Ok, as this has rapidly gotten out of my control here’s another update today so I can wrap up Friday and talk about skate training next week. So far I talked about some general concepts of behaviorism including positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment in Because We Let Them: Part 1. I also looked at the benefit of sometimes just ignoring a given behavior.
In Because We Let Them: Part 2, I looked at a handful of other concepts including ensuring that the action you think you’re using is actually the action that’s being interpreted and whether the lesson that your’e actually teaching is the lesson you’re teaching. Finally I looked at the critical importance of consistency (especially in terms of punishing undesired behavior) and the idea of NILIF: Nothing In Life Is Free. The dog has to do something to get something.
Today I’m going to tie all this together with a very detailed look at how we change the behavior that I started all of this with at the Austin Humane Shelter; to whit I’m going to look at how we correct leash pulling which is the question I started this series off with. Mainly it’s just to illustrate how the different types of behaviorism can play a role. It’ll also show the role of the lesson that’s being taught along with the issues of consistency and NILIF. On Friday I will wrap this up (I have no choice) and look at some more human examples.
A Quick Clarification: It’s Not Mere Behaviorism or Even Sheer Behaviorism
I suppose I should address one thing since it came up on the support forum (where someone did something I asked them not to do, started commenting on what they thought I was saying instead of waiting for me to say it). Essentially they commented that they ‘thought that the idea that behaviorism alone could explain human behavior had been disproven years ago’.
Two things that are related: first I never said that behaviorism alone explained everything. Quite in fact, at least with dogs I mentioned that behaviorism is being used to alter a dog’s instinctual behavior suggesting that at least those two factors are at play; it’s instinct is affecting behavior but you’re using behavioral techniques to modify that.
Humans have some instinctual/genetic drives too driven by a variety of things (for example, the human sex drive gets turned on and driven pretty hard at puberty). There is also the issue of imprinted behaviors, things that get locked into place based on early experiences that tend to impact on behavior rather strongly down the road. Those clearly contribute to overall behavior. It’s not mere behaviorism or even sheer behaviorism as one of my favorite authors used to put it.
But instinct and imprinted behavior fall into the category of things you can’t control. Yes they contribute but you can’t change them readily if at all so they aren’t worth worrying about in this context. You can’t control someone’s instincts for the most part (an extreme example would be one of chemical castration where a sex offender’s sex drive is removed through hormonal means) or their imprinted behavior. What you can control is how you respond to it. That’s where behaviorism comes in since it describes the methods and means you can use to try and impact on a behavior to modify it to your desired behavior.
That is, what you can control is how you modulate or modify them. And that’s where behavioral techniques of varying types come in. And anyone who doesn’t think they work should look at the military, child rearing or the school system all of which have used behavioral techniques of varying sorts to turn people into perfect killers, kids, students. Or at least attempted to.
And with that said, let’s look at the issue of leash pulling again along with some different ways folks have gone about correcting it, along with what we specifically do at the Austin Humane Shelter
Correcting Leash Pulling: Part 1
As I explained in Because We Let Them: Part 1, the fundamental reason that dogs pull at their leash, from their perspective, is that they enjoy it. They like the pressure of the leash on their neck due to something called the oppositional reflex. Since you can’t change their inherent dog nature, all you can change is how you respond to it in order to change (or ‘shape’ in behaviorist terms) their behavior to something you consider more appropriate.
Now, fixing leash pulling has been approached from a lot of ways. First I’d mention that the absolute WORST way to try to fix leash pulling is to pull the leash and try to drag the dog towards you. Because while this seems like a type of positive punishment (you’re punishing the dog in your mind by yanking it towards you), it’s actually just acting as a positive reinforcement for the dog.
Why? Because the dog likes the pressure in the first place. The more you pull against it, the more it will pull against you and what most find is that the dog stops pulling when they stop pulling. This ties in with what I talked about in Because We Let Them: Part 2, often the lesson you think you’re teaching is not the lesson that’s being taught. Dragging a dog by the leash is not teaching it to follow you or not pull. Rather it’s teaching it to actively pull against you.
There are other solutions. Choke chains and prong collars have been used for years. Effectively they are meant to act as a positive punishment to try and correct the behavior. Shock collars would also be in this category. With the prong collar, the dog gets a sharp poke in it’s neck if it pulls or lunges, a clear form of positive punishment.
With the choke chain, the user can apply a choke to the dog for punishment; with the shock collar you hit the button and give the dog a mild shock. Basically it’s obedience through fear. Which is fine if you want your dog to fear you. Assuming you like your dog and want it to like you…this might not be the best way to approach the issue. There are better, more humane ways, and I’m going to tell you about them in a second.
