Our Agility Instructors at Agility Underground Have started an email 'column' with various applicable thoughts, ideas, articles, etc. The latest is written by Dr. Randall and deals with stopping unwanted behaviors in our dogs using Positive Reinforcement methods rather than punishment.
I have been working diligently on this with Gilda and her front window vigilance. During down times, Gilda sits at one of the two french doors and just watches. When she sees a person walking, a squirrel, a chipmunk, the neighbor's dog, a car turning around in the driveway... etc., she jumps to attention (scaring the bejeezus out of me if I'm on the computer), and runs as fast as she can back and forth barking the whole time (and shredding the wood floors...)
What seems like an eternity ago, I started using tons of positive reinforcement, telling her "good girl" anytime she wasn't displaying such obnoxiousness. She was still jumping up and running but was barking much less. Just when I think I'm making progress, she has another burst of insanity (which usually occurs when I'm on the phone or someone is here visiting).
In my quest to have a good dog, I will march on. Linda's article humanizes this concept and makes clear the long-term benefits of using positive reinforcement both with our dogs and with ourselves!
I have been thinking lately about stopping unwanted behaviors in my dogs. In behavior parlance, this is called “extinguishing” a behavior. To do this, one stops reinforcing the undesirable behavior, and, eventually, the behavior decreases until it is gone because there is no reward for performing it. There is also something called an “extinction burst”. Just when you think the behavior is gone, it all of a sudden comes back strongly, before it goes away again. When this occurs, many trainers mistake it for a strengthening of the unwanted activity and get very frustrated. Ignore it and it will go away.Extinguishing Behaviorsby Linda Randall, DVM
Sounds good, doesn’t it? It is much easier said than done, of course.
A recent example in my personal life goes as follows:
The shelf clock in my bedroom stopped working. Of course, the battery was dead. I kept checking the time and it always said 2:36. At first I was incredulous, as it was night, I had just woken up and wanted to know how much longer until I had to get up. Wow, lots of time. Back to sleep. I woke up again, still 2:36. ‘How can that be?’ my sleepy brain asked. Then I realized the problem. I checked my cell phone, got the real time, made a mental note to change the clock battery and went back to sleep again.
Fast forward 2 weeks. I still haven’t gotten around to putting in a new battery. It is perpetually 2:36 in Linda’s world. Not an unpleasant time, mind you, but always the same. I have no other clock in that area of the house. Every morning I wake up and look over at this clock. Every night I check it. I check it when I walk into the room. I am always a little irritated, pull my phone out to get the correct time, or I just guess and go on. I am often wrong when I guess, and am late or early for appointments. It is not reinforcing.
More days go by, and I have decreased by about 50% the number of times I look at this stupid clock. But the behavior has not extinguished. I am human, I can reason. I know with every mitochondria in my body that this clock is going to say 2.36, that I am then going to ask myself when I am going to change the battery, that I have to find my cell phone and get the time. It is annoying and I hate it. But I do nothing about it.
If I do stop looking at the clock and it is just like a picture on the shelf and nothing more, and someone walks in and says: ‘Linda, your clock has stopped working.’ Do you think I would start looking at it more frequently again? The answer is yes, because that is what happened last week.
And what is going to happen once I replace the battery? How fast will I start telling time by that clock as soon as it is reinforcing me with the correct time? Instantly, and without looking back. Within moments I won’t even remember it was not working for over a month. The fact this clock has rewarded me with the correct time twice every 24 hours for over a decade will overcome any ‘extinguished’ behavior of one month’s duration.
This is why extinguished behaviors are never really and truly gone. The longer they were a positive experience, the harder they are to tamp down, and almost impossible to bury forever. Sometimes it only takes reinforcing it once, mistakenly or not, for it to come back as strong as it was before you tried to extinguish it. It is very hard for us to accept this when we are training our dogs. I mean, really…One time I make a mistake and reward my dog for leaving his start line and I am back at square one after 6 months of success? Yes, it is true. Fortunately, it should be easier to work through the extinction phases the second (or third, or fourth) time.
The dog training lessons are these:
- From the time you acquire a dog, only reinforce what you want. Exactly what you want.
- Remember that often we don’t know what is reinforcing a dog, but if you see an unwanted behavior develop just from a dog’s “life lessons” either find out what is so reinforcing (it could be environmental, another pet, just the deed itself, or who knows what!) and try to eliminate that. If that is impossible, as it often is, train a different behavior that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior (for instance, the dog can’t jump on your guest if it has a go-to-mat behavior across the room), or reinforce decreasing frequency or strength of the unwanted behavior (example: dog is incessantly barking out the window, takes a breath, you reinforce the breath. Slowly 100 barks per minute become 90 then 70, then 4 , etc. This takes a long time. It works.)
- If you work on extinguishing a behavior (running off during training), be sure to chart it or you may not recognize a decrease in the unwanted behavior and mistakenly think you are getting nowhere because it hasn’t stopped completely.
- Remember it is never gone forever. You will always have to be vigilant, especially in times of stress for the dog.
(A discussion for another time, another Tips and Trends, but a note worth making here: trainers who work with aversive training methods, instead of positive training, will tell you it only takes one time for a strong aversive to stop an unwanted behavior. In life, if an animal tackles a porcupine, gets quills in the face, is in pain and misery and almost dies from sepsis, it will most likely never ever approach a porcupine again. Great life lesson. But, how many of us are willing to take an aversive that far? Bob Bailey gives some examples of when he has used punishment to eliminate an unwanted behavior. It is not for the squeamish to see. His point is that if you use an aversive to stop something, it better be something you must stop the animal from doing, and the aversive has to be close to life threateningly harsh because it has to work the first time you do it. You have to be willing to be hard, hard-hearted, and hard-handed for that moment. If you are just as “hard” as you feel you can be because you feel bad for the dog, or you feel inhumane when you do it (and you may be, for that chunk of time), you end up merely nagging and being mean, with nothing to show for it. If you can’t be a porcupine, don’t use aversives. Think about it.)