Friday, July 27, 2012

If You Punish Your Dog, Make it Negative

My chosen method how I train and relate with dogs is positive reinforcement/negative punishment combination (plus plenty of other things that are in a positive trainer’s toolbox). Trainers worth their money know exactly what I mean, but laypeople often don’t. Folks that follow my writings regularly  might even be a bit puzzled that I put the word “punishment” in my mouth.
Behaviorally speaking, punishment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that a behavior decreases in frequency and intensity, eventually ceases. And negative means that something is removed. Applied, we remove something the dog wants to make a behavior we don’t want disappear.
World-renowned veterinarian, behaviorist and puppy guru Ian Dunbar illustrates negative punishment wonderfully: Whenever he plays with a pup, and the babe is too rough with his teeth, Dunbar steps out of the exercise pen. By removing himself, he also removes what the puppy seeks – social interaction. The removing part is the “negative” aspect, and the goal that the pup won’t bite down that hard the next time, the “punishment” one. Since the pup is still learning, he will get another chance momentarily, and if he blows it the person steps out again, and so on.
Ian Dunbar uses the same approach to stop his dogs from making a ruckus in the house. When their roughhousing becomes annoying, he yells “outside” – threatening them with being figuratively kicked in the yard, and because his dogs rather stay inside with him, they tone it down.
Negative punishment is effective if indeed, in the future, the undesired behavior decreases, and is replaced with a better one: the pup becoming softer and more self-controlled in play, the rowdy dogs toning it down a bit inside the house.
Although in real life negative punishment works, one must use it wisely. Let’s say your dog is hogging the place next to you on the couch and growls when his canine cohabitant wants in on the loving. Intuition dictates that the grump should lose his favorite spot as a consequence for behaving undesirably, but in that scenario there is a drawback: If punished, the already competitively feeling pooch will dislike his furry companion even more and will increasingly become more suspicious. And not just regarding the couch or bed, but in other situations as well, and from a greater distance. Although the growling might stop, the anxiety and/or aggression is still there, and if you confirm to the offending dog that the other’s appearance is indeed bad news, true animosity can form. Punishment, negative and positive = inflicting pain, although intuitive, would be counterproductive.

Equally counterintuitive to not punishing a growling dog is, for many owners, the advice to ignore a bad behavior. And there are situation where ignoring is also counterproductive, despite the operant conditioning law that states that behaviors ignored become extinct.
The problem is that life with a dog doesn’t happen in the controlled conditions of a laboratory. In real life, just because you ignore a behavior doesn’t mean that it is ignored. Something or someone in the environment might reinforce it, plus there are natural drives that are intrinsically reinforcing.
Let me explain that. When I teach “leave-it”, I have the dog leashed so that he can’t access the treat I tossed out. There is only one way he can get it, or an even better reward: he has to completely disengage from the loot on the floor and connect with me. I don’t help, don’t give the dog any clues. He has to come up with the solution, and I can wait until he does exactly because I control the situation, and therefore can ignore any pulling, barking or staring at the treat – any and all behaviors I don’t want when I say “leave-it”. Don’t worry: it is not as mean an exercise as it sounds - it takes most dogs only about 20 seconds to figure it out.
It is a different story when a dog barks out the window at a passerby. That I can’t ignore, because the person’s natural moving along is reinforcing if the dog wishes distance. In addition, barking itself feels good to some dogs, beagles and Shelties come to mind; it is in their genes, intrinsically reinforcing. The result of me ignoring the barking in that situation is that the barking will worsen.
In that case, and any other one when the dog’s undesired behavior is reinforced by something that is beyond my control, my choice of action is to interrupt the behavior I don’t want and direct the pooch into one I do want.
The interrupter is verbal, for the obvious reason that a dog focused on something else but me will not see my hand signal.  “Oops” is the word many trainers use. My dogs understand “ah”,  “knock it” and “oh yoohoo”.  Whatever word it is, it should never be a warning sound that announces your wrath, but information for the dog that he’s strutting the wrong trail, and that he should pay attention. Once he does, I guide him into a behavior I like better, and he likes a whole lot too. That the new, better behavior feels good is important, because then it will become the one the dog will choose in the future.
That’s the plan anyway, and typically it works - other than that the very clever pooch, when bored, might deliberately use the undesired behavior to elicit an “oops” and the followed treat or game. Our Aussie Davie mastered that. On an off leash walk, whenever she felt snubbed, she’d find some deer poop to sniff, eyeballing me from the corner of her eye, checking if I see her and interrupt her behavior, so that she could obey and reap the reward of fetching the ball or finding tossed treats.
Thinking dogs amuse me, and so I never minded, but it can be a problem if such brilliance involves another animal. One of my clients has a sweet-natured collie/retriever cross who “mauls” the cat to get his owner’s attention. Never aggressively, he holds her with his paws and gums with his mouth, and although the kitty doesn’t struggle or vocalize in distress, my client feels that she is not always a willing participant, and so she stops the pooch with a “no”, and he promptly releases, gets a treat, just to catch the cat again to elicit another. In that case, I would not wait till he has the cat in his mouth, but condition a new response when he sees her.

Repetition creates a new habit, and the stimulus that once triggered a bad behavior can become the cue for the new one. Anything is possible. The sight of a deer became Davie’s cue to play a chase game with me, and not the deer.
Especially during the learning stages, and depending on the dog’s degree of motivation, you want to redirect into a prolonged activity. With a dog who’s fixated on the Sunday dinner ham, an “oops” followed by a piece of kibble when he stops ogling it, won’t cut it. If the redirected interaction is too brief, the dog will be left in a mental “now what?” vacuum, and return to the last behavior, or stimulus, he found important.
The prolonged alternate activity can be anything the dog likes, and is not limited to food, but can include food. Should include food. Don’t be afraid to use food. It is handy, and most dogs are motivated by something they can devour or gnaw on. There is nothing worse that a work-driven dog not motivated by food in a pet home. He will forever pester you to be on task together: to play Frisbee, or train, or locate birds, and you can’t even redirect him into quietly emptying a Kong or finding “hidden” kibble or cookies.

So, if you catch your dog doing something you dislike, instead of: “no” ignore, punish or even click and treat when he stops his behavior, try: don’t do this, but do that instead.
Ensure that the dog receives a lot of social attention when he redirects and behaves desirably.
Interrupting and redirecting is also your best shot with a dog that is compulsive. I don’t mean to trivialize a complex issue; of course stereotypies have many facets that need to be considered and addressed, but studies with people locked in a behavior showed promising success when they are redirected into a different activity. Not just any activity – it had to be one they liked.

Disciplining someone for wrongdoings is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is intuitive and emotional, and regarding dogs there are two contributing factors: we expect that they are grateful for the care we provide, and we have an innate fear of teeth and worry that the pooch might harm us if we slack off. Not surprising then that people find it easy to follow the “rewarding the good behaviors” part of training, but have difficulty not disciplining him for his misdeeds. But withholding access to something the dog wants until he pleases you, and removing something the dog cherishes as a consequence of unwanted behaviors, should be your dog’s worst punishment. Humans don’t have to correct. Really.
Neither negative punishment nor interrupting a behavior is oppressive, but constructive. It effectively influences behavior and has a great impact on the dog without the risk of instilling or increasing fear, anxiety or avoidance. It fosters social cooperative bonding, learning, and voluntary attention and obedience. Don’t correct, but redirect. It is absolutely possible to have a well-mannered dog who has never been corrected.

I'll be focusing on other dog stuff in August, so the next post won’t be published till September. It'll deal with a problem so many owners are struggling with: barking and lunging on the leash.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Common Mistakes that can Delay Training Success

The idea behind positive reinforcement is to cause dogs to repeat actions humans desire, and in time have a repertoire of behaviors that make them good companions and canine citizens. It is a realistically achievable goal. In theory, positive reinforcement is as effective as positive punishment, which in operant conditioning is the delivery of something unpleasant to stop an unwanted action from recurring. More importantly, positive reinforcement strengthens the relationship between dog and owner, dog and his social group, and generally dog and the environment, while positive punishment comes with a high probability of ruining it. I argue that one cannot have true companionship with a dog if one chooses to train with force and pain. In addition, punitive training suffocates the dog’s welfare and potentially leads to side effects like aggression, anxiety and avoidance. It is well documented, and I talked about that in the past.
In laboratory settings and scientific studies, positive reinforcement leads to reliable and self-directed  behavior quickly, but dog owners aren’t scientists or savvy trainers. Dog owners come with diverse levels of experience, skill and know-how, and some are completely new to dogs and reward-based training. Even though neither is very complicated, they make mistakes, like anybody new to anything would. The good news is that with positive reinforcement mistakes won’t have long-lasting or irreparable negative consequences, but it can delay progress and cause enough frustration in the impatient person to give up on the concept altogether.
Here are the most common errors I see people, including some trainers, make.

Your intended reward is the dog’s punishment.
Not only can a pooch feel “Meh” about a reward, but it can be perceived as an aversive, and when that happens you get the exact opposite of what you’re aiming for: when your reward is the dog’s punishment, the behavior you meant to happen again actually decreases. A perfect example is taps on the head or hearty pats along the ribcage. Most dogs don’t like it and shy away.
If your dog avoids or refuses a reward, it isn’t a reward in his mind and won’t reinforce the behavior you are after. Don’t offer it again if he doesn’t want it. And that can include food. Don’t shove a treat into your dog’s mouth if he wants distance to a worrisome trigger, or play ball, or read peemail.
Not long ago I had a cattle dog client who perfectly demonstrated that: he brought the ball right back into the owner’s hand, who promptly gave him a pat on the head, with the result that the dog first snapped at the hand, and then refused to bring the ball all the way in the next time. The dog was labeled aggressive and erratic, when in fact he just acted that way as a result of being “punished” for bringing the ball back. When we “rewarded” him with throwing the ball again without delay, he stopped snapping and eagerly retrieved the toy all the way in.
The reverse also happens in many households: your punishment is the dog’s reward. The best example for that is the inadvertent reinforcement when the jumping dog is pushed off. That is attention, and from the dog’s point of view perhaps even an invitation for a wrestling game, and exactly what he wanted. Jumping is reinforced and therefore will happen again.
So, the take-away message is that a reward is what the dog wants, or it won’t reinforce the behavior you are after. Be creative. You don’t always have to be elaborate, although sometimes your pizzazz can greatly impress your dog, but know what he wants and use it to your advantage.
Right now, on walks, Will wants me to get rid of the pesky deer flies that bury themselves in her coat. I comply and pluck them off, but each time before I do I say “halt”, which in our world means don’t move and wait till I get to you. Her halting on command is powerfully reinforced with me killing the insects, plus we have many naturally occurring opportunities to practice, and because of both I can use the command in situations when it matters to me that Will stops in her tracks.

Your timing is off.
It means that your dog doesn’t form an association between behavior and reward. Especially for fleeting moments, a reward marker, for example a clicker, helps because it bridges action and reinforcement and clarifies to the dog exactly which behavior made the reward happen.
Along that train of thought, holding a grudge, although understandably human, is counterproductive.
If you are still upset about the dug-up flowerbed and gruff when your dog comes straight away when you called him out of the planters, you punish a perfect recall and he might not be so keen to return to you in the future.
It is the last action that counts, and if it is one you like, reinforce it. There is a hitch though: when a bad and a good behavior are lumped together, so when two actions occur very close in time with the first being undesired, but the second reinforced, there is a risk that the dog connects both and will always perform them in sequence. The best example is a dog who lovingly celebrates your homecoming with jumping, but a flash-moment later is sitting – either self-corrected or obeyed your command. Of course you want to reinforce the sit, but not the jump/sit combination. I deal with that by keeping the dog mentally engaged for a few seconds while she is in a sit, followed by asking her to do something else desirable, which I then reinforce. In other words, I give the sit some attention, but then invite the dog into a short, fun, interaction I like and that is rewarding, and/or rewarded. After that I inform the pooch with the “all-done” word and hand signal that I’m about to disengage and that she’s on her own for entertainment for a while.

Your reinforcement schedule is off.
Without getting too technical, reinforcements have to happen in rapid succession, right away, when the dog learns something new.
When the dog gets it, connects the dots between cue and a certain action – a good rule of thumb is the dog complying instantly and correctly 9 out of 10 times when prompted, but also deliberately offering the behavior to elicit a reward - you have two options: If it is the end goal behavior, continue to reinforce randomly, without a fixed pattern. That cements the behavior. An end behavior would be reliably coming when called. It doesn’t get any better than a dog returning to you enthusiastically. You should always acknowledge him for being so accommodating, but you don’t have to toss a handful of treats his way each time.
If it is an approximation, so just a step toward your goal, stop reinforcing altogether and raise the bar by a small increment. For example, if you shape a lie down on a mat, glancing at the mat, or having one paw on it, is not the final behavior, but you must reinforce each step constantly until the dog gets it, and once he does, so once you have the 9 out of 10 times reliability or he seeks out the mat when he is bored and proudly puts one paw on it, stop reinforcing that step and raise the criteria to bring you closer to your end goal, and then you reinforce that constantly until he gets it, and raise the bar again, and so on.

You are not orchestrating enough opportunities for your dog to earn a reward.
In other words, you are not practicing enough. If you can’t find reward-worthy behaviors often, lower your criteria and/or change the situation for the dog so that he can succeed.
The more you do it, the more the action you are training becomes a habit, and then your dog has one more good one up his sleeve. Habit means that the behavior learned with the help of operant conditioning becomes classical conditioned. Steve White, one of my favorite dog gurus, says: “ Anytime you use operant conditioning, Pavlov is sitting on your shoulder. And that is one dude you really want on your team.”

Not managing the dog wisely before a behavior is solid, thus setting him up for failure.
Don’t put your dog’s favorite bed near the picture window when barking at passersby is a problem. Their moving along is reinforcing for your dog and maintains barking at the window. If he has opportunity to do that all day long,  the little bit of “quiet” practice you do when you are home won’t have much of an effect.

Communicating unclearly.
For example using the same command for two behaviors, or not enforcing a command.
In that category also falls making unreasonable requests and raising the bar too quickly – in other words, being impatient and asking for more than the dog can do, but also chaining behaviors together before each one is solidly learned separately. If you work on a position stay, reinforce when the dog is still in position. If you call him out of position and reward him when he comes to you, you are practicing come, not the position stay. I will write more about command clarity sometime in the future, but for now remember that dogs are brilliant, but not mind readers. Say what you mean and reinforce when your dog does what you say. If you can’t enforce what you say, don’t say it.

Taking good behaviors for granted. Dogs offer behaviors we like all the time: don’t ignore, but capture and reinforce them. Don’t ignore the dog calmly chewing a bone on his blanket, and give attention when he steals your leather Italian pump.

If you made mistakes, don’t beat yourself up. The beauty of force and punitive free training is that you can’t really mess things up too badly. Positive reinforcement can be adjusted without creating unwanted and unexpected fallout. But if you can avoid making those common errors in the future, you’ll accelerate your training success and reach your goal faster.
When I see clients, positive reinforcement is a big part of the consultation, and the humans receive all the information they need to do it effectively. Just about everyone I meet gets it. It makes sense to them and is aligned with how they feel: most people don’t want to hurt their dog.  Yet, at times and typically after a prolonged pause, I hear the question: “Yes - but how do I correct my dog when he misbehaves?” Indeed, how do we punish? Or should we?
That, I will sort out for you in the next post. Look for it the end of July.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Positive Reinforcement: The Fasted Route to a Well-Behaved Dog

I am glad that I know a thing or two about dogs for two reasons: I get to work with my favorite species almost daily, and that constant overflow of, often contradictory, information how to successfully live with dogs doesn’t confuse me.
Dog owners must be puzzled these days. Thanks to TV and social media everyone is a dog expert and has an opinion not shy to share with anybody who wants to hear it – or not. As a result, there are many misconceptions circulating, and one is that positive reinforcement doesn’t work, or only with mild dogs.
Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and it states that reinforcement creates behavior. In operant conditioning positive is not a judgment label, but simply means that a consequence is added after an action. Law means that it is not an opinion, but a scientifically studied, proven and documented fact. Positive reinforcement is my preferred method to train and treat dogs. Let me explain why.

An organism’s actions are driven by motivation: simplified, to access something that feels good or avoid something that feels bad. The dog is no exception. Newsflash! Dogs function like every other animal, including humans. They want and seek pleasure. It’s a fact, but one that clashes with humans’ infantile belief that a dog’s nature is to love unconditionally regardless how we treat him. Wishful thinking. Relationships between humans are conditional, and dogs behave in the same normal mammalian fashion.
Owners that refuse to facilitate pleasure have to inflict pain to get obedience. It is either-or, and in both cases it has to impress the dog or it won’t work. A lame “good dog” is just as ineffective in increasing a wanted behavior as a limp choke collar correction is in curbing an unwanted one. There is an analogy floating around for a long time that illustrates that brilliantly: The speeding ticket one.

People who exceed the posted speed limit are fined, but we all know that that punishment doesn’t deter folks to drive faster than permitted in the future. They might slow down for the moment, perhaps even for a little while, but the good behavior doesn’t last. Fines only teach people to be vigilantly on the lookout for cops to avoid getting caught again.
If fines don’t work, what might be a more effective solution? Well, we could manufacture cars that won’t drive faster than 100 clicks an hour - the dog equivalent is lifelong micromanaging. That is indeed the method some trainers choose: They advise to snap on a control tool, for example a shock collar, as soon as the dog is released out of his crate, and to take it off as the last thing before he’s put back in. I am not making this up.
How appealing is a preset slow car to you? A dog always controlled unless contained? Personally, I don’t want either, and thankfully, there is another way.
Let’s hypothesize what would happen if, instead of fining speeders, drivers who obey traffic laws received a reward. If cops were to randomly hand over 50-dollar bills, would lead foot ease up on the gas pedal? It depends if he needed the money and why he was driving too fast. A millionaire, or someone who is late for an important job interview, likely wouldn't, but I bet that overall rewarding good drivers instead of punishing bad ones would be more successful. In addition, that approach has two really great side effects: people would seek out law enforcement and not avoid it - that underlying queasy feeling when we see a cop car would disappear, and doing the speed limit would become a self-directed behavior, independent of surveillance. We’d try hard to comply not to miss out on the loot that might be lurking around the corner.

When we punish a dog, we are like the traffic cop. The dog might behave when we’re in the vicinity, for the moment, and only if the punishment we inflict overrides his drive to act. On the other hand, if we reinforce behaviors we like, we build a whole repertoire our dog will offer again, and again…
Are dogs really able to self-direct, to reliably act in ways that we desire but might be against their impulse? I say yes, but believe it is only achievable with positive reinforcement, and it must be applied correctly. There are two key aspects to remember: reinforcement happens after the behavior, and a reward is what matters to your dog - not what you think should be good enough.
The first one is straightforward. Don’t wave your cookie in the air and say come, but call your dog and when he comes the party begins. If the behavior doesn’t happen, neither will the reward. Self-explanatory, I hope, is that during the learning stages the dog must be managed wisely to prevent that he has opportunities to act in ways we don’t want but are externally, or intrinsically, reinforced. In other words, the dog should not be able to misbehave, because if it feels good to him, he’ll misbehave again.
The second point isn’t complicated either if you keep in mind that a reward is only a reinforcement if the behavior you are after happens again. Think back to the 50 bucks for doing the speed limit. That amount of money means nothing to a CEO who is regularly showered with huge perks, so it wouldn’t do much to keep him in line on the road. But it means a lot to someone like me who straddles the middle class, and even more to someone on a low income.
Similarly, the reward you offer your dog must mean something to him, or it will not reinforce the good behavior. When I see an obedient pooch patted on the head combined with verbal “good boy”, I wonder if his person schleps to the office each day for glass marbles and a bear hug from the boss. Even if they love their job and verbal approval, it is generally not enough. The big motivator is hard cash.
For a dog, the big motivator can be food, but isn’t always food. I could hardly impress Will with a milkbone shoved in her mouth when a hare pops out of the bushes in front of her. When she chooses to stay connected with me and ignore the bunny, she is working hard – and I hand out a bonus check. I reinforce with a chase game that might include me, or a special ball, or I might engage her in a seeking game and throw a handful of extra yummy treats for her to nose out.
You have to find your dog’s currency before you can put him on a payroll, and I’ll give you a tip: daily kibble isn’t it for most dogs. Don’t use kibble on the first day of the group obedience class, when distractions are high and your pooch has to work hard. Use chicken or garlic roast beef. People food. Good people food, not hot dogs.

Even though food is practical, think outside the box and be creative. The smarter the dog, the more creative the owner has to be. Be attuned. Attuned is the magic “a” word, not assertive. Understand what your dog wants at the moment, and whatever that is, is the reinforcement that will cause your dog to repeat the behavior that you are teaching. Examples of functional rewards are: riding in the car, a game of fetch or catch-me-if-you-can, distance to a stimulus the dog is fearful of, or the opposite: permission to greet and play.
An interesting walk is high on the wanna-do list for many dogs. Studies with rats showed that when given the choice to navigate through two mazes, with only one resulting in a food reward at the end, they alternated between both. Curiosity and avoiding boredom are powerful motivators for actions, and permission to explore a powerful reward for your dog after he’s paid attention to you, or walked nicely on the leash.
When you join your dog in investigative fun, perhaps even point out where you think interesting scents are, you are creating a deep bond. In the wintertime, we follow animal tracks we spot in the snow, and in the summer we pick berries together on hikes. When you do stuff like that, your dog will want to be with you, and is less and less inclined to seek stimulation away from you, and all training becomes much easier.

Whatever floats my dogs’ boat is what they’ll get when I want to reinforce a behavior I particularly love and want to see again. That makes me mighty powerful in their eyes. My dogs become addicted to me. The skeptics’ warning that reward-based training leads to a dog that behaves for rewards, not the owner, doesn’t hold true if you use positive reinforcement to establish that bond between you.
Yes, ultimately your involvement should matter most to your dog, but you only get that if he experiences that being with you feels better than anything else, and providing material things is a crucial part of it, especially with a new dog and before you meshed together. The dog first has to understand that you own all kinds of amazing assets, then you can put them under your control and make access contingent on behavior. If you orchestrate many opportunities for him to earn feel-good moments, he will try hard to please you. Please you to be released to what pleases him, and hopefully that includes you somehow as well. Trust me, that IS the fasted route to reliable obedience, a well-behaved dog, and a relationship with your canine friend envied by others.
Oh – one more thing: Because every dog wants something, obviously positive reinforcement does work with every dog.