Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

I found an interesting article (www.urbandawgs.com/divided_profession.html) by Jean Donaldson that talks about the divisive opinions amongst dog professionals. Indeed, the inside joke goes that the only thing a room full of dog trainers can agree on is that everyone else doesn’t know what they are talking about.
I don’t envy lay owners who get passionate, but conflicting advice how to best raise, train and live with their dog. On one end of the spectrum are the positive reinforcement advocates, on the other positive punishment and negative reinforcement trainers who choose pain and discomfort to stop “bad” behaviors, and to elicit desired ones.

In operant conditioning, positive means to add something and punishment that the behavior decreases. In regards to dogs you see that on TV all the time. The dog growls and is pinned with the goal that pinning stops the dog from growling next time he encounters the trigger that evoked it. Sometimes it works, and often it doesn’t: the dog either growls again, which proves that pinning is pointless for this dog, or he stops growling and bites right away, because he still doesn’t feel any differently about the trigger, just his warning communication signal is oppressed.
So, behaviorally positive punishment is only positive punishment when the behavior actually disappears. If your dog still pulls despite choke collar corrections, or barks on a prong collar, you’re not effective and all you do is nag, and as an unwanted consequence your dog tunes you out.
Negative, in scientific terms, means to take something away and reinforcement that the behavior increases. It is, for example, Koehler’s famous ear pinch to convince the rookie retriever that holding a dumbbell is a good idea. Handler pinches the dog’s ear, which hurts and he opens his mouth, dumbbell is shoved in and the pinching stops. In case you’re not thinking with me, the pain ceasing is the negative and the dog holding the dumbbell on command and for longer periods of time is the increased behavior.
Ear pinching is still done today, but the negative reinforcement tool of choice these days is the shock collar, and its many nicer sounding guises like remote training device, or e-collar. In essence, the dog is fitted with the collar, the handler holds the transmitter and turns on the juice, and makes it die away when he gets immediate and precision accuracy performance. Dogs learn very quickly to come as speedily as their legs allow, or drop into a down anywhere, anytime and around distractions. Shock collar trained dogs’ performances look amazingly impressive, and many owners want that for themselves, and because of that it is a very lucrative business. Anybody can jump on the bandwagon and buy a shock collar training franchise, take a several weeks’ course, and henceforth use that nifty device to teach dogs of all sizes, and puppies, basic obedience, or jolt an unruly pooch into toeing the line.

No problem as long as the dog behaves, right? Wrong! The old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, is spot-on regarding dogs and training. The fallout punitive methods and shocks create are well documented. For example, Murray Sidman’s 1989 book, “Coercion and its Fallout”, refers to studies that showed that shocked rats will be aggressive when a second one is placed in the same box. And not ritualized status aggression or momentary dominance over a resource, but violent attacks followed through to a kill. Furthermore, punished animals did not only redirect aggressively, but were seeking opportunities to be aggressive.
A one-year-long study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that aversive and intimidating methods, including the stare down, scruff shake and pinning, do little to correct behavior, but elicit aggression in dogs.
Studies with baboons showed that corrections by a higher ranking member did not create better behaved baboons, but ones that passed on the aggression to even lower ranking monkeys.
A study with Belgian military dogs showed that they performed worse on obedience tasks if their handlers used punishments instead of rewards.
Steve White, K9 cop with 30 years experience, stated in a seminar I attended that tracking dogs have much fewer false positives when trained without punishments.
And a study done by the Departments of Ethology and Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht, Netherlands, showed that shock collar trained German shepherds are more stressed on the training grounds, and the park.
Those findings are congruent with my experiences and don’t surprise me a bit. Negative reinforcement gives the dog only momentary relief when the discomfort ceases, cause the shocks will happen again. They are experienced and anticipated with every training session, and by conditioning cues: the collar, the handler, the training facility, or whatever details, in the dog’s mind, predict the zaps. And that creates anxiety, which will be expressed, because not releasing pressure is biologically impossible.
Not all dogs I see who have gone through that totalitarian style of training, aggress; only some do. But I have yet to meet one who is relaxed, voluntarily attentive, motivated, keen to learn new things, placid, and generally well behaved when not under surveillance. What I see instead are dogs who have a very low stress threshold, are hyperactive, hyper alert and trigger sensitive to stimuli, and express that with barking, mounting, pacing, chasing, avoidance, and/or destructive behaviors, and if those are repressed with more of the same punishments, neurotic behaviors such as obsessive spinning or self-mutilation.
Today’s shock collar trainers claim to be dog friendly and humane, gentle even, and compare the shock with a tap on the shoulder. If that were the case, one would not get the results one can watch on video clips. No dog, no animal, obeys mindlessly and with a yes-master precision, often against his nature, unless they are driven to obtain a much-desired super reward, or to avoid and stop something very unpleasant, and my bet is with the latter.

People sell what is profitable: alcohol to teenagers, substandard food, overpriced medication to the sick, and shock collars for dogs. That is just the way it is, and I get that. Who can blame the trainers who want a piece of a popular pie, or retail stores that sell that stuff? And I certainly don’t expect lay owners to waddle through behavioral laws, studies and their results.
But I do expect influencers like veterinarians, humane societies and dog associations to take an unequivocal stand with a policy against positive punishment and negative reinforcement. Many do, for example the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. But others, who comprehend the damage intimidation, force and deliberately inflicted pain causes, or at least should, don’t and continue to support it, and that is really disappointing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Lesson in Resource Control

Will was born feral and raised by dogs, and as Turid Rugaas once said at a seminar: “If dogs raise dogs they get it right”. True enough, Will is very dog savvy, which isn't necessarily the same as dog friendly, but you can bet that her actions are always bang-on. Even so, in public places I don’t allow her to act on her own, because humans often misinterpret a dog who teaches another a valuable lesson with attacking, and good ownership is managing dog and environment in a way that keeps everyone happy.
A different situation in my own living room. I know that Will is accurate and never harms, so when she explains something to a dog, I watch, listen and learn.

The lesson in resource control took place in 2006. At the time Will was 5, and we fostered a 3-month-old Spanish water dog we named Reggae. If you google the breed profile you’ll find out that the SWD’s place of origin is Andalusia, a beautiful region in Southern Spain, where they are predominantly used as herding dogs for sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and even geese. Now, any medium size dog able to boss goats, pigs and geese around has to be tenacious, feisty, courageous and clever, and Reggae was all of that – and very cute. She was nearly the cutest pup, but also one of the most confident ones I ever met. Despite her tender age she seriously tested the boundaries with our seasoned residence dogs, Davie and Will. And it was Will who put, a least temporarily, a stop to it.
Will doesn’t like cow hoofs. In fact, she couldn’t care less about toys and chews other than her hard-rubber red ball that flies far and bounces high, real beef marrowbones, or a chicken-stuffed Kong. So the hoof in the middle of the living room meant nothing to her – but a whole lot to Reggae.
On that particular afternoon she, a busy and easily bored pup with nothing to do, eyeballed it, which did not escape Will’s awareness. Immediately Will got up and placed herself not between Reggae and hoof, but lay down on the opposite side. I guesstimate that each dog was about 3 feet in distance to the hoof. Whenever Reggae attempted to close in, prancing stiffly with a raised body and high tail, Will warned her with a low growl and hard stare not to, and Reggae backed away. That carried on for a little while, with Reggae persisting; first confidently, but eventually lowering her posturing and becoming more fluid, lips drawn a bit and play-bowing. It still didn’t impress Will much. Finally Reggae whined and whimpered, and obnoxiously rolled around in front of the hoof, pawing into Will’s direction with a stupid grin on her face, tongue hanging out. She tried every lowly and submissive puppy behavior she had up her sleeve; wooing Will sweetly in letting her have the prized, contested cow hoof.
That convinced Will that she made the point that who has seniority ought to be treated respectfully and walked away, not wasting another second on that hoof or Reggae. Once Will surrendered the loot to her, she left her in peace to enjoy it.
Smart and dog savvy Will, unlike some owners, acted like an authentic leader, instead of a bully. Bullies take things away forcefully; high status members control access to resources. Human, and canine social rules state that possession is 90% ownership. He who violates that is called a thief. Stealing from another person is against the law, and should be against the moral law regarding dogs. Typically, owners do not manage dog and resources very well, but, in the name of alpha-ism, take away something the pooch snatched, or even was given to a couple of minutes prior. That has profound consequences: it promotes suspicion, confusion and anxiety, and confident dogs are pushed into aggressive resource guarding.

Will’s access control behavior was very interesting to observe, but also surprised me. At the time I was under the impression that such dominance displays take place between two animals who want the same resource at the same time, with the same intensity. That was clearly not the case here. Will did not at all desire that hoof, but obviously recognized Reggae’s competitive and determined nature, and attempted to clarify who’s in charge when she had the chance; when Reggae was still young enough.
Both Will and Davie continued to help us with our beautiful Spaniard who we had for 7 more months. Will, in addition to teaching Reggae to say “pleeeeze”, also educated her in appropriate play behavior, while Davie showered her with attention, mothered and groomed her, and helped her through separation anxiety. Hubby Mike and I taught her the meaning of commands, self-restraint and attention – all alternatives to her aggressive displays. In the end, the cute, but problem-ridden pup became a loyal and beloved companion for a wonderful family, who continued to challenge her mind and body in a positive way.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to: Dog School

On their very first day of school German students receive an about foot long, colorful cardboard cone filled with candies to sweeten the entrance into a somber existence that would last, according to my parents, till the day one retires. Indeed, way back when formal learning could be a dreadful time for kids, and it was not any different for dogs. Obedience training rarely began before the pup was about 8 months old, so that the harsh treatment wouldn’t damage him for life.
For most youngsters things have changed; corporal punishment and the rather humorless approach to teaching is not trendy these days. For our rookie pooches alternatives also exist, but are not nearly as universally available, which means that it’s up to the owner to do a little investigating.
And don’t be shy about it. Dog school is not publicly funded. You are paying for group classes out of your own pocket, and that gives you the right to expect certain standards from the instructor.
Competence is obvious. Learning from someone who knows little more than you is senseless. One measure of competence is experience, but it is not the only, or even the best, gauge. Being in business for 20 years can mean ongoing learning, or doing the same thing for 20 years. Dog training has progressed greatly, and someone stuck in a method from 50 years ago might not be as qualified as someone 5 years in, but who is well versed in behavior and learning theories, and open-minded to learn more - from dogs and people.
The method used should never be ambiguous or kept a secret; revealed after you paid. Good training facilities have nothing to conceal, and you should be allowed to observe a session before you sign a no-refund contract. When there, pay attention if the trainer is positive with dogs and all humans. One who treats you and your dog kindly, but yells at her staff creates a tense atmosphere and that hinders learning. Watch what the dogs tell you. Are they relaxed, attentive and enthusiastic? Watch for open mouths and fluid bodies, and where they move – toward the handler, or out the door if given the chance.
Especially for puppies and beginners the priority should be to instill the want to learn. New owners should be given the know-how to raise a well-rounded companion in day-to-day life.

Inquire if you'll have the same instructor for the duration of the course. Although it is not unusual for one trainer to fill in for another, having 3 different instructors within 8 weeks can be confusing for owners, even if they all apply the same method. Consistency is vital for beginner learners – humans and dogs.
An expert instructor is able to accurately assess if behavior is abnormal and will point this out to you. Frankness does not mean putting a judgment label on your dog or the breed you own, belittle you, or expose your dog’s challenges as a bad example in class. I’ve seen it all, and yes, even with positive reinforcement trainers. Humiliation in people school is called bullying. If it happens in dog school, it is bullying too.
And it is a football-field-size red flag if you feel intimidated by your instructor. If you feel queasy in her presence, imagine how your dog feels. Time spend together has to feel good, because it is meant to strengthen the bond, the relationship and increase cooperation. Anything that stresses or worries you, or your dog, does the opposite and is counterproductive to the sole reason why you’re there.
If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Give up on that instructor, but never give up on your dog and training.
Said that, training does not have to happen in a facility. It is a misconception that group class participation guarantees model canine behavior for life.
Like a child who can excel in school but still be socially awkward, or inappropriate, a dog, even an obedience titled one, can be dysfunctional in real life situations.
If your dog succeeds in obedience class or dog sport, but you are still having behavioral issues, taking yet another class likely won’t do you any good. You need to deal with the problems where the problems are, and good group trainers are connected to likeminded good private trainers and will refer you.
At least, for these top technical performers more group training won’t do any harm.
But for the stressed and traumatized dog, often coming from rescue, even the friendliest, most positive and conscientious class can be too overwhelming and increase anxiety and resulting expressions, including aggression.
What those pooches need, first and foremost, is a low-key environment where they can decompress, learn to trust again and feel safe. Progressive humane societies often make it mandatory for new adopters to attend a group class, and yes, rescue dogs have a lot to learn, including basic commands, but it can’t be rushed. Success in class only happens if the dog is relaxed enough to learn.

“The Imperial Animal” writes that humans are the only species where the young don’t learn through play, and we are projecting that to our dogs as well. German kids still get their candy cone, many children look forward to recess more than study time, and dog classes intersperse command training with games and tricks to liven things up.
Ideally, there should be no dichotomy between learning and play. For best results, it should be one and the same; learning rewarding in it’s own right. A lofty goal indeed, but at least for our dogs there are facilities in every town and city that strive for exactly that. The clever owner locates one for his dog.