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A Girl and a Wild Mustang—or “There Are Many ‘Right’ Ways to Train Animals”

A-Girl-And-A-Wild-Mustang

A Girl and a Wild Mustang

—or “There Are Many Right Ways to Train Animals”

 

“A Girl and a Wild Mustang” by Elsa Sinclair is a beautiful documentary—and yes, I’m biased. 

I’ll explain why I find it beautiful and why I’m biased in a while. See, these days a tendency prevails in claiming there’s only one right way for us to interact with our animals. If you adhere to that idea, I fear I have bad news for you. There isn’t only one way to train animals; there are many. Let’s start from the beginning.

If you know a bit about evolutionary biology, you’ll know there are countless more ways to be dead than alive. Once we are alive, there are many ways of living, depending on anatomical, physiological, and environmental constraints. Once we’re over that, we are what we are, based on genetics, epigenetics, early imprinting, education, adaptation, goals, and circumstances.

It’s no surprise we differ from one another, no two humans, dogs, horses, or jellyfish being clones of each other.

In humans, the values, morals, and ethics we acquire throughout life accentuate peculiarities. Perhaps they do also in some other species (the evolutionary biologist suspects); only we don’t know.

Like/don’t like (the Facebook syndrome, as I coined the phenomenon) expresses our normative side (emotions and values) more than their descriptive counterparts (reason and facts). They reveal the radical and inescapable subjectivism and singularity of any conscious living organism—a condition Oriental philosophies heroically attempt to elude. We judge as we find suitable and as we can. We reason, but I’ll argue that normative judgments have the better of their descriptive analogs—at least for the human species at large. Perhaps once that gave us an evolutionarily advantageous edge.

Because we act according to our norms and not de facto facts, disagreement is expectable. Compound that with a good dose of faulty logic—the standard in human reasoning—and the probability of dissent moves one notch up from expectable to inevitable.

White is the safest color for a car, yet silver is the most popular. Why? Because car buyers chose by emotion, not reason. There’s nothing wrong with that (from a logical perspective) as long as we don’t claim that (A) safety is a concern of ours, and (B) color does not matter. Why is that so? Because, although the argument is valid, it is unsound.

The validity of an argument does not depend on its premisses being true, but its soundness does. A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid, and all of its premises are true. In our example above, (B) is false, and the argument is, therefore, unsound. 

There are many ways to train animals, depending on our knowledge, skills, goals, and preferences. Say, we want to establish a reciprocal, beneficial relationship with our dog or horse. We may choose any method we want: reinforcers only, combining reinforcers and inhibitors, a particular lead/leash, food or no food. Different approaches can be equally good. What we cannot do—provided we want to stay rational—is to justify our actions based on values with false facts.

What science tells us, does not oblige us to adopt any one method. Science doesn’t say a particular method is unconditionally better than another. It says that under specific circumstances A rates over B and B over C with a certain probability. A may be better for speed, B for reliability, and C for individual comfort. I choose, you choose, we choose what suits each of us best. We may want to go for speed, reliability, or what feels most comfortable for us. As long as we do not deny the facts science gives us, there’s nothing wrong with any choice of ours. What is wrong (unsound argumentation, as we saw above) is to state that we choose a particular method because of its efficiency for a specific purpose despite science telling us otherwise.

For example, during my career, I have assisted many owners and their animals. Invariably, my first questions would be, “what is your goal?” and “what price are you willing to pay?” And by price, I didn’t mean bucks, dimes, and pennies, but deviating from your values if need be.

Gimmicks—leads, collars, halters, food treats—speed up training a dog or a horse. Using neither is slower, and it requires much more knowledge, skill, and empathy. Again, it depends on what you want.

Students and clients often ask me which lead I recommend or prefer. My answer is always the same. I endorse none, but I can tell you what studies (not opinions) say about the effects of the various types—and you pick one, given your goals and principles. 

