eileenanddogs

Tag: Pavlov

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?

A white dog is wearing an orange harness with a leash attached. The leash is taut, and being pulled ahead. The dog is braced and throwing his weight backwards. Many would call this an example of the opposition reflex

Thank you to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman who made suggestions about this. All conclusions and any errors are my own. 

Have you heard the term “opposition reflex” used in dog training? It’s used pretty often. But recently I got to wondering whether the opposition reflex was really a reflex. (Quick answer: “No.” Shortest blog post I’ve ever written.)

Would you like to hear the story anyway?

First, some context. I gathered the following quotes about the “opposition reflex” from a selection of dog training articles.

  • The dog’s opposition reflex [is the] instinctive reaction to push against a push.
  • Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure called the opposition reflex.
  • If dogs are pulled in one direction, they will automatically pull in the other direction.
  • The opposition reflex is your dog’s natural instinct to resist pressure.

Wow. Instinctive! Natural! Automatic! But then I started looking for the term “opposition reflex” in lists of actual reflexes. I looked in biology, physiology, and learning theory textbooks. I looked in scholarly articles.

Results: nothing.

Virtually all mentions of the so-called “opposition reflex” are in lay articles about dog and horse training. So where did this term come from and why do we use it? It’s not in the textbooks.

History

We have Pavlov to thank for part of the confusion about the opposition reflex. Interesting, since he was a physiologist. Pavlov came up with the term “freedom reflex” for the escape behaviors of a dog who strongly resisted the harness he used in his laboratory. He generalized it to all organisms. (It turns out that Pavlov liked to call all sorts of things reflexes. That is a whole other discussion.)

Most scholars agree that Pavlov grossly over-generalized from the actions of the dog, and was mistaken in calling what was essentially resistance to coercion as a reflex. As one of his critics states:

There is of course no reflex of freedom, although it is easy to see resistance to coercion in animals and humans. Herding cats is nearly impossible, and it is equally hard to keep male dogs from sniffing females in heat. Wild horses resist taming, and most animals cannot be domesticated at all. Human beings fiercely resist unwanted control. But struggling against coercion is not a reflex — it is nothing like a simple atom of behaviour. –Baars, Bernard. “IP Pavlov and the freedom reflex.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, no. 11 (2003): 19-40.

But decades after Pavlov, trainers grabbed onto the concept of the freedom or opposition reflex. Mentions start to appear in the mid-1990s in training literature, first applied to horses, then to dogs, as far as I could tell. Some authors connected the two terms, as in this article: “Opposition Reflex in Horses.” It’s pretty clear that what many people refer to now as the opposition reflex is a direct descendent of Pavlov’s freedom reflex. The problem? It never was a reflex and it’s still not a reflex.

What Is a Reflex?

Reflexes are involuntary, discrete, and consistent behaviors. As Baars mentions in the quote above, they can be thought of as “atoms of behavior.”

A reflex is an automatic response to nerve stimulation. –Alters, Sandra. Biology: understanding life. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2000.

Some examples of reflexes in dogs are:

  • the scratch reflex (dog’s leg kicks when you scratch them on certain parts of the body);
  • the palpebral reflex (dog blinks when the skin below the corner of the eye is tapped);
  • the pupillary light reflex (the pupil of the dog’s eye contracts when a bright light is shined on it);
  • the withdrawal reflex (dog pulls foot away when toe is pinched);
  • and many more, including at least 10 other reflexes having to do with stimulation and response of parts of a dogs legs.

These are immediate, involuntary responses.

Pavlov’s so-called freedom reflex consists of much more varied behavior, sometimes chains of behaviors, which comprise methods of escape or regaining balance. These behaviors vary to the extreme by species and individuals. A large, gentle animal might just walk away if you tried to restrain it without any special equipment. But anyone who has ever tried to handle feral kittens knows that their methods of trying to escape are typically painful and actually dangerous (because of the possibility of infection from scratches and bites) to humans.

What are typical situations in which an animal might exhibit these compensatory or escape behaviors?

  1. The animal is trying to get to something and is being restrained
  2. The animal is trying to get away from something and is being restrained
  3. The opposite can also occur: the animal is being forced to move and is resisting, as when a trainer tries to force a sit by pushing the dog’s butt down.
  4. The animal has been knocked off balance and is trying to regain equilibrium.

(I’m omitting situations where the animal has been trained to create or maintain pressure, such as a roping horse who can hold a cowboy’s line taut, or all sorts of animals that pull sleds or carts.)

Do you see the pattern here? In all cases, the animal is resisting force, confinement, or physical discomfort. When we use the phrase “opposition reflex,” we are often neatly sidestepping the fact that we are trying to get the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. It’s a shortcut, a label that unfortunately encourages us to leave out our agency in the matter.

When Is This Discussed in Dog Training?

The so-called opposition reflex is generally brought up in discussions about leash walking, molding behaviors, and play.

