Posts Tagged ‘training’

I recently learned of the Dog Welfare Campaign. It’s a multi-organizational and international effort to educate the public about dog behavior and the problems of using aversives in dog training.


I discovered this campaign after reading through a number of statements from professional veterinary associations on the topics of the use of punishment, particularly the use of punishment by a very well known TV celebrity.

Within the last year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement on the use of punishment and the American College of Veterinary Behavior issued a position statement concerning the training methods employed by the TV personality Cesar Millan.  The ACVB stance is based on the aversive training techniques commonly found in the way that he addresses behavior problems in dogs.  While they did not mention him by name, the association was made when the ACVB made their statement regarding the partnership between the manufacturer of Frontline and Heartgard pet products with Millan.

In mid-December, the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association issued a news release. This time they specifically mentioned Cesar Millan.  The release announced that these two UK associations were teaming up with welfare organizations, behaviorists and trainers “to warn of the possible dangers of using techniques for training dogs that can cause pain and fear, such as some of those seen used by Cesar Millan ‘The Dog Whisperer.’” To this end, they have put together the Dog Welfare Campaign. And while the site speaks specifically to dogs, the principles are the same for all animals.

The detrimental side-effects of the use of aversive training have been well documented for decades. As seen from above, the veterinary field is becoming increasingly involved and recommending that caregivers use positive reinforcement for behavior modification. Further, they urge individuals to know who it is you are going to for any type of training or behavior issue. Anyone can call themselves a behavior expert; it is up to you to know the individual’s qualifications and methods. Unfortunately, a well-credentialed trainer may still use heavy-handed, aversive training techniques.

Worse, a celebrity trainer can get away with this example of flooding and learned helplessness on a cable network channel. In the first few seconds, he tightens his hold on the leash and then he kicks the dog! This is then followed by the dog biting him. He then continues to lead and choke the dog to the point that he can grab the dog’s neck and force it to the ground. The dog has gasped for breath a few times, and is clearly out of breath and “fight” by the time he has pinned it.


So how is it that these trainers are still out there, with some obtaining celebrity status? Some of it is certainly that there is a general lack of understanding; education is certainly part of it. But it is easy to find yourself caught up in the way they are explaining what they are doing. Language is powerful and by using the “right” words, aversive training can be made to sound not so bad at all. A few months ago, Cesar Millan did an online Q&A with the Washington Post.  I kept the transcript of that discussion, knowing that it could provide good material to discuss. Nothing in the online chat reached the level of severity seen in that video, but the use of aversives is still present.

Let’s examine one question and answer

Ellicott City, Md.: Hello, Cesar! I watch your show all the time, and I adore daddy and Junior! I have an 8-year-old Maltese/Bichon mix who will only obey commands for treats. She’s very smart, but also very obstinate. How do I wean her off the treats, and get her to obey just because I give a command?

Cesar Millan: This is a classical case where the dog outsmarts the human. To reconnect with common sense, we are going to do the exercise with a leash and we are not going to say a word. We are just going to use body language. So if we move our hand up we want our dog to sit down. If the dog doesn’t sit down then we are going to help him by gently and firmly pushing his rear to the ground. What this is doing to the dog is to make him curious about this unusual way of being from you which is no sound or scent involved — just a silent energy and body language. What this does for you as a human is it encourages you to use natural resources. You become the food. You become the treat. Keep sessions short but you must follow through.

The best place to start here is probably by doing a functional analysis. The behavior we’re looking at is the dog sits down. The antecedent is pushing his rear to the ground. And the consequence is the hand is removed from the dog’s rear.

Background: Dog doesn’t sit when hand is raised.

A: Push dog’s rear to ground

B: Dog sits down

C: Hand removed from dog’s rear

Probable future behavior: Dog is likely to sit down more often.

This is a fairly clear example of negative reinforcement. The behavior of sitting is likely to increase or maintain (reinforcement) to remove (negative) the pushing hand.

Now, let’s look at this from the human’s point of view.

A: Dog doesn’t sit down

B: Push dog’s rear

C: Dog sits down

PFB: Human is likely to push dog’s rear more often.

This time, the human is experiencing positive reinforcement. The behavior of pushing the rear likely increases (reinforcement) to have a sitting dog (positive). Notice that human is being reinforced for applying the aversive!

Now look at his answer again. The dog is not “curious about this unusual way of being with you…” The dog’s behavior is clearly a response to a physical push on its rear, not a “silent energy and body language.” And while it is true that the human has become the reinforcer via pushing, he is not a positive reinforcer like food or a treat. Your action is negative and something the dog is trying to avoid by sitting. Without the rosy language we can reword the answer to say,

If the dog doesn’t sit down then we are going to force him by pushing his rear to the ground. What this is doing to the dog is to give him no choice of removing this uncomfortable pressure on his rear, except to sit down. What this does for you as a human is it encourages you to use force more often to make your dog do what you want.

