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 being  thoughtful about the use of aversives. I write about that frequently, so how about if I describe what I mean by “thoughtful”?

  • 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.
  • I’m going to discuss the difference between justification and weighing the pros and cons,  taking into consideration possible side effects of the method.

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. If “everything” sounds extreme, keep in mind that I am consciously trying to overcome a strong tendency in the other direction.

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

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 probable 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 holding the sit/stay 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 a specific behavior has increased: duration sitting. If we solely punished the dog for standing, standing could decrease, but there could still be “flaws” in the duration sitting, such as the dog lying down or rolling over. 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.

Justification

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 the dogs use body pressure

What “Assessing, Analyzing, and Observing” Looks Like

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.” This is known as poisoning the cue.
  • 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.

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 most 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.  I would likely undo the work I’ve been performing to classically condition a positive emotional response to proximity and handling if I used my body to coerce behavior from her.

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!

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?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Human body language, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, Terminology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Maybe, but maybe not!

We humans tend to get warm and fuzzy feelings when we see dogs “smile.”

It’s true that some dogs’ mouths open in a cute smile when they are relaxed and happy. But a dog with his mouth open could alternatively be panting from pain, stress, or fear.

Can we tell the difference?

The following pairs of photos show my dogs stressed (left column) and relaxed (right column). The dogs have their mouths open in all the photos.

The usual disclaimers apply. When you run across someone’s still photo with no context, you can’t fairly make assumptions. It might have been taken during the millisecond in which a dog changed his expression. It could be misleading for a dozen other reasons. Videos are better, but we still miss context and may lack knowledge about the particular dog. But in this case I can vouch for the emotional states of my dogs, and I believe they are accurately represented by the photos with recognizable indicators.

Mind the Mouth

What all these photos have in common is a common “tell” regarding the dog’s emotional state. Look at the corners of the dogs’ mouths, also known as the commissures. In all cases, they are drawn back and stretched tight in the “stress” photos. In most of those photos you can also see the muscles bunched up in that area.

The photos have other indicators of the dogs’ emotional states as well. For instance, three of the stress photos have what is called a “spatulate” tongue, also usually connected with stress. The dogs’ eyes are markedly different between the stressed and relaxed photos as well.

 

 

 

I hope these comparison photos can help some folks figure out their own dogs’ facial expressions, and maybe overcome our wiring–which is very difficult–to assume that an open mouth means a happy dog. Please share this blog post wherever it might be useful. The photos may also be used for educational purposes if credit is given. I’d appreciate it if you would drop me a line through the sidebar contact telling me about the use.

You can see labeled versions of the “Clara stressed” photos (and many more) in my post Dog Facial Expressions: Stress. You also might be interested in my Dog Body Language Posts and Videos page.

Many thanks to Julie Hecht at Dog Spies for giving me the idea for this post. 

Coming Up:

  • Let’s Talk about Using Aversives. I’ll Go First!
  • 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?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings, Stress Signals | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

CARE for Reactive Dogs

CARE graphic

Wow! My friend Jennifer Titus has created a wonderful thing.

Website: CARE for Reactive Dogs

FaceBook Page: CARE for Reactive Dogs on FaceBook

CARE is an educational website that provides, free of charge, solid gold information on the protocols of desensitization/counterconditioning and differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors.

These are tried, true, and gentle methods for helping reactive or fearful dogs. Because of our cultural bias towards punitive methods and because dogs exhibiting behaviors born out of fear are still seen by many as “challenging our authority,” these methods are still not well known by the general public. Positive reinforcement-based training is just now starting to leak into the culture in a semi-accurate way. (It’s been misrepresented plenty already!) Now we can go a step further.

The CARE site makes the information for helping our reactive dogs extraordinarily accessible and puts it together into easy-to-follow steps. I personally love it that Jennifer doesn’t use trendy, made-up words or obfuscate in any way; she uses the scientific terminology and helps the reader learn about it. And she is not repackaging information and claiming to have invented it. She is organizing known techniques into an easy to follow protocol. She uses various versions of “C.A.R.E.” as mnemonics.

The most important thing is to do the whole protocol as she presents it.  If followed exactly from beginning to end, it will change your dogs behavior, because that’s how these principles of behavior work.  It is very condensed, so be sure not to cherry pick. 

It’s great to have a skilled professional to help, and for some dogs it is imperative. But there are lots of people out there for whom help is really hard to find. I am here to say that pet owners can help their dogs using these methods.

