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Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Gorilla sitting on ground next to a tree. He is scratching his head with his left hand.
Gorilla scratching an itch

Quite often in discussions about negative reinforcement, someone brings up a plethora of examples from human life that sound harmless and benign. Here are some of the items that are often mentioned:

  • Scratching an itch
  • Washing your hands to remove dirt
  • Drying your hands on a towel to get the water off
  • Trimming your fingernails to reduce their length
  • Taking out the trash when the kitchen can gets full
  • Turning on the windshield wipers in the car to remove rain from the windshield
  • Taking an aspirin if you have a headache
  • Covering your ears if there is a loud sound
  • Putting on a coat when the temperature drops
  • Using an umbrella to stay dry

Reading these, one can come away with the impression that negative reinforcement is just no big deal. What’s the fuss about and why do some people try hard to avoid it in animal training?

All of the above examples have something in common. They are what B. F. Skinner termed “automatic reinforcement.” Here’s a typical definition:

Automatic reinforcement occurs when a person’s behaviour creates a favourable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Automatic reinforcement can be either positive or negative. The above examples are negative since they deal with removing an aversive condition. (For a review of the four processes of operant learning, you can read my post Operant Learning Illustrated By Examples.”)

We learn to do the things in that list, usually as children or teenagers, to make ourselves more comfortable. Some undesired condition develops, we take action to change it, and if successful we personally reap the benefit.

In applied behavior analysis, one analyzes operant behaviors like this: there is an Antecedent, a Behavior, and a Consequence. The antecedent and the consequence are in or from the environment. The behavior is that of the subject person or animal. Applying these “A B Cs” can be quite helpful in seeing what is going on.

In negative reinforcement, the antecedent is the undesirable condition. So for an example of automatic reinforcement:

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on Mike’s hands
  • Behavior: Mike washes his hands
  • Consequence: Dirt is gone from hands

Socially Mediated Reinforcement

The other type of reinforcement is called “socially mediated” reinforcement.

If another person is involved with the function of the behaviour this would be defined as “social reinforcement” or “socially mediated reinforcement” (Cooper et al., 2007).

In negative reinforcement this means that another person or group removes the aversive stimulus. And most important, they can intervene in the reinforcement process and can determine what behavior is required to get the aversive to stop or reduce in intensity.

In automatic negative reinforcement, the reinforced behaviors are directly related to solving the problem. The actions of opening the aspirin bottle and taking an aspirin are reinforced by the relief the aspirin provides from a painful condition.

But in socially mediated negative reinforcement, perhaps someone else has the keys to the medicine cabinet. That person could require some unrelated behavior from you (say, clapping your hands three times) before you got access to the aspirin. If they were consistent, that behavior could be reinforced by the relief provided the aspirin, and would increase. When you had a headache and needed an aspirin, you would probably clap your hands three times. That’s a big difference from being able to walk in the bathroom and get your own pill.

Connection to Dog Training

A springer spaniel, standing next to a body of water, is photographed while shaking water off
Shaking it off

Back to automatic negative reinforcement. Here are some examples for dogs:

  • shaking off water when wet
  • biting their own toenails when they get too long
  • scratching an itch
  • scooting on their butts when their anal glands bother them
  • coming in out of the rain
  • getting in the shade when hot
  • lying down in the kiddie pool to cool off

Those don’t sound so bad either, do they? Dog gets a little uncomfortable, takes action, gets comfortable again.

  • Antecedent: There is water on Fido’s coat and skin
  • Behavior: Fido shakes off
  • Consequence: There is less water on Fido

Reading these lists, you could come away mystified that so many people disapprove of using negative reinforcement in training. It sounds like no big deal.

The problem is that the application of negative reinforcement in  training is quite different. In training we are doing the equivalent of  “socially mediated reinforcement.” The animal is no longer autonomously in charge of removing an aversive condition. There is a human requiring a certain behavior before the aversive can be turned off or escaped.

Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training

In dog training, the human has control of the reinforcers (and the aversives, if used). So in negative reinforcement, rather than a dog performing a natural behavior to remove an aversive condition, the human has influence over the stopping of the aversive. And like the clapping hands for aspirin example above, the human can choose a behavior that is unrelated to the natural way the dog might escape the aversive.

Some examples of human controlled negative reinforcement in dog training:

Each one of these begins with particular situation or condition and requires the dog to perform a specific behavior to get it to stop or decrease.

So here’s what a sample ABC looks like now:

  • Antecedent: Human is pinching dog’s ear
  • Behavior: Dog opens mouth and accepts retrieve item
  • Consequence: Human stops pinching

Perceive the difference? The handler either creates the aversive condition, or utilizes one occurring in the environment. The handler cues or waits for a specific behavior. When that behavior is performed, the handler stops the aversive condition or moves the dog away from it.

