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Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current behavior science textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The conclusions are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.
This is a typical response to application of a mild-to-moderate aversive. I created this graph because 1) I don’t have rights to the ones in textbooks, and 2) standard behavior change graphs are difficult to interpret if you are unfamiliar with them. I made a different type of graph, but what I have represented is the same response you see in the textbooks and research papers. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis shows the ratio of behavioral decrease. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to the frequency of the behavior and shows that the suppression of behavior was only temporary.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But the immediate risk of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog is not the only problem with using aversives. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In behavior science, it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become habituated to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something. (I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree on this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, this situation usually comes from a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully performing desensitization to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the researchers determined that the rats had reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised in nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in behavior science, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off in behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. Raising the level of the punishment is reinforcing to the human.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and punishment’s known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see habituation to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence. My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that can destroy our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.

References

Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.1)Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a downside, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making
In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous—to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one—to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that they come with a price. Please comment!

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes   [ + ]

1. Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”
You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

I think it’s so interesting when someone says that.

Every so often I hear or read a confident claim from someone saying that desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) wouldn’t work on them.  They seem offended at the very idea that food would help them overcome their fear. The nerve of anyone to even mention it!

Actually, I can relate just a little. Maybe the idea is a tiny bit threatening. So many of us hold our individuality near and dear.  Americans especially, I suspect, are taught (conditioned, hah!) to view conditioning as some kind of mechanistic insult to our personhood. It evokes scary thoughts of self-serving mind control as in Brave New World.

But could any of us really be immune from associative learning and respondent conditioning? Do the processes of learning apply to us or not? Are we really such exceptional super-humans that we know in advance that a method that operates in a fairly predictable psychological and physiological manner just….won’t?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shoving Cookies

a handful of vanilla sandwich cookies

To start with, the phrase about “shoving cookies” signals either a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of the process of counterconditioning/desensitization. The claim usually goes something like this:

You could shove all the cookies at me you want but it wouldn’t make me feel any better if I were trapped in a room full of [spiders, clowns, snakes, etc.]

I could end the post right here and just say that’s a straw man argument, because it is. But I’m interested in what’s behind it, so I’ll keep going.

Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and nonthreatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counterconditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesired response with something that evokes desired emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.

So of course if the process were started with a full-blown exposure to the scary thing, those cookies probably wouldn’t do much. Cookies wouldn’t help a person who is already scared out of their wits. However, that scenario is not DS/CC. The desensitization component ensures that we never start at such an over-the-top exposure.

What’s This About Starting with a Low-Grade Exposure?

Performing desensitization/counterconditioning when addressing fears ensures that we start with a low intensity, manageable form of the scary stimulus. This is done for at least two reasons. One is ethics, and the other is efficacy. I have discussed the ethics issue in my publications on thresholds. Since we can’t explain to animals what we are doing or get their “buy-in,” there are issues of consent that are not present with humans. It is more ethical to start with a non-traumatic exposure to the scary thing.

But the second reason, efficacy, applies to humans as well as other animals, and this is why the quote above about creepy things vs. cookies doesn’t cut it. We start with a tiny, controlled exposure to the scary thing precisely so that the emotional reaction to it doesn’t overpower the positive response to the pleasant stimulus we will use for our counterconditioning.

The anxiety-producing stimulus must be presented at a low enough level that the parasympathetic nervous system response to food (or specifically for humans, the practice of trained relaxation or other internal technique) is stronger than that of the sympathetic nervous system’s fear response. (See Behavior Therapy Techniques: A Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses, by Joseph Wolpe.)

Pavlov’s Work as an Example

Let’s compare classical conditioning, which doesn’t usually necessitate desensitization, and counterconditioning, which usually does. We can use Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs as a starting point.

Pavlov’s dogs learned via respondent conditioning to salivate when a sound, probably a bell, immediately preceded the delivery of food. They most likely did not have any negative association with the bell to begin with; it was probably a neutral stimulus. Because of the bell being paired as a temporal precursor to food, the dogs’ physiological response to food (including salivation and other internal preparation of the GI system) transferred to the sound of the bell. This straightforward classical pairing changed the dogs’ simple auditory response to the bell to an appetitive one, apparently without a hitch.