Here is my own small example: an account of how I used DS/CC to help my little dog Zani overcome her fear of the elliptical training machine.

As many of you know, I have a much longer term project going on with my formerly feral dog Clara. It is absolutely magical to see the conditioned positive emotional response (+CER)  kick in. (Check the CARE site for a definition if you don’t know what a +CER is.) Now when we go to, for instance, a shopping center, instead of looking to me for the conditioners and reinforcers, she often chooses to hang out with her doggie friend, clamber into the lap of one of her human friends, spend as much time as she wants checking the pee-mail and other interesting scents, and even go into dog friendly stores for a quick look and sniff.  The protocol of DS/CC allows a completely organic transition to just plain enjoyment all sorts of new environments. Kind of like the whole world is becoming Grandma’s house.

So Clara says, go check it out and CARE for your dog!

Coming Up:

  • Let’s Talk about Using Aversives. I’ll go First!
  • 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?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog training hints, Fear, Reactivity, Training philosophy | Tagged , ,

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement protocols, the ethical and definitional difference is not about how the aversive got there. It’s whether the trainer chooses to put a contingency on the animal getting away from it. Do they ask for or wait for a certain behavior before retreating? Because that is a choice. If the dog gets close enough to the trigger that she starts showing stress, there is always the option of getting her humanely out of there, with no requirements on her behavior from the handler.

Where the aversive came from is ethically irrelevant, since the trainer makes a choice whether or not to use it, however it got there. Most would agree that such a use is an ethical choice, to be carefully considered.

So the fact that people are still mentioning this irrelevancy about “who put it there” seems like a lot of hand waving to shoo away the real issue: choosing to use an aversive.

But wait–in case it matters–how did it get there?

How It Really Got There

My hand, my voice, my phone.

My hand, my voice, my phone.

I have a formerly feral dog with whom I have been working for a few years, gradually getting her socialized to people, and making lovely progress with DS/CC.

Even though my goal is to keep the triggers (people, in her case) under the threshold of aversiveness, I realize that I am dealing with potentially aversive situations when we go out into the world. And I arrange for and seek out those situations for her sessions. For instance, I make phone calls at times to arrange for a controlled session with a person unknown or partially known to her.

If I do this and blow it and let her get too close or stay too long, I have exposed her to an aversive. How’d it get there? Me! Entirely through my choices! I arranged it. I deliberately sought it out with her. I made the phone call, drove my dog to the meeting place, and exposed her to the trigger. I added it to her environment, or added her to an environment where I knew it to be.*

People following any protocol generally arrange for triggers to be present in this way, including people, dogs, specific things like people on bikes or scooters, or other animals. So if someone is doing any type of exposure treatment, how can they claim that they are not responsible for the aversive being there? Did the Tooth Fairy bring it? Can their dog pick up the phone and drive the car?

It is not logical to claim to have nothing to do with the aversive being in the environment if you planned it, arranged for it, or sought it out in the first place. And that includes stealth sessions. If you are out there looking for triggers to use without their knowledge, you are still the one choosing to expose your dog to them. Finding = adding.

Empathy

You can probably detect that I find this irritating, but I seek to look at it in an empathetic way.

I have been reading some posts by Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) practitioners in particular who express that they feel attacked and beleaguered by questions about negative reinforcement and humane training attached to their protocol. I get that they feel pushed into a corner.

I can empathize with that. Here is something you believe in, and people are asking difficult, pointed questions about it. Sure, anybody would be defensive. As a blogger, I have to deal with all levels of criticism. Even the most reasonable of criticism hurts.

There are people who react to these questions with dignity, though. They say yes, they are using negative reinforcement at times if they use certain protocols. They have thought it out, see good results, usually use other protocols as well, and are ultra careful about side effects. They don’t play like the presence of the aversive has nothing to do with them. Although I may not agree about all methods these folks use, I can appreciate their transparency and honesty about the science.

But it really worries me that there are still people who claim not to be responsible for getting the aversive into the environment. If they are trying to elude responsibility for that, even though it’s completely a side issue, what else are they willing to overlook, justify, or push out of their minds?

Thank you to all the people who do their best not to adjust the science (or even basic logical thinking) to justify their own preferences.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* I am not confusing positive punishment and negative reinforcement, here. To use negative reinforcement, there has to be an aversive in the environment to be removed or escaped. We’re talking about how the aversive got there in the first place.

