Tuesday, July 16, 2013

THE KILLER WHALE AND THE KETTLE



Just today, someone sent me the link to Blackfish, the documentary film that re-examines the deaths of three whale trainers attributed to Tillikum, the killer whale.  This documentary led me to do some reading again about the work that is done with killer whales, and what the industry thinks about punishment and aggression and how these things are linked.  I have also been getting a lot of posts on my Facebook page about how we don’t use punishment with zoo animals and thus we ought not use punishment with our dogs.  Most of the time, I agree that punishment is not the right tool for the job.  Some of the time though, it may be the best alternative.  To be clear, punishment is anything that decreases behaviour.  I don’t touch the hot kettle on the stove because it will hurt.  My touching of hot kettles is a very low frequency behaviour because I understand intimately and deeply that it will hurt if I do so and I really don’t want that outcome to occur.

I would not reach out and touch this hot kettle; I know that I would hurt my hand if I did.  I also don't worry about it if I am sitting next to it.  I understand that I can control if I will get hurt or not.  When I touch such an item by accident, I am not traumatized, in part because I am flexible and can cope with a certain amount of unpleasant experience.  Image credit: comzeal / 123RF Stock Photo


If you read through my blogs you will see that I DO use positive punishment and sometimes intentionally and sometimes fairly heavy positive punishment. If you are on my farm, regardless of who you are; a dog, a squirrel, a bird, a raccoon or a coyote, or a person, and you touch the hot wire on my fence, you will get hurt.  The hot wire is an electric fence wire that runs on the top of my fence to keep dogs in and critters out.  It is a simple rule that no one on the farm gets particularly stressed about. It is very much like the rule about hot kettles.  If you touch the kettle when it is hot, it will hurt. It is a simple rule that everyone in the house understands and to my knowledge no one in the house is stressed about.

When I am training, I always ask the animal about how he experiences the process, and there are tons of questions to ask. Did you understand me? I have seen many, many trainers who don't understand that confusion is incredibly aversive, and they are busy feeling great about the fact that they are only using R+ but the dog is more and more stressed because he is confused. At a seminar John went to once he came home and told me about a clicker trainer on stage trying to get a dog to do something; the dog was confused and stressed and the trainer kept talking about breaking the behaviour down into smaller increments; the problem wasn't the method of the training; the problem was that no one had asked the dog if he was comfortable or happy.  Heck no one had asked the dog if he wanted to be on stage!

When I was training my dog Crow, as I write about in my blog (http://tinyurl.com/blc89ce) we had one big stumbling block.  Leash manners. He was terrible on leash. After two years of trying to use only R+ and P-, I “resorted” to a prong collar. We were both so much happier after that, that I learned that I will never ever “resort” to pain as a training tool again. Now if I choose to use pain, I CHOOSE. I choose to use pain, and yes, sometimes making the lesson clear is much more important than avoiding all pain.  Pain can be less aversive than confusion to many learners.

What most folks, (including the author of Coerecion and its Fallout) miss is that pain in isolation is stressful.  Pain that happens repeatedly without warning and that you cannot control is very stressful, but pain that you understand and can avoid is not. If you are not walking around in fear of your electrical sockets, your tea kettle or your woodstove then you understand this on a much deeper level than you realize. I am well educated about contingent control over behaviour. Non contingent punishment is extremely stressful. We have a special name for this; we call it torture. I do not torture my learners. But I do sometimes use P+. When I give D'fer the hairy eyeball when we are in an airport and he is in a goofy mood and is thinking about doing something funny in security, I am using P+. He understands this, and it is not a conditioned P+; he understands that my dirty look is disapproval of his behaviour, and he tones down. He is not stressed because he can control that disapproval. When I am in a bad temper though and I am stomping around a hotel room in a funk, packing and worrying about being late, he IS stressed because there is nothing he can do. He is helpless.

