• Is your dog reactive to exciting stimuli? Does she bark and lunge at kids on skateboards, people on bikes, or other dogs? Do any of the following descriptions apply?
• Your dog is great at home, but barks at people when you take him out in public.
• Your dog is fine outside with you while you work in the yard, but forget it if a bicycle goes by!
• Your dog walks great on a leash, unless someone else with a dog comes along.
None of this means that your dog is a bad dog, but she does need to learn a different behavior to perform when stimulated by one of these events. We can change her behavior by changing our own behavior when confronted with the stimulus that can cause our pleasant pooch to turn into a raving maniac. We can use the “Open Bar” technique to desensitize and counter-condition a dog’s response when he’s developed a habit of barking and lunging. The idea behind “Open Bar” is that when your dog sees a dog, bicycle or skateboard nearby, something that can elicit barking and lunging, he gets lots of treats — and he gets them before he reacts, but after he notices the stimulus. In other words, when the cue to react (the trigger, or stimulus that currently gets him upset and reactive) is present, the treat bar is open. Once the cue to react is gone, the bar closes and you are nonchalant, not paying much attention to the dog. Hence, your dog learns to notice a cue to react and look to you for good things and guidance, remaining calm; this behavior replaces the previous behavior of barking and lunging. It’s essential for you to be aware of the cue to react before your dog is, so that you are prepared to train. When you go for a walk, be prepared with a bag of fabulicious food treats — treats your dog will do anything to get — broken into bite-size pieces.
Here’s what you’ll do: Stroll along with Rufus. When you see Mr. Smith and Fido turn the corner and approach you on the other side of the street, reach into your treat bag, grab a handful of roasted chicken bits, happily say, “Rufus, Look at that dog! It’s your lucky day!” and begin feeding Rufus one treat at a time as fast as you can. Pay full attention to Rufus until the dog passes by, praising and feeding him while you continue to walk. Focus completely on Rufus. He’ll be focused on you, his mind happily on scarfing down treats. Ignore Mr. Smith! You can’t take time to chat right now because you’re training your dog. You can explain later. Once Mr. Smith and Fido have passed, and you’ve put enough distance between yourself and the cue to react, stop feeding Rufus and go back to walking nonchalantly. You and Rufus know what enough distance needs to be: “enough distance” means how far Rufus has to be from the distraction before he becomes calm again.
The onus is on you to notice the dog before Rufus does. You can’t wait until he is already amped-up before opening the bar. A dog who is in the midst of reacting isn’t open to learning a new behavior. If he starts barking and lunging, abort! Your best bet is to get out of there; turn around and leave. If your dog is smaller, you can pick him up and carry him away, reminding yourself to pay closer attention next time. Remember that every time your dog practices barking and lunging, he gets better at it, and the habit becomes more ingrained. You’d rather he practice the behavior of looking to you for super-awesome treats when he sees another dog, and with practice, he will.
Dogs that react very quickly to certain stimuli are often trained as hearing alert dogs; these dogs don’t miss a thing, and are trained to alert their handlers to important sounds. Other dogs are very visual and super vigilant about visual changes going on around them. Many dogs learn to react to changes in their environment out of stress, anxiety, or fear that develops from these states. If dogs learn to react to new things entering their environment by barking and lunging, they become difficult to train for anything – even going on a nice walk with the family. We want the dog to notice what’s coming into his field of perception, we just want to teach him how to respond in a way that works for everyone.
Previously, I wrote about a training technique that you can use almost “in the moment,” when you’re out with your dog and a trigger stimulus — something that tends to make the dog react – appears in your vicinity. That is the “Open Bar” technique (see Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit, Part I: “Open Bar”.) In this article, I’ll explain a technique called “Look at That!” which breaks the process down into even smaller, more controllable pieces so that you can easily set up practice sessions and your dog can learn it very quickly. I like to use both techniques, interchanging them as needed, to prevent a problem from occurring, or to change the behavior once it has reared its ugly head. The most recent and well-known version of “Look at That!” is explained in wonderful detail in a book called Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt.
