Tell me what you won’t do – I’ll tell you what you can’t do.

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.

2 thoughts on “Tell me what you won’t do – I’ll tell you what you can’t do.

  1. I found this post absolutely interesting. Recently I worked with a trainer with a horse that I personally owned. We were introducing a perfectly trailer trained horse to a trailer with a ramp. The horse had not used a ramp in the past and the trailer was new to the horse. The horse had also been properly introduced to and responded well to the clicker. The horse had frequently been transported in this type of trailer before and I have loaded the horse over the span of years by myself. Initially the horse had no objection to the ramp or the trailer and was reinforced for good decisions. The horse has a history of ‘reactive’ behaviors and has never liked being ‘crowded’ by people. She is an easy horse to handle with those behaviors understood. It was frustrating to me that the trainer required an entourage around the trailer which made the horse very uncomfortable. For the first time ever in the years I have owned the horse, she refused the trailer. She refused having the gate latched and was allowed to exit the trailer. The trainer asked for a few small steps forward after the horse was allowed to exit the trailer and left the session there. The trainer did not want the horse to experience any type of stress or negativity about the trailer nor did she want the horse to be uncomfortable in any way. In my opinion, that would mean that the horse would have to be euthanized because her very nature contradicts that belief. As it turned out, this perfectly trailer trained horse now understood that loading in the trailer was an ‘option’. While the trainer was certain that with a week’s worth of work she could change the behavior (that she created) the option was not one that I choose. I’m giving this horse a bit of a break before I ask her to step up in the trailer again. While I will reinforce good decisions with the clicker, my goal is to help support her to make the correct decision while preventing her from making the wrong decision. When the trainer was here, I did a move I frequently do with nervous horses… a type of jump in place while doing a raspberry…. if the horse does a small startle, I’m fine with that and reinforce the horse for staying with me…. the trainer was appalled I would intentionally make my horse uncomfortable. Ummmm….. ??? Isn’t the goal to help them achieve functionality in the real world? What if I am somewhere and a car backfires? or a bag blows through the air? The real world is spooky and frightening and things happen. If we fail to condition them to these things and reinforce them for the right decisions how are these animals going to exist to life outside of an artificial bubble? I absolutely use a halter, lead and a training stick to support my clicker and vice versa. The same thing goes for the dogs I work with. Does that mean that I fail at humane training? That I can’t use a clicker propertly? There seems to be no middle ground.

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