Last weekend, I had the good fortune to attend a single-day seminar with Pat Miller in Wisconsin. (No, I don’t spend all my time going to seminars, but yes, I’ve been lucky in the canine education department lately.) I had seen Pat previously, and the seminar was basically a scaled-down version of what I had seen a year ago. Even so, there were some very thought provoking moments, and of course, I want to share them with you!
Pat spent some time talking about operant conditioning, which I always enjoy thinking about. Of course, since I do spend a fair amount of time reading about operant conditioning, it was mostly review. (I’ll assume this is the case for most of my readers, but if anyone’s interested, I’d be glad to write an Operant Conditioning 101 post.)
What I found really helpful was Pat’s discussion of “Functional Analysis.” This is where we look at a behavior systematically using the mnemonic of “ABC” to remind us to look at the antecedent of the behavior, the behavior itself, and the consequence following the behavior, which either reinforces or punishes the behavior. The consequence is defined not by what we think should happen, but rather what actually happens.
In other words, if we do something as punishment, but the behavior doesn’t reduce in frequency or intensity? It wasn’t a punishment. If the behavior continues, it was simply aversive, and the dog has learned nothing. If, on the other hand, the behavior increases, our action was actually a reinforcer.
Although we can often correctly predict how the consequence will be perceived by our dog, we will sometimes be wrong. For example, Maisy thinks that getting squirted in the face with water is superawesomefun. If I were to use a squirt bottle as a punisher and didn’t pay attention to her response, I would be in for a pretty big surprise when the behavior I thought I was punishing actually increased. Since the dog’s subsequent behavior determines which of the principles we utilized, Suzanne Clothier is probably right: some of us trainers think too much.
Pat’s discussion on functional analysis yielded something else that was pretty cool: we actually have two opportunities to change behavior. You can manipulate the consequence so that behavior either increases or decreases, but you also have an opportunity to change behavior before it even happens. If we change or prevent the antecedent, we might be able to change the behavior. Doing it this way does seem a little iffier to me, but it’s definitely possible!
How? Well, management is one way. Although management has a high risk of failure at some point, it doesn’t always fail. And management is a good, useful, and sometimes necessary thing, not to mention often easier. I’ve written before about things I do to help manage Maisy’s reactivity.
For behaviors rooted in emotions, like reactivity, we can also prevent the behavior by changing the dog’s feelings about an antecedent. For example, if a dog always barks and lunges at a bicycle, we can change the dog’s feelings about the trigger through classical conditioning. (Again, I assume my readers are familiar with classical conditioning, but if you want a post on it? Just let me know!)
This discussion of functional analysis took topics that I already understood, and helped me think about them in a more sophisticated way. Has it changed the way I train? No, not really, but it has helped me understand why I do what I do a bit better, and I’m quite grateful for that. So, thank you, Pat, for the great discussion!