Coming back to the killer whales, and the other marine mammals in captivity that are being so successfully trained using only positive reinforcement, we need to understand something about the difference between a captive zoo animal and a household pet.  This is that most people cannot provide that much structure to their dogs.  If you are a complete control nerd, and you really like ensuring that your dog never ever encounters any stimulus that you don’t have control over, then yes, you can likely train absolutely 100% without any unpleasant consequences.  The problem is, who lives like this?  My life with dogs is fairly structured, but my clients certainly don’t keep their dogs in the sort of controlled environment that zoos and aquaria keep their animals within.  This means that some of the time, we are faced with situations where the dog is going to have opportunities to behave in ways that aren’t what we want. 



What is interesting to me is that I started out as a jerk and treat trainer and I changed as I learned more. I started out using pain to gain control over behaviours. I then switched over to being a completley R+ trainer. I was as R+ as I could be. The more I learned and listened and thought and researched and studied, the more that I learned that P+ can sometimes have a place.  It is as important as any of the other quadrants, as important as classical conditioning and as important as extinction (if you want to see a stressed animal have a watch at an animal going through extinction-they are often very distressed and it is highly unpleasant for the learner and for the trainer), and yet it is trampled down and labeled as inhumane. There are a lot worse things in my life than remembering not to touch the hot wire or using a tool that will cause pain to resolve a behaviour quickly and efficiently. When I had a dog who was predatory to my chickens, yes, I used a shock collar. I guarantee that my dog was less stressed than the two chickens he disemboweled and killed. I used a shock collar on a dog who had been through several surgeries to remove rocks from his gut. That was far less stressful than the surgeries were. 

I think that in the world of training we can easily become academically lazy. If you can train a killer whale without shock, why not the dog who is eating rocks? Let's look at that. We are comparing apples and oranges.  If I had a killer whale who was eating non food items, it would be easy enough to put the whale in a tank without anything non edible in it. If I wanted to teach a wild killer whale not to eat non food items using positive reinforcement only, I would be entirely unsuccessful.  The world itself would put an end to this behaviour the day that the learner ate the first deadly thing.  Shooting the dog is indeed, as Karen Pryor so strongly pointed out, the ultimate in end games for behaviours.  Dead whales don’t eat non food things ever.


It is an exciting time to be involved with dog behaviour consulting, practice and research.  So much is available to us in terms of information, research and data.  The last thing we can afford to do is to be academically lazy.  We must question what we know, and examine what we do each and every day.  Image credit: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

I cannot put the dog in a position where he is never exposed to rocks; he lives in a house with kids who bring things inside of the house. He goes on walks outside of the house with rocks in the environment.  There are rocks everywhere and I have few choices in how to stop him from eating them.  A muzzle is a good first step and in the short term, this will work, but in high heat, this will kill my learner and that is not the outcome I am looking for.  In that case, I will choose to use punishment, and likely a pretty significant one.  What I want to do though is to set up a contingency that the dog can learn as clearly as I understand that touching my electric hot wire is going to hurt.  I make mistakes from time to time, but I don’t repeatedly touch the hot wire.  The frequency of my touching the fence is about once a month or less.  I never intentionally touch the wire when it is on, and I am not afraid of the fence because I understand the outcome of doing so.

And let's look at the zoo animals. In case anyone is interested, I am as strongly opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity as most of the R+ trainers are against the use of P+. I think it is morally reprehensible and I will not be a party to it, but it does provide an interesting contrast to what we do with dogs. Let's consider the life of your average killer whale in a tank. Do you know that they cannot properly ecolocate within the echoing concrete of the tanks they live within? Do you realize that these animals typically travel several hundred miles a day, and we keep them in tanks of less than ten acres in size? Do you realize that they are environmentally enriched less than 50% of their days? Do you know that they are likely on par with us in terms of our intellectual capacity? Can you imagine what it would be like to live in your kitchen for the rest of your life with exciting trips to the living room once a day to "interact" with a trainer? I think that what we do to zoo animals is far more inhumane and horrendous than what I do with positive punishment.  Yes, we can get spectacular responses from all kinds of animals when the only game in town is what we offer them for the few hours a day that they are able to come out and train with us.

This sterile environment is where captive whales spend most of their time, with little to do and a tank that is so small that they cannot echolocate and communicate normally.  We never use pain to train these incredible creatures, but we keep them in such appalling conditions, that using no pain to train seems like a small nod indeed to humane treatment of the learner.  Image credit: ozbandit / 123RF Stock Photo

I want people to think about never ever again being able to say "thank you, no, I don't want that" to your child, your spouse, your parent or your sibling. In training, punishment is the tool we use in place of "no. don't do that". If you want an interesting week, frame every conversation you have for the week in terms of thank you for trying, I would like something else. Never ever say no, just reframe your request in terms of "thank you, please do something different." It doesn’t work any better if you frame everything you do in terms of only attending to the things you like without any other information.  Sometimes that will work, and more often than not, it will not. What often happens in the classroom when teachers try this is that the willing students will be successful and willing, the students who don't care will not advance at all and the students who are not compliant will become more and more and more creative in ways to try and get the information about what is not allowed.  Often this tactic results in a very frustrated trainer and an even more frustrated learner.

There are two interesting and competing theories in Applied Behaviour Analysis that do not get discussed nearly often enough.  They are called two factor and one factory theory.  Two factor theory says that when negative reinforcement is used, both operant learning and classical learning happen at the same time.  This means that not only will the learner increase his behaviour, but he will develop a classical association with the signals that the aversive stimulus may occur, and will suffer distress when the signal is present.  This is the most common argument that I have heard for why people eschew the use of both negative reinforcement and positive punishment.  By extension, when this concept is applied to positive reinforcement, not only will the behaviour increase, but the signal that a appetitive or pleasant outcome is available will produce good feelings in the learner.  The problem is that there is some good research out there indicating that this may not in fact be happening.  Pavlov may NOT be part of every single interaction you have with your learner.  One factor theory says that only one thing is occurring at a time; that if you increase a behaviour through negative reinforcement or decrease a behaviour through positive punishment, the only thing that is happening is an increase or decrease in behaviour; the procedure is entirely operant.  People who believe strictly in one factor theory would argue that you are simply increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behaviour when you train.  Two factor theorists would argue that the learner's well being is attached to the choice of method of behavioural change.

I would like to propose a third option; that is that some of the time, two factor theory is relevant and some of the time, one factor theory prevails.  From my observations of over thirty years of training, when the animal has work that is meaningful to him, and an environment that he can predict and control through his behaviour, then one factor theory is going to control.  When the animal is uncertain, his welfare is dicey and his work is not meaningful, then two factor theory will be the more important scenario.  In my opinion the difference between the whale in the tank and the dog in my home is that with the domestic dog who evolved to fill the niche that was created by the detritus of the human environment is that the dog is usually a stable individual in his native environment.  Of course two factor theory will prevail when you are talking about training animals who live in horrendously suboptimal environments.

Punishment isn't something I use often, but I do use it and I support the use of it in some situations. Understanding about two factor and one factor theory has helped me to see that learners experience both or either operant and classical conditioning some of the time depending a lot on their state of mind and welfare.    Most of the time, punishment is misused because it is very poorly understood.  Most of the time it is not the right tool for the job. Some of the time though, I believe it is.    When the conditions are right, and the one factor theory is in effect, it can be very helpful.  Punishment doesn't have to have baggage with it; sometimes it is just a kettle we should not touch.  Done properly, that is exactly the effect.

Monday, July 15, 2013

INSIDE OUT



At the end of June, I had the great opportunity to watch the SPARCS (http://caninescience.info/) conference on the web, and heard some terrific speakers.  One of the speakers discussed the different perceptions from around the world about how people ought to live with dogs.  I want to start out by saying that I have a way I live with my dogs and it is likely different from the way that you live with your dogs and that is okay.  In fact, how I live with my dogs is actually different from the way that John, my husband lives with our dogs.  The fact is that every relationship is different and there are some great advantages to those differences.


The way that I live with my dogs is that they have time alone in their crates for eating and then they have time in their yard with each other and the rest of the time they spend with me.  If I am going out to do chores, I take a dog with me unless it would be dangerous to do so.  If I am going to have a nap, a dog accompanies me.  I use a service dog, so if I am going grocery shopping, my dog goes with me too.  In the car or the truck, my dogs are in crates for their safety.  Living on the farm, I don’t tend to walk my dogs as much as I used to, although I still do enjoy that if we have a chance to do that.  Mostly they get enough exercise accompanying me while I do things like feed the horses and check the fences and weed the garden.

When I go to the doctor's office or wait at the dentist, D'fer waits with me.  Here he is alerting to an oncoming medical event.  This is how we live together, but it is not the same as how others live with their dogs. 


In order for my dogs to do what they do with me, they must have some skills.  This is part of what drew me to training in the first place.  When I am mixing gasoline to put in the tractor or the chain saw, I cannot be chasing a dog around if he is running too close to the road, nor can I have him sticking his nose into what I do.  I teach my dogs to come when called, to lie down and stay, to lie down at a distance, to bring things back and to follow when I walk away all in order to be able to do the stuff I want to do with them.



On the surveys that the scientist speaking at SPARCS was showing, there were some marked differences in attitudes about how dogs should live with us.  In the Caribbean for instance most people felt it was cruel for dogs to be kept indoors.  In North America, it was felt to be cruel for dogs to be left outside.  In some parts of the world, dogs are kept strictly for work.  In other places dogs are kept strictly as companions.  Some dogs live free much as raccoons and squirrels live.  Which is right?  To quote the inimitable Suzanne Clothier, ask the dog.  When you ask the dog, you do need to be ready to turn the world inside out.

This dog is typical of the dogs you might see on vacation in the Caribbean.  He is quite thin, but in good coat.  He is not looking at the camera and is not attached to any one person, but likely makes his living by eating left overs at garbage sites, or at the back doors of the resorts or restaurants.  If you asked him, he would likely say that his welfare is good.  If he is owned by a particular person, the attitude in the Caribbean in general is that dogs should not be kept indoors.  The values of the people there are different than the values of the people in much of North America.  Image credit: hanhanpeggy / 123RF Stock Photo


I think that if you asked my dog D’fer, he would tell you that his life is pretty good.  Meals are predictable and he knows the ebb and flow of my schedule.  He is “helping” me to write now, by lying quietly by my chair and sleeping.  Sleeping is a good thing to do if you are a dog and nothing else of interest is happening.  He has had his breakfast, he has been out to pee after breakfast, he helped me to get my morning started and supervised me making coffee.  Until I get up and do something else, he is pretty much off duty and can do what he pleases and what pleases him seems to be sleeping next to me while I write.
D'fer...helping to write a blog.  This is how I live with my dogs.  My dogs don't help John do paperwork but he lives very differently with dogs than I do!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander


What about the dogs who are kept strictly for work?  I am thinking here of herding dogs, some Search and Rescue Dogs, some Police and Military dogs; is it fair to them that they come out of a dog run and go to work for a period of time and then go back into their kennel?  My dog Eco would like that very much.  He is intense and he loves to work hard, but he also appreciates his unstructured down time.  He is quite happy to spend more time in the kennel or the yard than D’fer is.  He was bred from police and military lines of German Shepherds, so in a way you could say that his genetics fit that kind of a life; work hard, play hard, learn hard, and then rest hard.  He is not the kind of dog who would make a lot of people happy because of the level of intensity that he brings with him.  When he works he works hard.  When he is not working, he can be in the house with us happily, but I think he is equally happy with down time alone, provided he is getting enough work.  Enough work for Eco is about eight to ten hours a day.

When a dog spends a good chunk of his day searching for lost people, or practicing searching for lost people, then spending a good chunk of his day resting and relaxing in a low stimulation environment is probably good for him.  Instead of looking at a dog in a kennel and instantly feeling bad about the dog and how he is kept ask the dog; if he is relaxed and resting, he is probably in a good situation.  If he is pacing, panting, or otherwise stressed, then that is not a good situation for him.  Don't assume that a dog in a kennel is automatically unhappy; many dogs are quite happy with kennel life.  Image credit: Koljambus / 123RF Stock Photo


And how about the dogs in the Caribbean who live outside?  Is that fair to them?  The consensus was that people in that part of the world felt that it is not only fair but unfair to do otherwise to them.  They live in a hot climate, and that is an area of the world where dogs are not often used for things like herding sheep.  I imagine that if you asked them, the dog would be quite happy.  One of the really intriguing things about dogs is their level of flexibility.  They adapt to a very wide range of situations and they seem to succeed and thrive in these situations.  It does not mean that every individual will succeed in every environment, but when the environment matches the background of the dog, it can work very well.  In the Caribbean, one of the most common dogs you will see is the “Potcake” or village dog.  These dogs live on the beaches, they live in the yards of people and they scavenge for food.  When they are made into pets, they have the right kind of coat and structure to live outdoors and the perception locally is that this is the most appropriate place for them.  These dogs also have skills that allow them to be successful.  They stay close to particular parts of the community, but they don’t try and push themselves into the house.  They may attach themselves to particular people and follow them around, but they aren’t usually living within the house with people.


Then there are the truly feral dogs.  More and more often we are seeing advertisements for these dogs, rescued off the dumps in the far north, or off the streets of Asia or South America or India and transported here.  In Moscow, there is a well known population of dogs who are extremely successful at using the city to find food.  These dogs will even use the subway to get from one place to another.  This report from the Wall Street Journal shows healthy dogs in good coat who are of good weight or even slightly overweight.   Where you to ask these dogs if they were comfortable and confident about their existence, I be they would say yes, they have a good quality of life.  When we capture these dogs and take them into our homes, we often decrease their quality of life at least for a time because they don’t understand the environment that they are transported to.  The skills that are required to live on a dump or to live in the suburbs of Moscow and commute in during the day to beg food from Moscovites are not the same skills that are required to live in a home with humans in Toronto Ontario, or on a farm in the north of Scotland or a sheep station in the outback of Australia.

http://www.noob.us/miscellaneous/russian-stray-dogs-ride-the-subway/  

Dogs are flexible in both their ability to cope with a huge variety of environments, and often in their ability to cope with new environments.  Many dogs make the transition from one situation to another.  This is why when dogs are abducted off the streets of a city in India and transported to a suburban home in Canada, they often make the transition, even though they may have difficulty.  The dogs who are most successful at making transitions are the dogs who have two important things going for them.  The first is a genetic “recipe” for resilience.  If the dog is overly vigilant or nervous, then the dog is not going to be able to cope with the variance of environment that he will encounter.  These dogs work out in homes that are very consistent and very careful about what they expose these dogs to.  And the second thing that successful dogs have is a successful exposure to a wide variety of people, animals, vehicles and flooring during their critical socialization period in puppyhood.  As was pointed out in the SPARCS lectures, we are learning more and more all the time about when and how this developmental period occurs.  Those dogs who get a great role of the genetic dice and a good socialization period, are great not only with the skills they need in a given environment but also in new environments.

These healthy dogs live on the street.  They look relaxed, in good body condition and good coat and they are minding their own business.  Do they need rescuing?  Is this a bad existence for a dog?  Or is this their natural environment?  If you asked the dog, would it be less stressful for him to be on the street, or to be captured, transported and then rehabbed to become a pet?  Dogs live in as many environments as we do, and thrive in those environments.  This environment is a normal environment for a dog.  Rabies vaccination campaigns and sterilization campaigns may do them good, but catching them and homing them may actually deteriorate their welfare instead of improve it.  Image credit: supereagle / 123RF Stock Photo

When we look at how a dog is living I think we need to really look carefully at the environment from the point of view of the dog.  Is the dog in the kennel actually unhappy?  How do you know?  Is he frantically trying to escape all the time?  Is he spending all day stress panting or pacing?  Is he relaxed and resting in his kennel?  How about the dog living on the 16th floor of an apartment building?  Is he happy or unhappy?  Is he relaxed for most of his time?  Is he licking his feet all day?  Or is spending all day resting or interacting appropriately with the people he lives with?  How about the feral dogs?  Are they of good weight and good coat?  Are they any less happy than the other wildlife they share the environment with?  

 When we look at the many environments that dogs have successfully lived within, we will find many individuals who are perfectly happy in the most unusual circumstances, and when we ask the dog, and we look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, we often find dogs who are perfectly happy living there.  When we are looking at how dogs are kept, we need to not think about how we like to live, or even how we like to live with our dogs.  We need to think about how the dog likes to live-is he happy and well adjusted in his environment, and keep him there.