In my last post, I tried to explain why cues can be reinforcers, mostly because I think it's mind-blowingly awesome: how great is it that I can take a legal reward in the ring? Or that I'll always have something for those times that I run out of treats? The concept is awesome, however it's also confusing. One of the cardinal rules of reinforcement is that the receiver gets to decide if something is reinforcing, so just because a cue can be reinforcing doesn't mean it will be.
Of course, this begs the question: why not? What happens to prevent a cue from becoming reinforcing? At Clicker Expo, Kathy Sdao identified one reason: the use of punishment in training. This absolutely makes sense to me. If the reason a cue becomes reinforcing is because the dog sees the cue as an opportunity to earn reinforcement, then it makes perfect sense that punishment would interfere with that. But I don't train with punishment, and not all of my cues are reinforcing. What gives? Am I doing something wrong, or is there something else at work here?
In search of answers, I went right to the source: Kathy Sdao herself. Last week, I had a twenty minute phone conversation with her, and the ultimate answer was: we don't really know. But we came up with some pretty good ideas. Now mind you, there really isn't a lot of science on it yet, so what follows should not be taken as certain truth. These are theories, so if (when) I write something illogical or silly, don't blame it on Kathy! She was so incredibly nice and generous with her time that I'd hate for someone to attribute one of my dumb ideas to her.
Before we go any further, I need to pick on myself first. The reason some of my cues aren't reinforcing is probably because Maisy just doesn't understand them. I'm really not very good at teaching cues (I find it terribly boring), so Maisy seems to guess which behavior I'm asking for most of the time. She's a pretty good guesser, mind you, but it is clear to me that she has trouble discriminating between even simple things like “sit” and “down.” All that uncertainty no doubt colors her perception of the cues.
But what about other dogs? You know- the ones who are lucky enough to have a good handler and have been trained to understand what cues mean and respond reliably. Why is it a cue may not reinforcing for a dog who's been trained with positive methods? This is the question I explored with Kathy, and the one I want to write about today.
First, it is entirely possible that the trainer only thinks she's training positively. Now, I'm not talking about trainers who are suffering from some misconception about what positive training entails. I'm talking about trainers who understand learning theory and know how to use clickers and treats, yet unintentionally do something that the dog finds aversive. Maybe she intimidates the dog by leaning over him unconsciously, or maybe her voice has just an edge of frustration to it. There are many ways our body language can effect the way our dogs respond, and I doubt most of us recognize that we're even doing it!
And then there is luring. Could luring interfere with the end result? Don't get me wrong- I use luring when it makes sense- but as Kathy put it, there is a “continuum of coercion” at play when we lure behaviors. She didn't use the word coercion to imply that it's evil or wrong; instead she defines it as the dog having no choice in how to respond. Isn't it possible that the dog is so into the lure that he isn't really thinking about what he's doing? And by extension, if he's not thinking, can he really be making a choice about what to do? Instinctively following the lure may mean that the dog is being coerced, no matter how nicely. If so, it's possible that the cue for the lured behavior won't be reinforcing. Of course, since it's a continuum, it's equally possible that the dog is thinking, that dog does have a choice, and that the cue could end up being reinforcing as a result. But it's interesting to consider that even methods that are widely considered "positive" could have a downside.
Speaking of how things are taught, Kathy and I talked about the idea that something could happen in the acquisition stage of the behavior that would effect the eventual cue. This could be something as simple (and as common!) as the trainer's criteria being too high or the rate of reinforcement too low- to the point that the dog felt frustrated with the behavior, or was left with some lingering confusion. Or maybe the trainer's timing is so poor that the dog can't quite figure out what he's supposed to be doing? Couldn't this affect a dog's perception of the behavior, and ultimately, how he feels about the cue? It might... it might not... it would depend on the dog, of course, but Kathy said it seemed plausible.
Speaking of early stages of learning, maybe something went so wrong that it forever tainted the dog's view of that behavior. I'm specifically thinking of single-event learning, wherein a dog forms a long-lasting and negative association with something in just one trial. If a dog inadvertently received punishment from the environment while learning a new behavior- for example, a socially shy dog learning something in an overwhelming group class- it seems possible that the dog could associate those initial bad feelings with the behavior. It seems to me that this might ultimately affect the cue as well.
Although this seems more likely during the critical early stages of learning, I imagine that single-event learning could also happen later on, too. Perhaps a loud clap of thunder happened during a training session with a storm-phobic dog, or there was a lot of static electricity on a given day, resulting in accidental little shocks each time the trainer fed the dog a treat. Depending on how aversive the dog found this, couldn't this affect the behavior (and the cue) too?
But let's put aside blame for a minute and pretend the trainer did everything perfectly. This hypothetical trainer is a brilliant shaper who is great at adjusting criteria so that the dog receives a high rate of reinforcement with minimal frustration, does a great job of taking environmental factors into consideration, and is very conscious about her body language so that it doesn't interfere with her training. Is it possible her dog wouldn't find cues reinforcing?
I think so, if the behavior was “self-punishing.” This would be the opposite of self-reinforcing behaviors where the dog gets some kind of internal relief or inherent joy from engaging in a behavior (typically one the trainer doesn't want). A self-punishing behavior would be something that makes doing a particular behavior painful or unpleasant. It might happen when a dog has some kind of physical condition like arthritis or hip dysplasia that makes it physically painful to do something. Or it might happen when the behavior itself is scary. For example, Maisy doesn't like to step on things that move, like wobble boards, and yet she will do it over and over again, simply because I am asking her to (and if I'm honest, because there are treats involved). I have no idea why she persists- it's clear that it scares her each and every time- but she continues to do it anyway. For her, the cue “step up” will probably never be reinforcing.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a plain old lack of reinforcement. Cues become reinforcers because of conditioning- they've been frequently paired with treats or other awesome things. If there aren't enough treats following the behavior to make it exciting, then the effect certainly won't carry over to the cue. This doesn't mean that the behavior needs to be followed by a treat every time- Kathy pointed out that intermittent reinforcement is stronger than continuous reinforcement, and she thinks this would apply to cues as well- but the odds do need to work in the dog's favor.
Anyway, those are just some of my musings about why cues may not act as reinforcers. Are they right? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know- like I said, they're just ideas we kicked around. And now it's your turn! Poke holes in my theories. Point out the stuff I'm not taking into account. Let me know how your experiences stack up against my speculation. If you've seen it, share some research on the topic with me (I know some exists about “poisoned cues”). Or share your own brilliant ideas. Maybe you've got a theory of your own! I'd love to hear any and all of it!