But what if there had been a dog who was deathly afraid of the sound of a bell beforehand? When the bell rang, the dog’s sympathetic nervous system would have kicked in, with a cascade of biochemicals and physiological responses. Just like for the person in the room full of spiders, snakes, or clowns, that situation would have provided a strong competing response that would inhibit the ability to relax or respond to even the yummiest food.

Depending on the order of events, the dog could even get reverse conditioned, and the fear triggered by the bell could get associated with the food. Likewise, the person in the room full of spiders being showered with cookies may not want a cookie again for a long time.

So for the bell-fearing dog and the spider-fearing person, we would use desensitization in addition to the counterconditioning. We would start with a very dilute, weak exposure to the scary thing. Then the seesaw would drop on the side of response to the conditioning stimulus being the more powerful process at work.

This is also why we use something like steak and not kibble when doing counterconditioning on dogs. We take every opportunity to get the strongest positive response possible.

So again, our people with their off-the-cuff denials are not describing DS/CC at all.

Let’s explore how DS/CC is typically done with a human.  I’ll volunteer for the thought experiment.

My Phobia: Crawdads

A reddish orange crawdad (crayfish) is in some green plants and facing the camera. Its eyes and antennae are facing straight forward. This photo could be used as a step in desensitization/counterconditioning .
A crawdad ready to get me. Also called crayfish (the formal name) and crawfish.  (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I spent a lot of time playing in a murky creek as a kid. Crawdads creeped me out.  I was afraid of being pinched by one, underwater where I couldn’t see it. I felt like they were ugly and sneaky. And I was also really, really grossed out by the dead ones I would see sometimes. They would be in the still, shallow water, and have algae and murk on them. I would think they were alive, just lurking, until I moved the water around them and they would slowly disintegrate. Ewww!

However, crawdads are just not all that dangerous. They generally are not going hurt you very badly, especially if you leave them alone. Certainly, they are not as potentially harmful as bumblebees (which I don’t fear abnormally) or the non-poisonous snakes I had as pets. I believe I was pinched by a crawdad one time. It was completely underwhelming. I felt this little pinch on my big toe, and then it was gone.

The comparative harmlessness of crawdads makes my little phobia a perfect candidate for DS/CC. There is no ethical problem with making me comfortable around crawdads, as there would be, for example, with escaped convicts or bears.

Let’s Make a Plan

So how would we really go about addressing my irrational fear of crawdads with desensitization/counterconditioning?

First of all, we have many more options with humans than with animals (on this page is just a sampling of the many things that have worked with humans). We don’t have to use “cookies,” although we certainly could. With humans, we can often evoke a competing emotional state by using imagination/cognition or a physical activity. There are lots of things one can use.

Now, the idea of cookies (especially chocolate ones) is enticing, but what if I got full too fast? Satiation can indeed be a problem. And all that imagining or virtual reality described in the resource list sounds like more work than I feel like doing. So, my first choice for a tool to use for my own counterconditioning is that potent secondary reinforcer for humans: money!  How about if some rich person funded my DS/CC by arranging for me to be paid $50 every time I perceived a crawdad in any form, proceeding up a desensitization hierarchy? (I’m actually already thinking about how I would go around looking for crawdads.)

To do it properly I would need to establish a hierarchy of exposures, so here is what I came up with. In real life, I would do this in consultation with a knowledgeable psychotherapist, who would also monitor the sessions to gauge the exposure levels and my response.

Steps of Graded Exposure to Crawdads

Each iteration of each step will pay $50, with the option of adjustments by the supervising psychologist.