The handler gets to create a contingency.

Zani and Summer's response to body pressure
Zani and Summer’s response to body pressure

People often think I am some sort of purist since I write critically about negative reinforcement. But it’s not the R- itself I’m a purist about. I’m a purist about being honest about it. We live in the real world, with our dogs, and it’s very hard to go through life without that quadrant sneaking in now and then. But we make choices all the time. Using an aversive to train our dogs, or to get through a tough situation, is a choice.

In the spirit of honesty, here are some things I have done.

  • I do agility, and pushing into the dog’s path with your body on occasion is pretty hard to avoid. But I’m learning to be a better handler, and there’s always a different way to handle just about any sequence.
  • I have taught response to leash pressure (put a tiny pressure on the leash, and when the dog yields to the pressure, treat). It is a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. See below for my comments about it.
  • I have used body pressure in the past to get my dogs to move or return to stay position or to walk down the stairs. I have a movie showing their sad reactions to that.  I have a third, less sensitive dog, on whom I occasionally perform a body block, for instance, if she is liable to bash into my other dogs if I don’t take action. However, that may not constitute negative reinforcement, since there doesn’t seem to be a behavioral change on her part and she is not getting more sensitized to the pressure. So it’s just plain application of pressure on my part, in a pinch.
  • I have also used negative reinforcement a few times when the other alternative would have been unintentionally positively reinforcing a behavior that I really don’t like. For instance, in the past when I was holding Zani or Summer and they started to struggle, a couple of times I hung on until they became still, and only then released them. I didn’t want to reinforce the struggling by putting them down right then. If I found myself doing something like that repeatedly I would take action about the problem. And actually, I did in that case. We do practice handling and associating being held with great things, and I think it’s been years since I had to apply that kind of restraint.
  • And of course through daily life with multiple dogs I probably unconsciously use body pressure more often than I know, although I make an effort to pay attention. And again, the dog I am most likely to use it on is not showing any particular behavior changes that I can see, so there may not be negative reinforcement going on.

It’s important to me to be honest about it.  But I also want to make it clear: I strive not to use these things. Please don’t interpret the above items as condoning negative reinforcement. I’m always looking for better ways. I hope you are too.

Even some of the more benign-sounding techniques in the list of links above I have seen to be quite unpleasant to dogs. I used to do leash pressure exercises with my dogs as part of leash training, and when I look at video footage of those training sessions, I can tell they didn’t enjoy the training as much as most of the other things we do, especially at first, even though they got a treat every time they yielded to the (tiny!) pressure. Perhaps more skill on my part would have helped, but nothing would remove the fact that I was putting physical pressure on their necks.

Defenses of Using Negative Reinforcement in Training

Some people say, “I’d rather take something away that my dog doesn’t like (negative reinforcement) than take away something that he does like (negative punishment).”

This comment erases that important distinction: the contingency from the handler. I take away things my dogs don’t like frequently. But I have a choice about how to do that. I almost always choose NOT to make them do something to “work” for it first. I don’t want to come to view an untoward environmental condition as an opportunity to get behavior out of my dog. My dogs rely on me for their safety and happiness. If something unpleasant happens, I do my best to get them out of the situation.

Others stipulate that they do not cause or create aversives, but only use them when they occur naturally in the environment.  This is a very minor point. I think a more important point is that they are using the aversive to get behavior. Wherever the aversive is coming from, they are choosing to use it. And usually there are other choices.

I wrote this piece because I think equating the type of negative reinforcement used in most training with scratching an itch or washing one’s hands is seriously confusing and misleading. I hope it is helpful.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

Have you heard the one about the toolbox?

This is the sixth in a series that details and rebuts fallacious arguments against force free training. Today’s erroneous argument is directly related to “But Every Dog is Different!” in that it claims that training without punishment (certain “tools”) is just too limiting. But since it centers on the potent metaphor of the toolbox, I’m treating it separately.

OK, about that metaphor. Naturally, I went and got a public domain graphic of a toolbox for an illustration. Here it is.

Toolbox
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thought experiment. Is this really a good metaphor for our methods when training dogs? Tools for cutting, prying, banging, twisting? Yipes!

This led me to do a little research. It may well be the great trainer and author Terry Ryan who originated the toolbox metaphor with her two books, “The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog,” and “The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog.”

The blurb for the “Remodeling” book says,

The toolbox is a set of principles and practices you can use to analyze and address any behavior problem you encounter.

She goes all the way with the building metaphor in those books, with chapters on raw materials, building supplies, the foundation, etc. But I think something really interesting has happened.