The target behavior is for the dog to do a ‘chained’ behavior of (1) Look at Something, then (2) Look at Owner. It’s helpful to use a clicker to mark the dog looking at something in the beginning stages in order to reinforce both individual parts of the behavior. The best way to practice this is to find a comfortable place to sit or stand outside with the dog on a leash; somewhere familiar with people, dogs, and bikes going by regularly but at a low frequency. Pretend to mind your own business, but focus fully on the dog so as to be able to notice when he looks at something. When he turns his head away to look at something, click. He is likely to immediately turn back to look at you — give him a treat. It’s just that simple. If your dog is unfamiliar with a clicker, he’ll look at you to see what the sound was. When you give him the treat, he’ll begin to understand that when he hears the click, a treat is on the way. If your dog is afraid of the click, try another marker: use the word, “Yes!” pronounced softly but happily; it will mark the behavior just as the click will.
You can use this training game with puppies to prevent the development of reactive behavior. It’s a game, and it’s fun for puppies to discover what behavior makes you click and give him a treat. You can also use it to change reactive behavior once it has developed. Don’t start with the thing that most concerns the dog. If the reactive behavior of barking and lunging is toward other dogs when on leash, start teaching the behavior with cars that pass by, bicycles, or pedestrians. You can start teaching the behavior while the dog is indoors, and the two of you are looking through a window at birds, squirrels, cars, or just about anything. Then move outside, once the dog is doing the behavior of looking and then turning to you. Only after the behavior is pretty reliable should you practice with the real trigger – another dog or whatever it is. Set the exercise up with plenty of distance between your dog and the other dog; invite a friend with a calm, relaxed dog to help you.
Although we call this behavior, “Look at That,” it’s not necessary to tell the dog to do it; he will look at something at some point – you capture that behavior by clicking and giving a treat, and you’ve done one repetition. You can teach the dog to “Look at That” on your verbal cue once he is reliably offering this behavior, usually after several training sessions. Add the cue words just as he’s turning to look at something, click, then treat. Once he’s responding consistently to the words, you’ll be able to tell him to “Look at That!” and he’ll turn to look wherever you’re facing or pointing. Always reinforce this, because you want him to choose to happily “Look,” rather than other behaviors such as barking and lunging. Always practice this, because it has far-reaching effects which include looking to you for guidance, a valuable attitude that can really enhance your relationship with your dog and make training any behavior go a lot better. Putting “Look at That” on the verbal cue is not necessary to get the benefits this behavior offers; it’s just a development you can add. Even when you put the behavior on cue, continue to reinforce the default behavior of looking at something that could be disturbing to your dog and then looking back at you so you don’t miss out on the benefits of your dog choosing to check in with you instead of responding emotionally to something that concerns him.
“Look at That” may be difficult to understand until you’ve tried doing it with your dog. If you resist the urge to complicate it, and view it as simply a head turn toward something followed by a head turn toward yourself, you will reap the benefits of your dog paying attention to you more often and of him choosing to look to you for guidance rather than take matters into his own paws when he is concerned and is likely to go into his previous behavior of barking his head off at something.
With diligent and consistent work on this behavior, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement, you’ll begin to see your dog look purposefully at something and then at you as if to say, “Did you see me look at that? I get a treat for that, right?” At that point, you know you’ve successfully communicated to your dog what you want, and he is responding to an old cue in a new way. Bingo.
This training game, like most others, works through classical conditioning of an emotional response along with operant conditioning of a behavior. Classical conditioning changes the dog’s emotional response from defense toward a threat to anticipation of something good; operant conditioning is reinforcing the action of turning to look at something new in the dog’s environment followed by turning to look at you. This is powerful stuff and you’ll be changing your dog’s perception of something new in his environment from threatening to the source of a game with you. You’ll see the difference in his perception when he starts looking at what was previously a trigger to bark and lunge, then looking at you, and if you miss that first series of what he’s looking at, he’ll repeat the chain again as though to say, “Hey, do you see what I’m doing?! Where’s my treat?”
