Thursday, May 6, 2010

You still can't train with just positive reinforcement

Last weekend, I reprimanded Tinky-Winky.

Gasp! The horror!

Clearly, I'm a totally abusive dog owner, and I should go to H*, me and Cesar both.

So what happened is, Tinky-Winky likes to tear stuff up. So I'm always careful to make sure she can't tear the wrong thing. Except, when the roommate bought a new futon, I didn't realize that Tinky-Winky had been sitting on it (no one else does), until a tear appeared. Uh... oh...

I keep thinking I'm going to fix it. Any day now. But I still haven't. So on the weekend, I was at the computer, and Tinky-Winky was on the futon, and she started picking the stuffing out through the tear.

Was she doing it because she's bored? No. She sleeps 20 hours a day, she doesn't get bored much.

Was she doing it because she has too much unspent energy? No. We had six good walks on the weekend, she was tired.

Was she doing it because she's stressed and neurotic? No. She's a happy, mellow little dog.

She was pulling the stuffing out of the futon because it's fun. Like smashing light bulbs. Why do people smash light bulbs? Because it's fun. Even if you totally have better things to do, you're not bored, you're not frustrated, and it's late in the day, and you find a stash of old light bulbs, you're gonna smash them, because it's fun. Or if you want to use big behavioural terms, it's a "self-rewarding behaviour." Smashing light bulbs is its own reward, and pulling the stuffing out of the futon is its own reward.

Ok, so then, how do I stop her doing this? Wait patiently for her to stop, with my imaginary clicker in hand, and give her a click and a treat when she stops digging? Right. How much stuffing do you think she's gonna go through before she stops of her own free will? And what is it gonna teach her except "if you dig the stuffing out of the couch, you get a treat when you're done"? And what's going to stop her doing it when I'm not standing there with a treat ready for her?

My dog knows where treats come from. They come from me and only me. If I'm not there, there won't be any treats. But pulling stuffing out of the futon will still be fun even though I'm not there. So... what's going to stop her pulling stuffing out of the futon when I'm not home?


I reprimanded my dog. I said to her "excuse me, what do you think you're doing?" She stopped and looked at me. She knows by my tone of voice when I'm not impressed, and even though she's a shiba, she cares if I'm not impressed. So, she stopped what she was doing. And she hasn't done it again since. Will she do it again some time? Probably, if I don't fix that tear. But it stopped her at the time, and it stopped her even in my absence. Because even when I'm gone, she knows that digging at the futon makes me unimpressed. If she's at all like me, she's going to hear my voice in her head every time she goes to dig at the futon, going "excuse me, what do you think you're doing?" And that will be enough to stop her, for a while at least. Whereas the treat method would only stop her while I'm standing right there.

This is also why so many people think their dogs are trained to stay off the couch, but as soon as they're out of the house, the dogs are all over the couch. They're not trained to stay off the couch, they're trained not to let you catch them on the couch. The dog knows that the consequence comes from you. They know the treats are only there when you are, but the memory of a punishment endures while you're gone. So they're gonna make sure they don't get caught on the couch, but they're sure not going to stay off the couch.

And no, punishment isn't traumatic. All I did was say "excuse me, what do you think you're doing?" I didn't beat her, shock her, wrestle her to the ground, or otherwise abuse her. I just pointed out that I wasn't approving of her behaviour. That's all a punishment is: something you do to decrease a behaviour.

Like I keep saying, if you think you're training your dog with "only positive reinforcement", either you're not teaching your dog a whole lot, or you don't understand what positive reinforcement is.

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