If you ask me, I prefer none: no leads/leashes, collars, or any gimmicks. For me, the primary in any relationship with an animal (human or not) is the connection per se. I want it to be one between two free agents: no constraints besides the inevitable of having neighbors and having to share the world with others. That’s me, and I don’t expect you to think likewise—and I wouldn’t dream of imposing my view on you.

Given, I could achieve faster and more accurate and reliable results using other methods. Denying that is out of the question for it would compromise my intellectual integrity, which I am utterly incapable of doing. Blame my genetic constitution, early upbringing, education, and fortuitous circumstances. 

Therefore, I’m willing to pay the price of sticking to my philosophy of life (and being slower, less accurate, etc.)—perhaps because I find the payback worth it. As I write elsewhere, “[…] (I) enjoy the closeness, not the training, not (the) achievement, […] relating to the animal (I) face as a living organism, an equal, a creature (I) meet for a brief moment in space and time.” (Animal Training My Way, 2015).

And so, you make your choices, to which you are fully entitled, and I mine. We are equally right as long as we do not deny facts or use faulty logic in our reasoning—which takes us to “A Girl and a Wild Mustang.”

As to my preferred interaction with animals (humans too), I’d suggest you watch Elsa Sinclair’s “A Girl and a Wild Mustang.” Sinclair made her choices and proved her point. Incidentally, she also proved my case, better than I could have done it—for which I’m grateful. You must see this documentary. 

Sinclair does not impose her thoughts on you, rather states her case. It’s a take it, or leave it. As I said at the start, it’s a beautiful movie, and I am biased. My most avid readers will know right away, barely 30 seconds into the movie, why I recommend it so dearly.

Let me give you a teaser by quoting Sinclair: “Have you ever wondered if a horse would let you ride her if there was no threat of punishment or encouragement of a reward such as food? Would a horse let you ride her simply because you had built a strong relationship?”

I wrote in my book Evolution (2014), “We humans can contemplate nothing without changing it. Yet, the most important, it seems to me, must be to understand, accept, and respect other living beings independently of species and race.” 

That’s a normative statement, all right, and one you may beg to differ. I read, recently, a claim that respect being a human construct, does not exist for dogs. I’ll dispute vigorously that respect is a human construct. Sinclair’s movie is all about mutual respect between human and horse.

“We both have the right to live. I have the right to chase you, you have the right to fly,” the lion says to the gazelle. I suspect respect, as in acting as others have the same freedoms as we do, even though they may conflict with ours, is a fundamental law of nature. If so, this statement of mine, paradoxically enough, will cease to be normative and will become a premise for this universe’s sustainability.

That is something to ponder on.

Photo by Elsa Sinclair. Artwork by Anton Antonsen.

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Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.

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Psychology Rather Than Power—for the Umpteenth Time, Reinforcers Are Not Rewards

Roger Abrantes and Petrine 1982

For the umpteenth time, a reinforcer is not a reward. When I hear “Force-Free” trainers say, “dogs like to work to earn rewards,”1 I suspect and fear they miss by a mile and a half the essence and function of reinforcers in learning theory (and so also of inhibitors).

I’m not splitting hairs. There is a crucial difference between “reinforcing a particular behavior” and “rewarding an individual.” I suspect ignorance hereof being as well the cause of the many incorrect statements on inhibitors2 from the “Radical Force-Free” camp (emphasis on radical).3

“Dogs like to work to earn rewards” reminds me somehow of the old days when I opposed the old school of military dog training. Not everything was hassle and squabble; we had our moments of pleasantries. After ten minutes of marching forth and back, the instructor would say, “And halt! Now, praise your dogs.” Yes, I went to that kind of dog training with my first dog. That was what we had by then.

I walked out in disgust and decided, there and then, my dog and I would train by ourselves and we would show them. We did.