Resource Guarding is a perfectly natural behavior for dogs, and can serve a valuable purpose if they are feral, living on their own, and having to find and protect food, sleeping areas, their puppies, and themselves from harm. The dogs we live with and the dogs we rescue have no need to guard their resources, but they don’t always know that. A dog can become dangerous when Resource Guarding goes awry or is taken to a higher level. We see this so often with our rescue dogs: sometimes they were raised in sub-standard situations, did not learn the foundation behaviors necessary for dogs to live productively in homes with humans, and sometimes they even lived in a group of dogs with little human supervision and fewer resources than necessary, resulting in their developing Resource Guarding behaviors for good reason that they bring with them into their new lives. Resource Guarding is a common basis for aggressive behavior in dogs. In their view, they’re just trying to hold onto things they like; but when they bite people in order to do so, it can lead to a very bad ending to what could have been a really nice story.
Prevention is Best
It’s best to start every dog off right by working to prevent Resource Guarding behaviors before you even see them occur. I like to begin teaching every dog I meet that I am no threat to them, I will always offer them something in trade for anything they have, and that I will not be so rude as to try to snatch things away from them.
When we’ve just met a dog, we don’t know him any better than he knows us. We don’t know if he’s ever met a person like ourselves: deep-voiced, high-voiced, hat-wearing, high-energy or slow and lumbering; having good or poor dog interaction skills; responsive to the dog’s communications or not; tall or short, fat or thin, dark-skinned or light. Which one are you, and how is the dog responding to your manner?
We don’t even know if a dog has met very many people before at all. We certainly don’t know how anyone he’s met has behaved toward him, or what habits he’s developed in interacting with humans. It’s best to be polite as we get to know him, just as we would toward a human we’ve just met. To a dog, that means allowing him to approach us rather than approaching him first, dropping a slip lead over his head rather than grabbing for his collar, and asking him if he’d like to trade what he has in his mouth for a super-yummy treat.
Why Would a Dog Give Up Something He Likes?
When a dog has something in his mouth, a chewie, a bone, a toy, a stick, a dead bird, or whatever else he deems valuable enough to hold onto, we must offer something even more valuable to him if we want him to choose to drop that item. That may sometimes mean simply a piece of kibble, especially if it’s offered in the right way. (***See Note below about adding value to treats.) Some situations call for an especially good-tasting dog treat. In the case of a dead bird with some dogs, you may need a piece of steak to trade; a dead bird can be quite a treasure if you’re a canine! Remember, guarding what they like and want to keep is a natural behavior; we have to carefully teach dogs what we want them to do instead, and we have to make it worth their while to do what we want instead of what comes naturally to them.
To offer a trade to a dog, simply hold a small piece of food that you’re sure he will like just in front of his nose while he’s holding the item you’d like him to drop. Chances are that he’ll smell the treat and open his mouth to eat it, and guess what? Whatever he had in his mouth will fall out onto the floor!
This is the point at which you should be careful to try to hold onto the treat as he nibbles it, or to have a few treats in your hand and roll them into your fingers one at a time, feeding him the whole time you reach for and pick up the dropped item. The goal is to keep the dog relaxed and comfortable, eating the entire time, never feeling threatened or thinking that he needs to defend himself or his precious treasure from you. If you were reading a magazine, you wouldn’t want anyone to snatch it out of your hands, would you? If someone put his hands on something you had, you’d be likely to pull it back from them. We don’t want to put a dog in that position, especially a dog we barely know.
With a new dog, watch him closely as you feed him and reach for the dropped item; this is a time when he might surprise you by snapping as you grab the item. Lure his face over to one side, away from the dropped treasure, while you keep feeding him and pick up the item. We’re distracting him, but we’re also keeping him happily eating rather than worried about what he might be losing. We’re conditioning him – setting him up for the next time he has something in his mouth that we want. Preventing a bad experience for the dog and yourself is much better than allowing it to happen and then trying to fix it.
We certainly want to practice this behavior many times with a new dog, in order to help him develop a habit of happily releasing anything we ask for. We don’t want to do it over and over and over on his first day in our home, though. Do it once or twice that first day, giving the new dog a chance to enjoy a bone or chewie for a while, safely in his crate. Practice this exercise each day. You can increase the number of times you do it each day, and the number of times you do it during each practice session, as time goes on. You will begin to see your dog release items more readily, you’ll see him begin bringing his treasures closer to you, and ultimately he’ll begin bringing things to you, perhaps dropping them at your feet, looking to you for a treat.
