog.  I’ve set the link to start the video in the middle where training of my older dog, Summer, begins. It was a moderately stressful session for her, with too many competing, slightly scary stimuli from the environment. I was also asking for stationary “leave-it” behaviors that need a lot of self-control, and I was using kibble, a low-value food. Not a great combination.

Summer was a trouper, worked hard, and although she was clearly anxious through much of the session, succeeded at what I asked of her. I wouldn’t say this session damaged our relationship or tainted training in general—we had much too strong a history of happy training. But consider this: what if every training session I ever had with her was like that? Mildly scary stuff, hard tasks, low-value treats. Even though it would still be “R+ training” I don’t think I would have built up much of a positive response to training. Nice Pavlov would not have joined us—or if he had, he would have been smaller than Bad Pavlov. (Too many dudes on our shoulders!)

The photo above shows Clara on a day in 2015 after she knew I was getting ready to trim her nails. I have always used tons of good food, and Clara had been comfortable with nail trims for quite a while. But nice Pavlov was not in sight. Clara was recovering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. While she had been sick, her joints had become painful, and having her feet handled and nails trimmed hurt. (I should not have trimmed them.)

Are Pavlov and Skinner All Jumbled Up?

Yes and no. Operant and respondent behaviors are both going on all the time. But I’ve also seen some trainers use it as an excuse. They say that since Pavlov and Skinner are both present, we shouldn’t get “hung up” on which one is primary. Well sure, we can’t crawl inside the animal’s body to check. But our training procedure should reflect our goal(s). And we should definitely get hung up on whether the dog is enjoying herself.

Teach Your Children Puppies Well

Positive reinforcement-based training done even moderately well comes with lovely side effects for the trainee (and also the trainer).  But badly attempted R+ training that regularly lets aversives, coercion, or too much difficulty in the picture can stress out dogs.  If I grab my dog’s collar to move her and I haven’t conditioned her to collar grabbing, she may dodge when I grab the next time. That was aversive. If I push into her space to get her to move and she starts jumping back when I approach her, that was aversive. If I play a game with a fearful dog where they need to come closer and closer to me to get the treat and I go too fast—I am the aversive.

So take this friendly reminder from someone who has made plenty of mistakes. Yes, Pavlov is always on your shoulder. But even if we use food to train, it doesn’t mean we will automatically get a beautiful positive conditioned response to training. There are other stimuli that can creep into our training sessions that can knock the fun right out of it.

*Pavlov wasn’t actually what we would consider “nice” to dogs in this day and age, although he was likely better than many experimentalists. I’m using some rhetorical license here.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

Pavlov photo credit Wikimedia Commons. Additions in color are mine.
Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.
Carolina Wren photo credit Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Clara credit Eileen Anderson

Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

tan dog with black muzzle and smaller black dog stare at the camera expectantly
Stares of expectation from Clara and Zani. Note Clara’s tail wag.

The other day I was sitting in my bedroom with Clara and Zani and the doorbell rang. And there was dead silence. Continue reading “Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?”

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