  1. Read a story in which crawdads are peripherally mentioned.
  2. Write the word “crawdad” myself on a piece of paper. Note that this might be a good first step for the people who write posts about how DS/CC couldn’t work for their fear, since they have already shown that they can write about it. In contrast, there are people with phobias so severe (emetophobes come to mind) that they can’t even stand to see the word that is associated with their phobia.
  3. View a cartoonish picture of a happy crawdad.
  4. Look at these silly crawfish guys at Mardi Gras.
  5. Play with this adorable plush crawfish. (I actually want one!)
  6. Read an educational piece about crawdads and their importance in the environment like this one (with no pictures).
  7. View a realistic still photo of a small, clean crawdad (remember the part about murk—I’m trying to avoid that).
  8. (Steps 8a, 8b, 8c, etc) View a variety of photos, gradually including bigger crawdads and murkier environments. No movement yet.
  9. Watch a video like this one that shows a small crawdad moving around in a crystal clear tank.
  10. Watch more videos, gradually increasing numbers of crawdads, movement, size, and murk.
  11. View, in person, a single crawdad in a tank, such as in the setup in Step 9.
  12. View more crawdads in tanks, raising criteria with movement, numbers, and intensity as with the photos and videos.
  13. Put my hand in a tank with a baby crawdad for it to investigate.
  14. Do the same in a tank with several babies.
  15. [I’m leaving out steps of deliberating touching juvenile or adult crawdads because going that far is not necessary for my needs and could hurt the crawdads.]
  16. Listen to the song, “Crawdad Hole.” I originally had this as an early step, since it’s a very pleasant tune, but then I actually listened to the lyrics, which include a whole bag of crawdads breaking and the crawdads were “back to back.” Oops! Imagining multiple moving crawdads was too intense for an early exposure, but is probably okay about now.
  17. Go explore a creek (something I love to do, by the way) where there are known to be crawdads, but stay on the bank.
  18. Go back to the creek and actively look for crawdads (probably won’t find any). Just for fun, the fee has just gone up and I will get $200 if I see a real crawdad in the wild.
  19. Sit by the creek with my feet dangling in the water. Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.
  20. Wade in the creek (with footwear if appropriate). Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.

I would get paid for each iteration of any one of these tasks. Under the care of the psychotherapist, I could repeat tasks, or add interim steps as needed. (In case the potency of the $50 tempted me to linger unnecessarily on a particular step, the psychotherapist would observe me for possible “fake” responses, and would be free to make alterations in the protocol accordingly.)

For the sake of thoroughness, I added more steps to the list than would probably be necessary for me. You might want to note how many steps there were before the real-life crawdad made an appearance. That is the beauty of desensitization, and why it’s really a shame that people misrepresent it.

If anybody wants to fund my project, please let me know!

Would it Work?

There’s the question. If I went through standard DS/CC of my crawdad phobia, would it work? Probably! Claiming to be exempt from this well-documented process, whether happening naturally in life or in a protocol, is what’s pretty hard to defend.

Our bodies are wired to make associations. If we didn’t build these associations, we wouldn’t have many of the pleasures in life that we do. We do have to be a bit more creative and work a bit longer if we are “rehabbing” a stimulus with negative associations rather than a neutral one. Yeah, it seems kind of silly for the sight of a crawdad to predict $50, but if it did, I bet my feelings about them would change.  And with a bit of finesse, the added pleasure from mucking about in creeks without fear–access to pleasurable activities–would kick in as I weaned off the money.

To make one comment about dogs: I have watched that exact process with my feral dog Clara, and it is thrilling. For a long time, strangers predicted spray cheese. Now they predict comfortably hanging out with her dog and human friends, being able to walk up and give interesting people a good sniff, being able to go in completely new environments and explore without worry, and of course being able to sniff good pee-mail. She actually chooses these activities rather than hanging around for the food. She is free to choose environmental reinforcers. She was formerly prevented from that by her fears.

So I bet I could go from cartoons to plush toys to photos of itty bitty cute (really?) ones all the way up to the gnarly crusty crawdads hiding in the mud. This is not some kind of faith on my part. It’s in keeping with what I have learned that science says about the process, creating a protocol that is in keeping with what we know, and personal observations that are in concert with that knowledge.

Can One Resist?

You do kind of have to wonder whether the people who are adamant that it wouldn’t work would actually cooperate. Could one actually resist counterconditioning?

