As Easy as Falling off a Bike: What punishment teaches us.

Part of the litany of modern behaviorists and trainers is that punishment doesn’t teach an animal what to do and the implication is that the results of punishment are baaaaad. Terrible. Horrible. Traumatic. Confusing. Evil.

“But just punishing the animal for doing something else does not teach it to sit. At most, punishment only teaches it what not to do.” Murray Sidman Coercion and Its Fallout (1989)

It does not teach the dog WHAT to do.” Pat Miller, Pitfalls of Positive Punishment

“Punishment teaches an animal what you don’t want it to do but fails to teach it what you expect of it.” Valerie Tynes – veterinary behaviorist

In all cases, these people limit the discussion to incorrect applications of punishment by untrained people. As there is no course, text, instructor, practical training, internship or certification in the use of aversive control, they are all blowing smoke. Continue reading

Never-never, say it-say it, twice-twice: Commands and Signals.

Commands vs. Cues and Signals

Originally printed in Front & Finish by Gary Wilkes

Almost every hobby, discipline or science has a way of adopting words to suit it’s own purpose. Often, these special terms have older and more basic meanings in general conversation. For instance, in the context of obedience regulations, a command is a verbal cue and a signal is a visual cue. In order to fully discuss how dogs learn to respond to specific cues, we need to use these words in their more general meanings. So, for the purpose of this column we will stick to Webster’s definitions. Continue reading

Keller Breland and “Instinctive Drift”

(Note: I am very new to WordPress. My footnotes are at the bottom of the page)

Not many people know the name of Keller Breland outside marine mammal and dog training. Keller Breland was B.F. Skinner’s first graduate student at University of Minnesota – before Skinner became the icon of behavioral psychology, AKA behavior analysis. Keller was brilliant and highly motivated. Once, in 1940, Skinner showed Keller a toy clicker. Skinner had noticed that the click-click of the mechanical feeder magazines used for rat experimentation somehow caused the rats to learn the experimental process faster. A few months later, according to one of Skinner’s autobiographies, he entered the General Mills labs where his psychology department was conducting research for the war effort. Breland had taught a pigeon to push a marble down the alley of a toy bowling game to hit the pins. Skinner recalled that this was his epiphany. For someone who knows this topic intimately, this sets off red flags. Skinner had shown Keller a toy clicker in 1940 – three years before. He told Keller that you could use it to increase the rate at which animals learn. It is obvious that he was speculating and not speaking from experience. Continue reading

All Positive Trainers: Illogical, to say the least.

Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland. He was also a mathematics professor and lecturer. One of his least known but incredibly interesting books is about logic, specifically syllogisms. Here’s an example of how Dr. Dodgson (his real name) used fantasy to teach a little used mental tool – logic.

  • Babies are illogical;
  • Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
  • Illogical persons are despised.

    Logical conclusion: Babies cannot manage a crocodile.

  • Continue reading

The Legend of the Trained Monkeys

Once upon a time there was a family circus that was down on its luck. They had a string of shows that didn’t draw big crowds and couldn’t make payroll. Their “roadies” quit and left them sitting near a railroad siding in Kansas. Their circus cars, animals, wagons and tents were on a rail siding with no hopes, prospects of future. The family was about to sell off the whole shebang when they got a telegram from Canada. A group in Toronto wanted them to come and perform their show. They would even send an engine down to haul the circus train north. The family realized they wouldn’t be able to set up the tent when they got there but figured it was better to take the money and try to find a way to insure that the show would go on. Continue reading

DRO, DRA – silly concepts and dead dogs.

Behavior analysts have a language of their own. This makes sense as their language is designed to describe what happens in a tiny little box where rats press levers and pigeons peck keys. Most of it doesn’t make sense. All of it demonstrates a bias that ignores reality. Perhaps the weakest concept to come from behavior analysis is the idea that positive reinforcement can remove inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. According to them, all you have to do is create a situation where you apply “differential reinforcement.” The differential part is that one behavior is reinforced and other behaviors are not. Supposedly this will cause the unreinforced behavior to go away. For instance, many modern dog trainers and behaviorists suggest that you can stop a dog from rushing the front door by teaching it to lie down for treats. The two jargon terms for this process are differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO) or differential reinforcement of alternate behavior. (DRA) At best, these two terms reveal an unscientific bias that permeates behavior analysis. The bias is in favor of “positive” methods and opposed to “negative” methods. Continue reading

