Contrast: The Secret to Changing Behaviors Effectively – Pt. 1

At any given time in a dog’s life there exists a readiness to be influenced by the environment. The dog’s senses are designed to monitor every waking moment for changes or anomalies. This means more than you think. It is not simply novelty that triggers focus. It is more than that. Any deviation at all is noticed. Deviation itself creates novelty. That can include the absence of some normally occurring thing, an odd combination of objects or sequences that are individually long-standing associations.

If you want to see how this works, consider these three types of events.

  1. A stop sign at the corner near your house is on the ground.
  2. Your keys aren’t in the spot you left them.
  3. A new neighbor puts their trash can in front of their house on trash day.
  4. You are at a restaurant and see your doctor working as a busboy.

These events represent the four most common ways your brain decides to pay attention to something – a change of something normal, the absence of something, the introduction of something new and the juxtaposition of two known things into a new setting. Each event is likely to cause you to momentarily focus on it, though you might not. A change of this order may or may not change your behavior, but without getting the brain to discern a difference it is more difficult to change an existing habit. We cannot notice everything all the time. If your dentist office replaces a broken vase but retains the old fake flowers you may not notice it. If the new vase is lighted with neon you’ll notice it in a second. These various conditions occur in any office or classroom where they student says, “I don’t get it.” Meaning they do not get the distinction that would make a piece of information discernable. To efficiently change behavior requires that you create some kind of contrast between ‘business as usual’ and ‘business as unusual’.

A counter-intuitive example: Imagine that your dog barks excessively in the kitchen during dinner. The dog does it all the time. Our first goal is to create a difference so noticeable that the dog will instantly retool its thinking, thereby giving us the opportunity to change the behavior. Most people would think of some punitive way of checking this behavior, like yelling at the dog. Instead, try this. Get a training clicker and pair it with treats. The process is simple. Simply click the clicker and offer a treat. After the dog consistently perks up when it hears the clicker, you can use it for real. At the next dinner time be prepared with your clicker and about 20 bite-sized treats. Click and treat for every single bark. If your immediate reaction is to question the sanity of this you aren’t alone. Virtually everyone who hears this asks the same question. Aren’t you reinforcing the barking? There are several answers to this.

  • The most basic answer is to point out that “reinforcement” describes a specific change in behavior. Reinforcement, both positive and negative strengthens the likelihood that a behavior will happen or the strength with which is remains once the reinforcement is removed. If you click and treat for every single bark and the barking does not increase then the food didn’t act to strengthen the behavior, therefore it’s not reinforcing the behavior.
  • The second answer is that it doesn’t really matter if the barking increases or not. My goal is to create a contrast between before and after. This is probably the thing that will make the top of your head heat up. I don’t have to give treats with an intent to strengthen or weaken any behavior. I can just selectively “pair” a behavior with treats. As this is different than before, the dog is more likely to now pay attention to barking.
  • The third answer is that the food triggers a Pavlovian reaction that will drop the dog’s heart rate, blood pressure and respiration making frustration barking less likely. For instance, if the dog barks at distant sirens you can click and treat for the barks and the dog will start to pair the sound of sirens with treats – thereby neutralizing the dog’s tendency to bark. Sirens become a “good” sound.
  • The fourth answer is that any dog that is truly barking for no real reason is actually receptive to benefit from a behavior in that context, not just the barking. It is offering an operant behavior – a behavior created by its consequences. Somehow the dog has decided that if it barks it will get food or some other pleasant outcome. If this formula changes it triggers behavioral variability. If you need a metaphor, think of slipping the clutch on a car with a manual transmission. The dog is surprised that suddenly the treat-for-barking is gaining a different pay-off. Once again, the dog will reevaluate barking as a behavior and we have what we want – a total focus on the behavior.

The Foundation of Learning: The ability to sense “different.”
The reason an animal learns is that it has the ability to perceive contrast between one event and another. Discrimination is the common word for this ability. This goes back to Aristotle, the Father of Logic. His most important theorem is called the Law of Identity. That can be simply stated as “A is A and only A”. “A” cannot be “B” or any other thing. (Skip the equivalencies from mathematics where A can be equal to B and think about this in real terms.) Socrates would say that a rock is a rock. It is not a ball of cotton. If you wish to propose that a rock is also a ball of cotton then the word becomes meaningless and identity is lost because the properties of the two are significantly dissimilar. For a dog the problem is the same. An event is an event is an event. A snake is on the path. That makes the dog focus on that section of the path because it is different than before. The snake is not like the stick lying crosswise on the path. It is not the same as the flat sandy soil. It is something else. The dog’s behavior will start to form after a number of instinctive behaviors kick in and the dog does what it must to stay alive by avoiding a threat, killing a meal or ignoring the new information. This is what Pavlov called the “what’s that?” response. He suggested that all animals possess this response. It is commonly thought of as “curiosity” but actually dwells much deeper in our brains. The “what’s that?” response is a knee-jerk reaction that exists throughout our various brain functions. It is not always a conscious thought. We react to changes in the environment and our experience with all our senses, all the time. Whether we are aware of the changes and consciously consider them is not the limit of the process. For instance, you may remove a sweater when room temperature rises a single degree without thinking about it. Most of these types of decisions are commonly called “intuition.”

Our next step is to examine how the dog differentiates the snake apart from the path? The various senses drink in the environment whenever the dog is fully conscious and sometimes when it is not. This information is then compared to previous experience. There might be several specific criteria – the path is made of dirt, the snake is not. The two things will appear different visually. The snake is roughly tubular which causes shadows and confirms it is not flat, like the path. Once the dog sees the contrast between the two things its behavior will develop accordingly. The path is stationary. The snake can move. The difference between moving and not moving forms contrasting visual information. Dogs perceive movement beautifully. The slightest twitch of the snake makes it “other than the path” and “other than the stick.” This natural process may or may not keep a dog alive. Sometimes the dog gets it wrong and does not instantly see the contrast between two objects – like Wiley Coyote not figuring out that the shadow on the growing underneath him is a huge boulder about to fall on his head.

Using this Knowledge:

If you wish to change behavior you have few options. The best way is to artificially create an A ≠ B. This causes the brain to recognize the difference between the two. How best to do that? Use counter-opposing consequences or create something outrageous. For example, A is safe, B is not. You can also create an A is unique or dramatically different. The point of either is to allow the animal to rapidly conclude that the world has changed and exactly what part of the world has changed.

Here is an example:
A dog has been taught to lie down and stay down for 30 seconds using exclusively positive reinforcement. A cue has been attached so that the behavior occurs reliably under ideal circumstances. All of a sudden, the dog breaks from the “down” at 31 seconds. He hears the word “NO” and he gets bonked with a flying rolled towel. Whatever the reaction is on that first use of contrast is irrelevant. He knows it had something to do with the instant he heard the word, “NO” – he’s got that figured out. Because the consequence was so completely unlike any other repetition he’s going to be willing to change his behavior immediately. That doesn’t mean you automatically get what you want. Often that means he will no longer go “down” for a short while. That’s an easy fix. Simply go back to square one and positively reinforce “down” the same way you got it in the first place. Stay comfortably within the 30 second time limit. Then go back and enforce the behavior. Alternate between these two opposing consequences. Be liberal with your positive reinforcement to keep the dog’s enthusiasm for “down” at a high level. Soon you will have a dog that won’t break a “down” for anything – because he has two motivations simultaneously. One positive for correct behavior and one negative for errors. You may have to repeat the process a few times to zone-in on the perfect response.

To Be Continued…


5 thoughts on “Contrast: The Secret to Changing Behaviors Effectively – Pt. 1

  1. OK…that worked…clicking on each bark. Really squashed the nuisance barking. Here is a followup question: Would something like this work for the puppy mouthing-nipping-biting phase?

  2. Rick, puppy biting is instinctive and a necessary part of a pup’s life. Meaning you can inhibit it in a particular setting with no problem – like “do not put teeth on people”. The best solution is to cut to the chase and confront the behavior – thereby teaching an inhibition to biting based on a learned discrimination. Take a look at this video –

  3. Is that “flying rolled towel” held or thrown? My Golden tends to thinks that any aversive is an invitation to play and get revved up. In my case I would be concerned that it is perceived as a positive reinforcement.

    • Chris, the bonker can be thrown or held in your hand. However, it is a two part process and has some general rules.
      1) You must say “NO” (or some other signal) to indicate the instant the behavior goes south.
      2) The bonk must be intolerable. Not risky, dangerous, harmful, intolerable. If I dumped a roach in your lemonade you likely wouldn’t drink it. So, the bonk must be powerful enough to not be perceived as play.
      3) It must be inescapable. If you say “NO”, the dog gets bonked within ten seconds (an arbitrary number but good for getting started). He cannot be allowed to run away or hide under a bed.
      4) It must be inevitable. If he does the behavior it starts a chain reaction. He hears the word “NO” and THEN the bonker hits him. If you say “NO”, bonk the dog.

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