Stay tuned for a future blog on trying to resist respondent conditioning. There is an interesting story in the literature. But in the meantime, let me leave with some words by Dr. William Mikulas, a behavioral psychologist and also the author of this cool book:

Counterconditioning of fear/anxiety takes place outside of cognitive control, so does not require cognitive acceptance or beliefs. But, of course, cognitive co-operation makes it much easier!!–Dr. William Mikulas, excerpt from personal email, August 2014

Coming Up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are also issues of order and timing that would affect which response would “win.” We’re leaving them aside for now.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

Stinky Stuff on My Back! DS/CC for Flea Treatment

A woman and a small black and tan hound mix are sitting on a bed. The woman is holding a syringe (no needle) against the dog's back while the dog looks at her attentively. She is performing desensitization/counterconditioning for the application of topical flea medicine

Thank you to Jennifer Titus and Debbie Jacobs for their help with the post and movie. All errors are my own and all clumsy training moments are in spite of their excellent counsel. 

Before I got serious about training, I regarded putting topical flea treatment on my dogs as one of those necessary evils in their lives. After all, it happened only once a month at most. And it didn’t occur to me that I could make that awful smelling stuff any easier to bear. So I would either catch and hold them while I applied it, or apply it by stealth while they were eating. Summer and Cricket were cooperative, if unhappy. Zani actively avoided me when I had the applicator in my hand. I had to chase her down.

Fleas have been rare around here for a couple of years now, for whatever reason, and I have rarely had to treat the dogs. It became a non-issue for a while.

Please note that I am not making any recommendations regarding whether to apply flea treatment, how often, or what product one should use. But even if you never use the stuff–stick around long enough to see what this is about. The processes described here can be generalized for other kinds of handling as well. 

Anyway,  recently I saw some signs of fleas, so I decided it was time to start applying the treatment again. I recalled how unpleasant  Zani used to find the application of the liquid to her back. I decided to do a little desensitization/counterconditioning with all the dogs to see if I could get them a little more comfortable.

I didn’t go for the whole banana, the whole classical reaction, as I explain below in “How Far to Go.” But in three short sessions I got three dogs who were pretty blasé about the process, and looked forward to their treats. I wish I had done it much earlier!

DS/CC

Desensitization/Counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a method wherein you replace one emotional response, in this case,”Ewwww, run!” with another one: “Yummy, fun!!”*  You do this by pairing the individual aspects of the “ewwww”-invoking activity gradually with a wonderful treat. So the holding of the plastic medicine tube can come to predict good stuff just as reliably as if you were holding a dinner bowl or a food toy if you do the procedure properly. Ditto the smell of the icky medicine, and all other aspects of the process you can identify and practice.

A poster showing a dog, in the first pat, having a happy reaction to a piece of meat, then a neutral reaction to a bell. In the second part, the bell ringing precedes the piece of meat. In the last part, the dog has a happy reaction to the bell.
Poster credit to Sarah Pennington of Yaletown Dog Training. Used with permission. Thanks, Sarah!

For detailed instructions on performing DS/CC, check out this description from the ASPCA, and the CARE for Reactive Dogs site. The protocols on the CARE website are designed for dogs with fear and/or aggression issues, and they focus on exposure to people, other animals, or scary objects. But guess what: the concept is exactly the same. You can use the same process to help your dog learn to accept stinky medicine as you do to help them stop being afraid of that guy with the beard, dark glasses, and cowboy hat. Or the FedEx truck.

Also you can check out my post and movie about thresholds, which clarify some terminology and discuss the need for each step of counterconditioning to be done at an exposure level that is non-aversive to the animal.

There are two different procedures that are both referred to as counterconditioning. One is  classical or Pavlovian counterconditioning, where the behavior of the subject animal is irrelevant. You are building an association between one stimulus and another, like Pavlov’s bell that predicted food. The other procedure is operant counterconditioning,  where the animal is asked to perform a certain behavior while in the presence of a formerly aversive stimulus. The behavior is usually one that tends to elicit an incompatible state of mind, such as relaxing on a mat or a behavior that the dog finds especially fun.

What I usually do, and what you will see in the movie, is pure classical conditioning. Zani is not required to do any particular behavior. She is just learning the pairing of various handling actions with great treats. She does lie down for a lot of it, but that is not required.

A Proposed Step by Step Protocol for Topical Meds Application

I have never seen a protocol for DS/CC presented for this particular husbandry task, so I made one, and made a movie of it.

Here’s how I went about it.

What’s Unpleasant About Getting the Treatment?

First I had to figure out what I would need to address. Here are some of the things my dogs didn’t like about getting their topical flea treatment applied.