As this behavior develops, you can begin adding a cue like “Drop it” or “Give” or one I like, “Thank you,” saying the words just as the dog is dropping the item. Begin holding your hand under his mouth to catch the item and later, ask him to get the item a second time if it drops on the floor instead of in your hand. Once he’s reliably dropping things in your hand, begin moving your hand upward a bit at a time and you’ll have him delivering things to your hand up in your lap in no time! Be sure to give him his treat every time; just ask the tiniest bit more of him with each repetition of the behavior. This is just how you train a solid retrieve for a service dog, hunting dog, or competition dog; and it’s just that easy. But the most important thing is that he’s learning how great it is to give you things he has. This means you can easily get your shoe back after you’ve carelessly left it out and the dog has decided it’s a wonderful toy!
One of my favorite things to do with the “Trading Protocol” is to catch a moment when my dog has a toy, ask him to give it to me, give him a treat, and pretend to examine the item to see if it’s good enough for him to play with. I’ll even say things about it like, “Only the best for Angus! Let me check it out – is this a good toy?” as I look it over. Then I give it back, saying, “I think it’s good enough. Here you go!” It’s light-hearted and fun, it teaches a good lesson, and my dog gets a double reinforcement — a treat plus he gets his toy back! This is great preparation for those moments when you need to get something from your dog and you really can’t give it back — those dead bird moments. You probably won’t give back a dead bird, but he doesn’t know that. How about two treats for a dead bird? Seems fair.
The most important reason to trade dogs treats for other items is to prevent them from developing that behavior we’ve seen all too often: taking an item, lying down with it and threatening anyone who comes near, whether or not the person was planning to take the item away. Always respect a dog’s threat, because he’s not kidding. A growl means, “I feel threatened. I don’t really want to bite you, but I will if I need to. Please change this situation.” A growl is your cue to take the pressure off, to defuse the situation. Take the dog, yourself, someone else, or another dog out of that picture so the threatened dog feels better. It’s also something to take note of: put the “Trading Protocol” into action with this dog. But give him a chance to cool down before doing so. You want to start with the dog relaxed and comfortable, secure and not feeling threatened. And don’t start with that same item he was willing to guard so fiercely. Start with something far less valuable. Make sure the dog is in that relaxed frame of mind throughout your training session. We want him to learn to enjoy that relaxed feeling that comes over him while eating those yummy treats and learning not to feel threatened.
Remember that some of the adult dogs we meet already have a strong habit of feeling threatened in these situations. Don’t feel inadequate if you can’t change that right away. Revel in the joy of seeing dogs improve quickly when they do and know for sure that even when you don’t see immediate improvement, the dog is learning and the behavior is improving, even if at a level you can barely see; follow the protocol and you can improve it. Be sure do your part to prevent Resource Guarding behavior from getting worse.
Practice this with puppies when you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, in order to prevent Resource Guarding from ever developing. (Note that you may see resource guarding behavior even in some puppies; remember it’s a natural behavior. Puppies start learning as soon as they’re born, so they are never really a “blank slate.”
There are certainly other things that dogs consider resources worth guarding, like couches, beds, rooms, doorways, dog beds, food or water bowls, their own bodies/personal space, and even people. I think teaching dogs the “Trading Protocol” helps in these areas too, because it begins teaching them that there’s abundance in their lives; there’s plenty of stuff for them, plenty of food, and plenty of room, so there’s no need to guard anything. You can practice “trading” in these situations too. It’s simple conditioning. The lesson is, “I know you like that thing you have, and I might let you keep it sometimes. But if I can’t let you keep that item, I’ll make sure you get something just as good or better.”
***Note: As we continue with a dog’s training, by offering treats in the same way each time, he will begin to understand that your hand in just that position as a cue that he’ll be getting a treat; so holding your hand in that way becomes a bit of a reinforcement or reward on its own. Then when the dog gets the treat, it’s already more valuable than it would have been based on just its taste and food value. Holding your hand in that particular position is a “marker” for the dog; because it leads to a yummy treat, it becomes a conditioned reinforcer – one that if it’s always followed by the treat, reinforces the dog’s behavior in and of itself. Combined with this now conditioned hand position, even a piece of kibble can become a pretty good reinforcer for dropping an item. Think of how a clicker extends the reinforcement process, letting the dog know he’s about to get a treat – your hand in a certain position can be the same type of stimulus. The reinforcement begins when your hand appears, and continues through the time the dog is chewing and swallowing the treat. I generally offer treats to my own dogs between the tips of my thumb and forefinger. I’ll sometimes present them to a new dog on my flat palm. Just one more hint of the power of behavior science when applied to the details of training.