I substituted praise with reinforcers, the real thing—not rewards,—including my ‘dygtig’4 and treats given at strategic points. I stopped using a leash and started using a lead. Leash jerks gave place to “No” immediately followed by “dygtig” when the dog, not me, corrected the mistake. That, my dog would undisputedly do because she visibly enjoyed being my “teammate.” I was a student of ethology and I knew about social canines, our domestic dog being one. Old Professor Lorenz’s words rang in my ears, “To understand an animal, first you have to become a partner,” and he knew better than anyone for he had done it with his goslings.

I signed up for the final “obedience” competition at the club, a hunting dog club run by real hunters, and we won with max points. That a young long-haired fellow in faded Levi’s and clogs had won created some agitation; and, as to add insult to injury, my dog was a little, only seven-months-old English Cocker Spaniel (a genuine one, not one of those oddballs we see in the US today), red and female, on top of that. Petrine was intelligent, beautiful, charming, a workaholic, and a sweety-pie—though I might be a tad biased.

Our performance generated some raised eyebrows and more humming than the establishment would have wished. At the prizes and punch social function, a few civilians asked me whispering whether I would help training their fidos (read companion dogs).

The following Saturday, we were training on a grass field across the road where I lived, now the local firemen’s station. That was 1982, the summer before my son Daniel was born; and that’s how dog training came into my life. I never planned it.

Two years later, in 1984, I wrote my first book, “Psychology Rather than Force,” with far too little experience but loads of good ideas including force-free, hands-free, reinforcement-based training with as few inhibitors as possible, and it even included a whistle (the precursor of the clicker).

I was positive dog training would change. It did, and the rest is history.

 

__________

Notes

1 – This is an actual quote from a document published on the internet by a confessed “Force-Free” trainer.

Note that Skinner writes about reinforcers and rewards, “The strengthening effect is missed, by the way, when reinforcers are called rewards. People are rewarded, but behavior is reinforced. If, as you walk along the street, you look down and find some money, and if money is reinforcing, you will tend to look down again for some time, but we should not say that you were rewarded for looking down. As the history of the word shows, reward implies compensation, something that offsets a sacrifice or loss, if only the expenditure of effort. We give heroes medals, students degrees, and famous people prizes, but those rewards are not directly contingent on what they have done, and it is generally felt that the rewards would not be deserved if they had been worked for.” (Skinner, 1986, p. 569).

2- In 2013, I suggested we changed punisher and derivatives to inhibitor and derivatives to avoid the moral and religious connotations of the former, particularly in the Latin languages, and to emphasize its function and use as a learning tool.

3 – “Radical Force-Free dog trainers” (also “radical positives”) is my denomination for those trainers adhering to the positive reinforcement-based or force-free movement, but having extreme views like claiming positive reinforcers are the only learning tool one needs, they never use aversive stimuli, one should never say “no,” everyone else but them is wrong, and other absurdities. Please do not confuse them with the non-radical positive or reinforcement-based dog trainers who are equally force-free but sensible, open-minded, prudent in their claims, and polite and considerate to otherwise thinkers.

4 – “Dygtig” is my preferred semi-conditioned sound reinforcer. It’s a Danish word meaning’ clever,’ ‘skilled.’ It has a good doggy sound.

 

References

Abrantes, R. 1984. Psykologi Fremfor Magt (Psychology Rather Than Force). Lupus Forlag.
Abrantes. R. 2013. The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. 1986. What is wrong with daily life in the Western world? American Psychologist, 41(5), 568-574. Retrieved Jun. 29, 2019.

Featured photo by Annemarie Abrantes.

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Measuring Behavior Measuring Behavior is indispensable for the serious student of behavior. Learn how to predict behavior accurately, how to sample behavior, measure changes, create and use ethograms, evaluate your results, and present your findings.

Featured Price: € 168.00 € 89.00

 

Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.

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Is Your Body Language Helping or Confusing Your Animal?

By Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. To read this article, please click here.

A recent study confirms that in dogs, body language indicating a relaxed, interested and content state of mind during training correlated with better training results.

This article is selected and posted by our Tutor Team. Jennifer Cattet, the author, is not a tutor at Ethology Institute.