  • They sometimes had to be restrained.
  • The medicine smelled very unpleasant.
  • I had to reach over and touch them on their back with a tube or syringe.
  • The touch had a few seconds’ duration.
  • The sensation of the liquid flowing onto their back was probably pretty weird.

Even though there was apparently no pain involved, it was a moderately unpleasant process.

Supplies for the Conditioning and Application

Two syringes without needles: one full of liquid, the other empty but sitting in a bowl of water
Some of the necessary supplies

What did I need?

  • Clean eyedropper or a syringe without the needle
  • Used flea treatment applicator tube (for the medicinal smell)
  • Water-filled eyedropper or syringe
  • Actual flea treatment applicator, or the liquid in a syringe
  • High value treats: meat, cheese, liver or tuna brownies, dehydrated raw meat, etc.
  • Washable or disposable towel

Setup and Position

What would be the optimal setup? I took my dogs (one at a time) to a comfortable area. They could take any position, and could leave if they wanted to. That would simply be a message to me that my treats were not good enough and/or I was proceeding too fast. I would need to adjust accordingly.

Sitting is the least desirable position, since if the treatment is applied it will run straight down the dog’s back, but it is probably OK for most small dogs since the amount of liquid is less. Once my dogs realized that the actions I was performing predicted treats, they stuck around and got comfortable. Either standing or lying down work fine for the actual application of the medicine for most dogs, but I didn’t worry about that during the initial conditioning. The focus is entirely the dog’s comfort level, not requiring a particular behavior.

The Steps of the Process

Here are the steps I chose for my dogs, written out as instructions. You may be able to skip some of the steps, or you may need to further split them out into smaller increments. Let your knowledge of your dog and her response to each activity be your guides.

Perform desensitization/counterconditioning for each of the following steps as follows:

  1. Don't forget the good treats!
    Don’t forget the good treats!

    Reach over dog’s back with your hand, treat. Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this. *

  2. Reach over and touch dog’s back with your fingers, treat. Repeat the touch/treat as in the previous step.
  3. Put the used applicator tube close enough for your dog to get a whiff, treat. Do not let your dog lick or mouth it. Also, you don’t need to wait for an obvious sniff. You don’t want to teach an operant behavior. She’ll get the smell if you just wave it by her face. Repeat the presentation/treat.
  4. Show your dog the clean eyedropper or syringe without the needle before you start. Reach over and touch dog’s back with it, then treat. With big dogs, practice touching between their shoulder blades and also a place farther down their back, if included in the instructions for the treatment. Repeat the touch/treat.
  5. Repeat Step 4, adding duration with the eyedropper in contact with the dog’s back, then treat. Repeat the touch-hold/treat.
  6. Return to Step 3 for a few repetitions, letting your dog sniff the used applicator. Then use it to touch your dog’s back as you did with the eyedropper as in Steps 4 and 5, and treat. Repeat the touch/treat, then the touch-hold/treat.
  7. Switch back to the clean eye dropper. Put some water in it. Repeat the duration touch to the back but this time squeeze out some liquid, then treat. This will likely surprise your dog. Be ready to start out with a very small amount. Take your time with this step as you build up to the approximate amount of liquid you will need to apply. Repeat the liquid application/treat. (Don’t do too many repetitions of this at once since your dog will get wet! But you may need to do a lot of short sessions since this is probably the single most novel experience for the dog. You also may need to back up to Step 5 a few times.)
  8. It’s show time! Clear the area of food bowls and anything that you don’t want to get droplets of medication on (your dog will shake at some point). Get the actual medication in the correct dosage. Offer it to your dog to sniff, give a treat. Apply the medication to her back according to instructions, treat. Treat a few more times if you like, especially if you think the liquid causes discomfort.
  9. Your dog will eventually shake off, so keep her in the area of the house/yard where that is OK. Keep your treats covered. Hang around with the towel and you can hold it next to/above your dog to limit the shower of medicine.

You may need additional steps to get your dog comfortable. For instance, if you use latex gloves on your hands, you will need a step for the dog to smell them, and you may need to spend more time desensitizing her to the hand touch. Also, you may note that I didn’t work on the restraint part. After I worked on the other stuff my dogs didn’t need to be restrained.