Toward a Less Coercive World Via Skinnerian Ideology

In Science and Human Behavior, B.F. Skinner laid out an impressive plan for the creation of a science of behavior. His logic was that after two major wars in the first half of the 20th century, human behavior is the next logical area of serious scientific study. To paraphrase his points, science has created awesome tools of destruction and science can also impart wisdom that will prevent such weapons from being used. In Skinner’s mind, the world can achieve utopia through careful behavioral control. Ironically, the very thing that Skinner cited as the root cause of our problems – instinctive behavior – is something Skinner never studied and studiously avoided during his whole career. Additionally, the idea that watching the behavior of rats and pigeons in micro-boxes that allow only a single behavior can be extrapolated to vast human populations is on its face, ludicrous. Yet that’s exactly what he did throughout his entire career. Just six months before his death he spoke in Japan on the creation of the “coercion free society.” As if he had some actual knowledge of how to control the population of planet Earth. To quote the motto of the American Skeptics Society, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Skinner does not offer proof directly, but the results of his work, do. This is what “coercion free” environments look like. Continue reading

George Hickox: Master Trainer

Eddie (a girl-dog) all grown up and going for a pheasant.

One of the most enjoyable afternoons I’ve ever spent in my life was in a chopped down cornfield near Hugoton, Kansas. George Hickox invited me to a week of pheasant hunting and I was also there to help out some of his clients with their dogs. That first afternoon, George and I went out to look at two of his dogs that were for sale. For four hours we put the dogs through their paces, flushed some pheasants and simply commented on what we were seeing. To hear the cogent comments of a master trainer is priceless. George is a master. I am honored that he thinks I am, too. We have different perspectives and different experience, but we both love and know dogs. If you are jealous of my day tramping across cut-down corn fields and wading through hip-high brush with George, you’ve got the right stuff. (Photo from Sand Wells Outdoors. Photo By Bill Buckley) Continue reading

Variability – The Key to Learning

Here’s a conundrum for you. Scientists claim they have created something called “Learning Theory” that explains, of course, learning. There is a singular problem with this claim. The research used to develop this perspective doesn’t include a decent examination of behavioral variability. In case you are getting the hint already, learning is necessarily a variation on an existing repertoire or the creation of completely new behaviors. The existing repertoire allows you to “repeat” functional behaviors. Learning  requires that you temporarily abandon “repeat” and instead, do “different.” If they want to have a theory of learning, how come they don’t study “do different?” That would require a completely different research methodology. I know that because behavioral scientists have tried to study variability in an operant chamber without actually changing their methodology – ironically they are  themselves incapable of “doing different” to study “do different.” Here’s what they did do – a repeat of their existing repertoire of having an animal repeat itself endlessly with a wrinkle that barely passes as a variation.

Behavior analysts studying variability took a standard “Skinner Box” and added another lever. Then they reinforced rats for pressing combinations of lever presses – usually in series of four. Left-Left-Right-Right (LLRR) would be an example of a four-press set. To create variability, they connected a specific signal to indicate that the pre-set pattern would be reinforced. Then they added a second light. If second light was on, the original pattern (LLRL) caused the machine to time-out. Any “repeat” behavior caused time-outs while new variations brought reinforcement. (LRLR, LRRR, RLLL, RLRL, etc.) Brilskinner_boxliant. With this set up you can do all kinds of analysis of variability of how often a rat does the same behavior. You can infer all kinds of things and then extrapolate your findings to publish peer-reviewed papers. Just don’t do it too much. Studies regarding variability represent a tiny fraction of actual behavior analytic research. (If you wish to see the best of the best on this topic, look up Allen Neuringer) Continue reading

Abstract from a workshop I gave at ABAI

“Punish or Perish”

This year, millions of dogs will die because of a lack of positive punishment. Their common failing is behavioral, not medical. This behavioral malady is composed of several innocuous and lethal behaviors: jumping on people, darting out the front door, destroying property and biting. Each of these behaviors can be stopped through operant means – but not if your only tool is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement cannot create inhibitions that will prevent an animal from offering normally occurring behaviors. Only positive punishment is capable of stopping a behavior, cold. If you wish to slow down or stop the slaughter, you must be able to skillfully punish a behavior. That presents a bigger problem. Virtually every academic institution and many professional psychological associations tacitly endorse and enforce a bias against the study or practice of positive punishment. Because of this bias, there is not a single text, course, instructor, practical examination, internship or certification that would qualify an academically trained behaviorist to use punishment safely, effectively and humanely. So, while millions of carcasses are hauled to land-fills, major institutions decry the behavioral effect that would save their lives — positive punishment. This presentation will include a robust discussion of positive punishment. This will include a summary of the rules governing the practical and effective use of positive punishment and live demonstrations of these rules on real animals.

(Note: My demo-dogs at the workshop were two Doberman males – a father/son pair. Three days prior they had ripped each other seriously in a deadly serious fight. They were festooned with stitches on their heads, necks, ears and shoulder. I had them lying side-by-side within less than five minutes. As I described details of how I solve these types of problems, they went to sleep next to each other.)