Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fallout – Real Risk or Rhetoric?

I can’t believe how long it has taken me to get back into a routine after hurricane Sandy.  Don’t get me wrong, I was one of the very fortunate ones on Long Island with no damage and losing power for only a couple of days.  Wish I could say the same for most of my family and many of my friends.  I am amazed at the resiliency and positivity of the people I know that were affected – truly in awe of some of them.  

With that, moving on to the business of dogs and all things dogs…Warning, it’s a long one.  Guess I’m making up for lost time J
I hear it over and over again from the “positive” training camp that punishment = fallout.  I also hear over and over from the traditional camp that fallout = “possie” rhetoric.  For every example of fallout from punishment there is an equal and opposite claim of “BS”.  So what’s the truth?  Truth being subjective, this is strictly my truth.
I firmly believe that positive punishment (adding an aversive) carries a very real risk of fallout.  That’s it, the smart thing to do is end the post here.  But, let’s be real, it’s me and oh how I love to ramble…
First, let me say that punishment does NOT guarantee fallout.  Behavior is not math so 1+2 does not always mean 3.  I’ve seen punishment work without fallout.  That said, I’ve also seen fallout first-hand and still see it regularly.  In my experience, it is a fact.  So, I am very careful about employing punishments and, when I do, I attempt to use only negative punishment (removing a positive reinforcer).  But, I never say never. There may be an appropriate time, place, situation and method of positive punishment that I may feel is necessary at some point.  I’m not a “humaniac” that is so closed-minded that I throw science out the window in the name of the fantasy that is known as “purely positive”.  Let’s face it, there is no such thing as “purely positive” – even the simple act of refusing to reinforce a behavior is a form of punishment.  Then of course, there is the latest buzz phrase “error less training” more on that another time but suffice it to say, that while ideals are great, they are all too often unattainable.

That said, I do believe that training can and should be accomplished  and behavior can and should be modified in a force-free way.  Why would I use a shock/prong/spray collar, a squirt in the face or a scary noise to suppress a behavior when I can first try to remove the trigger that causes the behavior or teach the dog an alternate and/or incompatible behavior AND remove the reinforcement for the problem behavior, thus allowing the dog to figure out that the behavior he likes but that I don’t is just not worth it AND a different behavior (one I DO like) is more rewarding?  Why wouldn’t I do it the more positive way?  Well, I would and do but I know why others don’t…

Because it takes more time.  Because it takes more effort.  Because it takes more thought than simply yelling, squirting, jerking or shocking the dog. Because humans (I’m convinced) are inherently punitive.  But if the punishers would just look beyond the momentary cessation of unwanted behavior, they would see that those punishments often don’t work, especially in the long-term.  If they did, one would not need to punish the same behavior over and over and over again.  Dogs are very bright and, when taught properly, learn very quickly.  If you are repeating the same “lesson” endlessly, the fault lies in your method, not your dog.

Traditional trainers claim that timing is what makes the punishment effective and that repetition is how the dog understands that it’s his own behavior causing the punishment and not something else – thus no risk of fallout.  Really?  True, timing is essential and a good trainer has timing.  An APO often does not.  When I work with a dog I also work with its human and leave them with the ability to practice and follow-thru on what I taught.  That is one reason for not teaching punishment techniques to my 2-legged students – I simply don’t trust punishments in the hands of a novice.  Now about that repetition… hmmm, so just how many reps of punishment does it take to cross the line from “teaching” to abusing?  Therein is my second problem with punishment and my number one reason for NOT choosing it myself.  If the punishment does not work in 1-2 attempts, it is abusive, period.  It’s like my friend who insists on poking me when she speaks to me.  Presumably she pokes me to emphasize a point but I’m not really sure why and I don’t care, I only know that I distance myself from her whenever possible.  One or two pokes I can deal with, but one or two pokes every time I see her or more than that is just plain annoying and, yes, painful.  Despite each individual poke being mild, the accumulation has left me sensitive and sore.  Blatant and forceful abuse?  Absolutely not.  And, yet, I still feel abused.  Now, her intent is NOT for me to distance myself from her but that is the fallout from her punishing behavior toward me.  Plus, ha ha, to this day, I have no idea why I’m being poked.  If I, the human with the larger cerebral cortex, can’t figure out why I’m being punished, how can one expect his/her dog to understand the concept any better?

Here’s some very real fallout for you – a while ago I accidentally rolled my desk chair over my little one when I pushed back to go into the credenza behind me.  I don’t even know how much of her foot I hit but, based on the little bit of blood by the split nail, I think I, fortunately, only got her toenail.  She screamed quite a bit and the sound went right thru me straight to my heart.  I honestly am not sure which of us was more upset.  This one stays near me all the time when I’m working in my office – she’ll lie under the desk or in the open crate on the side of my desk.  It took her 3 days to even consider entering the room again and she still wouldn’t go much farther than just in the doorway.  10 days after the incident, she still would only enter as far as the doorway.  I even took the chair out of the room to see if she would come in when the offensive object was removed.  No way.  She was avoiding the whole room – not just the object that punished her.  I began working on CC and it took me about a week or so to get her into the room and another week before she was comfortable enough to once again “hang” with me in the room.   So, despite the fact that the chair committed the offense, she had superstitiously decided the entire room was a bad, bad place.  She had connected the pain with the location, not the object that caused the pain or, fortunately, me.  If I were a punishment-based trainer attempting to teach my dog to be avoid chairs in that manner, it would have been an epic fail.  Don’t laugh, many “trainers” feel the best way to teach pups to avoid things is to make those things scary and/or painful.  (ah, so many thoughts, so little time)

In a scenario where a counter-surfer is punished for jumping up on the counter, the dog may learn that it’s her jumping that brings the punishment – but how many times must you repeat the punishment for the dog to figure it out?  Maybe she NEVER figures it out… maybe she thinks it’s the counter that’s causing the punishment, or the sink, or the cabinet door.  So, you may think you’ve effectively suppressed the behavior but then you remodel your kitchen or take her to another house and suddenly she’s back at it… fallout!  And, I might add, for those people who can’t keep their counter unrewarding, what is the likelihood that they can deliver the punishment 100% of the time?  If they can’t, then the behavior is being intermittently reinforced and made stronger than ever.  But that’s a blog for another day.
Yes, we “risk” the same superstitious connections with clicker training as well.  My dog may think that the click/treat she earned while training is brought on by the proximity of a person, object or sound or by the shirt I wear.  But, now here is where I agree with the traditional trainer about timing and repetition.  If I have good timing, the reward will be connected with the behavior.  If I have poor timing, then repetition will teach the dog that the reward is tied to her behavior.  Yes, even with poor timing, repetition allows for the dog to eventually figure out it’s not my shirt, it’s her behavior that brings the rewards. But, what is the risk of fallout there?  And where is the abuse in the repetition?  As far as I can tell, there is none!

Yes, we all live in the real world and, sometimes, sadly, need real world fixes.  It’s a matter of knowing your client – 2 and 4 legged.  Long before I introduce the sledgehammer, if ever, I will try other things and desperately seek to educate my clients in alternate, gentler methods.  

I firmly believe that superstitious connections and fallout are very definite and real risks in punishment-based training, not rhetoric.  Fallout is not always huge or obvious, it can be subtle and it happens more often than folks realize.  Dogs have trouble generalizing and, yet, have an uncanny knack for escalating their own fears.  When it comes to fears, dogs corner the market on generalizations.  JMHO

So, let’s not add to those fears with punishments.  Let’s keep those Happy Tails and give

DIRECTIONS, NOT Corrections!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

To Blog or Not To Blog?

Ok, so I was feeling uninspired and disappointed by the underwhelming response to my last blog post.  Let’s face it, despite my love of humor and good times, my writing skills demonstrate a decided lack of such leading me to ruminate on whether I should bother to blog again.  Dare I bore the public with my pontifications on training and behavior in my lackluster, humorless writing style? Maybe I’m just rusty and need to push myself, get in a “groove”, exercise my cerebral cortex and then maybe I will improve.  Then again, maybe not.

I enviously read many blogs and articles and dream of being able to coin a phrase, turn a word and cleverly make my point as do so many others.  I live in a great time when anyone with a two-bit opinion and a computer can have her voice heard.  Ah, but SHOULD that voice be heard?  And would anyone read far enough into this mind-numbing droning of words to get to my point? Alas, I suspect not, so why bother?

Suddenly, INSPIRATION! Amazing that is was in the form of a pint-sized entity whose name sounds like a wound acquired while raiding a beehive for its golden nectar.  Yes, I suspect you know of what I speak and imagine my surprise to learn of the existence of this heretofore unknown entity of which I was blissfully unaware.  Having heard the name this morning and, being as curious as a cat dog, I immediately Googled it and now that which has been seen and heard can, sadly, never be UNseen or UNheard.  (oh the horror, the horror!) The images and sounds are forever burned into my poor, overexposed brain.  BUT, one must give credit where credit is due.  For, I thought if this child can be asked to share her self-proclaimed redneck opinion on the presidential candidates and be given a nationally televised forum to do so, then, certainly, I am entitled to post my thoughts and ramblings on that which I am knowledgeable and educated.  If not for the silliness of this beauty-queen wannabe, I would have remained silent.

While I vehemently resist the idea that I need to "redneck-cognize", I do realize this diminutive blonde and all that goes with her is probably found to be far more entertaining than little big, old me, but I vow to make a better effort in the future.  With that, on to the post (no, the former is NOT the post and, no, I will not be discussing reality tv and its assorted “stars”.  If you thought that’s where I was going, you may want to leave now)

In my last post, “Are You Really a “Positive”Trainer?”, I was discussing the Humane Hierarchy and several times mentioned “more on that later”.  Here is one of those “laters”...

Steps 5 and 6 on the Humane Hierarchy

5.  Negative Punishment, Extinction and Negative Reinforcement
Yes, despite the fact that these three things are different, they are “lumped” together on the Humane Hierarchy…

a. Negative Punishment – Sounds really bad, right?  Well, not as bad as one might think and certainly better than Negative Reinforcement, IMO.  When using NP, the trainer contingently withdraws a positive reinforcer to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur. NP creates stress thru disappointment but is more humane than introducing an aversive.  Many “positive” trainers use NP in conjunction with PR.  I’m sure you’ve heard it before with the jumping puppy – turn your back.  That’s an example of NP because, in theory, you are removing the reinforcer (your attention) for jumping by turning your back to the puppy.  Lol – how well does that really work?  Not well at all.

b. Extinction No, we’re not talking about dinosaurs but I’m very happy when some behaviors go the way of the dinosaur.  When using extinction, the trainer permanently removes the maintaining reinforcer to suppress the behavior or reduce it to baseline levels.  This is very stressful for the dog as triggers are still present and the dog is repeatedly subjected to its trigger in the absence of alternative behaviors or distractions or even the information that can be learned from negative punishment, leaving the dog little or no way to “cope” with the trigger.  A good example of this is doorbell desensitization for dogs that “go crazy” when the doorbell rings.  Why? Because the doorbell signals visitors and that’s the reinforcer.  Ring the doorbell all day long and never answer the door and eventually the dog gives up on the behavior because the reinforce is no longer there at all.  Of course, it doesn’t take much for the dog to reacquire the behavior once you again begin to answer the door.

c. Negative Reinforcement When using negative reinforcement, the trainer contingently withdraws an aversive antecedent stimulus to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur.  NR is very stressful/invasive for the dog as it first requires the introduction of an aversive.  A choke chain supposedly operates using NR and, yes, it does but only AFTER the positive punishment.  A pulling dog is punished by the choke chain tightening around his neck.  If the dog stops pulling, his “nice walking” is reinforced by the relief of pressure from the choke chain.

6.   Positive Punishment – the LAST Resort when ALL other Options have Failed
Positive? - sounds better than it is.  Positive within this context does not mean good – it means to add something. 

With PP, the trainer contingently delivers an aversive consequence to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.  Positive punishment is determined by the dog.  What one dog may find punishing, another may find fun.  Introducing an aversive to decrease/suppress a behavior is extremely invasive and stressful to the dog and, very often, downright INhumane.  I don’t believe there is ever any need to use physical pain of any kind.  I don’t believe in nor have I ever found the need for choke, prong or shock collars, physical force or intimidation.  Don’t get me wrong, there may be a time and a place for the proper use of PP.  Yes, I am committed to positive training but I refuse to become one of the many “humaniacs” that rewards-based training seems to have created. Don’t get me started on the whole NRM debate!  Hmmm… now THAT’s a post for another day, for sure!

I believe in respecting and humanely educating my beloved pets. I hope to increase awareness among pet-owners and help them achieve a bond with their pets based on mutual respect, trust and affection.  In so doing, I…

Train withOUT Pain!

Happy Tails!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Are You Really a "Positive" Trainer?

First off, when I say “trainer”, I mean ANY person teaching and working with a dog, not just professional trainers.  The most influential “trainer” in a dog’s life is usually the owner(s).

So, what makes a trainer a “positive’ one?  Well, obviously, simply proclaiming you are one thing or the other does NOT make you either.  If that were the case, I would be smart, sassy, funny and, oh yeah, skinny.  Claims are not necessarily based in any kind of reality.  In dog training and in life, actions speak louder than words.  You can “talk the talk” all you want but you need to “walk the walk”.

A client of mine recently took his puppy to a PK group class at the local big box store.  I had mixed feelings about this but since I was not currently running a PK class, I had nothing else to offer him in the way of a group – my bad.  I advised him to make sure that it was a positive, rewards-based program that focused on proper socialization and basic manners.  My client told me that the big-box trainer assured him the program was rewards-based and all positive.  Ok, great!  The following week I was so very happy to hear that my client’s pup was the “star of the show” (his words), doing everything so wonderfully in class and garnering many accolades from the trainer and fellow students.  Yay!  I didn’t need to hear that to be validated, but it was really nice for my client to get validation from a third party.  He was happy, so that made me happy.  Not to mention that it didn’t hurt me in the area of client buy-in.  Oops, guess I mentioned it :)

Then my client told me how his puppy was terrified when the puppies were let off-leash to play and all the other puppies seemed to target her… uh oh.  Understandably concerned for his puppy’s mental state, my client scooped up his puppy to spare her the trauma and was informed by the trainer “that was the worst thing you could have done”… clunk, the first shoe falls.  The trainer carried a squirt bottle with water (at least I hope it was only water) and asked the puppy owners if he could squirt their pups for barking… BOOM, that was the second shoe falling and a cement one at that!
Is this trainer the positive, rewards-based trainer as he CLAIMED to be?  Not by my definition.  He may use rewards in teaching but his first response to a NORMAL and PREDICTABLE puppy behavior (barking) was to punish it!  His method for dog-to-dog socialization was to allow multiple exuberant, playful puppies to descend upon a frightened one. Telling my client that picking up his puppy was the wrong thing to do implies that the trainer believes that a frightened puppy must learn how to deal by toughing it out.  Really?  Since when does anyone learn under stress, fear and duress?  If a child felt bullied at school, would this trainer tell the parents to let the child tough it out?    But, I’m making a short story rather long so, more on what I would have done another time and moving on…

So, again, what is a positive trainer?  There are many phrases bandied about – dog friendly, force-free, rewards-based, science-based – the list is extensive.  They all sound good and, indeed, in theory they are.  But it’s the practice that counts.

IMO, a dog-friendly, force-free, rewards-based trainer follows the “Humane Hierarchy” with heavy emphasis on the first four steps in that order.  A trainer should look at every situation or problem and attempt to solve by going through the steps of the Humane Hierarchy. That’s it, pure and simple.  What is the “Humane Hierarchy”?  Oh, I am SOO glad you asked!  Let’s take a look at the first four steps and leave the rest to another day…

1 - Physical well-being of the dog.  Physical needs and well-being must be considered and addressed first and foremost.  You do not train a dog in physical discomfort or pain. 

Seems obvious, right?  Or is it?  Let’s look at that terrified puppy in group class.  Yes, that was an emotional state but what happens to a body under stress?  Elevated blood pressure and heart rate and increased adrenaline, to name a few things.  Was that puppy’s physical needs being considered when the trainer said my client should have left his puppy on the floor to fend for herself? That is a resounding NO.  I am glad my client followed his heart and his gut and sought to lessen his puppy’s anxiety by removing her from the situation in which she felt threatened.  How would I have handled that event in a group class?  lol – that’s a post for another day J

2 – Controlling Antecedents aka managing the dog’s environment to eliminate stimuli/triggers that can lead to undesirable behaviors.

If one can AVOID a problem behavior by removing the “cause”, why not?  That is the least stressful and least invasive way to shape desirable behaviors.  My favorite example is the shoe-chewing puppy.  Remove the shoes – problem solved!  Why bother trying to teach something else or, heaven forbid, punish a normal puppy behavior?  Take away the antecedent and the problem is gone.  AND, guess what?  That which your puppy does not get to do when s/he is a pup, is that which s/he is NOT likely to do as an adult.  My pups never saw a shoe other than the ones on my feet when they were young.  Now, shoes strewn about the floor have no meaning or interest for them.  Problem solved BEFORE it started.

3 - Positive Reinforcement

Use PR to teach your dog as many desirable behaviors as possible.  Teach your dog that the behaviors you prefer are fabulous because they are very rewarding.  If you fill your dog’s brain and life with the behaviors you like, there is little or no room in his/her brain and life for the behaviors you don’t like!

4 - Differential Reinforcement of Alternate Behaviors.  That’s a mouthful.  Basically what this means is to make a different behavior more rewarding than another behavior.

So, you have a “problem” behavior that is not solved by addressing a physical need and the antecedent (trigger) cannot be removed. Many people go straight to punishment with a problem behavior.  In general, we humans tend to be very punitive – something with which I struggle daily both in myself and those around me.  The truly positive trainer seeks to redirect the dog to a different behavior in the presence of the trigger.  It takes more time and effort but, in the end, produces better results.  IMO, punishment often fails and, when it succeeds, it is very stressful on the dog.  Why, you ask?  Hmmm… yet another post for another day.
There’s more to the hierarchy, steps 5 and 6, to be explored another day.  The first four are what, IMO, should fill a trainer’s toolbox leaving little or no room for 5 and 6. 

In short (although I suspect the dog has long since dashed that door),  a positive trainer is one that chooses to be PROactive, rather than REactive, choosing first and foremost to avoid problems, teach desired behaviors and redirect unwanted behaviors.  In other words…

Directions, not corrections!