What if it Stings?

As far as I can tell, the topical flea treatment does not hurt my dogs. But I have heard that it is painful for some dogs and can remain that way for quite a while. If that is the case for your dogs, when you give them the actual treatment it might be a good time to hand feed them a meal. Also in that case, periodic maintenance treatments with plain water in the applicator would be helpful so that the application doesn’t predict a long-term discomfort every time.

Tips for Successful DS/CC

The key to successful DS/CC is making the particular action predict the goodie, and making sure that prediction doesn’t attach to anything else.

  • Don’t get in a rhythm of touch, treat, touch, treat. Wait varying amounts of time in between repetitions. This is harder than it sounds. Humans don’t choose random intervals well. If you need to, write out a series of random numbers (within reasonable boundaries) before you start. Silently count out the seconds between reps using the random numbers.
  • Always treat just after the action, but not simultaneously. Don’t move that treat hand until you have performed the action, or it is well underway if it is a duration procedure.
  • Do use a unique treat that they don’t get any other time, at least during the initial conditioning. Make it a good size. Fewer reps with a spectacular treat are usually better than lots of reps with even a very good treat.
  • Do change up everything else. Sometimes use a treat bag, sometimes put treats in your pocket, sometimes have them in a bowl on the floor if your dogs can work with that. Do sessions at different times of day. Use different locations. Wear a hat. Skip a day or two. Do a stealth, unexpected action once in a while. When they are least expecting it, whip out the eyedropper, touch their back, give the awesome treat. (In the video, I recorded all of the sessions in the same location, but that was to simplify the filming.)
  • Demonstrate that some common actions do not predict treats. Move your treat hand, but don’t give a treat. Rattle the treat bag, but don’t give a treat.
  • Avoid the temptation to start a repetition every time your dog gives you eye contact or does something else that is charming. Stay strong and be random! You can probably see me responding to Zani sometimes in the movie. It’s a real challenge not to respond to the dog’s behavior.
  • Don’t reverse the conditioning by reaching toward or even looking at the treat before performing the action.
  • Practice without the dog first if you need to.

The movie doesn’t show the gradual change in Zani’s attitude to the handling steps; that would be a bit longer! My focus is to show how to break down the handling, and hopefully to show a dog who is more than just tolerant of the different activities. But you can see that she is not pulling away or trying to leave. If at any time I had seen signs of discomfort, it would’ve been time to go to an easier step.

Link to the video for email subscribers

How Far to Go

In Step 1 above, I wrote, “Repeat the reach/treat until dog is happy or at least comfortable with this.” You can decide ahead of time, or as you go along, how far you want to take the conditioning. Do you hope for the dog to be tolerant, neutral, or delighted?

If it were a perfect world and you had infinite time, it would be great to condition your dog so strongly that she started wagging her tail at the scent of the flea treatment and drooling when you got out the applicator. But most of us have bigger fish to fry. I have a formerly feral dog who still gets weekly conditioning for working in close proximity to unfamiliar humans. Another dog is sound sensitive to high frequency beeps and chirps, a third to thunderstorms and delivery trucks. I’m working on these and also with all three dogs on foot handling and nail trimming. All of these issues affect their quality of life to a much greater degree than getting medicine put on their backs at most once a month.

So I didn’t go for the full-bore, Pavlovian reaction on this one. I aimed for a neutral response, but I actually got more than that, even before doing all the steps as many times as I planned. You can see in the movie that Zani is having a pretty good time, and looking anticipatory when I perform some of the actions.

Since the treatment is needed rarely, I’ll do a few more sessions now and then, and will probably do a refresher first when I need to treat them again.

I hope anyone who tries this will let me know the outcome. Also be sure and comment if you have any more tips about the process. Have you had to split things down into finer steps when working on handling?

*We can’t directly perceive the dogs’ actual emotions, of course. But we can discern the change in their response through their behavior.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks serious

I think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement-based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.

If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.

Continue reading “Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior”
Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

A speech balloon with the words, "This method is OK because..." in it.Today’s post is about how people often justify the use of aversives. I’m going to use my own experience as an example.