5/25/14 Addendum

This post is an urge to be honest about one aspect of the use of aversives.  I believe that all trainers, regardless of method, should be honest about their training choices and philosophy. You do it: own it. That’s the message in a nutshell. And I directed it to an argument that I believe does the opposite of “owning it.”

However, one of the common responses I have gotten over the past week  is comparisons of the ranges and setups of DS/CC protocols and those using negative reinforcement, often in an apparent attempt to minimize the differences.

I have previously provided a webinar and a movie on the differences and similarities of the major protocols for addressing fear in animals, with particular emphasis on their ranges and setups.

To review a few relevant points: Debating who starts further from the stimulus is a moot point.  No matter how far away you start, you are required to go into the aversive range for a negative reinforcement protocol to work.  In desensitization and counterconditioning you have no need to cross into the range of stimulus aversiveness in order to get effective results. In R-, aversive exposure is necessary. The protocol depends on it. In DS/CC, aversive exposure is by accident and hopefully rare. That is an important distinction between DS/CC and negative reinforcement-based protocols.

The other important distinction is that you can get a positive conditioned emotional response from DS/CC. With DS/CC and negative reinforcement there are two very different types of learning going on.

 

 

Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Escape/Avoidance, Extinction, Fear, Negative Reinforcement, Terminology | Tagged , , , , | 48 Comments

The Girl with the Paper Hat (Part 1 of 2)

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the Matching Law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?


Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cues, Dog training hints, Operant conditioning, Positive Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Just a Trick?

Zani's useful "Trick"

Zani’s useful “Trick”

“Crossing over” is a phrase dog trainers use to refer to the act of giving up training that uses aversives and changing over to training that uses principally positive reinforcement: becoming a Humane Hierarchy trainer, a force-free trainer, or a clicker trainer. (We have lots of phrases to describe ourselves.) Folks who have made this change (and those who never trained traditionally) will attest that this is more than just a different set of skills. It is a change of world view, and it runs counter to the emphasis on and acceptance of punishment in our culture. For many of us, it is not an easy thing to do. Social and technical support are both very important.

My friend Marge Rogers is a crossover trainer who crossed over with no local mentor, although she would credit her wonderful dog Chase, as well as books and internet resources. She wanted to change the way she trained and she needed to do it on her own.  She came from a competitive obedience background. She decided, brilliantly, to throw off everything she knew, put her obedience goals temporarily on hold, and train her dogs to do tricks.

Why tricks?

Here’s what she told me:

  1. Teaching tricks improves mechanical skills like observation and timing.
  2. Teaching tricks helps trainers learn to create training plans and break down behavior (cognitive skills).
  3. It helps develop critical thinking skills. (How different are the skills for teaching dust the coffee table or blow bubbles in water than teaching drop on recall?)
  4. There is no pressure for the handler. Or the dog.
  5. Trick training encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
  6. Trick training give immediate feedback for the handler (via the dog’s behavior).
  7. There is no handler baggage.
  8. And the best reason for teaching tricks – you’re not burdened by the curse of knowledge for stuff you’ve never trained before.  No old habits to unlearn. In short: it’s the perfect way to become a better trainer.

P.S. You can make your own chicken camp.

The Result of Chicken Camp

The Result of Chicken Camp

Marge is referring to Bob Bailey’s well known chicken camps where trainers learn to hone their mechanical skills. This picture is the outcome of one of her personal “chicken camps,” where she taught her Rhodesian Ridgeback Pride a high leg lift to emulate taking a pee (he normally squatted to pee, by the way). She shaped that leg lift all the way up from a twitch.

Marge’s trick skills resulted in her fame as the “Ridgeback lady” on YouTube, who featured her Rhodesian Ridgebacks in videos such as these:

By the way, Ridgebacks have a reputation among traditional trainers as being an untrainable breed.

Finally!

Many was the time that Marge exhorted me to train tricks. I generally declined, saying that it’s all tricks (true, but perhaps evading her point a little bit), and that I had my hands full with polite pet behaviors and agility (also tricks!)

So a funny thing happened. Recently I broke down and trained my dogs a couple of tricks. It was supposed to be just for the heck of it, but two of the tricks immediately became very useful.

Marge says, “That figures!”

1) Sit Pretty. I’ve been teaching little Zani to sit pretty. We went slowly, so she could build up her abdominal muscles, but she really took to it. What’s a more classic “trick” that sitting up? Adorable but useless, right? But no sooner did we have a few seconds’ duration than it came in incredibly handy.