As I write this, my mentor, Dr. Bob Bailey, is teaching keepers at the Copenhagen Zoo how behavior science can help provide better husbandry for the animals there. Husbandry refers to the management and control of domestic and kept wild animals, most commonly to their medical care and grooming.
Zoos, aquariums, and other places where animals are kept throughout their lives are well-versed in training their wards to cooperate in nail trimming, dental care, and routine veterinary procedures. The training process makes these husbandry tasks tolerable and even pleasant for the animals, keeps stress levels at a minimum, and ensures a safe experience for both animals and their keepers.
Dogs are so often held down for these tasks; it seems a bit backward. Let’s look at how behavior science and the same techniques used for trimming an elephant’s toenails can help your dogs have a nice experience during a required husbandry task.
Short training sessions to start
We are not always fortunate enough to get a dog that is young with a fresh, unencumbered view of husbandry tasks; however, every short training session in which dogs volunteer to participate even in the tiniest way contributes to their openness to cooperating in the next session.
Help your dog have a good experience by using lots of the best treats. Allow her to walk away from the experience as soon as she’s ready. You see, behavior science shows that every experience affects your dog’s next similar experience. Here are steps to follow:
1. Teach the required behaviors before you’re going to need them. Teach your dog to lie down and relax in a variety of situations. Teach him to be comfortable with having all his body parts handled. Help him learn to love all the tools involved in the husbandry process because they guarantee the tastiest treats.
2. Practice specific tasks in very small doses. Ear cleaning and nail trimming and brushing or combing are necessary for most dogs. It’s likely some scissoring or trimming with clippers will be needed for some dogs, maybe tooth brushing. One daily training session in husbandry tasks will help get you ready for your next vet or groomer visit.
3. Classical conditioning, a.k.a. Pavlovian conditioning, will help you create a positive emotional response to each tiny part of the process. Give your dog a small but really tasty treat after:
Holding her foot calmly (for nail trimming)
Showing, but not touching her with, nail clippers (for nail trimming)
Gently lifting her ear flap (for ear cleaning)
Opening the bottle of ear cleaner for her to sniff (for ear cleaning)
Gently lifting her lip (for tooth brushing)
Getting her to rest her chin on your shoulder (for applying eye drops)
Stroking one time with a brush or comb (for body hair care)
Placing running clippers or grinder two feet from her (for grooming tasks)
If your dog even flinches when you turn on the clippers or grinder, start again with it further away. Your goal is complete comfort with the process at each level so you can gradually bring the device closer. If you get a reaction, you’re too close.
Treats are a must
Yes, you need treats. The conditioning process is:
Present stimulus, then give the treat— in that order.
The dog doesn’t have to do a thing other than experience the process and eat the treat. You’re working to create a positive association, and very small, very yummy bits of meat speak very loudly to dogs!
Using treats offers other advantages. Whether your dog takes treats is a good gauge of his comfort level. If your dog won’t take the best treats you have, the stimulus level is too high.
Trigger-stacking means multiple stimuli are affecting your dog at one time and can raise his stress level over threshold, meaning past the point at which the dog can make a clear decision about how to respond. When over threshold, dogs respond from instinct and emotion, making choices like fight, flight, or freeze in order to save themselves. Past the threshold point, all you can do is stop the process, give your dog a break, and begin again later when your dog is comfortable again.
We have a saying in training: Slow is fast. It’s true because when you move so slowly that the dog never reacts negatively, you’ll reach your goal sooner than if you push the dog, causing a negative emotional response.
You can track your progress in how much closer the dog is to the “scary item” while still comfortable or in the number of seconds he tolerates the process. Good training should be a bit boring to watch. When you can gently and quietly clean your dog’s ears or trim his nails, you’ll be impressed with your results. Imagine having to wake your dog up after his nail trim or grooming session!
Here’s an older, rescued Springer Spaniel, Ranger, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtWeXBbpIOs, from some years back who previously had to be sedated to have his ears cleaned. He learned from some helpful trainers that ear cleaning was something he was allowed to choose to participate in. This video shows an advanced stage of training – they began with just touching an ear and giving a treat.