Ms. Ryan’s metaphorical toolbox was a “set of principles and practices.” The metaphor caught on, but started to change a bit. The expression came to mean a set of training methods. Get the difference? That’s a little narrower and more concrete. Methods rather than principles. And finally, nowadays for many trainers, the tools they are referring to are often, well, physical tools. Gear including correction collars of various sorts.

I personally may be done with using that metaphor–if only I can think of something else!

Who’s Got a Bigger One?

But on with the discussion. First, I would wager that the average trainer who relies mainly on positive reinforcement and negative punishment already has a much bigger toolbox than someone who uses aversives. The aversive “tools” (for instance prong and shock collars) are pretty one-dimensional. Not that they can’t be used with more or less skill. Sure they can. But as I’ve mentioned before, it takes no special expertise or devotion to figure out how to hurt an animal. Countless Joes and Joannes on the street have figured out how to do it.

But trainers who seek to use positive reinforcement would already have a big toolbox to begin with, and if they found the dog difficult to motivate, the onus would be on themselves to expand it. They would be working hard to find all possible wholesome motivators for their dog, with the goal of getting reliable behavior with a happy dog, free of fear and threats. So this image of the big gleaming toolbox with certain wondrous tools “off limits” for force-free trainers is not accurate.

Please see “But Every Dog Is Different!” for an expansion of this point.

Are you back? Great!

See if you think the following logic holds.

(Almost) Everybody Has A Limit

I propose that the problem with a force or balanced trainer saying, “I don’t want to limit myself to only certain parts of the toolbox like you do”  is that in almost every case there is another trainer further down the line who can say that to them.

I put forth that almost every trainer knows about some aversive techniques they will not use. It is not only the force free trainers who ignore certain sections of the huge fictitious toolbox. Most trainers have their limits.

I would guess that most balanced trainers would not use Koehler’s method to remedy digging: filling the hole with water and holding the dog’s head under. Neither would most use a method I read about in a bird dog training book on teaching the dog to hold steady:

“You’ll need your checkcord, a choke or spike collar, and an assistant who is strong enough and willing to jerk a dog over backward with the checkcord at the proper moment…  When he hears the shot and sees the bird fall, the dog will break. Don’t say a word, and be sure your assistant remains silent but braces his feet and gives the dog the somersault of his life when he hits the end of the check cord.”–Ultimate Guide to Bird Dog Training, Jerome Robinson

You certainly could find people who still do these things.  A quick perusal of YouTube can show these methods and worse. But even for those trainers–there might be a method they wouldn’t employ.

Next time a trainer says they want “access to every tool in the toolbox,” try asking them whether there is any method in the world they wouldn’t use. If they need prompting, you could name some. The point is not to be aggressive about it.  The point is that you might get across that it is not at all “limiting” to avoid methods that don’t fit into your ethical stance. Especially when your “toolbox” is gloriously full and varied already.

If someone uses the toolbox metaphor to you, I think you could get in some really interesting discussions if you asked them why they don’t employ certain methods. Doesn’t the same metaphor apply? If it breaks down, then why are they saying it to you?

A Different Metaphor?

Like I said above, the toolbox metaphor is much too entrenched to fight. But for me, the more I think about it the less it fits. Besides the harshness of the idea of applying hardware to dog training, the whole tool thing fails to highlight the mutual learning that goes on between a trainer and a dog. I’m really not as interested in sculpting my dog into some ideal as much as I am interested in that magical partnership that is born when we learn together.

So I thought about it. I tossed aside “cornucopia,” “toybox,” and “treasure chest.” My new metaphor is a “bag of tricks.” And it’s a bag that my dogs and I can both open.

Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/
Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth! http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/

This post is part of a series:

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

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Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Although this post is about discussions and accusations about humane training, it doesn’t provide fodder for pithy sound bites or snappy answers. The whole point of it is why it can be difficult to explain succinctly our position as science-based, humane trainers in the face of opposition.  I hope it can be helpful for some folks. Gathering information, thinking this through, and writing about it has settled my nerves about a lot of things regarding the conflicts between trainers. Here we go.

Here’s something that force-free trainers hear a lot:

“There’s no such thing as force-free training because…”

  • “You use leashes and that’s force, the same or worse than a shock collar”
  • If your dog ran out into traffic you would grab him or pull on the leash”
  • “You all use force too, you’re just hypocrites about it”
  • “Harnesses are more cruel than prong collars”

Here Comes the Continuum Fallacy 

Color spectrum, from left to right (in order of frequency): red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet ROY G BIV
There is no such thing as green because we can’t say precisely where the green starts. Really? (credit Wikimedia Commons)

I have previously written a bit on the continuum fallacy, in But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic? I wrote:

Likening pulling on a leash (in an emergency no less) with the habitual use of a shock collar to force a dog’s compliance is an example of the logical fallacy called the continuum fallacy… The continuum fallacy erroneously claims that because there is a range of possibilities between two extremes, there is no meaningful difference between them. In this case the extremes are pulling on a leash one time to remove a dog from danger, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a  shock collar as a training method to teach them via force to come when called…

The examples cited above both employ negative reinforcement, or at least aversive pressure (we can’t really say if reinforcement occurred in the emergency situation since it’s a one trial example). Therefore there is a continuum of such usages between them.

More commonly the extremes cited are two types of training:  training based as much as possible on positive reinforcement (along with desensitization and classical conditioning), and training based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and flooding, such as shock collar training.

You wouldn’t think there was any common ground between these two. But there is, or rather, there are intermediate states between them. Please bear with me if the idea offends you. My point is that they are absolutely different in essence, even though there exists the continuum.

So on the continuum,  next to the trainers who use shock exclusively are the ones who do use some food or play as positive reinforcement in addition to the shock used aversively. Next to them are the “balanced” trainers who combine positive reinforcement with “corrections.” Next to them are the ones who use a shock or prong collar for proofing only. Then the ones who use a shock collar in only one specific situation. And so on. (These could be split more finely of course.)

Going past the middle to the R+ paradigm side are the folks  who don’t intentionally use any aversive tools, but carry old habits (Eileen raises hand). We occasionally do something that is aversive to the dog, for instance, taking a step forward to apply pressure if a dog breaks a stay. We do this because of old habits or lack of knowledge of other ways, but no matter why, it’s still aversive to the dog.

I’m not going to describe every step from here on out. But we can travel farther and farther into R+ territory as other methods drop away.  But truthfully, most people don’t get to the point of never using negative reinforcement or negative punishment or extinction. As I’ve mentioned, that necessitates an almost godlike ability to predict every possible behavioral interaction if you live with your animal. And even if we consider only formal training sessions, it depends on the dedication and creativity of the trainer to unlearn our human punishment programming and get more and more fluent in humane methods.

Because of the infinite gradations between the two extremes, there are those who would argue you can’t make a distinction between them. They would be employing the continuum fallacy.  This link has a good definition and some nice examples of it.

One common application of the continuum fallacy is to claim that the concept the other party is describing does not even exist. Does that sound familiar? Punishment based trainers, particularly shock collar trainers, like to claim that there is “no such thing as force free training.” Since we use things like leashes and collars that are naturally agents of force (although we take pains to ameliorate that), and because some aversive situations are just going to occur in life, they claim that there can be no distinction, none, made between what we do and what they do with their specifically-designed-to-hurt tools. This argument is incorrect (especially when they throw in the straw man of “purely positive”), and a way of trying to talk us out of existence. I’ve written an entire post on it.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. The continuum fallacy is connected to something called an “open concept.”  This really enlightened me about why it’s so hard for us in the force free community to come up with a single name for ourselves, and why we are repeatedly told we don’t exist. What we are trying to describe is a complex combination of a training philosophy, methods, and a mesh of practices. “The kind of trainers we are” is an open concept.

Open and Closed Concepts

So many things fell into place when I read about this.

A closed concept is something that can be exactly defined, such as a triangle. But many of the most important things in life can not be exactly defined. From “Open and Closed Concepts and the Continuum Fallacy” by Sandra LaFave:

An open concept is one for which the connotation cannot be precisely specified; rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.

Here are some examples. Vegetarian. Christian. Pacifist. Have you ever heard someone arguing about the definition of any of these or over who belongs to the group? I thought so. Yet the various individuals who identify with these terms can define their habits and belief systems beautifully, and they are often at the core of the person’s identity.

A portrait in pencil of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His face is angular and he looks intense and pensive.
Ludwig Wittgenstein worrying about open concepts (credit Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889-1951) wrote about open concepts. His example was the concept of “game.” He advised the reader to think of different games and to try to think of what was common to them all. (My suggestion: use the examples of patty-cake, football (American or world), board games, and the often deadly games played in the Roman Coliseum, and try the exercise.) He wrote that you cannot identify one single characteristic common to all examples of games.

But that doesn’t negate the concept of game. He analyzed the similarities and differences in several types of games and concluded:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. –Wittgenstein  in his Philosophical Investigations as quoted by Donald Palmer in “Does the Center Hold?”, p. 394

Glupling Training

As I mentioned, I think the lack of a commonly agreed upon name by all in the community is one bit of evidence that “the kind of training we do” is an open concept. For that reason, for brevity, and to introduce a little levity into a heavy subject, I’m going to call force-free, science-based, humane, primarily positive reinforcement training “Glupling Training.”

It would be easier to live in a world where we could say, “If you do these five things, and don’t do these five things, then you are a bona fide Glupling trainer.” Nice clean line in the sand. But we don’t live in that world. Glupling training is a philosophy; a group of methods; a paradigm. I strive for it. I think most of you out there reading this are striving for it. I’ve got certain great trainers and thinkers in mind as my role models and perhaps you do too. But we need to acknowledge that the edges of the definition are not universally agreed upon.

For instance, within the Glupling community there are heated discussions about head halters and front attach harnesses, and whether these are OK as permanent solutions, temporary management aids during training, or never OK. People disagree about the use of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Some people seek to be two-quadrant trainers (positive reinforcement and negative punishment). For some trainers negative reinforcement protocols are OK in general, others go case by case, still others try for “never.”  How about No Reward Markers? Or whether it’s OK to yelp as a training technique when a puppy bites you?

I have watched other groups in similar throes of self definition. Organic gardening discussion groups talk about whether the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) disqualifies someone from the group. “Childless by choice” people argue whether people who never had kids of their own but then marry people with children still “count.” There is discussion about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to people who are or have been dependent on alcohol. This is just a completely typical situation with open concepts. I would even argue that these discussions can be healthy, as long as they don’t start to eat up your life.

The bigger troubles start with the people outside of the particular community who object to it. With regard to Glupling training, these are the folks who want force-based methods to be socially acceptable and so attack the Glupling paradigm. These folks have two main strategies.

  1. Some trot out straw men and the continuum fallacy and simply claim that Glupling training does not exist. These are the ones whom I describe in my blog post, “But Purely Positive is a LIE!
  2. Others jump onto the Glupling bandwagon and market themselves as Glupling trainers, prong or shock collars included. This method has the effect of diffusing the definition of Glupling training and confusing the public. You can find lots of folks on the Internet who salt the word “positive” throughout their website, even if they use physical dominance techniques, prong collars, or shock. These folks accomplish several things by adopting the term, “positive.” First, it is popular right now and it sounds wholesome and good. Second, they add to the confusion (some groups have actually created credentials and initialisms that are identical or similar to established organizations). Third, they help maintain the public’s confusion about the processes of operant learning, since “positive” in the behavioral sense absolutely does not equal “wholesome and good.” And fourth, as added by an early reader of this post, who would want to market themselves as someone who will throw things at your dog and yell “bah”? “Positive” sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?

One observation I have about these continuum fallacy arguments: it seems to always be the side with the less restrictive definition that is arguing that the other side doesn’t exist, not the other way around. Vegetarians never argue that omnivores don’t exist. Organic gardeners never argue that gardeners who use non-organic techniques don’t exist.

This disagreement is typified by a group of people (or an individual) seeking to distinguish themselves from others who are simultaneously trying to negate the distinction.

Static vs Dynamic

I said above that it would be nice to live in a world where Glupling training was easy to define. But actually…one of the hallmarks of Glupling trainers is that we are always using the science to find ways to be more humane, more fair, and better trainers for our animals. The research moves us forward.  So perhaps two of my (fictional) five things that might have defined Glupling training in 1998 are completely out of date in 2013. But that’s a good thing. Given a choice between an approach that is static and claims to know everything and be perfectly complete and definable, and one that allows room for growth and speculation and doesn’t claim to be perfect this very instant….well, you know which one I would choose.

By the way, that is one of the reasons I keep my hand in the discussions and arguments on the Internet. I learn stuff that way.

Conclusion

I have recently written a handful of posts with a deliberate intention of publishing talking points for Glupling trainers who are confronted by the same rhetoric from force-based trainers over and over. The posts are listed below.

I had hoped for this post to join that group, but I’m not sure how  helpful it is. It has been very helpful for me as I mentioned above because it has clarified some difficult things in my mind. Like, why do these fights keep going on and on? But this post is not the kind of thing a person can quote in an argument and say, “Hah! Read this! It proves my point!” Not even close.

But I will throw in some tips on dealing with the continuum fallacy when confronted with a version of it in debate. Dr. LaFave suggests a simple statement that even if there may be a continuum between extremes, the concepts at each end are meaningful. I mean, nobody really believes that black and white are the same because there are shades of gray in between. And she suggests that people who use words in eccentric ways (my example: like shock collar trainers who say the method is positive and force-free) should be called on to defend their eccentric usages of these terms and give good reasons for them.

And this from me: When I have encountered the continuum fallacy, in my observation it has not usually been an innocent misunderstanding. It is usually from someone who, in my opinion, is determined to obfuscate. If I find that to be the case, I will state my position once, if at all (and for the benefit of others who may be reading, and not with the hope of convincing the other person) and move on. In short, as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t argue with someone you have to educate.”