I’m teaching all my dogs to sit or stand on the bathroom scale by themselves. I thought I would have to manipulate the dogs’ feet a little bit so that I could see the readout. But Zani solved that problem by offering her useless “trick.”

Link to video for email subscribers

If I were Marge, though, I’d probably teach the dogs to curl their tails around as well, so they didn’t brace any of their weight on them if they were on the floor. That’s a little more than I have the patience for, though. I’ll just elevate the scale if I need to.

2) Leg weaves. I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I taught Clara how to weave through my legs. Let me be frank: I think that is one of the silliest behaviors ever. Even when the most accomplished freestylers do it, it’s mostly a “yawn” from me.

But as soon as I taught Clara the rudiments, I discovered something. It’s fun! No wonder people do it. Clara and I both enjoyed it, although I’m sure we looked even dorkier than average. And no, I’m not sharing a video!

Clara leg collage

Clara enjoying pressing against my feet and legs

The added benefit of this one is a little harder to describe, but no less real. Clara is a very “touchy” dog. She likes to lean against me, touch me, cuddle, and be as close as she can. So she loved the leg weaves. She got to be right “inside” my personal space. And darned if she didn’t make up a new game: she comes and weaves her way through my legs when I am sitting down, just for fun. Kind of like a very large, pushy cat. She clearly likes the sensation.

I couldn’t get a shot of the actual weaving when I was sitting down, but here she is walking under my leg and pressing against my foot. See how she is pushing toward me in both photos?

So Clara and I have not only discovered a new way to play one-on-one that needs no  toy or prop.  With a little finesse, I could even use it as a reinforcer. But right now, it’s just another way to have fun with my dog.

So thanks Marge, for urging me to train pure “tricks,” but they keep turning out to be useful! Or was that part of what you were trying to show me all along….?

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

Posted in Dog training hints, Fun, Handling and Husbandry, Toys and Play, Training philosophy, Tricks | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

Zani head tilt

Zani keeps her eyes on me a large part of the time

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or slip collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only to “get the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately,  the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

Nonsense Clue #1

We almost never want only our dog’s attention.

Let’s say that your Magical Attention Signal is tossing a lightweight coaster towards your dog. Your dog doesn’t particularly care about coasters. (Folks with disc-crazy dogs, hang on, I’ll get to you.) So you toss the coaster and the dog looks up. Yay, success! You’ve got the dog’s attention. Mission accomplished!

Um, no. Of course we don’t want only the dog’s attention. When we want their attention, it’s for a reason. The reason is almost always one of two things: to get them to do something or stop doing something. Getting their attention is only the bare beginning.

Nonsense Clue #2

Non-predictive stimuli are subject to habituation.

Habituation: A decrease in response following repeated exposure to a non-threatening stimulus.–Klein, Thorne: (2006) Biological Psychology

Virtually all of us have experienced habituation to something that was initially novel. Let’s say you move to a new house. It’s barely within earshot of an elevated train or metro track. When you first move in, you notice the sound of the train regularly: maybe a whistle, or just the rumble.

Elevated trainAt first it gets your attention. However, it gradually sinks in that there are no relevant consequences to that sound for you. The train schedule doesn’t affect vehicle or pedestrian traffic in any way. You don’t have to arrange your day around it. None of your loved ones ride it or work for the railroad. The noise is faint and there aren’t any noxious fumes. It doesn’t predict danger. In fact the train noise doesn’t predict anything for you, good or bad.

So what happens to the stimulus of train noise?  Habituation. You stop noticing it. It fades into the background. Our minds sift through stuff all the time to determine predictors of good and bad consequences. Things to seek and things to avoid. Low-intensity stimuli with no consequences fall to the bottom of the priority stack.*

Animals, including dogs, do this sifting too. Some dogs are noticeably good at it, like my Clara, who often knows my behavior patterns better than I do. And when you think about it, loads of the stuff we humans do has some kind of predictive value to our dogs. Turning on the TV. Getting dressed. Opening the refrigerator. Sighing. Even pulling down a book from the bookshelf.

I had a hard time thinking of a regularly occurring non-predictive stimulus in my life with my dogs, but here’s one. For my own dogs, the automatic switching on and off the the central heating and air means nothing. They hear it intermittently all day long, but it is just background noise to them. If the temperature weren’t well controlled, or if one of them was extremely hot- or cold-natured, she might start to notice and take the opportunity to go lie next to the air vent. Then the sound of the heat and air clicking on would become predictive, and start rising up in the stack of “things to notice.”

