Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Reinforcement

First, the definition of reinforcement: "In operant conditioning, a consequence to a behavior in which something is added to or removed from the situation to make the behavior more likely to occur in the future."

Reinforcement is defined as ANYTHING that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. I think I've mentioned this concept before, but we do not get to pick what is reinforcing for our dogs (or for other humans or any creature or being). Reinforcement is unique to the individual.

I have such a hard time when I hear people say things like "I don't use treats, because praise and petting should be enough for my dog." That is like saying "I don't pay my employees with money, because they should work just for the satisfaction of a job well done." And indeed, for some people, a "good job" from the boss may very well be reinforcing enough to ensure continued good performance or even increase the level of performance. The opposite is also true, while most people work "for money" simply because it is necessary to living, for some people, a paycheck every two weeks is not enough to ensure good performance or motivate a boost in performance.

Dogs are the same way. For some dogs, praise/petting very well MAY be reinforcing for the dog. But each dog is an individual, reinforced and motivated by different things. Food, toys, play, a chance to go outside, an opportunity to chase a squirrel. In some cases when we say "a dog SHOULD work for praise" it is a case of imposing our morality on the dog--we are higher than the dog, we are the dogs master/leader, the dog should recognize that fact and obey (a major pet peeve of mine, but a topic for another day). But in other cases, we are simply making fault assumptions about what motives "all" dogs--after all, dogs like to be petted, it's rewarding for them, right?

In other cases (in, ahem, MY case) we make fault assumptions about what is NOT reinforcing for the dog. Case in point, an owner who pushes the dog off of themselves every time the dog jumps up--potentially an aversive for some dogs, but a wonderfully fun game for many that actually reinforces the behavior the owner is trying to prevent. Or in Jun's case, by me putting on her bark collar.

Jun is a terrible barker. For a long time after she first came to live with me, she wore a bark collar nearly all the time. We would do trial periods without the collar, but the second she started barking, I put on the collar. She knew what it was and would not bark with it on. This "positive punishment" method largely cured her barking problem and I was eventually able to leave the bark collar off most of the time for several months.

Fast forward to laying in bed one random morning after Jun had had the privilege of sleeping without the collar for quite some time . . . I heard the worst screams I have ever heard, unlike any sound I'd ever heard from Jun before (and that's saying something--the dog has a bark a thousand times worse than nails on a chalkboard). I was convinced she was being murdered and ran out to the living room to check on her. I found her staring at the wall in apparent terror with huge round eyes, crouching, body inclined backwards. I had no idea what she saw or thought she saw that set her off, but I immediately comforted her, opening her crate, letting her out, petting her. When she seemed to calm down, I put her in her crate and went back to bed. A few minutes later, the same thing happened, and I responded the same way. I can't remember how many times this happened, and it may have been over a period of days, but at some point I realized, that when I went out to "check on" her, she would go from looking terrified (as I understood the body language she was displaying), to instantly composing herself and looking self-satisfied as soon as she saw me walk into the room. It was a huge "oh crap" moment for me. My dog had trained me yet again and I'd been reinforcing the barking all along--for days even, I think. (Whether a dog can "fake" fear or whether petting reinforces fear is also a topic for another day. My take on it, in a nutshell, is that Jun learned that particular body language and a particular bark got her attention. I think she may have truly been afraid of something the first time, but after that I really think it was a learned behavior reinforced by the attention she got.)

I started using the bark collar again--just like the last time, putting it on anytime she started barking (and here's the real eye-rolling moment--usually with a scratch or a pat as I did it, cause I felt bad about using it again). This went on for months. Probably nearly a year now, and the barking just got worse and worse. She also learned to bark around her collar--very high-pitched barks would not set it off--so even with the collar on, the barking did not stop completely.

Suddenly, one day not too long ago, as I walked towards her with her bark collar I noticed a sparkle in her eye and a slight wag of her tail. It was a total light-bulb moment. I was reinforcing her barking by putting on her bark collar!!!!! The former aversive had actually become a reinforcer for the very behavior I was trying to use it to stop!!!! It was mind boggling to me, but suddenly everything made perfect sense.

I decided to stop using the collar altogether. Jun has not worn it in five days. If we're at home and Jun is barking in her crate, I leave the room or turn away, careful not to make any eye contact or acknowledge her in any way. When she is calm and quiet, I occasionally give eye contact and even a treat now and then or let her out of her crate. The first night, she barked (actually, "screamed" is probably more apt) off and on for at least an hour. The next night a bit less, and then less. Last night, I think she barked once before going to sleep for the night. Car rides, I hesitate to say so as not to jinx it, have been quiet. The barking is still there, but getting less and less every day, in just FIVE DAYS as compared to the nearly a year that I spent using other methods to try to fix the barking.

It's classic positive reinforcement theory at it's most basic: ignore the bad, reinforce the good. But first I had to accept the fact that I don't get to choose what is reinforcing for Jun. She chooses. I adapt.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting story! i think it's one thing to know in your head about reinforcers and punishers but a whole different thing to actually note when it's happening to your own dogs. congrats on being strong and hanging in there in ignoring the barking, I know how annoying that can be!