That doesn’t sound nearly so pleasant, and wouldn’t sell many books, ads, and TV time.  However, that is what I see as a far more fair representation of what is going on.


We’ll analyze other responses in a future post. These include the fallacy of dominance, constructs, and mind reading dogs.

There are a number of resources for more information on the problems with Cesar Millan and alternatives to his methods. The first two links below are an excellent place to start.








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Happy New Year!

[Note: This post was edited to avoid the potential confusion of the term punishment. For the purpose of studying behavior, punishment only serves to decrease a behavior. There is no value judgment associated with the use of the word punishment. However, there is a lot of negative association with the everyday use of the word. So, we felt it best to remove punishment and replace it with aversive stimuli. And, after all, we want to remove the use of all aversive stimuli in our daily interactions! Thanks to Sid Price for pointing out this potential source of confusion.]

From everyone at AEF, we want to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

We resolve for 2010 to provide more education for you and the animals that you care for.  We will do this in various ways including seminars, workshops, this blog, newsletters, and consultations. If you have ideas or suggestion for other ways that we can help you, please let us know, we’d love to hear them! Just send us an email – animaleducation@gmail.com.

We also have a new year’s challenge for you! We all try to use positive reinforcement with our animals and avoid using aversive stimuli, but how aware are you of the times when you do use a small amount of aversives? We all do it, often several times during the day.  We just are not paying attention to it. And, to make it more difficult to identify, our animals tend to be such good behave-ors, changing their behavior as a function of consequences, that it is even harder for us to notice what we’ve just done. So, the challenge is to “open your eyes” to those times you are using negative reinforcement or positive punishment. It might be that you block movement up your arm with your hand, slowly close a door on a bird “trying to escape” its cage, or shoo the dog away with your foot. Part of this challenge is that you need to note it – mentally, audibly, or, best of all, write it down. Many of us work so hard on addressing big behaviors without the use of aversives that we miss the small things. Once you become aware of your use of these aversives, you can develop more positive, less intrusive behavior-change strategies to have an even better relationship with the animals in your lives! Help others by sharing your findings and leaving a comment.

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[Note: Rita’s back for the last day!]

Today is the last day of Chicken Camp. We had our last training sessions in the morning, when we trained our partner’s chickens, and then one final one in the afternoon right after lunch when we finally got to train our own for 20 minutes. Then, evaluation time.

Bob circled around the tables with everybody in tow to see the show. Each one of us got to demonstrate what our birds where capable of. This time it was the chicken “owner” who was going to reinforce the bird. A few of us had some very good behaviors, with the chickens performing the whole obstacle course for only one reinforcement at the end. Other birds needed a few clicks and feed here and there, but overall, everyone did a good job. And, everybody was still talking to their partner. Even Bob complimented us on being one of the best classes for pulling through the week with humor and light spirits.

My first chicken, my best chicken, missed the tunnel. And to think that was the behavior she knew the best. Down the poles she went, weaving beautifully, and then, instead of marching into the tunnel, left she turned straight onto the A-frame. Grrr. Oh well, out of sheer exhaustion after 5 intense days, I took it.

My second chicken did comparatively better. While I had to reinforce her a lot through the poles, she managed to do the entire obstacle and hit the finish line with her head high (so to speak; she is a pecker). This little bird has been my best teacher this week. She started out on Thursday by offering behavior at a slower rate than the first one. By Saturday, she was not moving – it was like having a frozen chicken on the table. What happened?

What happened was that I had taught her to be even slower.

I thought a lot last night about this little bird, where my mistakes had been with her, and then it hit me: labels. Since the beginning she had been my “slow” bird. She is slow, she needs a lot of help to get her going. She is not getting it, so present the cup a lot to get her moving. This way of thinking about her got me to lower my expectations and I started asking less and less of her, to a point where I stunted her learning. She became incapable of offering behavior because I stopped asking her to.

It fills me with sadness to think that I failed her. I think of all the animals in captivity, and all the humans, whose growing potential is similarly stunted just because of a careless label – “He is dumb”, “She’ll never get it”. But I am also filled with gratitude for this little chicken for the huge lesson she taught me this week. I can’t take the chicken home, but I will take her teachings with me.

So, the end. Tomorrow we fly back to the US. Time went fast in Borlange.
And to quote Bob:

“Are we better off today than we were 3 weeks ago?”


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[Note: Rita took a break today.  So, Wendy wrote about her day at Chicken Camp!]

Today was our last full day to teach our partners to train our birds. In the morning, my partner and I were still struggling to get the tunnel behavior. I had one chicken who was terrified of the tunnel, so much so that it would walk backward and slide around the table. My other chicken and my partner’s two chickens were also frightened with the tunnel, and so we spent roughly 20 minutes with each bird this morning to continue our desensitization and counter-conditioning program. The idea was simply to feed the animal as much as possible near the tunnel to address the respondent fear behavior while also training the operant behavior of walking through the tunnel for reinforcement.

We progressed to the point where my chickens would walk through the fully extended tunnel, and my partner’s chickens would walk through a half-shortened tunnel. We strengthened the behavior on my chickens by introducing the next component in the chain, the A-Frame. While the tunnel behavior was not 80-90% fluent and we normally would not put the behavior into a chain at this point, we decided to see what would happen if we introduced the A-Frame. The thought was that since the entrance to the A-Frame was near the tunnel’s exit that the chicken would receive immediate reinforcement (that is, the opportunity to perform the next behavior) as it came out of the tunnel. It worked magnificently and really strengthened the tunnel behavior. During the lunch break, I convinced my partner to try this design with his birds, the ones I was training. As it would turn out in the first session after the lunch break, we were able to get the tunnel and A-Frame behavior for his birds as well. (Note: This design will not work 100% of the time, but sometimes it’s worth at least giving it a try.) We were really happy with each other, our communication, and our chickens.

While desensitizing the tunnel over two and a half days, we also maintained the behavior, so we were eager to see what would happen when we introduced that first part of the chain. While maintaining a high level of reinforcement through the weave poles (a segment we worked little on during the morning), we got the chain for all of the birds. We then started to fade out and vary the number of reinforcements, and the chain still maintained. We even have one bird each that crosses over into the tunnel, although Bob gave us permission to train the birds to go straight into the tunnel if that’s what they offered — since we had spent so much time to desensitize the tunnel.

Bob and Marie were really surprised that all of our chickens were initially frightened (and one, terrified) of the tunnel. Bob would come by and observe our sessions and comment that the training looked good and that we were doing what we needed to do — that positive feedback was really appreciated. Typically, the chickens are nervous at first but the chickens soon realize that it’s a very easy behavior to get reinforcement. As frustrating as it might be sometimes to desensitize an animal to something, you learn a lot by going through the process. I had a similar experience last week in the chaining workshop, and I am so grateful to have had these opportunities to improve my skills as a trainer.

The best part of the day though was when my partner thanked me for a good day before we left for the evening. We had such great communication throughout the day, helped each other implement the plans, discussed what behaviors we saw, and made changes as necessary. We focused on positive feedback by pointing out the things we were doing right while executing the plan of the other. Instead of noting the obvious mistakes (late clicks, missed opportunities, etc.), we knew the other was aware of such and viewed those mistakes as learning opportunities.

We have two or three training sessions tomorrow morning to strengthen the chained behaviors. After lunch, we will get our chickens back (the ones our partners trained via our instructions) and spend one session training them. Our goal is simply to maintain the behaviors since our training has been a team effort from the beginning. Then, we will watch each trainer demonstrate the behavior of his/her chickens during the evaluation. I’m not concerned about the evaluation, as I’ve achieved my own goals this week — changing my behavior in response to the animal, and improving my skills as both a trainer and a teacher.

For more information about Chicken Camp, visit http://www.house-of-learning.se.

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A short recap of the last two days’ activity. We have been training, training, training. Oh yes, training our partner’s chicken and through our partner, of course. It has been an interesting journey. For the most part, people are getting along fine and most are still talking to each other and acting friendly.

But today (Friday) the first signs of tension started to come. This is the day the pressure came on, since we MUST have got the 3 behaviors – A-frame, tunnel, and pole weaving – for both chickens. Tomorrow (Saturday) we will need to assemble the pieces together and rehearse for Sunday’s demos. So we are all starting to feel, uhm, pressured to get results.

I saw a few people snapping at each other. A small drama going on between two, with one self-proclaimed frustrated by noon and shedding a tear or two by mid afternoon. Hopefully things got sorted out by evening as I saw the two parties immersed in a long conversation with each other. The human behavior going on in this workshop is certainly very interesting.

I got my first bird going on the poles, she does it at least once for only one reinforcement at the very end. I am also close to chaining the A frame and tunnel, and by tomorrow I should have all the pieces together. The second chicken… I don’t want to talk about it 🙂

That’s it. I need to go now. We have the social dinner now, with a traditional Swedish spread of foods – the locals call it a Smorgasbord. Bon appetit! Or rather, Smaklig maltid!