So the upshot is that if we want our dogs to keep responding to a stimulus, it generally has to be quite strong in itself, or have a consequence. Good or bad, your choice. But not neutral.

What Really Happens?

So how might our thrown coaster stimulus work? We have determined that if it were non-predictive, it probably wouldn’t continue to get the dog’s attention. So if it works consistently to get the dog’s attention, what’s going on?

There are four relevant possibilities:

  1. Terrier w Frisbee

    Yay! 

    Having a coaster suddenly land nearby could be intrinsically desirable to the dog. Maybe you have a loopy goofy retriever and he loves having something thrown near him, even if it’s just a coaster. He probably grabs it and plays with it. However, it may have failed as an attention-getting device. He’s playing with the toy, not looking up at you. And if you threw it when he was doing something you didn’t like, you would have accidentally reinforced the bad behavior. “Yay! I got a toy when I barked at Grandma!” (This can happen when people try to interrupt or punish with squirt bottles. Some dogs think being squirted is wonderful.)

  2. Startled boxer

    Oh no!

    It could be intrinsically aversive to the dog. I would wager that this is the case for many dogs, especially at first. Something flying through the air, appearing suddenly close and making a noise could startle them. Some dogs would habituate to it, and some might never do so. If they didn’t habituate, this could work as a way of getting your dog to pay attention to you. There’s a big drawback though:  that startled, fearful response would likely become associated with you. You become the scary person who throws stuff.

  3. Clicker

    Oh boy!

    It could predict something desirable for the dog. Maybe your dog is not turned on by coasters. But what if, every time you tossed the coaster, you then threw a treat or a toy? The dog would quickly learn that the coaster toss predicted great stuff (in the same way that clickers are typically used). If you were to toss the coaster a number of times, pairing it with good stuff, after the dog learned to the association you could use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. This is the principle of the “positive interrupter.” But you don’t have to throw anything. If you are close enough to toss a coaster, a simple noise or word would do. And it’s pretty clear that the promoters of the Magical Attention Signal are not using it this way.

  4. Tsst

    Oh oh!

    It could predict something aversive for the dog. Like Cesar Millan’s “Tsst!,” it could predict a kick or a jab in the neck. Or something less dramatic, like being yelled at or handled roughly. This might not have been the trainer’s or owner’s intent from the start. But if the startling effect of the thrown coaster wears off (version #2), a stronger consequence will need to be added. Then the thrown coaster would become either a punishment marker (“Fido, you are about to get it”) or a threat (“Fido–hop to it or you are going to get it”). This is also how most shock collar training works. When a trainer brags that he uses only an extremely low, non-aversive level, that is because the dog has already been taught that the shock can easily be escalated if he doesn’t comply. Otherwise we are left only with the Magical Attention Signal.**

By the way, #4 illustrates the concept of the “punishment callus.” One of the paradoxical problems with using an aversive is that most people want to start out light. But if you try that on strongly entrenched dog behaviors like barking, digging, or jumping up, the behavior may well prove to be too strong. Then you will be in the position of having to escalate. And often the dog’s ability to tolerate the aversive will escalate right alongside.

No Magical Attention Signal

Many promoters of aversive tools to use in dog training don’t want to say that they ever hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

If someone says that Tool A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask them what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also ask them what happens if the “painless” tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

The Magical Attention Signal is not going give any lasting help on its own. Learning theory and common sense (if only we could apply it when we think about dogs!) tell us that behavior has consequences. We take actions for a reason. We act to get stuff we want. To avoid stuff we don’t like. All creatures with a brain stem, and more primitive creatures as well, from what I hear, do this.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.

Rapt attention in the back yard

But the good news: if you keep conscious control of the reinforcers in your life with your dogs, use those reinforcers to strengthen behaviors you like, teach alternatives to behaviors that you don’t, you will have a head start on getting great attention from your dog.

All photos except the one of my dog Zani and the one with my three dogs are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The boxer photo was cropped.

* This is a simplification of habituation. The extent of habituation depends on several characteristics of the stimulus and organism. Here is a review article: Rankin, et al. [2009.] Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Sep 2009; 92(2): 135–138.

**We could also add, looking at the four quadrants, that the thrown coaster could predict the cessation of something aversive, or the removal of something good.  But I think these are pretty unlikely usages.

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Cues, Human and dog misunderstandings, Operant conditioning, Punishment culture, Reinforcement, Terminology | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments