Thresholds: The Movie

Summer, a sable colored dog is lying down on a step with a toy in front of her. Her eyes are wide and her ears  very far back and in motion. She is reacting to a noise and looks extremely fearful. She is at the threshold of a fear response.

Summer at the instant she reaches threshold of fear

I have made a movie about thresholds in dog training. It gives a quick overview of the work that I presented in my webinar for the Pet Professional Guild. (Click here for a script of the movie; there is a lot of narrative for which I didn’t put text on screen.)

The threshold webinar is still available as a recording ($10 members/$20 non-members of PPG) and I encourage anyone who is interested in thresholds to view it.

Also, I have previously published a blog post on the topic: Thresholds in Dog Training: How Many?

If you are a visual learner, the movie will probably be helpful. I spend a lot of time explaining the diagrams, and have an animation of what happens to the thresholds as we train.  The movie also has video examples of dogs and stimuli over the thresholds. (Plus it has a threshold of hearing test! How cool is that?**)

Thanks for watching!

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Surprising Progress on Thunderstorm phobia
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”  
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

** For the auditory people, musicians, and nerds among us (I’m all three): I used an iPhone app to generate a high frequency sinusoid (15.5 kHz) and recorded it for the movie. I used an oscilloscope app to make sure that the sound was playing during that part of the movie, through my own computer anyway. It’s just below my threshold of hearing. Younger people can probably hear it, if their computer speakers can generate it.

Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dogs' perceptions, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Stress Signals, Terminology | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Because I read this incredible book, that’s why. 

Book Review

Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case, MS

Available at Dogwise and Amazon.

A book about dog nutrition and feeding choices that talks about cognitive biases and logical fallacies? My kind of book!

Author, trainer, canine nutritionist and consultant Linda Case has written a unique book on how to make decisions about what to feed your dog. She has the right credentials:  B.S., Animal Science, Cornell University, M.S. Canine/Feline Nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana, and tons of high-level professional Photo of book: Dog Food Logic by Linda Caseworking experience. The book is packed with information about dog nutrition, but equally important is the information about **how** to go about making decisions about feeding. Ms. Case realizes that most people don’t make decisions about their pets based on charts of data. Of course she includes the charts, and gives instruction on how to use them. But she also teaches us how to navigate the waters of cultural assumptions, advertising, our own upbringing, and most important, cognitive biases.

The writing style is casual and pleasant, while still being precise.  She jokes around. And the book is well organized, persuasive, and thorough. There are chapters on dogs’ nutritional needs including adjusting for their age and “lifestyle,” common ingredients and what they really are, critical thinking and decision making about our dogs’ food, the history of dog food, dog food companies–who really makes what, dog food marketing and labeling (read and weep), and what regulating bodies work to keep dog food safe (in the US) and how to contact them.

Goals of the Book

I knew I would love this book when I saw the three-point synopsis in the introduction:

[In order to make good decisions about our dogs’ nutritional health…]

We need a strong emotional attachment to the idea of making the best choice for our dogs and an understanding of how that attachment affects our choices; we also need a grounding in the science of canine nutrition (an understanding of what we know to be true and proven versus what is mere speculation or conjecture); and we need a set of strong critical thinking skills to allow us to sort truth from marketing hype when evaluating dog food companies, brands, and products.

I would have been happy with just the second and third points, but the first point converts the book from merely useful to a slam dunk. And she delivers on all three.

Later in the book, she reiterates her point:

It should be evident by now that my goal with this book is not to tell you what food to feed to your dog or how to specifically advise your clients about their dogs. Rather, my objective is to promote well-reasoned decision making that combines a working knowledge of the scientific method, canine nutrition and critical thinking skills.

You get it? She’s not going to make a master list of the best dog foods and recommend the top five. She’s going to teach you how to do it yourself, for your own dogs.

Biases and Fallacies

Is Summer a skeptic too?

Is Summer a skeptic too?

A great strength of the book is the focus on biases and fallacies about dogs, their needs, their nutrition, our own motivation, and much more. Here are a few highlights.

Illusion of Control: She takes as a small case study the Internet claims that a certain ingredient is connected to seizures in dogs. She shows the tortuous path that led to the rumors. Most important, she points out that the known possible causes for seizures, genetics and idiopathic, are both something over which an owner has no control. Because of confirmation bias and the illusion of control, diet is most people’s go-to solution for any health problem that is making us feel frustrated and helpless.

Overfeeding and treat training: She points out that connecting food and love (a good thing) can lead to dog obesity (a bad thing) if critical thinking and self observation are left out of the picture. She points out that training sessions strengthen the association between food and love in our minds and can have an effect on our choices. And even though she mentions training with food in this section, she does not equate that with having overweight dogs. She states the obvious without fanfare, that it just requires the ability to subtract the calories from the dog’s daily needs to prevent any weight problem. I had never thought about how training with food reifies the food/love connection…in the human.

Zani performing a "natural canid behavior": Eating grass

Zani performing a “natural canid behavior”: Eating grass

Naturalistic Fallacy: She introduces and first discusses this fallacy in the section about dogs’ nutritional needs. She sums up the problem with a sentence that may tick some people off, but which she defends flawlessly: “There is no rational reason to believe that, just because something can be classified as natural for dogs…that it without question follows that these things are better for dogs.” She goes on to explain that benefits need to stand on evidence, not just a claim of naturalness. She discusses the effects of the naturalistic fallacy several more times:  in an extended case study about choosing a dog food from the myriad choices available now, in the section on pet food marketing, and (oh boy!) in the section on labeling.

Credentials and Social Media

In a short but chilling section, Ms. Case lets us know how frustrating the world of a nutritionist can be. In an almost perfect parallel to the training world, anybody can blast their opinion on nutrition for dogs all over the internet and not be called to task for it. You can’t go a day on social media without running into it. As a nutritionist, she is ethically and professionally bound to take extreme care about recommendations, but, for instance, I, as an uncredentialed blogger, can write anything I want. I could start promoting Eileen’s All Egg Diet starting tomorrow without much risk of repercussions. But I’m going to follow her advice, which is “If you don’t have the creds, don’t make the claim.”

And indeed, I can’t start recommending this book fast enough. Just yesterday I read someone’s post on FaceBook decrying the lack of attention to nutrition that people give to their pet dogs. She went on to make four points about choosing a food. Three of this passionate, caring person’s points, it turns out, have absolutely no current basis in science, and two of those three actually have minor but documented risks. The fourth was a recommendation about labeling. The writer said to look for a certain word connected with the food. And I just learned that word has virtually no regulated meaning in the petfood industry.

Critique

Frankly, I am so thrilled with this book and grateful that it is available to us that it’s hard to find a flaw. But just so you know that I did read it with a critical eye: I would have loved a central listing of all the BS myths that we hear about feeding dogs. However, these fallacies are so numerous and so central to the arguments of the book that making a list in addition to addressing them in the flow of the text would substantially increase its size. One other thing: Appendix 5 is called a flow chart for dog food choice–a great idea. I spent a bit of time searching for the actual flow chart–could it have been an insert and it fell out?–until I finally realized that the list of questions in text format was the flow chart. I would have loved to see a graphical decision tree as well.

Odds and Ends

I learned something on almost every page of this book. Here are a few little tidbits:

  • The evidence that dogs are omnivorous
  • Which label terms on foods are actually legally defined
  • Why “filler” is an empty (ha ha) epithet
  • The pros and cons of both raw and cooked, extruded food
  • The legal bounds of the term “natural”
  • Why it’s hypocritical that a food that is supposed to be complete and total nutrition is marketed with additional implied claims about improving your dog’s health

Personal Response

I said at the beginning of this post that I intend to change my dogs’ food. I’m relieved to say that I haven’t chosen a bad food, and many of the principles I have followed in making my choice are pretty good. But now I’m better informed and can make a better choice.

Bottom line:  I trust this book. Ms. Case gives us the information we need, and teaches methods of making assessments on our own. She doesn’t set anything in stone. I am completely confident that when new information comes out that updates or even contradicts information she has in the book, she will be the first to spread the word, hopefully in a future edition.

This review was not solicited. I saw that Ms. Case had written the book, I bought it, I read it, and I hope every other dog owner reads it as well.

Coming Up:

BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
Thesholds: The Movie!
What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?
Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Book Review, Critical Thinking, Research | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

Thanks, Susan and associates!

Train us or just feed us!

When questioned about possible weight problems from training with food, we R+ trainers always say something like, “No problem! Just subtract the training calories from your dogs’ daily meals and it will work out!”

For me, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Am I the only one for whom this is a problem? Sometimes I wonder before I publish these kinds of things exactly how many people are as compulsive as I am have situations similar to mine. But then I figure that the world is a big place, so perhaps this will help somebody out there.

Here’s my situation:

  • I have three dogs who vary in size, who all love to be trained;
  • I want everybody to have approximately the same number of reps in training;
  • I hate counting kibble; and
  • I don’t want to use all the dogs’ kibble for training.

And here’s is a graphic representation of the problem:

For each doggie meal, Clara gets a generous 1/2 cup, Summer gets 1/3 cup, and Zani gets 1/4 cup.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals

So let’s say I want to take out 30 pieces of kibble from each for training. That will generally  let each dog work on one to three behaviors.

Look what happens to their meals:

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals after training treats removed

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals after training treats removed

Poor Zani! It only puts a dent in Clara’s meal, it leaves a halfway decent amount for Summer, but Zani is left with less than half of her meal! That bugs me! One of the reasons I virtually always feed my dogs before training is that I don’t want them working on an empty stomach. And Zani may be littler, but it’s not fair taking away such a bigger percentage of her food!

But on the other hand, if I take away less of her meal, she gets fewer training reps than the other two.

And here I am still counting kibble.

Two-Part Solution

I finally figured out what to do.

1) Switch Zani to smaller kibble. I shopped around and found a comparable kibble with smaller, but not tiny bites. It’s nice for carrying around in my pocket for training treats, too. Here’s what their meals look like now, with approximately 30 pieces removed for training.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's Meals Adjusted

Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals, training treats removed, after Zani’s food switch

So Zani has the same number of training reps as the others, but still has the majority of her meal intact. (Now Summer is the one who looks a little cheated, but I’m going to say this is the best I can do for now.)

2) Weigh the kibble, don’t count it. I don’t mind giving a plug for my trusty Oxo kitchen scale here. I switch it to grams for weighing kibble, since I can get a little more precision that way. Believe it or not, that’s 30 pieces of Zani’s new kibble on the scale. For me, weighing is a lot quicker than counting.

Weighing kibble

Weighing kibble on kitchen scale

Everybody’s different. Some people would never consider switching a dog’s food just to change kibble size. But this solution works for me because I tend to switch my dogs’ kibble around every once in a while anyway, just to make sure they are getting a variety of the lesser nutrients. So that doesn’t bother me. Plus none of mine has any particular digestive issues (knock on wood).

On days when I don’t plan any training, I can switch Zani back to the old kibble, or switch the other dogs to hers if I want. (Another consideration is whether the foods have a similar calorie count per volume or weight. Mine worked out to be close enough without any extra tinkering necessary.)

Sorry this doesn’t offer anything to the raw feeders, who have a whole different set of challenges.

I would love to hear from some folks with a bigger spread in their dogs’ weights. What do you all do?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog training hints, Positive Reinforcement, Treats | Tagged , , , , | 23 Comments

16 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

Training, 2009

“Real” training with Cricket, 2009

When most of us think of cues, we think of the verbal ones we teach our dogs. “Sit,” “Down,” “Here!” Perhaps we have taught them some hand signals as well. To teach a cue we go through a set process that can be quite a bit of work. It involves foresight, planning, and decision making on our parts. And practice, practice, practice. I think that tends to limit our perception of the other ways cues can come to exist in our lives with our dogs.

There are cues going on all the time that we didn’t plan or teach, and some that we don’t even know about.

Let’s review the definition. A cue in learning theory is properly referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Such a mouthful. A discriminative stimulus signals that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. (The term also applies to a stimulus that indicates that reinforcement is not available, but let’s leave that alone for now.*). Breaking it down a bit: What’s a stimulus? It is a physical event that the organism can sense. Discriminative? It has a special meaning in this definition.

So in plainer English, and in the usage of dog training, a cue is a green light that tells the animal that there is a desirable consequence available if a certain behavior is performed. In real life training, we need to be sure and make it different enough from other stimuli so that the animal knows what behavior is being indicated. You don’t want your “bow” cue to sound like your “down” cue (thanks, Kathy Sdao!), and if you are using colors as cues, you had better not use colors that look almost the same to a dog, like orange and red.

Note that a cue is not a “command” or an “order.” There is no force in the definition of cue.

The Clever Cue Detector

What does this mean to Clara?

What does this mean to Clara?

My dog Clara has a genius for observation of the tiniest details, perhaps in part a result of her feral background. Since she arrived in my dog household, I have noticed an increase in group behaviors by my dogs that are responses to events in their environment. In other words, they now notice all sorts of things, usually that I do, that likely predict good stuff. And Clara in particular has the ability to follow my behavior chains backwards, to find the earliest predictor that I might do something cool.

The first one that I noticed is that Clara responds when I reach for the top shelf of a particular cupboard in the morning as I am getting ready for work. Virtually the only time I reach up there is to get down the package of cookies that I typically dip into for the dogs when I get ready to leave. Clara gets a nice treat when she goes to her crate, and the others (who are separated in different parts of the house but not otherwise confined) get a small piece too.

If we put that in the language of behavior analysis, we have:

  • Antecedent: Eileen reaches for package of cookies on the top shelf
  • Behavior: Clara runs to her crate and waits inside
  • Consequence: Clara gets a nice chunk of cookie

The interesting thing to me is how far back in time Clara has tracked this cue. Some dogs might not get in their place until verbally cued to do so. That’s the case with my other two dogs. Or a dog might wait until I was walking towards her crate. Or breaking the cookie into pieces, or rattling the package while getting the cookie out. But Clara has traced my behaviors backwards to the earliest consistent predictor of my leaving and her cookie: my reaching for the package. Also, I think it’s very cool that she runs away from the cookie to get the cookie.

In the movie, I show what happens when I reach into the cupboard and pull out something from a lower shelf. (Nothing! Even though it’s a noisy package, the dogs continue to watch, but don’t budge.) Then I show what happens when I reach for the special package of cookies. The sound is certainly part of the cue, but Clara doesn’t always wait for the sound. I have experimented, and she discriminates on the basis of what shelf I am reaching for.

Here are some more cues that I have come to notice. They are mostly Clara’s, but the other dogs have learned them now as well. I’m skipping past the more obvious ones like how all the dogs come running if they hear me preparing a meal, or open the front door. Everybody’s dogs do that, right?

Cue, Cues, Everywhere!

The Computer

  • Setting: kitchen, in the morning. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m getting ready to leave for work, and she’ll get a good treat when I crate her. So actually, now that I think about it, she has traced the cookie cue even farther back in time than I realized.
  • Setting: kitchen, in the late evening. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to the bedroom. Why: I’m getting ready to go to bed, and she loves getting in the bed. (So in these two, the time of day is a part of the antecedent that allows her to discriminate.)
  • Setting: kitchen or office, the rest of the day. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: All dogs jump up or come running from other parts of the house to see what will happen. Why: Whatever I do next will likely be more interesting to them than my working on the computer.

OK, you get that when I actually get off the computer, it’s a real event. And actually, my drawing a breath and reaching for the laptop cover is now becoming the cue.

A different computer cue:

  • Setting: office, early evening. Cue: I put my laptop in its cover. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m likely going out (I carry my laptop around a lot).

The All-Important Ball

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.

The Ball Game

As you can imagine, with a ball-crazy dog like Clara, she pays intense attention to any cue that might precede a game.

  • Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I clean up after the dogs and put the poop stuff away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I finish raking and put the rake away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I let the dogs out of their various areas after they eat their supper. Behavior: Clara runs to the back door, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I walk towards the back door. Behavior: Clara runs ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.

OK, from the above four, you can see how important playing ball is to Clara! The other dogs usually come too, since there is reinforcement available for them as well.

Kitchen Stuff, Training Sessions, and Attention in General

  • Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I lean back in my chair after eating. Behavior: Clara comes running over and nuzzles my hands. Why: I am available to pay attention to her again.
  • Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I open the pill bottle for Summer’s thyroid medicine. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: they all get a little peanut butter when I give Summer her pill. This one is especially interesting because it has been several years since I used to open the bottle for Summer’s pills twice a day. These days I only open it once a week because I cut up the pills and put them in a pill sorter. And I don’t always do that when it’s time to administer the pill. So it is no longer a perfect predictor. No matter; they still all come running. The power of a variable reinforcement schedule.
  • Setting: Anywhere in the house. Cue: I pick up the camera tripod. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: Training session!
  • Setting: Anywhere in the house: Cue: I pick up one of the dogs’ mats. Behavior: All dogs come running and try to get on it even while it’s up in the air. Why: Training or mat session!
  • Setting: I am talking on the phone. Cue: I start making finishing remarks. My dogs can tell from my inflection that I am winding up the conversation even before I get to “Goodbye.” Dang, they are good! Behavior: All dogs gather around. Why: I will probably get up and do something.
  • Setting: Anywhere in house. Cue: A delivery truck comes by.  Behavior: Clara and Zani come running. Why: I have classically conditioned Summer’s barking to mean a shower of food, and it has morphed into a recall cue. However, Clara and Zani both learned what makes Summer bark, so they no longer wait for her to bark.

Snow???

A small black and tan colored hound is looking up. She has flecks of snow all over her face

Zani in the snow

Finally, here’s one starring Zani. Back in 2011, when I was making this movie about negative and positive reinforcement, I trained Zani to run down my back steps on cue. I have not used that cue very much in our life together, since generally she goes down when she needs to and I don’t intervene if she thinks she doesn’t need to. Some of the training for that cue took place during some snow here, a relative rarity. Interestingly, the snow became a cue! See what happens.

There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. I discussed with some knowledgeable friends what kind of antecedent the snow likely was. Characteristics of the environment are often setting factors. However, the snow by itself is sufficient to get Zani to start running up and down the stairs. So I vote that it is an actual cue. 

What are some of your dogs’ more interesting cues? Planned or unplanned?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* Keller and Schoenfeld, Principles of Psychology, 1950, p 118. A stimulus-delta is also a discriminative stimulus.

Posted in Behavior analysis, Cues, Discrimination, Operant conditioning | Tagged , , | 37 Comments

Discussing Negative Reinforcement Responsibly

R- captionI didn’t give today’s post a cute title, because this situation makes me very, very sad.

There are some strange claims going around the dog training community. They are not being made by shock trainers, although I am sure they appreciate them. Instead I am hearing them from many people in the force free community. The statements minimize the problems that can be caused by using negative reinforcement.

In negative reinforcement (R-), something that makes the dog uncomfortable, including that it may frighten or hurt the dog, is used to get behavior. The dog stays in the uncomfortable state until it performs a desired behavior. Then the uncomfortable state is ended. (The definition is contingent on a future increase in the behavior.) This linked post has examples of some of the ways that negative reinforcement is used in training, ranging from body pressure to an ear pinch retrieve.

There is truly a continuum in the severity in the applications of R-. In the human world, it can run the gamut from putting on a coat, to a staredown, to torture. Negative reinforcement happens a lot in the natural world, too, often at very low levels of aversiveness.  So people are correct if they say that some situations are more aversive than others, or that using negative reinforcement is not always a catastrophe. The trouble begins when they make blanket statements–especially blanket incorrect statements–that include all negative reinforcement.

Following are two related versions of the statement about negative reinforcement that I keep seeing.

Version 1

The reason some trainers object to negative reinforcement is that when people add the aversive, there can be fallout.

This statement omits the majority of the problems known to accompany the use of negative reinforcement and aversives in general. The fact that an animal’s response to an aversive can get generalized to the handler is only one of the many problems with using negative reinforcement.

I rewrote the statement to be more complete.

The reasons some trainers object to negative reinforcement include that it employs an aversive, the association with the aversive can be generalized, it is on the undesirable end of the humane hierarchy, it is linked with reactivity and aggression, and has other undesirable side effects for both the animal and the trainer.

The main issue isn’t whether there’s a human wielding the aversive, it’s that an aversive is being used in the first place.

If the only problem with negative reinforcement were that the animal might make an association between the icky thing and the human, all that would be necessary to make negative reinforcement acceptable across the board would be to prevent the animal from making that association.

The shock trainers must be delighted whenever they hear this statement come from the mouths of force free trainers. If it were true, all they would have to do for their training to be acceptable would be to make sure the dog doesn’t know that they are controlling the shock. (And shock trainers with skill and knowledge of learning theory take care to do just that, by the way.) Poof! No more criticism of shock!

I know that this is not the intent of the force free trainers who are defending negative reinforcement. But as long as they make blanket statements about that quadrant, it is the logical conclusion.

It also strikes me as very self centered to mention only this particular problem with negative reinforcement. Really? It’s OK to deliberately use something unpleasant to get the dog to do stuff, as long as the dog continues to like us?

Version 2

Negative reinforcement is ethically OK as long as the handler isn’t the one who adds the aversive to the environment.

On the surface, this sounds like the same thing. But in general, the people who say this are discussing ethics, not behavioral fallout. I have seen probably a dozen people write that using an aversive that is “already out there” is ethically acceptable, while adding one oneself is not. It’s a tempting rationale, but there are some real problems with it.

Let’s go straight to examples on this one.

Monsoon_Lightning_Strike,_Table_Mesa

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Let’s say my dog and I are out in the yard and it starts to storm. I notice that my dog is cowering at the door; she is scared of the thunder. Instead of letting her in immediately, I require that she sit and give me eye contact for 10 seconds. If she can do that, her reinforcement is that she gets to go in the house where she feels safer from the storm.
  2. My dog and I are again in my back yard. I have bought a new sump pump for the crawl space in my house. I turn the pump on while my dog is watching. It will run for 2 minutes as a test. I notice that my dog is cowering at the door; she is scared of the pump sound. Instead of letting her in immediately, I require that she sit and give me eye contact for 10 seconds. If she can do that, her reinforcement is that she gets to go in the house where she can get away from the pump.

Now compare the two experiences for the dog.  She is sitting there at the door trying to figure out how to get me to let her in, away from the scary noise. If the noises are equally aversive, the two situations are just the same.

I don’t see a difference ethically. The thunderstorm exposure is no more humane than the sump pump.  In both cases I chose to use an aversive and required my dog to stay longer than necessary in a situation that scared her. And I did have another option in each case, one that is almost always ignored by people defending negative reinforcement protocols.  I could have just let her in the house without requiring a particular behavior.

Natural vs Contrived Negative Reinforcement

There is a recognized difference between two types of reinforcement: natural (or automatic) negative reinforcement and contrived (or socially mediated) negative reinforcement. I have written a post about them. Paul Chance’s definition is as follows:

Natural reinforcers are events that follow spontaneously from a behavior… Contrived reinforcers are events that are provided by someone for the purpose of modifying behavior. Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Seventh Ed., p. 140-141

Getting inside a house is not a natural consequence of sitting and offering a human extended eye contact. Both of the above examples are contrived, even though one utilizes a phenomenon in nature, and the other a sound from a machine deliberately turned on by the human. There is no stipulation about the stimulus for these definitions, only the reinforcer.

A related example of natural negative reinforcement would be if my dog were in the back yard, it thundered, and she came in the doggie door under her own power. In this case the reinforcer of getting in the house is a natural consequence of the dog going through the doggie door.

A Message from My Heart

Making glib claims that minimize the harm in negative reinforcement can result in dogs being hurt.

Please remember that when you make blanket claims about negative reinforcement, you are not necessarily talking about the more benign end of the spectrum or just one instance. If you have stature as a trainer, you are giving blanket permission to countless people to be cavalier about using aversives.

For whatever reason, most people are primed to believe it when told that X, Y, or Z method “doesn’t hurt” the dog. Many of us pet owners have had this experience. I would venture to say that most pro trainers have come across it in their clients. People are ready to believe that things that hurt dogs don’t hurt them. And they are ready to believe that practices that harm dogs are not harmful.

It is responsible to urge caution in the use of aversives. It is not responsible to minimize the fallout.

Regarding Comments

This is  a post about speaking truthfully when making general claims about aversives. It is not about any training method. It does not “damn” anyone who uses negative reinforcement when training their animal. It urges them not to make blanket statements about the acceptableness of R- in general or to argue in favor of its acceptance as a general practice. 

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Operant conditioning, Terminology | Tagged | 51 Comments

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales

I have to admit that I likely have a fair number of readers who look forward to reading about my mistakes. But hey, I asked for it, from the very first day of the blog.

My previous post on common dog training errors was very popular and I’m very happy to see it still making the rounds! So here are seven more, five of which I have personally made in spades.

(1) Too much freedom too soon 

The person who should be ashamed is me!

The one who should be ashamed about this is me!

Boy, this is an easy mistake to make. I bet a large percentage of problem behaviors and damaged property (and so-called “dog-shaming” photos) can be linked to this one simple error. Lots of times our hearts overrule our heads. Let’s say you just got a rescue dog. You feel very badly about his history. You work part-time  and you plan to crate him when you go to work. Only problem: he hates the crate. You can’t stand putting him in it the first day you go to work. The idea breaks your heart. He’s sleepy anyway when you get ready to go, so you just leave him loose in the house. You come home to poop in the corner, a chewed carpet, and some overturned plants. What a bad dog! No, he’s just a dog who hasn’t been taught the house rules yet. (Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash explains this heartbreaking misunderstanding about dogs in an unforgettable way. It will change how you look at your patient, long-suffering dog forever.)

When I first got Summer, I had never had a puppy or an active adolescent dog before. I didn’t realize you couldn’t give dogs cardboard to chew on, then expect them to know not to chew up the books that were in a bookcase at floor level. I learned on the fly how to limit Summer’s opportunities to self-reinforce inappropriately, but with my two subsequent dogs I doled out freedom much more carefully from the get-go.

(This is not a how-to post, but in the case of the dog hating the crate, if you have to go somewhere before you have conditioned your dog to love a crate, most would recommend you use an exercise pen to enclose a safe space for him, or gate off the room of the house that is easiest to clear of tempting but forbidden items. And of course, leave him plenty of permissible activities, such as stuffed food toys.)

(2) Value of reinforcement too low

Last time I talked about rate of reinforcement, but what about the value? What if you ask  your dog to run a complete agility course for some kibble?  Or when she finally works up to 30 minutes quiet in the crate, you give her one piece of carrot? Or maybe you are trying not to use food at all, trying to get good results from your dog merely from praise or pats on the head (which are actually punishing for many dogs). No matter how frequently you praise, that just isn’t going to cut it with most dogs.

Chunks of dark meat chicken on a plate, round disks of dog food roll, a ziplock bag with pieces of dog food roll

Yummy stuff!

Food, especially good food, not only motivates your dog, it makes the communication in training crystal clear. When your dog gets a great treat repeatedly for the behavior you want, it makes it very clear to her that this is what pays off. There is no muddy water. If your dog is not responding eagerly in training sessions, check not only your rate of reinforcement, but the quality of it.

I have written about my own experience with Summer, who was highly distracted by her environment and just not really into the work we did. My food reinforcers, though high value, were cut in too small pieces.  Once I rectified that, the nice chunky new treats passed value to training in general and we got over the hump. She is now a training junkie and works eagerly for kibble.

I might also mention, once more, that what is yummy is defined by the dog. I was going to make a photo contrasting chunks of meat with something lower value. I thought of using bread, then remembered that my dog Summer will do anything for white bread. It pays to know these things!

(3) Over-using negative punishment

Negative punishment is defined as follows: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often. It often takes the form of a penalty or time-out.

Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit

Pulling the treat away when Zani moves out of a sit

The thing about negative punishment is that it meshes so perfectly with positive reinforcement sometimes. Too perfectly. It’s an easy default method. You start to hand the dog a cookie for staying in position. The dog starts to move out of position to get it, you pull the cookie back. You walk into the room where the puppy is in the crate. She starts to cry when she sees you. Oops! You turn on your heel and walk away. Or how about this one? You are teaching your dog the cups game, where she figure out which cup has the treat under it, then indicate that somehow. She guesses wrong and indicates the wrong cup. You immediately pull both the cups away.

These are all terrifically easy, and often effective ways to train. In all cases there is a penalty for the incorrect behavior, and it is the disappearance of the goodie the dog was  on the cusp of earning.

It surprises some people that negative punishment is at the same level on the Humane Hierarchy as extinction and negative reinforcement. Most trainers are more “OK” with negative punishment than negative reinforcement, but I think Dr. Friedman is telling us that we need to look at each case individually.

Negative punishment is punishment. It suppresses behavior. It can be unpleasant for the learner. It can directly inhibit them from trying stuff. Two of my dogs, Zani and Clara,  tend to shut down very fast if I pull an item away from them because they have taken the wrong action, as in the cups game example above.

I treat my own over-use of negative punishment as a symptom. When I find myself using it or being tempted a lot, I ask myself what it is that I have not sufficiently trained. If my dog is pulling out of position to get a cookie, there were probably holes in our stay practice. If the puppy regularly whines in the crate, I have lumped somewhere.

I’m not sure if this is an error in the same category as the others. It’s more of a value judgment. Negative punishment is still much more humane than some alternatives. But I invite you to look beyond it, whenever you find yourself or your students using it a lot.

(4) Treating in a sub-optimal position or manner

Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat

Pulling Cricket out of position for her treat

Well, there could be a whole treatise here. I am a former expert at this. You can see in this movie about Cricket in her Prime, from the very first scene, that I built into her training a little leap up for the treat in almost all behaviors. Partly because she was small, and partly because she was so intense, and entirely because I didn’t know any better. In the picture to the right, even though I had already clicked, how much better would it have been to treat her down on her mat rather than letting her jump up into the air? The position of your treat delivery can help train the behavior.

Then there’s the difference between throwing, dropping, or handing over treats. Throwing treats is very exciting and fun for lots of dogs. In certain situations it’s perfect for setting up another iteration of what you are practicing and buys you some time. So would you want to do that every time you click your dog for another increment of relaxation if that’s what you were practicing? Probably not. On the other hand, if your dog is slower than you’d like on some rapid-fire behavior, throwing treats for her to chase can amp things up.

And yes, I get the irony between the picture of my deliberately pulling Cricket out of her sit for a treat, and the picture of my pulling the treat away from Zani when she breaks position. Same picture. Hmm, I wonder how Zani learned to break position in the first place…

(5) Making training sessions look like “training” and not real life

Guilty, guilty, guilty. That’s me. This one is similar to “Failure to generalize,” in the last post but it’s more, um general. When you fail to generalize a behavior, a dog knows how to do it in one location or situation, but not another. So once your dog knows “sit” in all sorts of places and situations, is there something more you should do? You bet. Did you have your treat pouch on during all of those sessions? Or have your clicker and a pocketful of treats? Did you cut up the treats just beforehand? In other words, is everything about the situation screaming, “This is a training session?” Then good luck getting Fluffy to sit the first time your best friend comes over and you are having coffee at the kitchen table. It’s not just the possible lack of treats. It’s a completely different situation for your dog.

So first, the food. Your dog needs to learn that she might get a food treat even if she hasn’t seen all the signs of “training session.” One way to do this is to cache little covered containers of treats out of your dogs’  reach around the house and even the yard or your walk route. Casually, outside of a session, ask your dog for a sit. (Start off in the less challenging situation, of course.) Voila: out comes something really good from a jar on top of the bookcase! You can pull treats out of the sky!

Think about what else indicates to your dog that you are about to train? Do you gather up some props? Get your clicker? Put the other dog in a crate? Take your phone out of your pocket? Believe me, whatever the habits are, your dog knows them. So prepare to surprise your dog. Just like with any other training, start simple and raise your criteria. One of the main reasons most people train their dogs is to make them easier to live with. This won’t happen unless you integrate their training into real life.

(6) Clicking or marking without treating

I still see questions about this. “When can I stop treating for every click?” The answer is, “Never.” Although there are a few rarer training systems where one click does not equal one treat, if you are a beginner, forget about them for now. The clicker (or verbal marker if you use that instead) gets its power from being a perfect predictor of good things to come.

Now, it’s perfectly OK to fade the use of the clicker over time. You don’t have to click or mark every single time your dog does what you cue.  And over time, with skill, you can use food less and life rewards more. But if you click, give a treat, unless you just clicked something totally disastrous. One missed pairing out of 100 click/treats will not ruin the meaning of the clicker.* But just remember the look on your dog’s face when you don’t give them the promised treat, and do your best not to make that mistake again. Because clicking the wrong thing was your mistake, not your dog’s.

(7) Too long a delay between the behavior and the consequence: assuming the dog makes a connection when they can’t

I once read on a dog chat forum some comments by a man who was fervently defending punishing a dog when he got home and found out that the dog had done some misdeed–perhaps an elimination problem or the dog tore something up. He was incredulous that anyone would question his punishment; he said, “But dogs have great memories!”

Yes, they certainly do. His dog probably remembered peeing in the corner or how good that shoe tasted. But how exactly is the punishment supposed to be connected to that deed from hours earlier? The dog has performed hundreds of behaviors since then. Showing the dog the pee or the shoe does not connect their earlier action to whatever punishment is being doled out.

Consequences for behavior need to be very close in time to the behavior for behavior change to occur, and not just for dogs. A behavior analyst named Kennon Lattal has been the go-to guy since the 1970s for studying the effect of time delays and intervening events between behaviors and  reinforcers for people and all sorts of animals. In one famous experiment he tried for 40 days (one hour a day)  to shape a pigeon to peck a disk while delaying reinforcement for each behavior for 10 seconds. The pigeon never got there. When he changed the time delay to one second, the bird learned in 15-20 minutes.  (Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003, p. 160)

So, actually two lessons about treat timing here: when you are training, deliver those treats (or tennis balls, or whatever) as quickly and efficiently as you can. And in day to day life with your dog, don’t assume that if you give them a goodie or a talking to, that they can associate it with something they did 5 minutes or 5 hours ago.

Any of these strike home with you? Care to share? I can’t be the only one making these mistakes, can I?

This post is part of a series:

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

*There are eminent people who say you shouldn’t fail to treat even in this situation, even once.

Posted in Dog body language, Dog training hints, Dogs' perceptions, Generalization, Human and dog misunderstandings, Multiple dogs, Stress Signals | 23 Comments

Who Was Resource Guarding? And Why We Need to Take it Seriously

What is it with me and contests/quizzes, anyway? The Curse of Knowledge got me again!

Because of the way I made a guessing game out of two pictures of my dogs,  I may have led people to believe that resource guarding is not very serious. I may have even implied that as long as you can take the item away from the dog, all is well.

In my previous post, I wrote:

One of these dogs didn’t want to give up her item, but still, she did so without incident.

This made it appear that I may approve of walking up and taking things away from dogs who are giving fair warning. I absolutely do not recommend that, nor do I do it (anymore). But I used to, before I knew any better, and I should have explained the context of the “bad old days.” In my zeal to make the guessing game fun, I left out the backstories, and I shouldn’t have.

As mrsbehavior, one of my commenters, said, “Just because you can take something away from a dog doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.” Absolutely, and I didn’t mean to imply that this was so.

What is Resource Guarding?

Here is a definition from Jean Donaldson, from her book about the subject, “Mine!”:

Dogs behaving aggressively when in possession of (and sometimes to gain possession of) food, toys, bones, their owners, their resting spots and crates.

Although it is a very natural behavior–would could be more survival enhancing than being willing to protect valuable stuff?–it can be an extremely problematic one for a pet.

Jean Donaldson classifies most resource guarding as ritualized aggression, where dogs resolve conflict with threatening behaviors short of physical aggression. Dogs are actually pretty amazing at this, but they are also quite capable of causing great harm.

Some of the signs of resource guarding that Jean Donaldson lists are freezing up, a hard stare, eating faster, growling, snarling, snapping, and biting. There is no level of resource guarding against a human that should be ignored.

See the bottom section for resources for treating and preventing resource guarding. In the meantime, here are the answers to the previous post.

Cricket Was Resource Guarding

Cricket and her chewie

Cricket and her chewie

In my previous post about resource guarding, Cricket, the rat terrier with big ears, was the resource guarder.

The photo of Cricket with her rawhide chewie is from 2005, before I learned anything about training. I didn’t know resource guarding was that bad a problem, since she would give warning snaps but not bite, and I certainly didn’t know there was anything one could do about it. Some evenings I would separate Cricket and my other rat terrier, Gabriel, and give them each a chewie. If they weren’t done with them when I was ready to go to bed, I would take them away. Clearly, Cricket didn’t appreciate it. I would never do it that way now (see below: My Dogs at Home).

The commenters who picked Cricket named lots of “tells.” I really liked Ingrid’s observation comparing the two photos: I was a lot closer to Summer! That’s a great observation. Even if all things were equal and those were both resource guarding responses, just the fact that I was farther away from Cricket and getting that response speaks volumes. Cricket has three points of contact with the rawhide: both paws are clutching it and she has it in her mouth. Even though she has the rawhide in her mouth, she is managing to push her commissure (corner of mouth) forward, a typically aggressive response. Her little body is tense, down to her back toes. Her ears are back a little from their natural carriage. With her, that was roughly equivalent of a horse putting its ears back. Somewhere between dubious and “watch out!” Then there’s the whale eye, a result of keeping her mouth on the prize but checking up on me. Here are some side by side photos of Cricket comparing her body language and ear carriage in different situations.

Summer was Playing a Game

Summer and her bone

Summer and her bone

The photo of Summer, the sable/brown dog with the big plastic bone, showed play. We have a game where I pretend to try to get her bone. Either of us may start it.

In the case of this photo, she had started the game. I had been walking across the room and she looked over at me, pounced on the bone with a little growl, and looked again. So I played along and pretended I would get her bone. The photo is a video still, and quite typical of how fierce she was acting.

Others have done a good job of analyzing her body language. It’s actually hard to see much of her body, but she was not hunched over the bone. Her muzzle was not pointed at it. Her whiskers are relaxed (you can compare with the other photo below). Notice that it is her bottom teeth that were showing. She was not lifting her lip or snarling. She was vocalizing at the time, this funny high-pitched hooting whine that she does in play, which is why her mouth is that shape, quite similar to when she howls. But I know she looks fearsome, especially to someone who doesn’t have the context of her general personality and behavior. Here is that photo compared with another photo of Summer, where she is actually snarling (also in play, believe it or not). The one with the bone is starting to look a little better, isn’t it?

Some people took the direct eye contact and lifted muzzle in the bone photo as very threatening, and let me tell you, if I met a dog I didn’t know who was doing that, I would do my best to get out of the situation!

I showed these pictures to some friends before I ever posted them, because I myself had a hard time telling the difference between the resource guarding and play signs, even though I know the dogs and the situations. So in the end, although we can observe and analyze away, perhaps the main lesson is that resource guarding and play can look very similar. And we should take care!

Think how many games that dogs play with each other are about guarding places and objects. “King of the couch,” “You can’t have it,” even “Tug.” All sorts of things. My game with Summer was not all that different from playing tug with her. Any game can escalate, but with a clear rule structure they can be a lot of fun.

There is another thing I learned from the photos: one of the reasons Summer looks so convincingly fearsome is that she has a very mobile and expressive face. I have shown lots of pictures of her before, including in my ill-fated contest. She is very expressive. And Cricket, bless her heart, was not. She had those inscrutable terrier eyes and didn’t have near the breadth of facial expression Summer has. So when putting the pictures side by side, Summer’s certainly looked dramatic.

My Dogs at Home

I currently have three dogs, none of whom resource guards anything against me. Partly they came out of the box that way; none of them is particularly “guardy” with humans. But the other part is that I have been doing prophylactic and maintenance work with all of them to keep it that way.

In the rare situation that I take something away from one of my dogs, their reaction is, “Great! What do I get?” I have a huge “bank account” with all of them. I have classically conditioned walking toward them, reaching toward them, touching what they have, or even just looking at them when they have something, to predict great things. (The links below describe this process.)

But if your dog exhibits any of the above behaviors–from either picture–when in possession of something, you should take some steps to get some help about it.

Resources on Resource Guarding

Here is a nice blog by Dr. Patricia McConnell about resource guarding, including steps to prevent or treat it: Resource Guarding: Treatment and Prevention.

Here’s a good article on the Whole Dog Journal about resource guarding: Unwanted Dog Food Guarding Behavior.

Jean Donaldson’s book Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs has written protocols with every step split out. (It is geared toward trainers, but it quite clear and readable for anyone. The trick is that trainers are probably better at recognizing the subtle behaviors tied with tension in the dog than the rest of us are.)

Finally, here is a video that shows a professional trainer dealing with resource guarding and food aggression. It’s not a how-to video, but shows the general methodology, and some of the more subtle signs of resource guarding: Resource Guarding/Food Aggression.

Conclusion

I was feeling bad for a while, since there is not a clear cut answer to this “quiz.” I wished that I could say, with authority and certainty, that if you saw “A, B, and C” happening with a certain dog you should worry, but that if you saw “X, Y, and Z” you didn’t need to. But life isn’t like that. In retrospect, I think it is a good lesson that both of these pictures show behaviors that are worrisome, even if one dog is playing. As reader Jennifer said,

This is a wonderful exercise. I certainly would not risk my own flesh, or the comfort of either of those dogs to test my hypothesis, since really both pictures could be resource guarding.

Exactly.

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog body language, Resource guarding, Toys and Play | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Which Dog is Resource Guarding?

Here’s a little body language fun: Who is seriously resource guarding? And what is the other dog doing?

I showed these pictures to two of my skilled observer friends to compare, and they came up with some great observations. Much better than my own, and these are my dogs!

How about you? Care to play? Can you tell which dog is seriously guarding her object? How far do your think she is willing to go? You can write your observations in the comments. It’ll be more fun if you make some specific observations/comparisons to back up your guess.

Here’s my usual disclaimer: photos can be deceptive. They catch only a moment in time. A fleeting expression can look like a terrible warning signal. A captured lip lick can make the dog look terribly nervous when she wasn’t. However, both of these photos are accurate representations of how the dogs looked and were acting.

A brown, black, sable dog is holding a toy bone, staring straight ahead at the person taking the picture with wide eyes and her mouth open showing teeth. Resource guarding.

Summer and her bone

A black, white, and tan rat terrier with big ears is hold a rawhide and looking up at the person holding the camera. Resource guarding.

Cricket and her chewie

Note: resource guarding can be a serious problem. I’m not making light of it. One of these dogs didn’t want to give up her item, but still, she did so without incident.

Addendum 2/28/14: I realize from some readers’ responses that the combination of these two photos and the previous sentence might give the wrong impression. I should have explained. One of these photos is back from when I didn’t know what to do about resource guarding, and the other is from a play session. Stay tuned for more details in the next post.

Related post: Dog/Dog Resource Guarding in Slow Motion

Coming Up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog body language, Resource guarding, Toys and Play | Tagged , | 25 Comments

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW Many?

I recently gave a webinar entitled, “Over Threshold: The Changing Definition,” for the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). The webinar is still available as a recording, and I encourage any interested folks to check it out. It is not expensive. (And thank you to everybody who already came! That was so cool to recognize some names!)

With the approval of Niki Tudge, president of PPG, I am outlining here some basics from the webinar. The reason I created the webinar in the first place was to allay confusion in the dog community about definitions and to aid in communication. I think some straightforward definitions and a “map” will help many people and their dogs. In fairness to PPG and the folks who paid to come to the webinar, I’m keeping it brief.

I argue that there are three distinct, necessary, and useful definitions of the word “threshold” in dog training. They are:

  1. Sensory threshold as defined in psychology. Here is one textbook definition: The faintest detectable stimulus, of any given type, is the absolute threshold for that type of stimulus.—Psychology, Peter Gray, 5th edition, 2007. In the webinar I go into the history, discuss types of thresholds in psychology (yes, even within the discipline there is more than one), and cite several more definitions and supporting information. There are many sensory thresholds: hearing, different aspects of vision, smell, touch, etc. One way the psych definition of absolute threshold is unfamiliar to our common use of “threshold” in training is that it is the stimulus that is above or below the threshold of the organism’s sensory capabilities. We say, “That sound is under the threshold of hearing,” not, “The dog is over its threshold of hearing.”  Organisms’ responses to sensory stimuli are often invisible to the naked eye, and the responses generally do not correlate to overt, “dramatic” behavior.
  2. Threshold in the common training sense. You can find definitions of this usage in books by Leslie McDevitt, Debbie Jacobs, Laura VanArendonk Baugh,  and more.  These definitions roughly agree. Here is Debbie Jacobs’, which is very straightforward:  The threshold is the point at which your dog can no longer deal with a trigger before reacting in a negative way (with fear or aggression).” — A Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog, 2011I argue that this usage of the term generally corresponds to  the response of the  sympathetic nervous system: the fight/flight/freeze response or fear response.  In this usage, it’s the dog that is said to be over threshold, not the stimulus. I also cover usages of the term “threshold” by behaviorists including Steven Lindsay, Dr. James O’Heare, and Dr. Karen Overall. They discuss dozens of sensory, physiological, and behavioral thresholds, and always specify which one they mean.
  3. Threshold of stimulus aversiveness. This threshold is the point at which an existing stimulus becomes aversive, generally because of the intensity of the exposure. I gave this threshold a name, but I didn’t invent the concept. It is necessary to locate this threshold through our dogs’  behavior when doing both desensitization/counterconditioning protocols and operant learning processes. Jean Donaldson defines it thusly: In DS/CC,  “under threshold” is: An intensity of stimulus that elicits no fear (and so the intensity of stimulus that would not function as R-)…. Not “mild fear” or “manageable fear,” it’s NO fear.–The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement, PPG Webinar, 2012.  Attention to this threshold is necessary also in negative reinforcement protocols that involve escape,  since the stimulus exposure must be over the threshold of aversiveness in order for escape to function as negative reinforcement.

I believe that most of the problems in discussion of thresholds in the dog training community are due to two major points of confusion: 1) Whether we’re talking about the dog or the stimulus being over threshold (confusion between Definitions #1 and #2); and 2) The fact that many of us haven’t realized there is a difference between Definitions #2 and #3.

Mapping it Out

Here is a graphic showing these three different thresholds, and where the major types of protocols for working with fearful, aggressive, or reactive dogs fall among them:

Thresholds for blog
 This graphic may be shared for educational purposes with the copyright and credits included, and I would appreciate online citations to link back to this post or the webinar page.

The combination of desensitization/counterconditioning is performed under the threshold of aversiveness, as Jean Donaldson describes. Protocols using negative reinforcement (escape/retreat from the aversive stimulus) must take place partly over the threshold of aversiveness, or else the movement away is not reinforcing. They generally go back and forth over that threshold. Finally, flooding takes place at or above the threshold of fear response. In the webinar I split things out further and map six different protocols separately; I have roughly grouped them for this graphic.

I also talk about the ways that some of the thresholds move and change, through training, external events, and the emotional state of the dog. I describe how certain protocols become more difficult if two of the thresholds are very close. For instance, for wild animals the threshold of sensory perception of a stimulus and the threshold of aversiveness of that stimulus may be practically on top of each other.  I address the often-heard claim that there is no negative reinforcement happening if the dog is “under threshold.”  Also I discuss which protocol is likely to take place closer to the stimulus–but also why the absolute distance is not a good point of comparison.

Conclusion

I will be working further on this topic, in part because of some great questions asked at the end of the webinar, so you may expect more from me about it at some point.  For now I encourage anyone who wants further information to view the webinar.

Please note that the webinar does not have information on how to perform the above-mentioned training/conditioning protocols, on reading dog body language, or other training tips. It’s not about how to train a fearful or aggressive dog.  But the feedback I have gotten from viewers is that it has clarified an area of considerable confusion and that it will help their training.

Coming Up:

  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Behavior analysis, Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog training hints, Escape/Avoidance, Event announcement, Negative Reinforcement, Terminology | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Don’t Get Mud on Your Face! Citing Research in Discussions

Clara mud on face 2

Lots of us in the dog community read journal articles and scholarly books to learn more about the science behind behavior, even if our academic credentials lie elsewhere. And sooner or later we want to share what we’ve learned, out of the goodness of our hearts (grin), or more likely to try to win an argument persuade someone of our position.

Some say you shouldn’t even cite research if you don’t have credentials in that field. I think that’s true to some extent, but I also think it is beneficial to read and try to assess research even if you don’t have those credentials. Delving into scholarly journals isn’t always easy, but it’s one of the best ways to expand your knowledge and learn about the dialectic nature of science. But you have to keep front and center in your mind that if you are reading about a discipline that you don’t have academic expertise in, you are at a huge disadvantage compared to the people who have a longstanding background in that area. 

One of the first rules of citing research is that you must understand the context, both for your own benefit and to save your ass from embarrassment. And if you don’t know much of the context, you’d be well advised to start studying.

Let’s say you run across a quote that refers to some research. It supports a position that might be a little controversial or a minority view, but you are excited since you hold that view yourself. You are delighted and ready to quote it, both to impress your friends and show the other camp a thing or two. What should you do?

As someone whose credentials are in fields other than psychology or animal behavior, here are some guidelines I have developed.

What to Do Before You Quote the Article

  1. Find the original source. If you read about the study in Newsweek or The New Yorker, get the author’s name and track down the original research article. An editorial mention is not peer-reviewed research. You may have to pay for the original piece or order it through a library if you don’t have university access. Another option is to send an email to the author. You’d be surprised how many times they’ll just send it to you. Be sure and thank them politely!
  2. Read the article. The first time, don’t worry too much about all the stuff you don’t understand. Try to forge ahead and get a sense of the whole thing.
  3. Read the article again.
  4. Study the charts and graphics. What are they measuring? What’s on the x-axis and what’s on the y-axis of the charts? What statistical methods did they use?
  5. Now look up the terms you don’t understand. Give yourself a crash course if you need to.
  6. If there are still big sections that you don’t get, consult an expert in the field if you can.
  7. Read the article again. Are you beginning to understand it?
  8. If not, and if you have no way of doing so, stop right there. Don’t bother to quote it. If you think you understand it moderately well, proceed.
  9. Find the quote that got you started in the first place.
  10. Study the part in the article just before it. How was the experiment or problem set up?
  11. Cherry picking is a tempting rhetorical fallacy

    Cherry picking is a rhetorical fallacy

    Study the part just after it. Did they qualify the statement at all? If so, you are ethically bound to include that part if you plan to quote the study. “The new XYZ method works 95% of the time (YAY!), but only with orphaned voles raised with chipmunks and no other rodents (oh).

  12. Study the results section and the discussion section. These sections are where the authors summarize their results and make the case for their findings. But they are also bound to announce the limitations, and we should be just as attentive to those.
  13. Think hard about applicability. If it is about behavior, are there big behavioral differences between the subject species and the one you want to apply it to? Is one a prey animal and another a predator? Have the researchers done something spectacular in the controlled condition of the lab that can’t possibly be replicated in real life? Or conversely, have they found a problem that rarely shows up in the real world because of the ways that good trainers know how to help animals generalize and practice behaviors? Tread carefully. Think it through. You’ll look silly if you announce a problem that real world experts have been aware of for ages and already know how to avoid.
  14. Find out how many times the article has been cited. Google Scholar will give you a rough idea. If there are few citations it generally means the work made very few ripples in the scientific world (usually a bad sign) unless it is brand new. If it has lots, keep that in mind for # 18.
  15. Start reading the citations. Did they show further research that replicated the results? Or did they yield different results and argue against the first conclusion? Sometimes you can tell from just the abstracts, but sometimes you’ll need to get the full text of those articles too. You may run across a review article of the whole topic. Read it!
  16. Take note of the date of the article. If it was from 1975 and the thread of research continues through 1980, 1983, 1988, and 1992, you’d better read to the end. You’ll either bolster your case or save yourself some embarrassment.
  17. Find a ranking for the journal that published the article. Here’s a journal-ranking site.  Collection Development Librarians can also help you assess the comparative merit and ranking of journals and academic publishers. This is another area where you may save yourself some embarrassment. If the ranking is abysmal and the only other publications citing the article are from the same journal–you have a problem. And beware of the open source “pay and publish” journals; they require even more careful assessment.
  18. Search through the citations and find the major opponents of the work if there are any. Get the cheerleader out of your head and address the article critically. What do the opponents of the work say? What are the opposing hypotheses and results? Do they make sense? How many citations do they have? (Being heavily cited only shows that people paid attention to the article. A good start. But it might be because a bunch of future studies demolished the findings.)

Take a deep breath. Does your quote have merit? Is it a fair claim, given what else you have learned? Is it from a good source? Has it stood the test of time? Does it apply to your own topic? If so, go for it. Write your post, make your claim, but qualify it appropriately. Cite your source and be careful about Fair Use guidelines: give complete credit so that anybody could go find the very article and quote you are citing, but don’t quote huge chunks.

It's usually safe to quote Chance

What does Chance say?

What To Expect Afterwards

Your friends will be proud of you. People who disagree may be irritated or outraged. But here is what to be ready for. There are virtually always people with better knowledge and credentials than you in a given field.  If you are already in the hierarchy of academia, you are keenly aware of this.

So, those people may have something to say about what you wrote. Here are the main possible reactions:

  1. They address you with criticism of your piece from the benefit of their broader knowledge. They may ask if you considered Joe Schmoe’s experiment from 2004. They may advise you that you made a beginner’s error and you forgot to account for the “Verporeg Effect.” They may tell you that you really need to start over because of the discrepancy between the metrics being used in the different studies. Make no mistake: This is a GREAT response to get from experts. Even if you personally feel ripped to shreds and devastated, get ahold of yourself. They took you seriously enough to make suggestions. They took time out of their day. Thank them (publicly if their critique was public) and go do as they suggested.
  2. They argue in opposition to your piece. Now you have lots more work to do. They have an advantage. They know the field. They are probably right. But you can make lemonade. Go study their points. You wanted to learn about this, right? Now you have a chance to learn some more. This is still hard on the ego, but again, you got taken at least somewhat seriously, and you have an opportunity to learn. And if/when you find that they are probably right, be gracious.
  3. But the worst: they ignore it. They took a look and decided that gracing it with a response would be a complete waste of their time. So you can either puff up your ego and decide that no one recognizes your genius, or go back on your own and study some more. Maybe you are that lone polymath who has connected the dots between some interdisciplinary stuff and people will recognize your genius later. More likely you were just out of your depth. The people who make radical, startling discoveries are usually immersed in the field in which they make the discovery, or a closely related one.

But hey. You did your best. You probably learned a lot. Whatever the response to your claim, you must forever be ready to delve more deeply if someone comes up with a well-supported opposing point of view. Be a good sport. That’s how science works.

And by the way: I write from experience. I’ve made a variety of mistakes in citing resources and making claims. I thank the people who kindly helped me improve my understanding and make corrections.

Resources

Coming Up:

  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Photo credits: Clara with mud on face and Summer “reading,” Eileen Anderson. Cherries, Wikimedia Commons. The circle and slash added by Eileen Anderson. 

Posted in Behavior analysis, Research | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments