Monday, May 20, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Other Advanced Concepts

Picture is unrelated. But awesome.
There are four more advanced concepts that Ken discussed. Each is interesting, but there’s not quite enough material to flesh out separate posts. So… here’s the quick run-down.

It surprised me that Ken put a recall (which he defined as a behavior that requests an animal to return to “station”) as an advanced concept. After all, every puppy or beginning class I’ve seen teaches “come!” I think the reason Ken classifies it this way is twofold. First, he considers it a safety behavior, either for the trainer or the animal. And second, he outlined a number of errors that novices often make when teaching a recall.

Really, the errors people make with the recall all boils down to one thing: reinforcement. Ken said that a recall should be reinforced often and well. He recommended practicing it daily with your animal. If you use a recall in an emergency situation, you should always reinforce the behavior, preferably with a high-value item. And finally, he noted that novice trainers often use the recall only when the animal has done something wrong, or when good things are going to end (like when you call your dog to come at the dog park and then leave).

Behavior Chains
A behavior chain happens when the completion of one behavior cues the start of the next. Each subsequent behavior reinforces the previous one. Ken discussed two types of behavior chains, technical chains, where the trainer gives ONE cue and the animal then performs a series of behaviors, or common chains, where the trainer gives a series of cues, but there’s only one reinforcer at the very end.

There are two ways to teach a behavior chain. With back-chaining (which is the preferred method) the last step of the chain is taught first, and then the trainer teaches backwards to the first step. This is more reinforcing for the animal because he is always moving towards something he knows well. Forward-chaining (teaching the first behavior, then the second, and so on) also works, but there are usually more errors.

It is best to teach each individual component of the chain successfully. Each should be maintained separately as well. Ken shared that the animals that are the most successful at learning chains are ones who have learned about reinforcement variety because they already know that a behavior can be reinforcing.

Keep Going Signals (KGS)
A KGS is a signal that tells the animal that he is on the right track. It’s encouraging feedback that literally says “keep doing this and I’ll reinforce you!” It’s technically a tertiary reinforcer- that is, it’s a signal that a secondary reinforcer is coming (and thus, a primary). It’s sort of the way you get a poker chip that can be traded in for money which can then be used to by an actual reinforcer, like food.

Most people don’t purposely train them; they tend to happen along the way naturally. That said, you can purposely teach them by introducing them as a secondary reinforcer and then approximating longer periods of time before giving the primary. Interestingly, Ken said he doesn’t use them; he just doesn’t need them.

End of Session Signals
An end of session signal tells the animal that the training session is done and there will be no further opportunity for reinforcement. While it might be helpful to let your pet dog to stop bothering you, Ken pointed out that he doesn’t particularly want a 700 pound animal realizing the (fun!) session is over and thus refusing to let the trainer leave. That can be dangerous. In fact, the staff at Shedd are pretty careful that they don’t create an accidental signal that might lead to chaos, like picking up a bucket of fish and walking away.

That doesn’t mean you should use them. Ken simply doesn’t think they are important enough to argue about. If what you’re doing is working, great.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Aversives, Punishment, and You!

I don’t know why, but I always enjoy discussions on punishment. In ways, it feels like a “forbidden fruit.” I very rarely use punishment with my dog or my clients’ dogs, and if you try to discuss it- even theoretically- online, it can cause a lot of controversy. So my opportunities to talk about it are rare.

During the Shedd seminar, Ken talked about the advanced concepts of punishment, negative reinforcement, and aversive stimuli. These are three distinctly different concepts that are often confused, misused, and misunderstood. Still, the definitions are quite simple, and if you plan to use any of these techniques, you really do need to understand them.

An aversive stimulus is something that the animal wants to avoid. There is no definitive list of what makes something aversive; each animal will have different feelings about this. For example, some dogs hate being squirted in the face with water, but Maisy thinks it’s AWESOME.

A reinforcer is anything that increases the behavior it follows. Positive means something was added to make that behavior increase, while negative means something was removed. A negative reinforcer happens when something is removed, and as a result, a behavior increases in the future. This can happen for two reasons. First, the behavior may increase due to avoidance; an aversive isn’t actually applied, it’s simply threatened. The animal acts in order to prevent it from happening. Or, the behavior may be the result of escape. This happens when the aversive is actually applied and the removed with the desired behavior occurs. But either way, negative reinforcement is at play. It’s important to note that negative reinforcement can work and be both humane and effective if it’s done correctly.

A punisher is something that decreases the behavior it follows. This, too, can come in the positive or the negative variety. One way punishment can be used humanely is through deprivation; a reinforcer is withheld (negative) so that the animal will not perform the incorrect behavior again (punishment). Ken pointed out that this is why it’s so important to have multiple reinforcers available because this allows you to withhold certain reinforcers without depriving the animal of his full diet.

With that said, you really do need to know your audience when you use these terms. A trainer will punish a behavior; she wants a particular action to stop. But the public tends to punish the animal. That is, the punishment happens well after the fact, such as grounding a child for a bad report card or putting someone in jail for a crime they committed. In both cases, the actual behavior is so far removed from the consequence that it’s probably not being affected much.

So, while Ken does use punishment, he does not use it as the public understands it.

Ken talked about the use of conditioned punishers, as well. These are things that become aversive by association. Just as a clicker is a conditioned reinforcer because it predicts good things, there are also things that will predict bad things.

A delta signal, which is a warning to the animal that an aversive is about to be applied, can sometimes be used as a last chance to get things right. “Stop doing that or else,” it tells the animal. Your mom using your full name can be a delta signal; it tells you that you need to stop pulling your sister’s hair or face her wrath. The problem with deltas is that it can be very easy for the emotional trainer to escalate the use of punishment.

Ken also told us that a no reward marker acts as a punisher. This is the opposite of a bridge; it marks the moment when a behavior is wrong so the animal won’t do it again. These are typically quite mild, but can still cause frustration in the animal. So, while a skilled trainer can use no reward markers effectively and humanely, Ken thinks the potential for misuse is high.

I think my favorite part of this section was Ken’s discussion on how trainers use punishment versus how the public does. I appreciated the focus on behavior, not whether the animal is being “good” or “bad,” “cooperative” or “stubborn” (a word that always makes me crazy).

But what do you think? Anything intriguing here?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Shedd Animal Training Seminar: Advanced Concepts in Reinforcement

Okay, gang, I’m back with the Shedd Animal Training Seminar recaps. It’s been awhile, but thankfully I left off at a pretty good breaking point because we’ve come to the section on advanced concepts.

Ken defined advanced concepts as those that require experience in order to apply them. This is any training that ventures past the basics of “reward behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don’t.” You know you’re ready to start dabbling in some of these concepts when you understand training theory well enough to know when to ask for help (seriously. All good trainers get in over their heads sometimes) and you have some good mechanical skills (able to use a marker with good time, able to deliver reinforcers efficiently and effectively).

That said, just because YOU are ready to use an advanced concept does not mean that your animal (or your human client) is ready for the concept. So you also need to know when it’s appropriate to use one of these concepts, and when to stick with the basics.

A great example of this is the concept of defining criteria for a behavior. In the early stages, we think of behavior as a black-or-white kind of thing: either the behavior was 100% correct, or it was wrong. Except… there IS a gray area in training. This happens fairly often when a behavior is still in training, especially when you’re shaping a behavior with a series of approximations. Sometimes the animal gives you something you weren’t looking for or expecting, and you need to make a quick judgment call about whether or not to mark it.

With that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about when Ken considers reinforcement to be an advanced concept.

Being sprayed by a water bottle is a secondary reinforcer for this dolphin.

One situation in which using reinforcement requires an experienced trainer is when a secondary reinforcer is being used. Also called a conditioned reinforcer, this is something that the animal is taught to value. The most common example is a clicker or marker, but it’s anything that any animal will accept as a reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers can be indispensable when an animal is sick and is refusing to eat but you need to give them medications or reward them for a behavior.

Ken notes that your relationship to the animal is critical when you’re using a secondary reinforcer; while a kiss from your significant other may be welcomed, a kiss from your boss probably won’t be. For a more in depth discussion on secondary reinforcers, please see this post.

Another reinforcement technique that Ken considers to be an advanced concept is the use of variable reinforcement. Ken likes to look at reinforcement schedules simply. Instead of all the technical terms like CRF, FI, FR, VI, VR, etc., he tends to see them as either continuous and consistent or variable and intermittent. Of course, he readily agrees that understanding the technical terms can be helpful, but said that most of the time, it really isn’t necessary in most situations.

Variable reinforcement happens when an animal does not get a reinforcer for each and every behavior. It’s often used in training because it makes a behavior more resistant to extinction. This allows you to have the animal do a number of behaviors for only one reinforcer. However, it does need to be carefully introduced or it can lead to frustration in your animal.

Although there are many ways to introduce a variable schedule of reinforcement, Ken shared how the Shedd staff do it. First, every new trainer AND every new animal begins with a continuous, fixed schedule of reinforcement. They will provide a variety in the types of reinforcers, though. Then, they condition and establish secondary reinforcers (see the post linked above for more details on this). Next, start using your secondary reinforcers so that they are not always followed by a primary reinforcer. Finally, use other well-established behaviors as a reinforcer. This entire process generally takes four to six weeks with an experience trainer AND an experienced animal. With a naïve trainer and animal combo, it can take several years.

There is one more advanced concept in regards to reinforcement that Ken discussed: negative reinforcement. However, I decided it makes more sense to present it with the seminar summary on aversives and punishment. Keep an eye out for the next installment in the Shedd Animal Training Seminar series!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Except When You Can

In my last two posts, I told you that you can't reinforce fear. Which is all well and good, except... sometimes you can. Perhaps my last posts would have been better titled “Will Giving My Dog Treats When He's Scared Make Him Worse?” and “Why It's Okay to Comfort Your Dog.” It's not that I was lying to you so much as drastically oversimplifying the answer. And since we all know I love the complexity of dog behavior, here is a deeper look at the question of reinforcing fear. 

While we think of fear as an emotion, behavior does come along with that. We can't ask our dogs how they feel. We can't have in-depth conversations or provide them with counseling. We can only make guesses about how they are feeling based on how they're acting. We know our dogs are scared when they have, well, behavior... and behavior can be reinforced.

That's the sneaky thing about classical counter-conditioning: it doesn't happen in a vacuum. In the classes I teach, we tell students to feed their dog when another dog barks regardless of what their dog is doing. The goal is to change the dog's association with other dogs, but if the student's dog barks or lunges every time before he gets a cookie, he will probably start barking and lunging more. (This is why we are so careful to keep dogs under threshold in class.)

I actually had this happen with Maisy. I did a ton of counter-conditioning with her, and it did change her emotional state about other dogs; she will now solicit play from other dogs. Unfortunately, I wasn't very careful about keeping her under threshold in those early days, and so she got a lot of cookies for lunging. There was a period of time there where Maisy would happily bounce to the end of her leash, bark once, and then rush back to me with a huge grin on her face, clearly expecting her cookie for doing her job. She wasn't upset about the dog, she just thought lunging was a neat trick that would earn her cookies. It was a pain to get rid of that behavior, let me tell you!

Something I see more often is an increase in fearful body language when the dog's person is tense, nervous, or scared. I'm not sure if the dogs are picking up on their body language, if they are emitting some stress smell that only they can detect, but it's not uncommon. As a result, I work hard to help the PEOPLE relax, because that is often the first step to getting the dog to relax.

Going back to yesterday's example, if I find my friend hiding in the closet, scared about the zombie clowns, and I anxiously pat her back and chant “it's okay it's okay it's okay” while barely breathing myself... well, she's not likely to believe me. In fact, chances are pretty good that she's going to take my behavior as a sign that she was right to be upset.

Many dogs take cues on how to act based on how their people feel. Maisy is incredibly sensitive to moods, to the point that her veterinary behaviorist has compared her to a “canary in a coal mine.” Maisy's behavior is directly linked to how the people around her feel. This can be a vicious cycle, one that I see regularly with my students. If their dog reacts, the person tenses up, getting ready for the next outburst... which tells the dog he was right to be upset. It can really spiral out of control.

Another thing I see happening doesn't really have anything to do with the cookies or the comforting per se, but rather, how those things are given. People who do frantic treat delivery, shooting the cookies at their dogs with fast, jerky motions, tend to have dogs who continue to be worked up. 

So yes, technically we are reinforcing fear; the behavior is increasing. But are the dogs actually feeling more fearful? Well, we can't know for sure, but in her TEDtalk, Amy Cuddy tells the audience that our body positions can and do change the way we feel. Science has shown that the physical act of smiling can make a person feel happier. And who hasn't experienced taking a deep breath and then feeling more relaxed? So even though we'll never know for sure, it's entirely possible that by increasing the dog's fear-behaviors, we're increasing their fear-feelings. It's like emotional contagion.

Ultimately, while I think it's okay to soothe our dogs when they are upset, we really do need to be careful that we are actually comforting them, and not enabling their fear. While it's good to relieve misery, creating dogs who are overly reliant on their humans is not helpful. We can't be there for them all the time, so they really do need to learn to stand on their own four paws.  

Anyway, this is probably just scratching the surface. I would love to hear from others on ways they have done something that seems to have reinforced fear. I'm sure there is a ton of complexity to this topic that I simply don't understand yet!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why You Can't Reinforce Fear

Okay, I'll admit it. I thought my last post was hilarious. But at the same time, it was also absolutely serious. Here’s why:

Technically speaking, the definition of reinforcement is “increasing the frequency of a behavior.” Note that last word: BEHAVIOR. That’s important because fear is not a behavior. It’s an emotion. So, no matter how many cookies, pets, or praise you give your dog, you will never be able to cause him to feel that fear more often. It’s simply not possible.

What you can reinforce is fear-related behaviors, like cowering or whining… but it's highly unlikely. Fear-related behaviors happen because the dog is scared. If you reduce those fearful feelings, you will naturally reduce the fearful behaviors. One of the best ways to reduce fearful behavior is through counter-conditioning. If you do it correctly, you will see a reduction in both the feelings and the behaviors of fear. If you do it incorrectly, you might have no impact, or in rare instances, you might make things worse. This is why you should have an experienced behavioral consultant help you when you’re trying to modify behavior. But to say you shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because you’ll “reinforce fear” is simply not true.

Imagine that something terrifying has just happened to you. Maybe someone tried to break into your house in the middle of the night, or maybe you were chased by an army of zombie clowns leading a pack of carnivorous garden gnomes. Or something else you find terrifying, even if I think it’s completely ridiculous to be scared of that.

Now let’s say that your best friend has just found you hiding in your closet, tears streaming down your face while you chant, “Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me,” over and over again. Being an amazing, caring, wonderful person, your friend would probably throw her arms around you. She might rub your back or gently stroke your hair while she tells you it’s going to be okay. She may even offer you your favorite cookie. (Or better yet, coffee! The lifeblood of life.)

Because there’s safety in the power of numbers, this will probably help you calm down. But even if it doesn’t, you will feel loved and cared for. What won’t happen is exactly what some people say will happen with dogs; your friend’s comfort is not going to cause you to start hiding in closets. You aren’t going to break down in tears or be hysterical more often as a result.

Is it possible that some people and dogs will use such behaviors to seek attention? Yes. I see this sometimes with my social work clients. In my experience, true attention-seeking behavior often comes about when the person or dog feels like they’re not getting enough attention. Or, maybe they don’t know how to request attention in an appropriate manner. Both of these things can be addressed by changing how you interact with your loved one.

I also see behavior that is labeled as “attention-seeking” that actually isn’t. When you go through a harrowing experience with someone and they respond in a caring manner, you are likely to trust that person more. As a result, the next time you’re scared, you will probably turn to her for support. It’s not that her comfort has increased your fear, it’s that her comfort has taught you that she’s a safe person to go to when you’re scared. Personally, I want my friends (and my dog!) to know that I am trustworthy. I want to be there for them, and I don’t want them to suffer alone.

Maybe that’s just me… but I don’t think so. I think the vast majority of us want to help the ones we love. We want to be the ones that they turn to when they’re sad or scared. We want to comfort them. So go ahead and do that. It’ll be okay. I promise.