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

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But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

This remark has been hurled at me. How about you?

I certainly don’t call myself “purely positive” or particularly like the term. But here it comes at me, predictable as clockwork, anyway.

The reason this keeps happening is in the “short version” below. I also talk about why I don’t care for the term. But that’s not quite the whole story. The “long version” covers why we might not want to estrange ourselves completely from the goal of positive reinforcement training.

The Short Version

“Purely positive,” or sometimes, “all positive,” are terms most often used as epithets by force trainers to refer to trainers who avoid force and aversives.  They are used as a straw men in arguments.

A Straw Man is a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument that is usually laughably extreme and easy to disprove. That’s its purpose. The person who creates the Straw Man can knock it down and play like they have disproved their opponent’s actual argument.

Here is an example of a Straw Man. Judith runs a landscaping business.

Closeup of pink petunias--soft, bright pink flowers dark centers and large petals
Pink Petunias or Straw Man?

Judith: “The pink petunias withered up and died back early this year. I guess they are more attractive to certain pests or maybe it’s because they came from a different supplier and just weren’t as healthy to start with. Since the pure red ones did so much better I guess I’ll use red next year whenever possible.”

Cindy: “What have you got against pink? If you stop using pink flowers of any kind you’ll lose customers! Whoever heard of a landscaper who doesn’t use pink? That’s ridiculous!”

Cindy recast Judith’s concerns about a problem specific to pink petunias, as a global, irrational objection to all pink flowers. Note that Cindy could have argued logically against Judith’s actual reasons. She could have said, “That didn’t look like a pest-borne problem,” or “But you ordered other plants from that supplier that did just fine,” or “I read that this was an especially bad year for the Pink Petunia Bug but they emerge on a seven year cycle. Pink petunias will probably do fine next year.”   These statements would have addressed what Judith actually said and they might have had a good discussion. Instead, Cindy instantly morphed Judith’s statement into something else, then acted as if Judith were being extremely unreasonable.

People generally construct Straw Men when they have a dearth of logical arguments. Once in a while they have an honest misunderstanding. If that happens, the person who built the Straw Man can be gently presented with one’s real point of view and a discussion of its true merits and faults may ensue. But sometimes Straw Men are constructed by people who just want to win at all costs, the truth be damned, or are used consciously by people who know that what they are saying is untrue. When someone does that, it’s generally the case that they are not going to listen to your true point of view or play by the rules of polite conduct in an argument.

The reason that bringing up “purely positive” is a Straw Man is that virtually no one is claiming to be a 100% positive reinforcement trainer.

I’m sure not, but I’ve been reamed up one side and down the other for supposedly claiming to be “all positive.” The person got a real kick out of “proving” that all positive wasn’t possible, when that wasn’t even relevant to our discussion and certainly not to my training.

If someone starts ranting about “Purely Positive Zealots” at this point I will only go one round in a discussion, then quit. I seek to be calm in the face of their misrepresentation. Whatever I write will be done with others who may be reading in mind. Then I’m out. There’s no point in having a discussion with someone who is clinging to irrelevancies, not to mention mocking me.

Nomenclature Problems

Large plus sign in black on a white backgroundAs has been pointed out by many trainers, since the operant learning nomenclature uses “positive” in a mathematical sense and it can apply both to reinforcement and punishment, the waters get muddy immediately if one calls oneself (or is called) a “positive trainer.” In operant learning, positive just means you add something as a consequence to a behavior, and it can be a good something or a bad something. So there are both positive reinforcement and positive punishment under the umbrella of positive. Oops! And we’ve left negative punishment, the type that does not involve applying an aversive, by the wayside.

The term “positive trainer” is not even close to accurate.

Even though like most other people I do fall into using the term sometimes as a shorthand, I think calling ourselves “positive” anything is a bad idea. It muddies the waters. It adds a glamour to a term that we need to be un-glamourizing. “Positive” has, and needs to have, a specific, quasi-mathematical meaning.

The Longer Version, Or, What if it Were Possible After All?

However. It’s more complicated than what I wrote above.

The problem with saying, “Hey, ‘purely positive’ is a myth and an insult” and leaving it at that is that it erases it as a beautiful paradigm. It implies that one must use something farther down the Humane Hierarchy than positive reinforcement to train an animal successfully. We don’t want to imply that, do we?

I’ve discussed before that research has shown that animals do not need to make mistakes to learn a behavior. Although this is counterintuitive to us, they do not have to know “what is wrong” to know what is right. Also, punishment (including negative punishment) is not necessary to teach a behavior well, or to “prepare an animal for real life,” or toughen the animal up. I wrote a whole post about that too.

I think that those of us who are aiming for the positive reinforcement paradigm are the ones who are in the best position to know exactly how much success we are having. We are confronted with real life every day with our animals and know when we’re not using positive reinforcement exclusively and are grown up enough to be honest about it. The force avoiding trainers I know are extremely willing to identify and classify every training technique they use. For instance, when they are using negative punishment or extinction, they will say so, and they will define the terms for those who don’t understand.

Then there’s the fact that we live with our dogs. Negative reinforcement is probably a daily occurrence in most households with dogs (think spatial issues; body blocking; momentary leash pressure). My opinion is that a person would have to have godlike foresight to be able to avoid every situation in which it could occur. And believe me, I work to avoid it!

A tan dog with a black muzzle and black tail is running very fast
Clara’s recall was trained with positive reinforcement

The important thing is that I can’t think of a time when aiming for a method more centered on positive reinforcement (or an intervention even less intrusive) has harmed my training. It has helped numerous times. It helps me and my dogs for me to think about the ways I teach things and get creative about training behaviors without negative punishment or negative reinforcement (or positive punishment of course) when possible. I know for me it is easy to get set in my ways, and something really nice can emerge when I apply myself to thinking about a familiar behavior as if it is the first time I’ve taught it.

Aiming to train without punishment at all (including without negative punishment) and without negative reinforcement is a beautiful goal and I don’t think we need to be apologizing for that.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

Here’s another remark often addressed to reinforcement based trainers, sometimes in a mocking tone, sometimes seriously:

A woman's hand is suspended over a clear glass cookie jar. The jar is full of Vanilla Wafers, a small, disc shaped light brown cookie. The hand is holding a cookie (has just pulled one out of the jar). But we don’t give our kids a cookie every time they tie their shoes or pay them a nickel every time they say thank you!

The writer often further implies that to do that with children would be the worst sort of bribery, indulgence, and permissive parenting (and-by-the-way-it’s-responsible-for-all-the-current-evils-of-society). And we’re being just as weak willed when training our dogs!

But the “cookie” objection is so easy to address. Continue reading “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!”

But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

But It’s Unhealthy to Protect Your Dog from All Stress!

Not all training sessions are stressful
Not all training sessions are stressful

“But it’s unhealthy to protect your dog from everything! If you do that, it’s just like overprotecting your child. They won’t be able to cope with the real world!”

This is another one of the criticisms one often reads about force-free training. It is generally presented by someone advocating the use of aversives in training. They’ve found another reason to say training with pain is necessary. They can say it’s all for the future good of the dog!

What is Stress?

The question of stress is one that I have given some careful consideration to. Stress has many definitions, but here are a few pertinent ones:

“A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”–Merriam-Webster online

“The non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”–Hans Selye, 1936, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the word.

(Selye also coined the word eustress: “Stress that is healthy or gives you a sense of fulfillment.”)

Is Stress OK At All?

Clearly stress is a serious deal, but maybe not all bad. I believe:

  • little stress can be beneficial to learning; and
  • the optimal amount of stress for learning varies inversely with the difficulty of the task.

How to Use this Information About Stress

If little bit of stress can sometimes be a good thing, how on earth would you do that in a humane way? In the first place, not with positive punishment or negative reinforcement. That means not by hurting, scaring, or pressuring your dog if they make a mistake or to get them to do the “right” thing.

Introducing aversives into training as a way of preparing the student for the real world doesn’t make sense. That’s like deciding, “I want my kids to be able to cope with the real world, so I’m going to pinch them whenever they make a mistake doing their math homework.” 

Huh? I really hope that’s not the type of world you’re planning for your child or dog. As strange as our world may be, that’s not something that happens very often. (Plus, way to go! Isn’t your kid going to just LOVE math now!) Much more often, if your daughter grows up to use math in her job, the difficulty will come if she has to do it while 1) the person in the next cube in her office is playing music; 2) her boss just fussed at her; or 3) she has a sick kid at home.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Those are real life stressors.

In psych experiments, stress is induced in humans in a variety of ways, but generally by exposing the humans to something stressful before or during the actual work of the experiment that is not contingent on their performance of a task. It may be social pressure, a self control exercise, or something like a cold pressor test, where a person is asked to leave his or her arm immersed in extremely cold water as long as they can stand it. (There are certainly experiments with all sorts of animals and humans where various unpleasant or painful things are used for punishment, and we would do well to heed the outcome of those experiments. My point here is that you don’t need contingent aversives to raise a person or animal’s stress level.)

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.56.53 PM
Summer attentive and involved in leash practice

So if a little stress could be OK, can we get any ideas about how to fit it into a humane training structure? You bet!

Summer stress on porch
Summer stressed and distracted in same session

Enter Mr. Skinner and his cohorts. Contrary to his popular image as someone overly cerebral in a white lab coat who trained animals in a completely sterile environment, Skinner was also passionately interested in human education. Preparation for real world situations was a cornerstone of his methods.

Skinner believed that an animal or human did not have to make mistakes to learn the correct behavior or answer. I haven’t gotten to the original Skinnerian source yet, but this has been borne out in subsequent research. (Here’s one of several articles: “The Implicit Benefits of Training Without Errors“)

This brings up so called “errorless learning” again, since making errors is generally considered to cause stress, even when teaching with positive reinforcement. During Skinner’s time there was much discussion about whether stress was necessary or beneficial to learning.

Here is a very interesting quote from “B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal,” by Marc Richelle:

Skinner […] insisted on building the required behavior with as few errors as possible, the ideal being errorless learning. This was subject to debate among the first generation of specialists, some of them arguing, on the contrary, that errors have some virtues and that in any case they can never be completely eliminated in practice. One must admit that a natural life environment does not provide many occasions for errorless learning, and that education should prepare for real life, which implies some tolerance of failure and frustration. (bold added)

Skinner didn’t even consider the use of punishment in teaching. He said, in “The Technology of Teaching, A Review Lecture” (1965):

“Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn.”

and

“…aversive control is the most shameful of irrelevancies.”

Punishment is not considered. So when he says that education should prepare students for tolerance of failure and frustration, how did he mean to do that?  By making the learning process more challenging to the student. And there are at least two ways to do that:

  1. By deliberately making the presentation of the material itself faster or more challenging; and
  2. By allowing the learning to take place in progressively more difficult and distracting environments.

I submit that in training our dogs, it takes no special effort to expose them to environmental stressors. They happen all the time! It does take an effort to make sure that the challenges we give our dogs are gradual and fair.  Noise, activity from other dogs, riding in the car, being left alone, meeting strangers, uncertainty in a routine, extremes of temperature, being boxed in or confined, being on leash, being in a new environment, and dozens of other things can all cause stress in your dog, especially if she has not been prepared for it. People ask their dogs to perform in these situations frequently.

Don’t you think there is much more danger of overdoing it than underdoing it?

Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session
Zani stress sniffing in her leash practice session

Real Life Example

Here’s an example video of something that sounds pretty benign: I was practicing leash, Zen (self control), and attention exercises with my dogs Zani and Summer on my front porch. There was quite a bit going on. In the video you can see Zani give a little flurry of stress signals when a dog barks loudly. She works at paying attention and recovers nicely. Summer was also working hard to pay attention but the situation was more difficult for her. They both got practice dealing with a stressful distraction, but I think Zani’s was just at the right level, and Summer’s was a little too tough for her. See what you think.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

By the way, we practiced the next day, and Summer handled some similar distractions with less apparent stress. The video on my post about my dogs working for kibble has  some of the footage of Summer from the next day. (The footage of Zani in that video is mostly the same as that in the video above in this post.)

Most of us do need to teach our dogs to be able to pay attention in challenging environments, just like we ourselves need to learn that. Think of all the times you had to learn something or perform a task where perhaps there was lots of noise. Or you had a sore toe. Or you just had a fight with a loved one. We ask our dogs to the the doggie equivalents of those frequently and we often don’t even know it!

The argument that you need to use aversives in training in order to teach your dog coping skills is a completely empty one.

Are you conscious of what makes your dogs stress out? Have you been able to teach them to cope? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2013                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

But Every Dog is Different!

But Every Dog is Different!

Cookie cutter in the shape of a dog. The dog is seated.But every dog is different!

This is another common argument against trainers who train without force. It usually goes like this:

  • But every dog is different! You can’t just use a cookie cutter!
  • But every dog is different! Why limit yourself to only one method?
  • But every dog is different! Some tools just don’t work with some dogs!

The implication is clear: Trainers who use primarily positive reinforcement are slaves to one method, which we apply to all dogs. We deliberately limit ourselves, despite the wealth of methods available to us. We ignore some of the tools in the toolbox. We are close-minded.

In addition, we just don’t seem to recognize, Continue reading “But Every Dog is Different!”

But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

A traffic light with three colored bulbs: red, yellow, and green. The red light is lit up.
Stop. It’s not safe to proceed.

Anyone who spends any time on FaceBook reading the arguments between trainers who train mainly with positive reinforcement and those who don’t has seen this question. Just lately I have seen three different versions of it:

  1. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? Are you going to save him by throwing cookies at him?
  2. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? You’re going to pull on the leash. That’s negative reinforcement and the same as using a shock collar.
  3. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? If you grab him that could cause stress, and I thought you’re supposed to be 100% stress free?

Continue reading “But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?”

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