I’d note that with real problem leash pullers, we use something called an EZ-walk collar. This is a brilliant invention that you put on the dog that throws the pressure of the leash down lower on their body. Basically this instantly removes the reinforcement that dogs get from leash pulling because the pressure isn’t where they like it.
I’ve seen dogs literally change completely when you put an EZ-walk collar on them. They’ll pull like maniacs without it and stop completely with it; mind you, every dog is not this extreme. But it usually helps to at least some degree. Some dogs even get to the point that just putting the EZ-walk on them without attaching your leash is enough, they’ve associated the harness with not pulling and they stop. Pavlov would be proud.
Why the Austin Humane Shelter Focuses on Reinforcement Methods
Now, as I’ve noted, and I’ll come back to this below at the Austin Humane Shelter we try to focus on positive reinforcement and tend to avoid using either negative reinforcement (removing a chronic punishment) or positive punishment if we can absolutely avoid it. There are a couple of reasons for this.
The first is that it’s a HUMANE shelter and, generally speaking, using a lot of active punishment isn’t humane, especially if you can achieve the same results without doing that. That is, the end result of using punishment or reward may be identical but they teach different fundamental lessons. Constant punishment generates behavior out of fear of consequences; using reward generates behaviour out of desire for reward.
Since we work from the assumption that most people adopting the dog are going to love it we don’t want the dogs to act a certain way out of fear for people. We want to train the dogs that people bring good things.. In that sense, we’d rather have dogs do what they do out of love/for reward than out of fear. Using constant punishment to get a dog to step into line teaches it that people bring bad things. That’s not the lesson we are trying to instill.
Mind you, there are certainly situations, such as police or military dogs, where I’m quite sure it’s necessary to teach the dogs to be violently aggressive on command and in certain situations (I’ve joked that I want to train ALFIE! to only be aggressive towards hippies). Ours isn’t one of them. And while I’m quite sure that others (think folks who run dog fighting rings or are training their dogs to attack or whatever) deliberately focus on punishment methods to make their dogs mean and violent towards humans, well…let’s just move on.
Also make no mistake, there are situations where some form of mild punishment is the only way to get something accomplished. Higher level BRATT’s will use these forms of mild punishment, checking a dog with the leash, being more forceful to get very out of control dogs to stop doing something that can’t be corrected otherwise. Since today is going to be too long, I’ll start there tomorrow. But that’s usually a last resort and only used when there are no other options.
Instead we use a combination of ignoring bad behaviors positively reinforcing good behaviors and you’d be surprised just how far that can take you in training dogs. Since most dogs seek approval from their masters, it’s fairly easy to use manipulation of rewards (providing it or taking it away) to get them to do what you want. Humans aren’t always quite so easy and I’ll come back to that in Part 4 of this series.
Correcting Leash Pulling: Part 2
So let’s look at how we correct leash pulling at the AHS as this will demonstrate most of the concepts I’ve discussed so far. First we’ll define the desired behavior as walking without pulling against the leash. We’ll define the undesired behavior as pulling against the leash. So the ultimate goal is to reinforce the first behavior and extinguish the second.
The two things you need to keep in mind are that a) dogs like going for walkies (I’ve taught ALFIE! that ‘cardio’ means going for a walk and his ears perk up whenever I say it to him) and b) they like the pressure of the leash against their neck if they pull.
And it you let them walk while pulling, they have no reason to stop doing it. Again, you are reinforcing both behaviors by letting it happen. You may not be actively reinforcing it with treating it or whatever but reinforcing it you are. More importantly, you’re coupling the behaviors by allowing the dog to do one thing it likes while doing another thing it likes: walking while pulling. In fact, over time you can expect the leash pulling to worsen since they are getting reinforcement that it’s ok every time you walk them. What to do?
We are actually taught three different approaches to stopping leash pulling; I’ve only ever bothered to use two of them and won’t bother describing the third. They all have the same basic goal which is to not only not reinforce pulling but to reinforce walking without pulling (please note that teaching a dog not to pull is not the same as teaching proper leash walking, that’s a whole different kettle of fish). The two approaches I primarily use are changing direction and ‘being a tree’ both of which accomplish the same thing slightly differently.
Changing direction is the easier to understand. Let’s say you’re walking your dog in one direction and it’s pulling. All you have to do is take a hard right or left turn and change the direction of walking. This automatically puts the leash on slack as the dog changes direction as well to match you. They get to keep walking but you’ve removed the pulling aspect of it.