 

Jennifer Cattet, Ph.D., has been training dogs professionally since 1984. Her career as a dog trainer started with traditional training techniques, which were the only methods available at the time. Frustrated and concerned with the effects such methods had on some of the dogs and on their relationship with their owners, she went back to college and studied Psychology and Ethology (animal behavior) at the University of Geneva, Switzerland (she spent most of her early years in France). After her bachelor’s degree, she worked as the Assistant Professor in the Ethology Department and completed her studies with a doctorate on spatial navigation in dogs.

Jennifer Cattet (Body Language)

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Everything We Do Has Consequences

Everything We Do Has Consequences

Everything we do has consequences, some trivial, other more serious. A good rule is to ask the three following questions:
1. What do I give my animal and what do I take? (What does my animal give me and what does it take?)
2. What am I teaching the animal?
3. How does my animal (probably) interpret my behavior?

The relationship you have to your animal is the relationship you have created. It’s as simple as that, and it is your responsibility to build a relationship that will serve all parties best. Ignorance is no excuse. If you don’t know how to do it, take your time and learn.

Dog owners create the majority of the problem behavior of their dogs for they reinforce those behaviors never giving it a thought. Owners cause excessive barking, home alone problems, and even many biting cases, fear, and phobias. They didn’t think of the consequences of their behavior when responding to their dogs’ behavior. The same applies to all other animals we keep as companion animals. It’s easier to see it in dogs because we live with them in our homes. We share a significant part of our daily lives with them, and they adopt many of our bad habits.

Everything we do has consequences. That should be no surprise for anyone. I’m sure our ancestors knew it very well. Back then, second chances were rarely an option. We should recognize it as well, but since we live highly protected lives in the western world, we tend to forget that indeed everything we do has consequences. We pass this indifference of ours to our companion animals, and the result in the long term is the emergence of maybe unsolvable but avoidable issues.

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Measuring Behavior Measuring Behavior is indispensable for the serious student of behavior. Learn how to predict behavior accurately, how to sample behavior, measure changes, create and use ethograms, evaluate your results, and present your findings.

Featured Price: € 168.00 € 89.00

Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.

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“Please” in Animal Language

Please In Animal Language

Saying ‘please’ to your animal can make the whole difference between success and failure. The question is, how do we say that in animal language?

Simplicity is a virtue in life as well as in science and communication. We should always keep that in mind as our animal training gets going.

We can argue for using the dog’s name because it is the simplest signal for us; consequently, we should give the dog a simple and short name. “Adventurous Beautiful Sunset Over the Hills” is undoubtedly a poetic name with its grace if you are inclined to this kind of verse. It looks good in a pedigree but far too complicated for any practical use. It is harder to remember, than a nickname like ‘Bongo,’ it takes longer to pronounce, and it is more difficult to perceive in less than favorable environments. Human nicknames exist for the same reason.

The simplicity of signals is a principle we must always remember when we plan the training of an animal. All signals must have simple forms, no matter whether they are acoustic, visual or tactile.

Imagine we are in the same room and consider the following example. I tell you, “please, come here.” My goal (the objective of my signal) is to have you to move to where I am. ‘Come’ means, “move or travel toward or into a place thought of as near or familiar to the speaker,” or in simpler words, “move to me.”

The addition of ‘here’ is superfluous. ‘Here’ is where I am. If I did not want you to come to where I am, I would not say, ‘come,’ I would say ‘go.’

‘Please’ is in a sense also superfluous. It does not add anything to the behavior you must perform. We use it as a matter of convention because we lost some of our ability to communicate by other than verbal signals. I say, ‘please’ to set you in the right emotional frame of mind to comply with my signal, but I could do that as well without using it. If I said to you, ‘come’ with a smile on my face, a twinkle in my eye and a gentle tone in my voice, I would achieve the same and maybe even better.

“Please” in animal language is not a question of words.

