Tell me what you won’t do and I’ll tell you what you can’t do.
Tell me what you don’t know and I’ll tell you what you can’t know. – Gary Wilkes
I know behavior. Not just dogs. I know 9 species, including humans. There are commonalities to all of them. There are differences to all of them. They all respond to fundamental principles of behavior. If you recall, that was B.F. Skinner’s mantra – watching a pigeon allows you to extrapolate to the entire population of humans and animals on the planet. That is highly unlikely to be true, even if you examine how pigeons behave in nature. Now imagine you decide that you are only going to study how often they do a single behavior – an instinctive behavior NOT common to most species…pecking things. Then decide that you ‘prefer’ one of the polarities of behavioral effects…positive reinforcement. Now go back and look at my two statements at the top of my post.
This is a quote from the Association for Behavior Analysis, International. It was in the FAQ section for at least five years.
“Throughout his career, Skinner opposed the use of all forms of punishment; he advocated positive ways of changing behavior.”
He didn’t objectively study aversive control. He proposed that it wasn’t necessary to know how it really works because he ‘preferred’ positive ways of changing behavior. That’s a ‘tell me what you won’t do and I’ll tell you what you can’t do” thing.
So, here’s what he couldn’t do – he couldn’t stop behaviors or create lasting inhibitions. He preferred a process that takes constant maintenance – positive reinforcement – and opposed the behavioral effect that could stop, reduce or inhibit behaviors. That becomes a ‘tell me what you don’t know and I’ll tell you what you can’t know.’ Skinner wasn’t an expert on punishment. He literally couldn’t have been. He wasn’t even close to being hallf-assed knowledgeable about it because he refused to look at it. He saw any use of aversive control as abuse – and worked for 40 years to make the word punishment mean abuse. Because he blinded himself by preference, he never really understood how it works. Here’s why that is important and why we still have to deal with a dead egg-head.
For animal trainers, the lineage is Skinner to Breland. From Breland we have people like Ken Norris. By the 80’s we have lots and lots of marine mammal trainers and in the 90’s, behavioral experts at zoos and ‘positive, modern” dog trainers. They all have the same blind-spot.
If you are wondering why this is important, I’ll tell you. Anyone from the Skinnerian tradition is afraid of behavior. They are afraid of normal reactions like frustration, anger and confusion. Any aspect of training that causes these emotional reactions is eliminated from their programs. It’s all about nice, passive, calm training. It’s all about simple little tiny improvements and never letting the animal sense difficulty. Meaning, it’s not natural. It’s not functional. It cannot meet behavior on its own terms – the full repertoire of the animal. Tell me what you won’t do and I’ll tell you what you can’t do. Cut out half of life’s evolutionary reactions and you can’t have a mentally healthy animal. (Or human)
That’s why they are afraid of behavior. They can’t stop it. They can’t remove it. If something creeps into an animal’s repertoire it will be there forever. Animal acts will sell a talking parrot if it learns ‘bad words’. In current terms, it’s why many agility dogs are retired if they show aggression. It’s why marine mammal trainers use buckets and buckets of food to keep their animals from getting pissed off in their little concrete gulags when the trainers ask them to do difficult things.
When I gave a seminar with Bob and Marian Bailey at the San Diego Zoo, a head trainer from Sea World told me that they never go beyond a VR(4) – that’s a fancy term for saying that they never reinforce less than an average of every four behaviors. Why? We can’t get Shamu pissed off, now can we? He might hurt someone. So, what won’t they do? They won’t allow the animal to behave normally. That means they can’t control normal behavior. That’s why their animals aren’t mentally healthy.
The same is true of zoo “enrichment” programs. It’s all positive. The lions never get scared, from the cradle to the grave. African lions get scared all the time – from when they are cubs until they die. Imagine all the juices that get flowing when they are scared spitless – that don’t get secreted in captivity. Tell me what you won’t do and I’ll tell you what you can’t do.
Back when I was first starting with dogs, conformation handlers were scoffed at because they don’t really teach much of anything. The simply shove liver in dog’s mouths to make them stand pretty. Ironically, all those competition dog sports have now copied that same preference. Conformation handlers are afraid of aversive control because it ‘destroys attitude’. Now obedience, agility and other working handlers unwittingly limit what they can do by adopting the same fears. Who convinced them to oppose aversive control? People who know nothing about it. Tell me what you don’t know and I’ll tell you what you can’t know. The blind leading the blind doesn’t encompass the dramatic stupidity of that.