The Many Faces of Resource Guarding

One of my AutumnGold instructors recently completed a set of in-home lessons with a couple and their young Vizsla. The dog, Sadie, had completed our puppy class last summer and her owners were interested in working on in-home manners. One of the behaviors that Amanda, the instructor, included was target training “go to your mat and down/stay”. We use several approaches to teach this at AutumnGold, one of which employs a remote treat-delivery device such as a Manners Minder or Pet Tudor (see “Manners Minder and Me” for details).

Ally and Treat & Train 2

TEACHING ALLY “TABLE’ USING A MANNERS MINDER

The owners were interested a remote trainer, so Amanda borrowed our device so that they could try it for a few weeks. Sadie responded beautifully and rapidly, but unfortunately, just as rapidly developed another behavior – resource guarding.  She learned to stay on her bed and enjoyed the random delivery of treats, but when her owners approached, Sadie began to freeze over the Manners Minder, growling if they came too close.

Oops.

Prior to the start of the lessons, Sadie’s owners had not identified resource guarding as a problem. However, during their first meeting, Amanda noticed that Sadie stiffened slightly after she gave her a stuffed Kong. This was quickly diffused by teaching Sadie to “make a trade” and Amanda saw no other signs during that lesson. When questioned further, the owners did say that they sometimes saw similar body postures when Sadie was approached while eating. Amanda talked with them about the body language signs of resource guarding and cautioned them to watch for similar signs (or an escalation) after introducing the Manners Minder to Sadie. And sure enough…..there it was.

Amanda is a skilled trainer and quickly intervened with a behavior modification program to prevent and treat Sadie’s resource guarding. However, what Amanda and I found interesting about this episode was that the owners had not previously mentioned a specific problem with resource guarding to Amanda. Granted this is a young dog, the initial guarding behavior was subtle and there was no bite history. Still, we wondered, was this because the owners had not been consciously aware of Sadie’s stiffening body posture previously or that they had noticed it but were not sure that it implied a problem?

Identifying resource guarding: Most dog owners think of resource guarding as overt aggression (and certainly that is how it manifests at its most severe). Additionally, rather than being viewed as a general pattern of behavior, owners typically report the specific items that are guarded;  i.e. “she is not good around her food bowl” or “he does not like being approached when he is chewing on his favorite bone“. However, there can be several more nuanced signs that suggest a dog may be highly invested in toys, a food bowl or a resting spot. These include becoming “still”  (stiffening/freezing), abruptly changing body position to block access, hiding or running away, or rapidly ingesting food (or a stolen item) when approached. It is these more subtle signs that may be unnoticed or misconstrued, and that in some cases might be precursors of later aggression.

foodbowlguarding3

NOT THE ONLY FACE OF RESOURCE GUARDING

Do we notice other signs? The question of how much attention dog owners generally pay to the other faces of resource guarding was recently examined by a team of researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada.

The Study: They asked a group of almost 1500 dog owners to view short video clips that portrayed dogs who were approached near their food bowl or when chewing on a rawhide chew toy. For each clip, participants were asked to classify the behavior that they viewed into one of these five categories: Aggression (snaps, bites or attempts to bite); Threat (freezing, stiff or tense body posture, hard stare or growl); Avoidance (moves head away and actively avoids removal of item, runs away with item); Rapid Ingestion (increases speed of ingestion, gulps at food rapidly); or No Resource Guarding (relaxed, loose, wiggly body posture).  Each of the behavior categories had been previously validated by a team of behavior experts.

Results: Several interesting findings were reported:

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants, all dog owners, were highly capable of correctly identifying overt aggressive behavior associated with resource guarding. They were similarly adept at knowing when a dog was relaxed and friendly and showed no signs of guarding behavior.
  • Conversely, owners were less likely to correctly identify the more subtle signs of resource guarding such as avoidance, rapid ingestion and even threatening behaviors (freezing and staring).
  • When the three types of non-aggressive behaviors were compared, owners were better able to recognize threatening behavior than they were to recognize avoidance or rapid ingestion. The authors speculated that owners are more sensitive to behaviors that they think of as being potentially threatening than those that appear to be benign, such as running away or eating rapidly.

Take Away for Dog Folks

At AutumnGold, our potential clients complete a four-page behavior profile form for their dog prior to being admitted into class. The form includes questions about their dog’s behavior during mealtime, around their food bowl, with toys and when resting. It is not unusual to receive profiles that report  dogs who run away or avoid interactions with high-value toys, or who becoming still/stiff when approached while eating or resting in a favorite spot. We always respond to these applications with a phone consultation. In some cases the avoidance behavior is simply a (learned) game of “catch me if you can” or the avoidance that the owner reports is just an untrained dog who has not been taught to come when called. However, is some cases, we identify these behaviors as a form of resource guarding and are able to intervene and provide early guidance.

The results of this research suggest that many owners perceive the more subtle forms of resource guarding as being harmless or inconsequential, or they do not notice them at all. For professional trainers, this information encourages us to better understand the perspectives of clients and to proactively teach owners to identify and understand some of the more subtle body language signs in their dogs before they develop into aggressive responses.

As for Sadie, she learned to go to her mat reliably using clicker training and polished up her “sit for greeting” behavior to control her very exuberant personality with visitors. Amanda also provided Sadie’s people with a set of canine body posture handouts and discussed the implications of stillness, freezing and avoidance behaviors in dogs. Sadie’s owners were highly interested in this information and rapidly became talented “dog behavior sleuths” with their girl, recognizing situations in which Sadie felt compelled to guard and managing her life to avoid or prevent those settings. Her owners also regularly practice “make a trade” and “give” with Sadie for all types of items (not just those that are high-value) so that she learns to happily give up toys and other items without becoming stressed or defensive.

All-in-all a happy outcome, with everyone benefiting from this type of research and its application to evidence-based training!

Cited Study: Jacobs JA, Pearl DL, Coe JB, Widowski TM, Niel L. Ability of owners to identify resource guarding behavior in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2017; In Press.

When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond

SITS ARE GREAT, BUT EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THEY DO NOT ENHANCE ADOPTION RATES

Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay

AUTUMNGOLD STUDENTS USE GESTURES AND VERBAL CUES WHILE PRACTICING DOWN STAYS

All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.

Results:

  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called

COMING WHEN CALLED IS DOTTI’S PREFERRED BEHAVIOR!

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.

The Meaning of Click

Hi. My name is Linda and I am a clicker trainer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have been using a clicker for many years. My use began with the common gateway secondary reinforcer, the verbal cue (“Yes!”). While that worked well for a while, I eventually found that I needed more. I wanted a marker that was accurate and clear to my dog and something that could provide that immediate “ah ha!” moment in dog training that we all crave.

Cooper Clicker Training Heel

BABY COOPER HEELS FOR CLICKS

Recently, my husband suggested that perhaps I am too dependent upon my clicker. It is possible that finding them all over the house, in the pockets of my jackets and jeans, in the car, and oh yeah, one in the refrigerator, had something to do with his concern. I emphatically denied this and insisted that I could quit clicker training any time that I wanted to.

He called my bluff and suggested that I try using food alone, no clicker. Admittedly, I did not react well.

cold dead modified

PERHAPS I AM A BIT DEPENDENT

Hyperbole aside, why is it that many trainers, myself included, are so completely sold on clicker training? While the short answer is a forehead thumping “Duh…..because it works so well“, a longer exploration into clicker training, plus a bit of science, is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.

Operant learning: There is a large body of  scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of using consequences to teach new behaviors, a type of associative learning called operant learning or conditioning.  Although the consequences that are used can be either aversive or pleasurable, most trainers focus on pleasurable consequences, or positive reinforcers. For dogs, a universal primary positive reinforcer is food, though verbal praise, petting, and play are also important. (Note: A primary reinforce is a stimulus that is inherently rewarding to the animal, with no need for prior conditioning). Animals learn most efficiently when the targeted behavior is immediately followed by delivery of the positive reinforcer. Even brief delays between the behavior and the reinforcer can slow or prevent learning.

The timing issue: Herein lies the problem. In the practical context of animal training, there are numerous  situations in which it is impossible for a trainer to deliver a primary reinforcer at the exact time that the desired behavior is being offered. Examples with dogs include when teaching retrieving, targeting distant objects, or moving a paw or other body part in a very precise manner. Secondary reinforcers help to solve this problem. These are signals that are clear to the animal, such as a sound or light flash, and which are purposefully paired with a primary reinforcer. For marine mammal trainers, a whistle is used. For dog trainers, it is the click.

clicker-training_gif

Click-Treat: The sound of the clicker is transformed from a neutral (meaningless) stimulus to a conditioned (secondary) stimulus by repeatedly pairing the click sound with the delivery of a food treat (the primary reinforcer). After multiple repetitions of Click-Treat (hereafter CT), in which the click sound reliably precedes and predicts the treat, the click begins to possess the same properties as  the treat itself. Clicker training allows the trainer to precisely target (mark) tiny bits of behavior at the exact moment they are occurring. The click sound becomes analogous to a bridge in time – saying to the dog “That’s it!! That thing that you are doing right this instant is what will earn you the yummy treat that is coming shortly!”

Well, at least that is what we think the click means to our dogs………

The meaning of click: Recently, a team of Australian researchers reviewed clicker training and examined the mechanisms through which clicker training might enhance learning (1). They looked at each of the three functions that dog trainers typically attribute to the click –  a secondary reinforcer,  a marker of behavior, and as a bridging stimulus. Although we typically give equal weight to all three of these functions, the current evidence, collected primarily in laboratory animals and pigeons, is telling us differently:

Secondary reinforcer? As described earlier, once a clicker is “charged” as a secondary reinforcer, it should possess the same reinforcing properties as the primary reinforcer (treat). This means that the click sound alone, without being followed by a treat, is expected to cause an increase in the targeted behavior and help learned behaviors to be resistant to extinction. An unpairing of the connection between secondary and primary reinforce should also lead to a lessening of these effects. All of these outcomes have been tested in rats and pigeons and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that a conditioned signal (click), when consistently paired with a primary reinforce (treat) does indeed take on the properties of the primary reinforcer. The researchers also provide  evidence (in rats) of a neuropsychological nature – dopamine release has been shown to occur at times that would be expected if a secondary reinforcer was the driving mechanism for learning.

Event marker? Almost all clicker trainers, when asked to explain why clicker training works so well, include some version of “it precisely marks the behavior that I wish to reinforce, at the exact moment that it is happening“.  I agree with this account, given my own practical training experiences. But, of course, belief is not the same as evidence.  What does the current science say about using an auditory signal to mark behavior? As a marker, the signal (click) must draw the animal’s attention to the event. So, if a signal functions to mark behavior, we would expect to see an effect of the signal, though at a lower intensity, when it is not paired with a primary reinforcer. For dogs, this means that hearing the “click” sound, regardless of its pairing with food, should emphasize that moment and thus enhance learning whatever behavior is occurring. Again, though not tested with dogs (yet), this hypothesis has been tested with laboratory animals. The evidence suggests that learning is somewhat enhanced by a marker alone but that the pairing of the marker with a primary reinforcer is decidedly more potent. While “click” may indeed be a marker for behaviors, this function is intricately related to its role as a secondary reinforce rather than marking an event simply by bringing the animal’s attention to it.

Bridging stimulus? The bridging stimulus hypothesis focuses on the “a treat will be coming to you soon” portion of clicker training and applies when the dog is a distance away or there is a temporal (time) delay between the behavior and delivery of the food treat. According to the bridging hypothesis, rather than simply marking the behavior, the signal communicates to the animal that reinforcement will be delayed (but is still promised). A limited number of published studies have examined this function, but the evidence that is available suggests that an auditory signal (such as a click) may bridge the temporal gap between behavior and food. However, all of the studies used a type of training process called “autoshaping” which is a highly controlled and contrived experimental process. Whether or not a click acts as a bridge in the practical and varied setting of dog training remains to be studied.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The bulk of the current evidence coming from other species, primarily lab animals who are tested in highly controlled conditions, tells us that the major way in which clicker training enhances learning is through the click’s function as a secondary reinforcer. As far as event marking and acting as a bridging stimulus, these may be in effect, but if so, they are in a supporting role rather than being the star players. So what might this information mean for we who love to click?

  1. In its role as a secondary reinforcer, the click takes on the pleasurable properties of the primary reinforcer, food treats. Pairing of the click with the treat (charging the clicker) is essential to both establish and maintain these properties.
  2. While clicking without treating will work for a short period of time, repeated uncoupling of the click from the treat will extinguish the connection and the click will stop being effective as it gradually reverts to a neutral stimulus.
  3.  Although most of us refer to the click as “marking” behaviors, the actual marking properties of the click appear to be intricately linked to its function as a secondary reinforcer, rather than having any stand-alone strength in this capacity. Ditto for bridging stimulus.

Bottom line? Given  these three suppositions, if you are a trainer and are in the habit of clicking without treating, you may want to stop doing that (2). The power of the click lies principally in its strength as a secondary (conditioned) reinforce, so maintaining that connection appears to be key.

As for me, this evidence provides further support for the strength of clicker training with dogs. Don’t think I will be going through any 12-step program to reduce my dependency anytime soon.

12 Step Click

Happy Training!

Cited Papers:

  1. Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. How clicker training works: Comparing reinforcing, marking, and bridging hypotheses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; Accepted paper, in press.
  2. Martin S, Friedman SG. Blazing clickers. Paper presented at Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference, Denver, CO, 2011.

 

The Inhibited Dog (Its not what you think)

We recently started a new Beginner class at AutumnGold, a course designed for dogs who have had little or no previous training. Generally this class is composed of young dogs less than one year of age and a few older dogs who have been recently adopted from a shelter or rescue group. We host a 90-minute orientation on the first evening for owners only. The orientation introduces students to our training principles, provides guidelines for keeping dogs safe and comfortable in a group setting, and prepares owners for what to expect the following week when they arrive with their dogs.

This preparation is absolutely necessary because unbeknownst to the owners, their dogs will be arriving at class ready to party down. New place, other dogs (who are also excited), lots of great doggy smells, toys, and treats (lots of treats). From a dog’s point of view; definitely a time for celebration.

Party Dog

TRAINING CLASS!!! YAY! TIME TO PARTY!!!

Knowing that the energy level in the training hall will be tipping the high end of the scale on the first night (and probably on several thereafter), we emphasize to students that the one hour or so that they spend at class each week is primarily for them to learn how to train their dogs and for their dogs to have an evening out for some socialization and fun. We stress that because the dogs will be excited and distracted, they generally learn very little during class time. Rather, dogs will do most of their learning at home during daily training sessions, when they are less excited and stimulated (an emotional state that is often technically referred to as “arousal”).

While trainers who teach group classes are anecdotally aware of the impact that excitability can have on a dog’s ability to learn, it is only recently that the specific effects of arousal on dogs’ cognitive ability has been studied by researchers. This work is highly relevant to trainers because understanding more about the contextual nature of how dogs learn can help us to more effectively structure our classes, inform our clients and train our own dogs.

The Science: The story begins with the concept of “inhibitory control“, a term that refers to an individual’s ability to resist the impulse to do something that may be immediately gratifying but is  ultimately harmful or counterproductive. (Though not technically correct, dog trainers often colloquially refer to this as “impulse control”). Examples in dog training abound. A dog who correctly responds to a “leave it” command and turns away from the smelly thing on the ground is demonstrating excellent inhibitory control. So is the dog who maintains her sit/stay while the cat wanders past or waits patiently at the open door prior to going for a walk. While we certainly capitalize on our dog’s ability to use this talent and hone it carefully with training, many exercises that allow our dogs to live with us as well-mannered family members would not be possible if dogs did not possess an innate capacity for inhibitory control when learning new tasks.

Inhibitory control has been studied in many species, including our own. A body of evidence in humans suggests that an individual’s ability to forego instant gratification in lieu of a more nuanced and considered response is relatively stable over time and across contexts. In other words, some people demonstrate high degrees of inhibitory control in many areas of their lives.

Other people, not so much.

Impulse control

The same may be true for dogs. Recent evidence suggests that the type of work that a dog has been selected for can influence the strength of a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control. For example, a successful herding dog has a strong chase drive yet inhibits the final bite portion of predatory drive. Similarly, dogs selected for Service Dog or Search and Rescue work must maintain concentration and continue to work in the face of situations that are highly variable and distracting.

However, personality (temperament) alone does not fully explain a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control.

Not just a personality trait: The expression of inhibitory control can also be influenced by a variety of situational or environmental factors. One of the most important of these is an individual’s current state of emotional arousal (think – the excited beginner dog). The emotional-reactivity hypothesis explains this in terms of arousal’s ability to either support or interfere with learning and performance. It is a bit of a “Three Bears” scenario in which too little arousal is not a good thing (the individual is not interested or is not attending to the task), while neither is too high a state of arousal  (the individual is highly distracted and excitable). The “just right” level exists somewhere in the middle – a moderate state of emotional arousal that best supports an individual’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control and learn new tasks.

HebbianYerkesDodson_svg

OPTIMAL INHIBITORY CONTROL (PERFORMANCE) OCCURS AT MODERATE LEVELS OF EMOTIONAL AROUSAL

It appears that a dog’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control may be influenced by both personality traits (temperament) and the dog’s current state of  emotional arousal. This information is certainly not surprising to anyone who trains dogs. However, the interesting part has to do with new research suggesting that emotional arousal can have different effects upon learning in dogs, depending upon a dog’s innate personality.

The Study:  Emily Bray and her colleagues at the Duke Canine Cognition Center theorized that dogs selected for different types of work might differ in their natural state of emotional arousal and subsequently how changing their arousal state might either enhance or inhibit learning – as expressed as inhibitory control. Specifically, they noted that Labrador Retrievers who have been selected and bred to work as Service Dogs (assistance dogs) undergo intentional breeding selection for low levels of emotional arousal and high trainability. Conversely, the absence of such selective breeding pressures on pet dogs suggests that, as a group, pets would be more emotionally reactive and thus more innately (and easily) aroused by comparison. Given the inverted U-shaped curve for performance, they predicted that assistance dogs, having a more placid temperament by nature, would demonstrate their best inhibitory control when purposefully aroused (to move them from the left tail of the curve to the right a bit), while pet dogs would benefit from a bit of calming experience to move them from the overly aroused tail on the right side of the curve, toward the left. Put another way; they expected pet dogs to be more prone to errors in inhibitory control due to over-arousal and assistance dogs to be more prone to errors caused by under-arousal.

They tested this in a group of 30 pet dogs and a group of 76 Labrador Retrievers who had been bred as potential assistance dogs by Canine Companions for Independence. A standard fence detour task was used to measure problem-solving ability (performance). This tasks requires that dogs demonstrate inhibitory control because while they can see a dog treat behind the apex of a transparent barrier, solving the problem requires the dog to move away from the treat and walk around the end of the barrier in order to access the reward. Each dog was tested in two states of emotional arousal; low and high. In the low arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog to complete the detour task using a calm and quiet voice. In the high arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog using a high-pitched and excited voice. Dogs’ success and ability to show inhibitory control was measured according to the pathway that they attempted to travel, whether or not they tried to grab the treat directly (through the barrier) and the amount of time that it took the dog to succeed.

Fence detour task

DETOUR TASK AS A MEASURE OF INHIBITORY CONTROL

Results: Statistically significant differences were found between the pet dogs and the assistance dogs and between low and high emotional arousal states. Here is what the researchers discovered:

  •  Pet dogs are more excitable: As a group, the pet dogs had a higher baseline level of emotional arousal (excitability) when compared with the assistance dogs.  This result was expected and supported the supposition that assistance dogs are selected for emotional stability and calm temperaments while many pet dogs, well, are not.
  • Assistance dogs performed best when emotionally aroused: During the detour tasks, the assistance dogs performed significantly better (i.e. exerted more inhibitory control) when they were aroused emotionally by the excited experimenter, compared with when they were calmed by the quiet experimenter. In other words, excitable encouragement and a high-pitched voice improved these dogs’ ability to problem solve and to show inhibitory control.
  • Pet dogs performed best when calmed: The exact opposite was true for pet dogs. Pet dogs achieved significantly better detour success scores when encouraged in a calming and monotone voice (low emotional arousal) compared with when they were encouraged to succeed using highly arousing encouragement. Therefore, encouraging pet dogs in a highly excitable manner interfered with learning, reduced inhibitory control, and lessened success.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This information should be of great interest to anyone who trains dogs and in particular to those of us who teach group classes – situations that, by definition, lead to high states of emotional arousal in the majority of dogs. While most trainers intuitively know that a highly aroused (excited) dog does not learn efficiently, these data show us that a specific type of problem-solving, inhibitory control, will be impaired in pet dogs who are over-stimulated. Therefore when training an excited dog to maintain a sit/stay, to “leave it” or to “wait” at the door, we will do best to used a calming voice, quiet demeanor, and to manage the dog’s environment (as much as is possible) to ratchet down emotional arousal.

Zuzu and Hannah Sit Stay

HANNAH PROVIDES ZUZU WITH CALM AND GENTLE PRAISE WHILE TRAINING SIT/STAY

Similarly, an older, calm dog who perhaps has “seen it all” and is participating in an advanced training class, may benefit from exercises that enhance, rather than suppress, emotional arousal.  Hence the adage – Active praise for action exercises.

Chip Agility Jumping

CHIPPY GETS EXCITED ABOUT AGILITY TRAINING

The bottom line? Knowing where that sweet spot is on the inverted U-curve for an individual dog in a given situation may have as much to do with who that dog is in terms of his natural state of arousal as it does with manipulating the training environment to increase or decrease that state. An appropriately “inhibited” dog, one whose cognitive faculty of inhibitory control is functioning at its best, may be the dog who is moderately but not excessively emotionally aroused.

Happy Training!

Cited Study: Bray EE, MacLean EL, Hare BA. Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:1317-1329.