Even though it is undoubtedly easier, if arguably poorer, to use common words to elicit emotions in our human interactions, it is impossible to accomplish the same when communicating with an animal. There is no way we can explain to an animal what we want to achieve with ‘please.’

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When communicating with an animal, we are better off by just using ‘come’ instead of “please, come here.” It is simpler and conveys to the animal all it needs to know. We can also use ‘here.’ It has the same qualities and none of the mentioned disadvantages. The emotional function of ‘please’ in animal language is better substituted by a friendly body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which social animals easily detect. ‘Please’ might also influence your state of mind—you are friendlier when you say ‘please’ than when you do not—but here you must compromise with the animal’s innate characteristics. Animals understand better a bodily or tonal ‘please’ than a verbal one, which they may miss altogether.

There are situations when we need not use ‘please’ and others where we achieve better our goal without it; the same goes for our communication with animals. Sometimes, we will need to use a more assertive body language, facial expression, and tonal voice to achieve our goal; and other times we need to be very assertive.

We must assess any particular situation and decide how to modulate our signals. There are two elements in a signal: (1) the factual, which is an operant controlled by the consequences and (2) the emotional, which is the respondent and which the signal itself elicits. It is our job to control both so we achieve the desired goal, and there is no magical formula to do so.

The factual part of it is clear. We only have to know the science behind it and comply with its rules. It is the part you can learn in the course “Animal Training My Way–Merging Ethology and Behaviorism.” The emotional part, which deals with empathy, is a difficult one. Either you have it, or you don’t. You may acquire it through experience, or you may not, and no one can help you with that.

This article is an excerpt from Roger Abrantes’ book, “Animal Training My Way—Merging Ethology and Behaviorism,” included in the course “Ethology and Behaviorism.

Learn more in our course Ethology and Behaviorism. Based on Roger Abrantes’ book “Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism,” this online course explains and teaches you how to create a stable and balanced relationship with any animal. It analyses the way we interact with our animals, combines the best of ethology and behaviorism and comes up with an innovative, yet simple and efficient approach to animal training. A state-of-the-art online course in four lessons including videos, a beautiful flip-pages book, and quizzes.

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The Importance of Self-Confidence in Animal Training

The importance of self-confidence in animal training is much greater than you might think. All animals, including dogs, react much better to our body language than to sound signals.

If you behave self-confidently—not arrogantly or aggressively— your dog will look at you, listen to you, and follow you more readily. We have seen that numerous times in classes and workshops.

In the movie, did you notice how a simple change in the way the owner gives the signals makes the whole difference? The signals, before and after, are roughly the same. The only difference is the self-confidence with which the owner gives them.

To improve your communication and relationship with your dog, please see our course Ethology and Behaviorism.

Read also the article “The Importance of Confidence in Animal Training” by Roger Abrantes.

Quiz (for students wishing to earn study credits)

"The Importance of Self-Confidence in Animal Training" video quiz

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Guinea Pig Camp by Roger Abrantes

The Guinea pig, Cavia porcellus, or domestic guinea pig, also known as cavy or domestic cavy, is a species of rodent belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus Cavia. They live from four to eight years of age. They are very active, up to 20 hours a day, sleeping only for short periods. They are social animals living in small groups.

Like all prey animals, they startle easily but recover quickly. They show good learning abilities as our Guinea pig camps demonstrate. We teach them to deal with various obstacles and scent detection. They perform as well as dogs or rats. We train them using clear finger pointing signals and tapping sounds, sound reinforcers, mainly our customary ‘dygtig,’ and food treats consisting of bits of various vegetables.

To learn more about animal training, the scientific way, go to our course The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.

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"Guinea Pig Camp by Roger Abrantes" Video Quiz

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Should We Reinforce the Effort or the Result?

EffortOrResult

The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents, and bad trainers do not master (bad means inefficient, and it is not a moral judgment).

If you ask, “should we reinforce the effort or the result?” you are liable to get as many answers supporting the one opinion as for the other. Supporters of the effort system sustain that reinforcing results creates emotional problems when one doesn’t succeed and decreases the rate of even trying. Advocates of the result method defend that reinforcing the effort encourages sloppiness and cheating.

I shall argue in the following for and against both theories and prove that it is not a question of either/or, rather of defining clearly our criteria, processes, and goals.

I shall compare the learning of some skills in dogs and humans because the principles are the same. The difference between them and us is one “of degree, not of kind,” as Darwin put it.

I will use SMAF to describe some processes accurately where I find it advantageously. If you are not proficient in SMAF, and you’d like to be, please read “Mission SMAF— Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training.”

Much of my personal work with dogs (and rats and Guinea Pigs) is and has been detection work, mainly narcotics and explosives, but also person search, tobacco, and other scent detection work. One of the first signals I teach the animals is a disguised reinforcer.

With dogs, I use the sound ‘Yes’ (the English word). The signal part of this signal/reinforcer means, “continue what you’re doing,” and the reinforcer part, “we’re OK, mate, doing well, keep up.” That is a signal that becomes a reinforcer: Continue,sound(yes) that becomes a “!+sound”(yes).

The difference between the most used “!±sound”(good-job) and “!+sound”(yes) is that the former is associated and maintained with “!-treat”(small food treat) and “!-body(friendly body language); and the latter with a behavior that will eventually produce “!-treat”. The searching behavior does not provide a treat, but continuing searching will eventually (find or no find). That is why “!+sound”(yes) is a disguised Continue,sound(yes) or the other way around.

EnglishSpringerSpanielOnTheTrail

Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” The signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find.

Why do I need this interbreeding between a signal and a reinforcer?
Because the signal ‘Search’ (Search,sound) does not mean ‘Find the thing.’ Sometimes (most of the time) there’s nothing to find, which is good for all of us (airports and the likes are not that full of drugs and explosives).

So, what does Search,sound mean? What am I reinforcing? The effort?
No, I’m not. We have to be careful because if we focus on reinforcing the effort, we may end up reinforcing the animal just strolling around, or any other accidental or coincidental behavior.

I am still reinforcing the result. ‘Search’ means “Go and find out whether there is a thing out there.” ‘Thing’ is everything that I have taught the dog to search and locate for me, e.g., cocaine, hash, TNT, C4.

“Go and find out whether there is a thing out there” leaves us with two options equally successful: ‘here’ and ‘clear.’ When there is a thing, the dog answers ‘here’ by pointing at its apparent location (I have taught it that behavior). When there is no thing, that is precisely what I want the animal to tell me: the dog answers ‘clear’ by coming back to me (again because I have taught it that). We have two signals and two behaviors:

Thing,scent => dog points (‘here’ behavior).
∅Thing,scent => dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior).

The signals are part of the environment. I do not give them, which does not matter: a signal (SD) is a signal.(1) An SD is a stimulus associated with a particular behavior and a particular consequence or class of consequences. When we have two of them, we expect two different behaviors, and when there is none, we expect no behavior. What fools us, here, is that, in detection work, we always have one and only one SD, either one or the other. Having none is impossible. Either we have a scent, or we don’t, which means that either we have Thing,scent or we have ∅Thing,scent, requiring two different behaviors as usually. The one SD is the absence of the other.

Traditionally, we don’t reinforce a search that doesn’t produce a positive indication. To avoid extinguishing the behavior, we use ‘controlled positive samples’ (a drug or an explosive, we know it is there because we have placed it there to give the animal a possibility to obtain a reinforcer).

That is a correct solution, except that it teaches the dog that the criterion for success is ‘to find’ and not ‘not to find,’ which is not true. ‘Not to find’ (because there is nothing) is as good as ‘to find.’ The tricky part is, therefore, to reinforce the ‘clear’ and how to do it to avoid sloppiness (strolling around) and cheating.

Let us analyze the problem systematically.

