Friday, January 8, 2010
My Dog is Smarter Than Me, or: Breaking the Reactive Behavior Chain
My dog is smarter than me.
It is often said that whenever you are with your dog, one of you is training the other. Every moment is a subtle yet complex set of interactions in which behaviors are being established, maintained or changed. Sometimes we train the dog, but sometimes the dog trains us. Maisy, in fact, is an excellent trainer, so skilled that I often don't realize that she is shaping my behavior in her favor. She not only has a very clear idea of the behaviors she wants from me, but she also is very good at eliciting the behaviors.
I want you to throw my ball. I want you to give me a treat. What do I have to do to get you to do that? Does this work? No? How about this? No? How about this? Ah-ha! That worked! I’ll do it again! And again! And again!
Of course, this is what good dog training is all about- the dog works for a reward. It’s a win/win situation, really. The handler gets what they want- a dog sitting or coming or whatever- and the dog gets what they want- a treat or a ball. The trick is that the handler has to time the reward to coincide with the behavior she wants; if the timing is off, the dog learns to do something else entirely.
And, I obviously made some mistakes in what I reinforced, because Maisy has figured out that if she displays a reactive behavior, there is a very good chance that I’ll give her a treat.
Here’s how she learned that: in the past, when Maisy would react to something scary by lunging and growling or barking, I would call her name to interrupt the behavior and direct her attention away from the trigger and back to me. I timed my click and treat so that I thought I was reinforcing her becoming silent and looking at me. And I guess I was, because she learned that if she lunged and barked or growled, and then returned to me quietly, she’d get a treat.
Like any dog who has been reinforced for doing something, she started offering that behavior, even if it was a behavior that I didn’t want. She didn't know that. After all, a dog can't know what we intend to train. A dog simply does what works. And acting reactive worked for Maisy.
It took me awhile to realize what was going on. I first noticed that she didn’t seem as scared of things, and that her focus and attention was improving. Then, my amazing trainers, Jane and Robin pointed out that Maisy seemed different in class. She was still displaying reactive behaviors, but her body language didn’t really match up with her actions; she looked loose and relaxed while lunging, and self-interrupt her behavior to turn back to me with this expectant look, as if to say, “Did you see that mom? I did good, huh? Do I get a treat?”
After several weeks of this, I decided that something needed to change. While it was clear that I’d been quite successful in counter conditioning her fear response, I also began to understand that in the process, I had inadvertently created a behavior chain in which she could earn treats by “acting reactive.” After some discussion with Jane and Robin, I decided to take away the rewards so that the behavior didn’t pay off any more (something that is technically called extinction).
So, two weeks ago, I started working with Maisy differently. I decided that I would ignore all future instances of reactive behavior. If she lunges and barks or growls at something, I don’t call her name, I don’t try to interrupt the behavior, I don’t ask her to do something else instead, and I don’t even look at her! The behavior gets absolutely no reward… or even a response, lest that is enough to encourage her.
However, I didn’t feel that it was fair to ignore undesirable behavior without rewarding her for desirable behavior, so I also drastically increased the amount of reinforcement that Maisy gets for appropriate behaviors (such as sitting quietly, lying down, looking at me, etc.), both in general and especially in the face of a trigger.
So far, it’s going fairly well. She’s confused, and doesn’t understand why she is no longer getting a reward for something that’s always paid off in the past. The frequency of the behavior hasn’t lessened at all, but I think maybe the intensity has. I think this will work, though I must confess that I'm worried about the likelihood of an extinction burst. With my luck, it will happen at one of the two trials I am planning to attend with her in the next month.
Still, it will be nice to be smarter than my dog, even if it is just for a fleeting moment.