Every click gets a treat – foolish consistency

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The only completely consistent people are the dead.” – Aldous Huxley

There you have it. Consistency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for a very good reason. Life is dynamic. Things change. To be successful, complex organisms have to have the ability to adapt their behavior to circumstances. This fact illustrates the need for two types of variability if survival is the game. First, there is learning a new behavior. You are wet and you need to get dry. You scrape your skin with the curved rib bone of a deer you killed yesterday and use it like a squeegee. Once the use of a flat blade to scrape water off your skin is one of your skills, the second part of learning takes place. When confronted with a novel situation, do you use an existing behavior or learn a new one? Sometimes slightly modifying an existing behavior does the trick and sometimes something entirely new is required. Often, if you stick to old solutions you may die for lack of variability. Nature doesn’t like one-trick-ponies.

Fortunately, adding behaviors is a pretty easy thing for most animals. Once you use a rib bone as a squeegee, you are ready to use a rock to scrape a hide or shave an arrow into prefect roundness. Hey, where’d the arrow come from? It came from the ability to vary behavior – to “do different.” Without “do different” there is no learning, no innovation, no change. Despite this fact, educators focus on their own form of Holy Grail – “do the same.” Dog trainers, even the ones that call themselves “modern” pretty much try to get “different” from an animal while using methods that only generate “same.”

For instance, many clicker trainers live by the sword of “one click, one treat.” They also suggest that there is some kind of bargain between you and your dog that requires this action. Humbug. I never made that agreement. Neither did my dog. Before Karen Pryor and I introduced the method in 1992, I had already clicker trained more than1,000 dogs, primarily by veterinary referral. I already knew what actually happens when you click without a treat. My partner came from another genre in another species and offered rules that are for an aquatic, browsing, grazing animal. Dogs are the descendents of animals that live a constant roller-coaster of gorging and starving. They kill things many times their size and wolves, for instance, rarely exceed a 10% kill vs. attack rate. Though dogs and dolphins are both predators, you can’t treat them the same. Dolphins get their fresh water from the fish they eat. If you don’t feed them constantly, they dehydrate. Dogs can go long periods without eating. Without knowing it, the majority of modern clicker trainers use iron-clad rules designed for a different species. To say that it is less-than-efficient is an understatement. If you doubt this, take a look at this article by Keller Breland – the man who attempted to tell his mentor, B.F. Skinner, that one size doesn’t always fit all. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Breland/misbehavior.htm Note: Ironically, Breland didn’t take his own advice. The first species he worked with after he left academia was dogs. He failed. He never again tried to make a living training dogs from the ground up. He did later train some dogs for the military, but they already had existing working repertoires taught by trainers who knew what they were doing. Meaning the dogs were trained using what is normally characterized as harsh, nasty, mean “traditional” training before Keller ever saw them. As this kind of training is also said to cause behavioral damage, one wonders how Keller trained such damaged goods at all. (Personal communication: Marian Kruse Breland Bailey)

What Really Happens:

The real question is what happens when you present irregular consequences to a dog. The answer can be reduced to a general rule: predictable and consistent consequences create consistent and predictable behavior and variable consequences cause variable behavior. The dog varies its behavior to try to solve the puzzle. If you always follow a click with a treat, you just met Emerson’s hobgoblin and Huxley’s walking dead. You have created a paradox – a desire for a change in behavior while using a system designed to keep it static. Not smart.

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