The following process does not give us any problems:

Search,sound => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) or Continue,sound(yes) => Dog searches => Dog finds thing (Thing,scent) => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

No problem, but what, then, when there is no thing (∅Thing,scent)? If I don’t reinforce the searching behavior, I might extinguish it. In that situation, I reinforce the searching with “!+sound”(yes):

“Search,sound” => Dog searches => “!+sound”(yes) => Dog searches => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound”(good-job). */And I can also give “!-treat”*/

Looks good, but it poses us some compelling questions:
How do I know the dog is searching versus strolling around (sloppiness)?
How do I know I am reinforcing the searching behavior?

If I reinforce the dog coming back to me, then, next time I risk that the dog will take a quick round and get to me right away: that is the problem. I want the dog to return to me only when it finds nothing (the same as didn’t find anything).

Problems:
To reinforce the searching behavior.
To identify the searching behavior versus strolling around (sloppiness). How can I make sure that the dog always searches and never only rambles around?

Solution:
Reinforcing the searching behavior with “!+sound”(yes) works. OK.

Remaining problem:
I have to reinforce the ‘clear’ behavior (coming back to me), but how can I make sure that the dog always searches and never strolls around (avoid sloppiness)?
How can I make sure that the dog has no interest in being sloppy or cheating me?

Solution:
To teach the dog that reinforcers are available if and only if:
1. The dog finds the thing. Thing,scent => Dog sits => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.
2. The dog does not ever miss a thing. ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound”(good-job) + “!-treat”.

Training:
I teach the dog gradually to find things until I reach a predetermined low concentration of the target scent (my DLO—Desired Learning Objective). In this phase of training, there is always one thing to find. After ten consecutive successful finds (my criterium and quality control measure), all producing reinforcers for both the searching (“!+sound”(yes)) and the finding (“!+sound” + “!-treat”), I set up a situation with no thing (∅Thing,scent). The dog searches and doesn’t find anything. I reinforce the searching and the finding (no-thing) as previously. Next set-up, I make sure there is a thing to find, and I reinforce both searching and finding.

I never reinforce not-finding a thing that is there or finding a thing that is not there (yes, the last one is an apparent paradox).

Consequence: the only undesirable situations for a dog are: (1) not-finding a thing that is there (the dog did not indicate Thing,scent), or (2) indicating a thing that is not there (the dog indicates ∅Thing,scent).

(1) Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
Or:
(2) ∅Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => [?±sound] + [?-treat].

That is (negatively) inhibiting negligence, but since it proves to increase the intensity of the searching, we cannot qualify it as an inhibitor. Therefore, we call it a non-reinforcer: “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
In the first case:

Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => [?±sound] + [?-treat].
Becomes:
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat”.
Then:
Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => Thing,scent => Dog points (‘here’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

In the second case, I have to be 100% sure that there is indeed no-thing. The training area must be free of any scent remotely similar to the scent we are training (Thing,scent). Particularly in the first phases of the training process, this is imperative, and a trainer who misses that is committing major negligence.

Should the dog, nevertheless, show ‘here’ for ∅Thing,scent, then we can use the same procedure as above:

∅Thing,scent => Dog shows ‘here’ behavior => “∅±sound”, “∅-treat” => Dog searches (more intensively) => ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me (‘clear’ behavior) => “!±sound” + “!-treat”.

What if later the dog doesn’t find a thing that is there in a lower concentration than the one I used for training, or masked by other scents?

No problem—that is not the dog’s fault. I didn’t train it for it. The dog doesn’t know that it is committing a mistake by giving me a (wrong) ‘clear.’ As far as the dog is concerned, the room is clear. For the dog, it is a ‘clear’: ∅Thing,scent => Dog comes back to me => “!±sound” + “!-treat”. The dog was not strolling around and is not cheating me.