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Today we started our third and last workshop: Teaching. This class is all about teaching other people how to train your chicken to do a chain of behaviors. The goals, as Bob explained, are to

  1. 1) learn to communicate in a clear, effective way; and
  2. 2) learn to follow instructions.

It will be a good lesson for all of us.

The procedure is as follows. As usual, we are in groups of two. Each of us is a trainer and a coach: we train the other person’s chickens following their instructions, which are prepared by them (the coach) the night before and written with great detail. Things like when and where to click and feed, what to look for to feed, down to the smallest elements of the response, need to be worked out for the trainer to be able to train with precision. So each day we have homework.

The chain of behaviors is: start at one end of the table, pass a cone (WITHOUT going around it in a loop – devious Bob!), weave through a set of poles, going into a tunnel, coming out a tunnel (shaped as an arc at the other end of the table), walking up and down an A frame, ending at the start. Again, later I will see if I can post a picture of the diabolical

Today we went through the usual preliminaries – refreshing our cup presenting and clicker pressing skills, choosing the chickens, evaluating their feeding response, and how they reacted to the clicker. Then it was time to “Ask the animal”. We put our chicken down on the table to see what she got. In my case… nothing. They tried to go around the cone, so off the table went the cone. They looked at the poles like Uh?, skipped the tunnel completely, and took their sweet time to even put one foot on the A-frame.  My partner, Louise, did not score much better either.

Clearly I’ve got a lot work to do. Or rather, THINK, PLAN, and DO.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me  to start writing my plan for tomorrow. I think I’ll start with the A frame. This looks simple enough to give my partner and I an opportunity to get acquainted with each other, and gain some confidence. I also want to start making some deposits in Louise’s trust account by reinforcing her for what she does well. My goal is to get to the end of the class with a well-trained chicken AND a partner who’s still talking to me. Isn’t this the main purpose of this workshop?

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Evaluation day! The morning started with some final training sessions. Bob warned us that now was NOT the time to push the bird for more behavior, but rather we should wisely use the training time to achieve specific goals that would maintain the learned behavior(s) and sustain the work performed in the previous days. He had us write down a specific plan for what we intended to achieve in each of the remaining sessions, and then polled us randomly to discuss it.

My plan was simple: maintain the walk on the apparatus with the discrimination behavior on the platform for both chickens; and chain the cone behavior to the descent from the ladder for my first bird. Unfortunately I did not get the “count” – my chick did not learn to stop on her own after three loops around the cones. I suspect I needed many more repetitions for her to learn the pattern.

After lunch (BTW, meals are very good, prepared at a local restaurant), it was time for the closing phases of the class. First, delivery of the certificates of completion of the camp with the mandatory picture together with Bob. I hope I did not close my eyes, as I always do.

Then, evaluation time. Each student demonstrated the behaviors their chickens had learned in front of the whole class. Most chickens did well, performing the chain without hesitation. In a few cases the behaviors crashed, perhaps due to a change in the stimulus picture or maybe poor planning on the part of the trainer? Almost everyone picked discrimination behaviors involving colors, and additional non-discrete behaviors were tossing an object off the platform, pushing a ball into a gully, pulling a rubber band. The prize for the most creative chain goes to Henriette, a dog trainer from Denmark. Her chain consisted of the chicken going into a tunnel, climbing up the ladder, walking across the bar, tossing an object off the platform, walking down the ladder, into another tunnel, and finally pecking the eye of an M&M toy delivering a pellet. I took a video of this and as soon as I figure out how to download it to my computer I will post it.

Our evaluations went well. My chickens performed smoothly. My highpoint was when Bob complimented me on my quiet behavior, remarking how much I had improved since last week. He noticed! Wendy’s first chicken was a riot. She was so slow, it took 3 minutes to complete the whole behavior. She even dropped a little present on the platform and stopped to look at it. People had tears in their eyes from how much they were laughing. Wendy has done wonderfully with this chicken, who at the beginning would not even look at the apparatus. Her second chicken went faster.

All in all, a good day. We ended it by treating ourselves at a nearby Italian restaurant, La Cantina. Today and tomorrow we are relaxing (much needed). Wednesday the third, and last, Camp will start: Teaching. This one promises to be even more intense than the previous two. We will be paired up in groups of two and each one will have to write a very detailed training plan for the other person to teach their chicken a behavior. A lesson in giving and following instructions. A potential war of egos?

We’ll see what happens. It’s only 10 in the morning, but I think I will take a little nap now…

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