I don’t need to give you a step-by-step protocol for conditioning your dogs to husbandry tasks because there’s a fantastic Facebook group, Nail Maintenance for Dogs, https://www.facebook.com/groups/nail.maintenance.for.dogs/learning_content/, dedicated to helping owners teach dogs to volunteer to have their nails done. They run a tight ship: They provide the resources and guidance you need as a self-study course in how to get the emotional response you want—comfort, happiness, security—associated with your dog’s nail trimming.
All procedures are solidly based in behavior science, which is important because the techniques will work for your dog and every dog, and you can be sure you will be keeping your dog’s stress level low. Join the group and learn the techniques of conditioning so you can apply them to all your husbandry tasks.
Videos of Husbandry Training for Other Species
Get Inspired! If a Capybara can volunteer for an injection, your dog can request a nail trim!
Gari the Capybara training to receive an injection:
Dolphin husbandry training:
Target training for elephant foot care:
As you can see, just like with any behavior we want to train an animal to do when we want them to do it, we must begin with the tiniest bit of behavior we can think of. A lifted foot, an open mouth, or just a quietly sitting dog or cat is the first step toward a smoothly swallowed pill or a voluntary nail trim. I encourage you to get out some tasty treats and give it a try with your own pet! Why should our pet dogs and cats miss out on cooperating in their own care?
All puppies must eat to live. They don’t know much when they’re young, but they know about eating, and they like it! Training requires repetition; a pup can eat a treat quickly and be ready to go again.
Shouldn’t my puppy do what I want just to please me?
As much as we love puppies (and I do believe that they love us!) it’s very difficult to let them know what we want them to do since they don’t use language to communicate like we do. Giving a pup a treat when he’s doing a behavior we like has been scientifically shown to cause that behavior to be repeated. The more you reward it, the more you see it, so you are clearly letting him know what you want him to do.
Will my puppy get fat?
Puppies are growing fast and using up calories. As long as you give them healthy treats, some of which can be a portion of their regular puppy food, they will grow up physically and behaviorally healthy at the same time. Whole foods like meat, cheese, high quality formulated dog foods, even fruits and vegetables, cut into tiny pieces are great for communicating with puppies, one treat at a time.
What if I don’t have treats with me? Will I always have to carry treats?
During the early stages of training, make sure you have treats with you at all times. Get a belt pack and keep them in a plastic bag, and keep sealed containers of nonperishable treats around the house for easy access. As training progresses, you will be asking for more behavior per treat, but even as an elderly adult, your dog deserves to be paid for his efforts with a small treat! Owners of highly-trained performance dogs almost always have treats with them. Think of a treat as your puppy’s paycheck for a job well-done.
Will my puppy really be trained if I train with treats?
You can train well or train poorly, with treats or without. By giving your pup a treat when you like what he’s doing, you ensure he’ll do that behavior again. By doing many repetitions of this every day, he will be volunteering to do that behavior regularly. When you add a cue word or hand signal to the behavior, you can reward only when you ask for the behavior and control when the puppy does it. At that point, you’ve trained him to do the behavior on cue or “command.”
What is a “Training Treat?”
Because we want to do many repetitions of a behavior during training, training treats must be small, easily swallowed, and tasty. The size of a piece of dry dog food is best – ¼ to ½ inch, depending on the size of the puppy. You can use the pup’s regular food, bits of cheese or meat, pieces of fruits or vegetables, purchased small training treats, or even make your own training treats, as long as your pup likes them. It’s your puppy’s reward, so he has to like it enough to work for it.
Teaching, it is often said, is an art, but we have increasing reason to hope that it may eventually become a science. We have already discovered enough about the nature of learning to devise training techniques which are much more rapid and give more reliable results than the rule-of-thumb methods of the past. Tested on animals, the new techniques have proved superior to traditional methods of professional animal trainers; they yield more remarkable results with much less effort.
It takes rather subtle laboratory conditions to test an animal’s full learning capacity, but the reader may be surprised at how much he can accomplish even under informal circumstances at home. Since nearly everyone at some time or other has tried, or wished he knew how, to train a dog, a cat, or some other animal, perhaps the most useful way to explain the learning process is to describe some simple experiments which the reader can perform himself.