Comparing to humans:
I reinforce the behavior of the child trying to solve a math problem. Yes, we must always reinforce (or inhibit) a behavior, not the individual. “Well done, but you got it wrong because…” The solution may be incorrect, but the method was correct. Then, it is all a question of training. More or better training will eliminate the ‘wrong.’ Maybe, it was caused by a too abrupt increase in the difficulty curve of the problem (which is the teacher’s problem). We are not reinforcing trying; we are reinforcing the correct use of a method (a desired process).

Why reinforce the process?
We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, must want to be tried and to be able to give their best in solving a problem.

Are we reinforcing the effort rather than the success?
No, we are not. Reinforcing the effort rather than the result can and will lead to false positives. The animal indicates something that it is not there because it associates the reinforcer with the behavior, not the thing. Children give us three-four consecutive, quick and wrong answers if we reinforce the trying, not the process (thinking before answering).
We reinforce the result (success) only. When the dog doesn’t find because there’s nothing to find, that is a success. When the dog doesn’t find because the concentration was too low, that is a success because ‘too low’ is here equal to ‘no-thing.’ When the child gets it wrong, it is because the exercise exceeded the actual capacity of the child (not trained to that). No place to hide for trainers, coaches, teachers, and parents.

We are still reinforcing success and exactly what we trained the dog and the child to do. We don’t say to the child, “Well, you tried hard enough, good.” We say, ” Well done; you did everything correctly. You just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that x=2y-z and you couldn’t know it.” Next time, the child gets it right because now she knows it; and if not, it is because x=2y-z exceeds the capacity of that particular child, at that particular moment, in which case, there’s nothing to do about it.

The same with the dog: the dog (probably) will not indicate 0.01g of cocaine because I trained it to go as low as 0.1g. When I reinforce the dog’s ‘clear,’ I say, “Well done, you did everything correctly, you just didn’t get it right because you didn’t know that 0.01g cocaine is still the thing.” Now, I train the dog that ‘thing’ means ‘down to 0.01g cocaine’ and either the dog can do it or it cannot. If it can, good. If it cannot, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Conclusion:
We reinforce result, success, not the effort, not trying. We must identify success, have clear criteria for success, plan a progressive approach to our goal, a gradual increase in difficulties. We must be able to recognize limits and limitations in ourselves, in the animal species with which we work, in the individuals we tutor, in the particular skill we teach. We must know when we cannot improve a skill any further and when someone, human or not, cannot give us more than what we get; and be satisfied with that.

________
Footnotes
1 Strictly speaking, the scent, which the detection dog searches, is not a signal, but a cue, because it is not intentional. In this context, however, it is an SD because we have conditioned it to be so, and we can, therefore, call it a signal. Please, see “Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

Featured image: Learning is a complex process The main difficulty in some learning processes is to reinforce the right behavior at the right time, which bad teachers, bad parents, and bad trainers do not master. We must reinforce the process because of its emotional consequences. The dog and the child must accept the challenge, want to be challenged, to be able to give their best in solving the problem, not giving up.

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Guinea Pigs Camp at the APDT Conference 2015

Guinea pigs starred at the APDT dog conference 2015. Roger Abrantes and Michael McManus demonstrated in a one day workshop how eager to learn the small piggies are.

To learn more, please go to our course The 20 principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.

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"Guinea Pigs Camp at the APDT Conference 2015" Video Quiz

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Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

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Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

The same goes for inhibitors.1 We should always bear in mind that we never reinforce or inhibit an individual but rather a behavior.2

DogBarksAtDoor

This can be superstitious behavior: the dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw some Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created this superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another piggy would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will happen sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.
________
1“Inhibitors” were earlier called “punishers.” I coined the new term in “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.
2 In Abrantes 2013 and 2016.

References
Abrantes, R. (2013) The 20 Principles That All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Abrantes, R. (2016) Animal Training My Way, Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Timberlake, W and Lucas G. A. (1985). The basis of superstitious behavior: chance contingency, stimulus substitution, or appetitive behavior? J Exp Anal Behav. 1985 Nov; 44(3): 279–299.

Featured image: Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).