  • I am going to present a description of an aversive method I used to use.
  • I am going to list many common justifications that could be offered as reasons why that method could be OK.
  • I’m going to describe the possible fallout from the method for the dog and for the handler.

Aversives

Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defined aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

An aversive can be a thing or an event. The same thing can be sometimes aversive and sometimes not. As I’ve mentioned, aversives can range from something a tiny bit annoying, like a fly buzzing around or hair blowing in your face, to being chased by a predator and at risk of death. As I delineated in a blog about assessing stress in training, we all expose our dogs to aversives. knowingly or by accident. Aversive events of different magnitudes are happening all around us all the time.

Also, for clarity’s sake, let me repeat something I say with great regularity. I do not claim to protect my dogs from all aversive events.  The thing I pay keen attention to is using aversives in training. Many of us have been culturally programmed to assume that applying a pretty high level of aversiveness in training is OK. I consciously fight that programming, and know many others who do.

I grew up as a trainer not perceiving dog body language. Like many of us, I did not notice the effects on my dogs of training methods, or I misunderstood them. I’m still working on changing my habits. I try to notice everything that is aversive to my dogs through observation. I mean everything. I am their caregiver and they can’t tell me.

But I pay an even higher level of attention to my training methods. These are things I can control. If I use an aversive,  I need to have considerations beyond, is this working?

Example of Aversive Use

When teaching a duration sit/stay, what do you do if the dog pops up into a stand before being released?

One approach based on positive reinforcement would be to lower the criteria for the dog. Pause a moment, get the dog to sit again (with a verbal cue if you are at that point), and increase the rate of reinforcement. Return to a generally shorter duration, smaller distance, or lower level of distraction, whatever you have been working on, and employ whatever method you have been using for graduating those. Work back up again.

Leaning in as a training method
Leaning in as a training method

Another common approach is to lean over the dog until she sits back down. If the trainer were at a distance from the dog, she would walk towards her and into her space first, then lean.

This is a negative reinforcement approach, with a possible element of positive punishment.

In negative  reinforcement, something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

In positive punishment, something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

It is possible for both of these processes to occur as the result of the application and removal of the same aversive, in this case, body pressure/proximity. The dog’s behavior of standing up during a sit/stay is punished, and sitting back down again is negatively reinforced.

When the handler leans over the dog, the behavior that “turns off” the pressure is the dog sitting back down. The pressure relief generally includes a well timed move backwards by the trainer.

Although two quadrants are involved, this method is generally characterized as one of negative reinforcement since the dog is learning to sit to avoid pressure. As training progresses, it will take less and less pressure to get the dog to sit (typical of negative reinforcement). This progress can happen without a corresponding drop in the dog popping up out of the sit, in other words, that behavior may not be punished. Another common characteristic of negative reinforcement is duration of the aversive, and that is present here. The pressure continues until the dog sits; it’s not just a “zap” when the dog stands up.

In the range of possible aversives, body pressure is fairly mild. It doesn’t hurt or generally startle the dog. There are no “tools” involved. No touching, yelling, or nagging. I was surprised when first told that this method was aversive. We don’t always think of it that way, and that’s part of my point.

Typical Justifications

OK, it’s “Be careful time,” as my stepdad used to say.

Here are the first two definitions of “justification” from Dictionary.com:

1. to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right
2. to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded — Dictionary.com

Justification is not a dirty word. But if our goal at the outset is to justify a training method, I would say we are on the wrong track. Justify is often used as a euphemism for “excuse.” (That is listed as one of the synonyms at the same site.) Wouldn’t it be better to assess the method, analyze its pros and cons, and observe its effects?

What follows are a bunch of reasons one could present to justify the use of body pressure. Many of them are true, some are not. However, just because a statement is true does not mean that it can stand alone as a good reason to do something, or is even relevant.

