Thursday, April 23, 2015

Should dog training be 100% positive?

This dog is clearly enjoying being trained.

There's been an interesting discussion recently on a mailing list for animal behavior consultants and hangers-on like myself. (The group is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, IAABC.) These highly-skilled behavior consultants are knowledgeable in how to deal with behavior problems in dogs and other species, rather than focusing on basic obedience or competition skills like agility.

As you may already know, the modern dog training world can be described as split into two factions: those who advocate methods using dominance theory and/or force, such as alpha rolls or leash popping, and those who advocate methods using learning theory and specifically operant conditioning, such as clicker training.The behavior consultants on this list all fall solidly into the latter category, and all agree that the basis of training should not be founded on punishment-based techniques. They are hashing out the question: Is it ever appropriate to use aversives in training a dog?

Because the two factions split mainly on the use of punishment, it can be easy to fall into black-and-white thinking and assume that any aversive is unacceptable, and equate all aversives with pain and fear. But does “aversive” necessarily mean “painful”?

An aversive is something unpleasant. Give an animal something pleasant (a treat) and it will be more likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (sitting down). Give an animal something unpleasant (a tug on a prong collar) and it will be less likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (lunging at a passing dog). Both techniques work in getting the desired behavior. Techniques using an aversive stimulus may have side effects, however — in this example, a dog who lunges at passing dogs out of fear may learn to associate pain from the prong collar with other dogs. While he may stop lunging, he is likely to develop other unwanted behaviors, like biting when the other dog approaches close enough.

Pain and fear are absolutely aversives, and I think everyone in this discussion is agreed that pain and fear should be avoided — that some aversives are just too aversive to use. Many trainers in the discussion declare that they would never use a shock collar; some say they might, but only under extreme circumstances, after many other approaches have been tried and failed. Where do you draw the line at “too aversive,” though? That’s a very interesting question, and different trainers have different answers. But can you be a trainer who works in the positive training camp, and still sometimes uses aversives? For sure.

And here’s the thing: it’s the dog who determines what’s aversive. So some tools that we think of as very mild, like a head halter, can end up being quite aversive for some dogs. A head halter — that’s nothing like a prong collar or a shock collar or a choke chain, and it doesn’t hurt the dog at all. But it is (according to many dogs, including one of mine) incredibly annoying to have on your nose. Is it aversive? Yes. Is it inhumane? That’s an awfully strong word for such an innocuous device. But if you use a head halter on your dog, you are not engaging in 100% positive training. You are using a (mild) aversive. Not one that probably involves pain or fear, but an aversive all the same.

And it turns out it’s pretty difficult to train successfully using no aversives at all! Even telling a dog “that wasn’t the right choice” by using a marker like “oops!” during your training can be a mild aversive. Is it okay to train with mild aversives? Everyone has to answer that question for themself, but from my perspective, of course it is. Life has its ups and downs and everyone is going to encounter mild obstacles from time to time, even a pampered dog. The question is how big an aversive you want to throw at your dog, where exactly you draw the line between acceptable and not. That line will be drawn differently for every owner and every trainer.

So when you’re choosing a new trainer for your dog, remember that some will advertise that they use 100% positive methods, but they may not have quite thought through the implications of all of their methods. Others may state that they’re not 100% positive, but that they still use mostly positive methods — and that’s okay. As your dog’s owner and advocate, it’s up to you to talk to your potential new trainer about their methods, discover what kinds of aversives they do use, and decide what’s acceptable for your dog. Just work through the language your trainer uses to make sure that the kinds of aversives they use are at a level that’s acceptable to you, and of course make sure that they use scientifically-based learning theory (look for words like “positive reinforcement” and avoid words like “alpha” and “dominant”). As a dog loving community, we can agree that the use of aversives should be minimized, while still accepting that from time to time it’s okay to use mild ones.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A week of tame foxes

“You're checked all the way through to... some place I can't pronounce,” said the woman who was checking me in at my small local airport in Illinois.

Novosibirsk. It is the third largest city in Russia, located in south-western Siberia. It is the location of the Novosibirsk State University, one of the best universities in Russia, where the Institute of Cytology and Genetics maintains Belyaev’s tame foxes.

(You may already know about the fox domestication project, but if you don’t, Wikipedia has a good primer, and Jason Goldman has written about them.)

The Institute is actually in Academic City (Akademgorodok), a suburb of Novosibirsk. Academic City is an odd blend of the European — my hotel would not have been out of place in France — and the Russian, with its thick stands of birch and fir. During my early April visit, there was still three or four feet of packed snow on the ground, and mud season was commencing as the temperature rose.

The Institute is in a green-roofed building shoulder-by-shoulder with other university institutes. The farm, where the foxes live, is a ten or fifteen minute drive out of the city. I went to the farm daily to study the socialization period in tame and aggressive fox kits.

Tame fox kit (silver color)

I was working with these kits at three weeks of age, before they were old enough to start venturing out of the nest and interacting with the world. At this point they shouldn’t yet have entered their socialization period. Yet you could already tell the difference between the tame kits and the aggressive kits. Kits within a group weren’t identical in behavior: some complained about being restrained, some yelled, some fell asleep, some were calm and silent. However, the aggressive foxes tended to make more noise, and the tame foxes tended to be more curious about their surroundings. Two aggressive fox kits tried to bite. One tame kit did.

As for the adults, I found more behavioral variation than I’d expected there as well, although the head of the laboratory where I work had warned me again and again that the foxes vary sigificantly in behavior. Tame foxes were curious and wanted to interact with us, but some were shy, diving into their nest boxes or to the far side of their cage and then returning slowly. One fox stretched his body out, low to the ground, so that he could sniff my companion’s face without having to commit himself to coming too close. (When I offered to let him sniff my face, he stole my hat and then carried it around his cage while the neighboring foxes watched in fascination.)

Slightly shy tame fox (Georgian white color)

Other tame foxes could not contain their enthusiasm at having people to interact with. They rolled on their backs and made excited yipping noises and wagged their tails. In their joy, they would hold our hands gently in their mouths, something I saw again and again with them but that I have very rarely seen a dog do.

Fox holding my hand in his mouth (platinum color)

I visited foxes from the control line, who had not been bred for behavior. They were simply afraid of us: when their cage door was opened, they retreated. If cornered, they would bite, but any aggression they showed was entirely defensive.

I also saw foxes from the line that has been selected for aggression to humans. Some of them were afraid and aggressed only defensively. Some were more scary, coming forward to the front of the cage to bite again and again. Certainly they were afraid of humans, but something in their brains or hormones makes them more proactive and less passive in their defensive aggression.

Finally, I met rats and mink selected for tameness or aggression. The tame rat that I met was happy to be held and happy to interact with me, but I don’t have enough experience with pet rats to say if this was unusual. The aggressive rat that I met was terrifying, hurling herself at a gloved hand when her cage door was opened and screaming repeatedly, even after we backed off.

The tame mink were less curious than the tame foxes and didn’t seek interaction with humans in the same way. One let himself be held by his keeper but I wasn't allowed to touch him, in case he might try to bite.

Tame mink

Notice the little white patch on his chin — more white coloration is associated with more tameness in both minks and foxes. Another, all-white mink was tamer and I could pet him. He seemed deeply passive, not seeking interaction, just tolerating it.

Tame white mink

Remember that part of the tame fox story — that as the foxes were selected for tame behavior, they started showing characteristics typical of domesticated species, including white patches and curled tails? Only a small percentage of the tame animals have these features, but I saw several piebald fox kits:

Piebald fox kit (silver color)

...and my host kindly pointed out one fox with a gorgeous example of a curled tail.

Fox with curled tail

What an amazing week. I kept thinking: how strangely my life has turned out!