Tag: functional assessment

Bootleg Reinforcement

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…


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 … Continue reading  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?

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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


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.
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!


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