Possible Justifications

  • Body pressure is natural. Dogs and humans both understand and respond to body pressure.
  • Dogs do it to each other.
  • It works.
  • It can work fast.
  • It’s not painful or startling to the dog.
  • Negative reinforcement happens all the time in life  (i.e. it’s “natural” too).
  • Using body pressure is not as bad as using [fill in the blank] method.
  • It’s really positive reinforcement because you are adding distance when you relieve the pressure.
  • Other people use aversives too, even if they think they don’t.
  • It clarifies the situation for the dog, making the wrong response instantly clear. Now they know what to do, and what not to do.
  • It is empowering. You give the dog a problem to solve, that the human is too close. The dog can figure out the solution and take action to rectify it.
  • If you use body pressure a number of times, you have to do less and less to get the dog to sit back down. You can get it down to a miniscule movement on your part or even just a look from you.
  • Quadrants analysis is just not applicable here.
  • It’s OK to use an aversive if you try everything else first.

These are all very, very common reasons offered for the use of aversives. The problem with all of them—true or false—is that they don’t address the possible down sides of the method.

Clara guards the sprinkler
Clara demonstrating that dogs use body pressure

Observing and Analyzing Instead of Justifying

What if, instead of leaping to a justification, we instead examined the ramifications of the method? Aversives are known to have fallout. Careful consideration means that you consider the possible negative outcomes of any method. If you are a trainer, you disclose these to your client.

The possible negative effects of using aversive body pressure fall into two categories: The effects on the dog, and the effects on the trainer.

Possible Fallout for the Dog

  • Using pressure from your own body is a form of (mild) coercion. If you want your dog to have completely pleasant and happy associations with your presence, you are risking putting a dent in those associations.
  • The sit/stay is no longer a purely joyful way for the dog to earn a goodie. You have added an “or else.”
  • The dog has learned avoidance pays off. Avoidance behaviors, once reinforced, are very persistent.

Possible Fallout for the Trainer

  • Methods such as this (when they work) are immediately reinforcing for the trainer. You get what you want instantly: the dog sitting back down. This could be positively or negatively reinforcing for the trainer or both.
  • Because they work so well, the human behaviors of applying and relieving pressure can become habitual and unconscious.
  • Because you don’t likely reinforce with food for a while after applying the pressure, so as not to create a behavior chain for the dog of popping up, sitting down, and getting reinforced, you are thinning out your positive reinforcement schedule right after finding out that it was probably too thin to begin with.
  • It creates a shortcut, a disincentive for doing the training patiently with positive reinforcement.
  • It’s not fair. You’re using an aversive because you didn’t teach the behavior strongly enough in the first place.

Careful consideration means weighing these possible negative outcomes against the perceived benefits of the method. And it means looking with an eagle eye for any adverse effects on the dog if we do choose such a method.

The Effects Vary

This example is straight from my experience. I did formerly use this method, and can honestly state that it was an incredibly hard habit for me to break. I probably have not broken the habit completely. Since dogs are so much more perceptive of small movements than we are, I imagine I am still doing it at times and don’t even know it.

How aversive this method is to any individual dog varies. Plenty of well known positive reinforcement trainers use the body pressure method for proofing stays (also for teaching dogs to back up). It’s not a terrible thing for many dogs, although you can definitely find some videos of it where the dogs are not happy.

Thinking of my own dogs, I would be ill-advised to use this method on Zani, who is already incredibly pressure sensitive. If I used my body to coerce behavior from her, I would likely undo the work I’ve been performing to classically condition a positive emotional response to proximity and handling .

On the other hand, my dog Clara is so thrilled to be close to me in most circumstances that the method might not even work on her. It might not even be aversive. If it were a little aversive, and it did work, the long-term effects on her would probably be negligible. That’s my gut assessment, based on her personality and strong bounce-back ability. However, the effects on me would be just the same. If it worked, I would be reinforced for using it. How soon would it be before I used it on the wrong dog?

Assessing Methods

This way of thinking about one’s own training can be applied to methods that we learn about or that are presented by other trainers.

If someone is promoting a method that includes use of aversives, to me it is a danger signal if they enumerate justifications similar to the ones I listed and do not discuss the risks for the animal and trainer.

But What if My Dog Tries to Dash Out the Door into Danger?

Step in front of her. Grab her if need be. And see this post.

Regarding Comments

I would love to hear from others who have assessed aversive methods they used to use and have decided to do otherwise. Examples of the opposite type of story—”I tried everything but ended up using punishment”—are a dime a dozen.  So let’s tell the stories about consciously and successfully leaving the aversives behind. Ready, set, go!

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