Archive for the ‘counter conditioning’ Tag
Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.
In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.
Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.
Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.
This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.
Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.
Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.
It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.
Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:
“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.
I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.
I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.
I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.
Hope that answers your question.”
Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.
Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.
Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.
The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.
*product name removed
In the 80’s there was a campaign to keep kids off of drugs and the mantra was “just say no to drugs.” I thought the better advice to give kids about what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to their physical and mental health was “just say I’ll think about it.” I would apply the same advice to people with fearful dogs and the consideration of behavioral medications. Think about it.
It’s not easy to think, really think about whether or not to consult with a vet about behavioral medications that could help our dogs by lowering the level of anxiety and stress many are experiencing on a daily basis. We leave important pieces of information out, specifically the very real risk of NOT using medications to address anxiety in our dogs. We tend to put a lot of weight on the possible side-effects of medications and fail to consider the impact chronic stress and anxiety has on our dogs’ health and quality of life. We have a knee-jerk distrust of big pharma which we consider is out to suck our wallets dry by selling us unnecessary meds and hold the marketers of sugar pills and unregulated and untested remedies in high esteem.
It’s difficult to acknowledge and assess the baggage that we carry in regard to the use of behavioral medications, for people or dogs. For many of us it’s about how their use makes us feel. It feels not quite right to us and we come up with excuses and reasons to justify those feelings. Meds are a cop-out. If only we did something else they wouldn’t be needed, and we just need to figure out what that something else entails. They are an indication of laziness on our part. The need for meds means we failed our dog, we weren’t good enough. Few of us are willing to accept that and so we keep looking for alternatives that will make us feel more successful.
The other problem we run into is that we put more merit into anecdotal information about untested or unproven remedies than we do into the data and research available regarding the efficacy of meds. Someone’s cousin’s dog was put on an anti-depressant and their behavior got worse. If we are reluctant about using meds we will latch onto this information like a tick on a warm body. With no other information other than that statement we will write off meds as an option for our dogs. If someone’s sister’s best friend used a homeopathic remedy and saw improvement in their dog we’ll race out to the local shop to buy some. And this is where our thinking is cloudy.
In any group of dogs, some will get better and some will get worse whether we do anything specific or not. If a dog who was likely to get better is also given a magic potion (many of the products that are available have never been tested let alone shown to be more effective than a placebo) you can guess what will be credited with their improvement–the potion. I would surmise that when we start to think about how to help our dogs we are often changing more about how they are handled and managed than simply adding a few drops of something or other to their water bowl. We are likely increasing the odds of them improving because of these changes in management, and the drops are credited for it.
Two years ago my border collie Finn was diagnosed with lymphoma. I did some online searching for information and met with an oncologist. The prognosis for this disease if left untreated isn’t simply not great, it’s bad. But there is a well established protocol of chemotherapy that could increase his chances of surviving beyond the time the disease would kill him. Given all the factors; the type of cancer, his otherwise good condition, his age, the availability of treatment, credit cards, etc., we decided to treat him. He’s still with us (and even I can’t resist superstitious thought-touch wood). Don’t feel bad about the struggle to think critically about the use of traditional medicine to help our dogs, Even smart guys have a hard time with it.
If you enjoy thinking about the best ways to live with and train dogs you might enjoy my latest book Does My Dog Need Prozac?
In May I’ll be traveling to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group to contribute our energy to the cause of changing how people handle and train their dogs. No doubt there will be people who will embrace the information we’ll be sharing about force-free and coercion-free training with the enthusiasm of someone who has been adrift at sea waiting for the life raft to show up. Others may be at a different stage in the process of changing their understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn and their relationship with their pet.
I don’t know what they’ll look like or how I’ll tell them apart. I don’t know how old or which gender they’ll be. I don’t know what they’ll be wearing or how they will be behaving. I do know for some we will be sharing ideas and information that will be new to them, they may also conflict with ideas they already are holding onto firmly and been practicing for years. It may be behavior they have been rehearsing not only with dogs but also with the people in their life. We may only be able to loosen the grasp some have on the myths and misinformation which have been available about dogs and why they do what they do. Though I trust that for many people they will gladly discard the advice they’d been given to punish in any of the myriad ways people have devised to punish dogs. They’ll need direction and demonstrations of the equally numerous ways we can provide a dog with information and reinforcement without scaring or hurting them to get the behaviors we need or want from them.
I’m very excited about this trip, not only are these islands filled with environmental gems, we’ll meet people who are involved in different aspects of animal welfare. We’ll spend time with children who are passionate about treating animals with kindness and are role models for their community. We’ll visit shelters and sanctuaries where people take on the challenging and often disheartening task of making life better for animals, knowing there will always be more tomorrow needing their help. We may be separated by distance, oceans, age and culture, but it quickly becomes obvious that our hearts overlap.
To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.
One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.
I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.
It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.
Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.
I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents.
As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.
In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.
What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?
I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.
When I was younger I trained to be an “outdoor leader” so I could take people into the mountains or on rivers, for days at a time. I studied wilderness first aid and carried a knife to cut ropes, wore a helmet and PFD on rivers, enjoyed shopping for clothes and shoes designed using the latest technology and fabric for keeping me warm and dry, and coveted other people’s back packs for their good looks or ergonomic design.
As leaders we talked about and practiced what to do if something went wrong. We considered the ways we could remedy the problem using the equipment we had on hand or improvising with what we could find. There was always something new available to make the job easier; lighter, stronger paddles and boat hulls or better signaling technology in case you got caught in an avalanche. We learned to prioritize so we would focus on the key issues we’d face in an emergency. The bottomline becomes very clear and helps to direct our actions and to guide us as to what skills we needed to practice. If someone isn’t breathing or struggling to breathe, they’ll die. If they are bleeding excessively or their heart is stopped, they’ll die (and in pretty quick order in the latter case).
In the wilderness of dog training we are often faced with a variety of equipment choices and protocols to use to get basically one thing; a dog to behave the way we want them to. Some of the equipment and protocols we can use can make our jobs easier for us. Regardless of what we choose to use the bottomline remains as clear as it is when we have a medical emergency– we need to get a behavior. And making it even clearer, and therefore simpler, is that just as we know how when done correctly blowing into someone’s mouth will put air into their lungs, we know that when reinforced, behaviors are more likely to be repeated. Both are straightforward, true for everybody, systems. If they are not working then either we are doing something wrong (don’t forget to pinch the nose shut) or there is something very wrong (a piece of steak in the windpipe). We have to remove obstacles to success and follow the protocol for performing mouth-to-mouth correctly.
When trying to live with and train a fearful dog it becomes very important that we understand the basics of the system. Once we do we can break out the special equipment or try a new protocol available to us. And we are safer doing either of these when we understand how the system works. Understanding the purpose of an exercise is important. Good ones are about practicing a behavior and being reinforced for doing it. And being reinforced using something the dog feels good about.
In an emergency one of the first rules is to assess the situation. We assess the situation to ascertain what happened and to ensure our own safety. We want to avoid being the fool who rushes in. We can apply the same rule to working with scared dogs. Assess the situation and make sure that we will be safe and that the dog is safe so no further damage will be done. If someone is on fire for gosh sake, put it out. The faster we can extinguish the flames the less damage will be done. True with our dogs as well. If they are afraid figure out what they need to stop feeling that way. Give them space if they need it, a place to hunker down in, talk to a vet about medications to lower anxiety, or simply stop looking at them. Do what you need to do.
Once a dog is no longer fearing for their life we can work on changing the negative emotional responses they are experiencing and making them positive. We do this by pairing the scary thing with something fabulous, usually super good food. If the trigger comes to consistently and reliably predict the good thing, the emotional response changes. If we are not seeing this change then reassess. Is the dog still on fire? Are they still feeling scared and threatened? If so, you have to change that. Are you sure the trigger has been paired with the good thing consistently? Is the good thing good enough? Have you painted the picture clearly enough for the dog– the trigger predicts the treat– all the time?
Along with changing emotional responses we go back to the other basic– reinforcing behaviors we like. If a dog is still too scared to participate in a formal training session, they are still learning and we can still find behaviors to reinforce using positive reinforcement. Can the dog look at you? Turn their head? Stretch their neck? Sniff a toy? These are behaviors we can reinforce because as simple as they seem, they build the foundation not only for future, more complicated behaviors (pick up that toy and bring it back to me) they also contribute to helping the dog understand how *we* operate and how the system works. We do something, they do something and we give them a treat. We say their name, they look at us, we toss a treat. No need to make it more complicated than that.
I think it’s great that dog trainers are always trying to come up with ways to help dogs and make their lives better. But the best protocols and equipment keep your eyes on the prize. Identify the behavior you want and teach the dog to do it using positive reinforcement. Don’t waste your energy stumbling around in the wilderness. If you don’t understand how to apply the basics, find a trainer skilled enough to show you. In medical emergencies we know that we may have a small window in which to address that emergency. When a dog is really afraid we should be as concerned about addressing the crisis they are experiencing. If we don’t, all the equipment and special protocols may not be enough to save their life.
I enjoy reading nonfiction and watching documentaries. But there are some books and videos I will avoid watching or stop watching, they are too upsetting to me. It won’t matter how important someone tells me the information I’d be gaining is or how artfully it is presented. There are award-winning films I have not watched because I know how they end; me feeling bad. Berate me all you like for sticking my head in the sand when I choose Glee over Blackfish, I’m still not watching it (read Death At SeaWorld, I get the picture).
When we lose our audience we effectively end the conversation. I’m not suggesting that people stop writing well-researched works of nonfiction or producing documentaries featuring behind-the-scenes information most of us are unaware of. I just can’t promise that I’ll want to read or see it.
If I am trying to teach a dog to do something I always consider whether or not they are willing to remain engaged in the conversation. They respond to my behavior with their behavior. For the most part dogs are pretty easy to wow with my conversational prowess, especially when the conversation includes food and play. When I do lose them it’s often because I’ve bored them or have made it an unpleasant enough exchange that they choose to opt out.
Good performers play to their audience and fearful dogs can be a tough one.