Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Aggressives, Aversive vs Positive, and my journey from A- to R+


While happily mowing the yard yesterday I was thinking about this post, and was kind of self-satisfied with my first title.  "Aversives....A- to P+".  Cute, catchy...and suddenly occurred to me WRONG!  For those readers who are behavior analysis and/or techie people, they saw what I suddenly before I did I am sure.  I meant A- as being aversive/not so good (works for me still), but P+, in technical jargon doesn't mean "Gone to positive-that's good! I'm happy and my dogs are happier now!" but properly means positive (applied) punishment!  NOT WHAT I MEANT!  So, I had to fix the title to R+, which of course means applied positive reinforcement.

So to those who noticed, please accept my apologies..I do know the difference.  Trying to write a catchy lede will sometimes do that to you.  To those of you who didn't catch my goof up, just move along and read...nothing to see here.  Jim

Here on my blog we have covered a lot of subjects, usually revolving around aggression and aggressive behavior, but we have gotten off on topics such as wrongly accused dogs and Breed Discriminatory Legislation.  Today I want to get back on track with general aggression, and specifically with some "rehab" strategies that are being used today.

As I have explained before, aggression itself is not somehow evil; aggression is a behavioral strategy for an animal to affect change in its environment.  Period.  That change may be the protection of resources (food, water, territory, shelter or breeding access), protection of self, obtaining food (predation), or addressing social disputes.  None of these are inherently evil, vicious, or mean-spirited.  They are simple survival issues, with a clear set of rules for application and a logic to their implementation-at least from the dog's point of view.

Sadly there are "rehabbers" that seem to think that the application of force, physical or electronic, is the path to rehabilitating a dog that shows aggressive behavior.  Force against force, as any martial artist knows, is usually fruitless and most often amounts to nothing more or less than bullying.  In the martial arts more emphasis is given to the redirection of force, by either the redirection of an attacking force in a harmless direction  or turning the force back upon the initiator.  In working with dogs I have no desire to force a dog-that simply proves that I am bigger, stronger, or have tools that I can use to impose my will rather than seeking to defuse the situation and find the source of the conflict-and shows that I have a lack of skill and the proper tools to find that source.  I may be able to beat a biting dog into submission, but that is unethical, inhumane, and doesn't come close to solving the problem.  Force only results in a dog that is afraid of me, and can only be trusted to comply when there exists the threat of physical harm.  That is not what I want in a dog.

What I want is clear communication, a working relationship based on mutual respect, and a dog that is able to act from a safe and secure mindset, not fear.  Psychologists have proven over and over again that fear overrides learning, and that when an animal (and I include us) is fearful for its survival, all higher brain functions cease and revert to basic survival mode-get away or fight for your life!

I have seen this in the field.  Years ago I ran competitive field trials with my dogs, and client dogs.  At that time (and in too many places it persists today) the accepted means of training involved the heavy application of aversive pressure by "frying" dogs down with electronic collars.  These dogs yelled, screamed, and cowered.  The trainers using these methods got results-in certain dogs-but far too many dogs were washed out, and permanently damaged by such heavy handed training.  Too many of the rest ran their trials but did it with tail down, constantly looking over their shoulder for the next zap from the trainer.  None of this training involved establishing a true relationship of trust.

I admit freely that, when I started training, I used e-collars.  I did not, from the beginning, feel that the style of e-collar training I saw was appropriate.  A dog in pain, as I said, isn't learning in the manner I want my dogs to learn, so I was even then a kind of radical; I primarily used the tone function of my collars as a secondary reinforcer, a way to reach out at 300 yards and immediately, and effectively, tell the dog "Good dog!  Good job" the moment the dog committed to the correct action.  And that was only after much teaching and repetition at close range, with lots of praise.  I did use the lowest level of stimulation to interrupt the incorrect response-but that was at such a low level that the dog's only reaction was a bit of a raise of the eyebrows, as if to say "Huh? Wassat?".  I would then go out to the dog, put them back in place, and show them what I wanted directly so I could reinforce the correct behavior with a beep and a treat.

Hard aversives?  Not something I was on board with.  There are several problems with using that type of training.  First, it damages the relationship with the dog.  Trust and pain do not go hand in hand. Secondly, any correction that causes pain is excessive.  Period.  And thirdly, a correction administered that way is non-instructive, which is another term for bullying.  If you are correcting an unwanted behavior, it is a three step process: interrupt the undesired behavior, replace that behavior with one you want to see, and then reinforce the new behavior so it will occur again.  Frying a dog at 300 yards really doesn't do any of these.

So even from the beginning I was operating a bit away from the accepted norm of the time.  For instance, I never used the traditional "force fetch".  It hurt my dogs, and it hurt my feelings.  Instead I reinforced a reliable "hold" command with attention and positive rewards.  And as I learned more, I got better, and found better methods.  I moved to different tools, and my dogs continued to improve.   I became known as a trainer who could be successful with dogs that weren't the "programmable" dogs that were so common. Instead of just Labs, I ran Curly Coated Retrievers, Chesapeakes, Red and White Setters, Griffons...and the list of breeds went on. Soft dogs that worked best with softer, yet consistent, methods.  I learned that less aversive methods brought me better performance.

With luck we progress.  Once upon a time it was acceptable to beat our children.  When I was a young cop it was not only legal, but tacitly recommended, that fleeing felons could be shot.  Now we have learned (I hope) that a couple cartons of cigarettes taken in a smash-and-grab are not worth anyone's life.  We now have both the tools and the attitude to recognize that abusing children is simply wrong.  A good trainer amasses years of experience; a bad trainer amasses one year of experience many times over. I started at point A and now have moved far along to other tools and methods.

But back to the point here: aggressive behaviors and their correction. I have to say that application of force to an aggressive dog, physical or electronic, is absolutely not appropriate.  The responsible rehabber is never in a contest of wills with a dog.  That doesn't solve aggression, it only displaces it, either onto another target or into another, potentially just as destructive, behavior.  Or it represses the behavior and makes the dog plain nuts.  Either way, force doesn't rehabilitate anything.  Instead, a rehabilitation trainer has to do several difficult things.  He/she and the dog have to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect.  They then use that relationship to teach the dog positive behaviors that can be reinforced.  They finally have to reinforce those behaviors long enough and deeply enough that the new behavior becomes the default, a useful tool for coping with the conflict that caused the initial aggressive behavior.  Over time the inappropriate response fades away.  The aggressive response may never be fully gone, but at least the rehabilitator has given the dog new, productive behavioral tools to address the stress or fear that caused the initial development of inappropriate aggression.

I also want to talk about a practice that is out there, although apparently not as common as it once may have been (maybe progress again?).  That is the practice of "canine disarming".  What this innocuous sounding term means is that most often the canine teeth, sometimes all of the teeth, of a biting dog are removed or at least filed down and flattened.

I can sort of see the logic that might have started this procedure; a dog bites and causes injury with his/her teeth.  Remove the teeth and Voila!  No injury.  Worst case the dog gums you and gets saliva all over.

I see BIG problems here.

The first is the mechanics of bites, and of bite control and inhibition.  A dog has very sensitive teeth.  After all, they are his/her primary means of manipulation of objects.  They feed him, defend him, carry puppies around, dissect objects-they are the doggie version of opposable thumbs.  When a dog is placed in an instance where other signals of fear or disengagement are being ignored, the dog may reach out and bite once, under control, in order to get the scary thing to withdraw or gain room to flee.  The first point of contact is the dog's canine teeth, because they protrude past the incisors.  The dog feels this canine contact and moderates his/her bite based on that contact.  Bite inhibition kicks in, little or no damage is done, and the world turns on.

But let's take out those canine teeth.  Now the first point of contact is the twelve (six upper and six lower) incisors.  The dog may be using the same amount of pressure, but there are no warning "feelers", like curb feelers on a car.  Instead of a maximum of four pointy warning points, the dog has twelve opposed blade-shaped points of contact.  More teeth, more contact-and a bigger wound, even though the dog's intentions may have been the same.  Now dog, and human, are in a more serious situation.

But, as the late Billy Mills said-Wait! There's More!  By removing the "curb feelers" we not only create the potential for more damage, but WE STILL HAVEN'T FIXED THE BEHAVIOR THAT IS AT THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM.  We have done no rehabbing here-we have just disfigured the dog.  Even a full dental extraction doesn't solve the behavior problem.  Only behavior rehab and training, with positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and resolution of the underlying problem will solve the problem.  And problem solving, rather than problem diversion, should be the goal of rehab.  The rehabilitated dog should be able to reintegrate in human society in a normal, healthy, and productive way.  Barking, lunging, and gumming based on fear and anxiety is not normal integration.

To sum up, yep, I know there are people that are dead set in favor of the use of e-collars.  I once used them, but for a long time now have found what I feel are better ways of accomplishing the same goals. There are also those convinced that canine disarming is a humane and efficient way of dealing with a biting dog.  And if the only choice is strictly between disarming and death...  I just hope that it is only done in those rare life-or-death situations, not as a replacement for treatment and healing.  For me,"disarming" has never been on the table as an option. With e-collars, I no longer even own one-I have moved on.

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