They no longer get reinforcement for pulling but they are getting reinforcement via walking (with the leash loose). If/when they run ahead of you and start pulling again, you change directions again and you keep doing this, basically removing the reward for pulling (by eliminating it, negative punishment) while allowing them to walk (positive reinforcement). Mind you, this requires a field large enough to do this; it doesn’t work if you’re walking on a sidewalk or road. But it does work.
Being A Tree
Arguably more powerful and more relevant to what I’m trying to explain with this series is the ‘be a tree’ approach so I’ll detail this more. With ‘be a tree’, when the dog starts pulling you simply stop walking and stand in place. Let’s think about what this is in behaviorist terms. Basically, it’s negative punishment. The dog likes walking, the dog likes pulling. But now it doesn’t get to do either. You’ve removed two things that the dog likes.
Let’s look at what happens next. First the dog will usually keep pulling a bit against you. But you’re just standing there so it can’t move forward. So it stops pulling and stands there. Eventually it starts getting frustrated, looking around and wondering what is going on. It wants to go walkies and you’re not letting it. Mind you, this can take a while and this is where you have to use your big human brain and be more patient than the dog. Wait it out.
Ideally the dog will come check in with you voluntarily. You can facilitate this by calling it’s name ONCE every 5-10 seconds or so and making the kissy noise (as a friend said to me “dogs love the kissy noise”). When it comes to you you can click or ‘yes’ treat it. This also trains the dog to come to you on command. But keep in mind what I talked about in Because We Let Them: Part 2 about the lesson you want to teach. If you call the dog repeatedly and then treat it when it comes the 6th time it hears it’s name, you’re teaching it to ignore you the first 5 times. Call ONCE every 5-10 seconds and treat it only when it comes back after a single call.
And now that they are close to you and the leash is loose you start walking them again. Aha, see what we’ve done? Now we’ve given them negative punishment for pulling (by taking away both walking and pulling) but they are getting positive reinforcement for walking with a loose leash (the reinforcement is getting to walk). You’ve separated the two behaviors because the dog only gets to walk when the leash is loose.
And of course they go right back to charging ahead and pulling again. And you stop again. And they stand there, get frustrated, check in, and you start walking again with the loose leash. As they pick up on it, they usually start checking in quicker and quicker as they learn that this gets them to get to walk again. And this goes on until you or the dog get tired of being outside in the heat.
I’d note that dogs don’t have an infinite attention span, usually we are told to only work on a new skill or behavior for 5-10 minutes at a time or the dog gets bored with it. Frankly, you’re better off working with your dog multiple times daily or every day for shorter periods than trying to get it all done at once.
So What’s Going On?
So let’s sum up. The dog wants to walk and pull, two things it enjoys. When it does this, you don’t let it walk, two forms of negative punishment. When it checks in or the leash is loose, you let it walk. Which is positive reinforcment. And every time it pulls you stop walking, taking away something it enjoys. Every time.
This is part of the consistency issue. You don’t let the dog walk while it’s pulling EVER or you just further reinforce pulling. If it pulls, you stop moving (or change directions). When the leash is loose you let it walk. And mind you it has to do something active, checking in or moving towards you so that the leash is loose to get rewarded by getting to walk again. If it doesn’t do something, it gets nothing. That’s NILIF.
And somewhere in their little doggie brain, an understanding along the lines of ‘Hmm, I like pulling but if I pull I don’t get to walk. And I like walking. But if I don’t pull I get to walk. And since I really like walking…..’ starts to develop. Or whatever dog thought processes are (it seems to revolve around food, ball, toy, food again and poop if ALFIE! is any indication).
Mind you different dogs pick this up at different rates and some dogs are just so driven to pull (because they have high energy and just gotta sniff that patch of grass RIGHT NOW) that you only correct it to some degree but it’s all about progress. But hopefully the point is made and the above does work over time. But only if you apply it consistently.
And that’s how you fix leash pulling, an example of using positive reinforcement and negative punishment to shape a behavior. You can also see how we ensure that the right lesson is being taught (by only calling the dog to you once every 5-10 seconds until it learns to come to you on a single command), how consistency plays a role and how NILIF is incorporated. And this approach can take you pretty damn far with dogs. But not always: sometimes there is no other option but to punish. And that’s where I’ll start on Friday.
But before finishing today, since this series is too text heavy, here’s red light/green light and stare with ALFIE! Yes, my house is messy.
- Because We Let Them: Part 1
- Because We Let Them: Part 2
- Because We Let Them: Part 4
- A Dog Trainers Thoughts on Behavior Change