Leash Walking

Countless writers highlight a dog’s supposed opposition reflex when discussing why a dog won’t yield to leash pressure, but instead, might pull the other way. Reducing the reasons a dog might not yield to leash pressure, or will take action to create it, to an “opposition reflex” is simply applying a label. It gives us no insight into the situation. Many writers grab onto the phrase without considering the many sources and reasons for this behavior:

  • First and foremost, most dogs naturally travel much faster than we do. They want to get moving. This creates a taut leash as our slowness holds them back.
  • They are trying to get to something interesting, and we are passively or actively slowing them down. Again, this creates a taut leash.
  • We are trying to get them away from something interesting, and they want to stay there. This time, we are actively creating the taut leash.
  • They are frightened and trying to get away from us, the leash, or something else they perceive as threatening.

Positive reinforcement-based trainers try to avoid these situations anyway. We don’t want to drag our dogs around. To me, it seems much more helpful to understand that the dog is wanting to go at a different speed or to a different location than to reduce it to “opposition reflex.” The “opposition” part can make them sound downright contrary, instead of being creatures with their own agency and interests. On the other hand, the “reflex” part obscures that their behavior may be a visible indication of what they want or intend. Reflex sounds like they pull because they can’t help it, not because they are motivated by something.

Training by Molding Behaviors

The second place you read about the “opposition reflex” is in discussions of molding as a training technique. This is not a method that positive reinforcement-based trainers use, but it bears mentioning because people who do use it bring up the opposition reflex. It’s found in the old “push the dog’s butt down to teach him to sit” method. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ve probably experienced what people call the opposition reflex. It is an instant resistance by the dog to being pushed. It’s very common. It’s resistance to being thrown off balance and/or coerced. But again, labeling it “opposition” can even make it sound like this resistance is naughty or defiant.

Play and Restrained Recalls

A final situation in which people discuss the opposition reflex is in activities that involve drive and enthusiasm. For instance, some agility trainers use what are called “restrained recalls.” A partner restrains the dog while the handler calls her. The dog’s struggle to escape can result in a faster recall when she is released.

Note that the latter situation matches my description #1 above: the dog is trying to get to something and is being restrained. If you have a play history with your dog, this can be fun for the dog. But it’s pretty obvious it’s not a reflex–they are trying to get to something.

Here’s an example where I am restraining my dog in a training/play situation. Check out 0:26 in the video.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

I contend that Summer’s pushing against my hands as I pull her backward is not a reflex. We’re seeing a dog who wants to run forward and get to the garden hose.

What’s the Problem With the Phrase?

I think we should question our use of the phrase “opposition reflex” because:

  • It’s a label–it can stand for dozens of different behaviors.
  • The behaviors it is used to describe are generally not reflexes.
  • It discourages us from analyzing and asking why the behavior is being performed. (E.g., the leashed dog simply wants to go faster.)
  • It discourages us from looking at our role in setting the stage for the behavior.
  • It discourages us from determining the consequences that are driving the behavior.
  • It sounds automatic, nonvolitional.
  • It also sounds negative. Opposition sounds like defiance.
  • It promotes confusion about respondent and operant behaviors.

I don’t think the term is going away anytime soon. But I hope we can get better at actually observing and describing behavior and understanding its causes and consequences. If we did that, this term would be left behind.

Have you heard the phrase in more contexts that I have listed? Have you ever seen a true reflex mentioned when discussing the opposition reflex?

Addendum

Wow, opposition in the trenches. (I’m going to avoid the obvious joke there.)

First, yes, I’m aware of the term thigmotaxis. I know it is mentioned in Steven Lindsay’s book with regard to the opposition reflex. He uses the word “reflex” in many different senses in the book. Also, in Volume 3, he rescinds his recommendation of the term thigmotaxis for response to leash pressure and returns to using opposition reflex. It’s pretty clear that his original citing of thigmotaxis was an educated opinion. He changed his mind.

Positive thigmotaxis (turning **toward** touch or pressure) is known in neonate puppies. Other than that I haven’t seen it listed as present in dogs.

To anyone who wants to claim that the opposition reflex in dogs is a true reflex/respondent behavior/thigmotaxis, the burden of proof is on you. I have already tried and failed. You may succeed, then I’ll retract appropriate statements and amend my post. To provide evidence you will need to do the following:

  1. Cite a source listing the “opposition reflex” as a true reflex from a canine anatomy/physiology, neurology, or another veterinary textbook.
  2. Show that near 100% of neurologically healthy dogs demonstrate it in the same way.
  3. Show the body part that can receive the stimulus and nerve group involved.
  4. Show that the same physiological response is consistent.
  5. Show that it can’t be punished or reinforced (though it could be attached to a new stimulus).

As I mentioned, I have already tried and failed to find these things. Please let me know if you find them.

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Vishneveckiy

Text copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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

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