Training With the Grain

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Most recently in her brand-new podcast, British trainer Kay Laurence repeated a point she's been making for years now, recommending that we rethink “sit” as the gold standard for a well-trained dog. When we ask a dog to place its hindquarters on the ground to prevent it from doing some other behavior, she argues, we are squeezing “positive” training into a traditional mindset. In applied behavior analysis, this is referred to as a pathological approach (geared toward "curing" unwanted behavior), as opposed to a constructional approach (envisioning what is wanted and then figuring out how to build it).

Don’t care what “mindset” your training is squeezed into, so long as it works? Well, Laurence is practical as well as dog-centric. At a seminar at For Your K9 several years ago, she noted that when we teach an "unnatural" behavior, it will require more maintenance (read: continued reinforcement by the trainer) over time. And for many dogs, in many situations, she argues, sitting is an "unnatural" response. It “goes against the grain.”

This observation is consistent with the basic laws of behavior, though we might argue it is the context, not the behavior, that is "natural" (or not). In the sense that behavior is an adaptive tool, all behavior is "natural" (a distinction Susan Friedman has emphasized, and that goes back to B.F. Skinner observing that the organism was always behaving as it should). It's through natural processes that behaviors like "sit" acquire new and counterintuitive functions, such as getting food. (What animal sits to get food in "the wild"?) If there are no naturally occurring reinforcers available for the desired behavior—or if it is especially effortful in a given situation, or if in order to do it the dog is consistently asked to give up reinforcers it could get for doing a different behavior—then a trainer will have to continue to contrive ways to make her preferred behavior reinforcing for the dog.

Deciding what we want the dog to do instead of behavior x or y is the core of problem solving in modern dog training. And if we keenly observe dogs—both in general and as individuals—as well as the behaviors they choose when they are allowed to choose, we may find that there are better options than the standard “obedience” repertoire suggests. By “better” I mean that they may both fulfil the dog's needs or desires and require less maintenance effort on our part.

To this end, the larger dog training community of which I am a part seems to be thinking more and more about facilitating vs. suppressing behavior. One lovely example appeared on the blog Eileenanddogs, where Eileen Anderson wrote about “bootleg reinforcement,” a name for competing reinforcement that undermines training. Bootleg reinforcement can range from a treat inadvertently dropped by the trainer to interesting odors wafting by on the wind to the relief of an empty bladder. Very often, it is naturally occurring reinforcement; we call it "bootleg" because it reinforces something other than what we are training.

Anderson was having a problem with a behavior she had reinforced with food in order to stop her dogs from doing something else: All three dogs had been taught to lie on their mats just outside her mudroom so that they wouldn’t all crowd into the small space near the back door. But one of them, Clara, kept getting off the mat in order to cross the threshold and sniff her. This dog's behavior demonstrated that access to sniff was more reinforcing than the treats available for staying on her mat. What's more, staying on a mat (though lord knows it is often a successful and helpful alternative behavior) would be a pretty unlikely behavior for an untrained dog to use to track a scent of interest.

Rather than punish Clara, which would damage the relationship she had carefully built with this formerly feral pup, or give her even more food for staying on her mat, Anderson observed what the naturally occurring reinforcer was for Clara’s unwanted behavior and decided to figure out an appropriate way she could give it to her.

“The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to ‘get on the mat for a cookie’ vs. ‘take a sniff and get some novel odor,’ would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations,” Anderson wrote. “And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade. So—what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal?” This wouldn’t do with “behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?”

Visit the blog post for a video of Eileen’s elegant, dog-centric solution.

So, some takeaways about how to "train with the grain": (1) Consider your choice of alternative behavior--is it easy or hard for this dog in this situation, and if it's difficult or effortful, is there an easier, less costly, acceptable alternative? (2) In searching for powerful reinforcers, watch the dog. When dogs are "misbehaving," they often might as well be holding up a big flashing neon arrow that points to the strongest reinforcers on the scene.

Just one example: Many owners ask their dogs to sit to get their leash put on for a walk. Not only is this not necessarily the most convenient thing for the owner, depending on the equipment (I find it harder to buckle a harness around a dog who's sitting than a dog who's standing), but it may not be a behavior a dog would likely do when getting ready for active movement. In the video below is one way I found to train "with the grain." Rather than picking Scout up and stuffing him into his harness because we could, or even placing it on the floor and teaching him walk onto it, we let him do what he normally did when the harness came out—jump up—and put the harness in his path to start capturing and shaping this behavior.

This post has been significantly revised from a post written several years ago for One Tail at a Time.