“Catch your rabbit” is the first item in a well-known recipe for rabbit stew. Your first move, of course, is to choose an experimental subject. Any available animal – a cat, a dog, a pigeon, a mouse, a parrot, a chicken, a pig – will do. (Children or other members of your family may also be available, but it is suggested that you save them until you have had practice with less valuable material.) Suppose you choose a dog.
The second thing you will need is something your subject wants, say food. This serves as a reward or – to use a term which is less likely to be misunderstood – a “reinforcement” for the desired behavior. Many things besides food are reinforcing – for example, simply letting the dog out for a run – but food is usually the easiest to administer in the kind of experiment to be described here. If you use food, you must of course perform the experiment when the dog is hungry, perhaps just before his dinnertime.
The reinforcement gives you a means of controlling the behavior of the animal. It rests on the simple principle that whenever something reinforces a particular form of behavior, it increases the chances that the animal will repeat that behavior. This makes it possible to shape an animal’s behavior almost as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay. There is, of course, nothing new in this principle. What is new is a better understanding of the conditions under which reinforcement works best.
To be effective a reinforcement must be given almost simultaneously with the desired behavior; a delay of even one second destroys much of the effect. This means that offering food in the usual way is likely to be ineffective; it is not fast enough. The best way to reinforce the behavior with the necessary speed is to use a “conditioned” reinforcer. This is a signal which the animal has observed in association with food. The animal is always given food immediately after the signal, and the signal itself then becomes a reinforcer. The better the association between the two events, the better the result.
For a conditioned reinforcer you need a clear signal which can be given instantly and to which the subject is sure to respond. It may be a noise or a flash of light. A whistle is not recommended because of the time it takes to draw a breath before blowing it. A visual signal like a wave of the arm may not always be seen by the animal. A convenient signal is a rap on a table with a small hard object or the noise of a high-pitched device such as a “cricket.”
You are now ready to start the experiment with your dog. Work in a convenient place as free as possible from distraction. Let us say that you have chosen a “cricket” as your conditioned reinforcer. To build up its reinforcing power begin by tossing a few pieces of food, one at a time and not oftener than once or twice a minute, where the dog may eat them. Use pieces so small that 30 or 40 will not appreciably reduce the animal’s hunger. As soon as the dog eats pieces readily and without delay, begin to pair the cricket with the food. Sound the cricket and then toss a piece of food. Wait half a minute or so and repeat. Sound the cricket suddenly, without any preparatory movement such as reaching for food.
At this stage your subject will probably show well-marked begging behavior. It may watch you intently, perhaps jump on you, and so on. You must break up this behavior, because it will interfere with other parts of the experiment. Never sound the cricket or give food when the dog is close to you or facing you. Wait until it turns away, then reinforce. Your conditioned reinforcer will be working properly when the dog turns immediately, and approaches the spot where it receives food. Test this several times.
Wait until the dog is in a fairly unusual position, then sound the signal. Time spent in making sure the dog immediately approaches the food will later be saved manyfold.
Now, having established the noise as a reinforcer, you may begin teaching the dog. To get the feel of the technique start with some simple task, such as getting the dog to approach the handle on a low cupboard door and touch it with its nose. At first you reinforce any activity which will be part of the final completed act or approaching and touching the handle of the cupboard. The only permissible contact between you and the dog is via the cricket and the food. Do not touch the dog, talk to it, coax it, “draw its attention,” or interfere in any other way with the experiment. If your subject just sits, you may have to begin by reinforcing any movement, however slight. As soon as the dog moves, sound the cricket and give food. Remember that your reaction time is important. Try to reinforce as nearly simultaneously with the movement as possible.
After your subject has begun to move about, reinforce when it turns to the cupboard. Almost immediately you will notice a change in its behavior. It will begin to face toward the cupboard most of the time. Then begin to reinforce only when the dog moves nearer the cupboard. (If you withhold reinforcement too long at this stage, you may lose the facing response. If so, go back and pick it up.) In a very short time – perhaps a minute or two – you should have the dog standing close to the cupboard. Now begin to pay attention to its head. Reinforce any movement which brings the nose close to the handle. You will have to make special efforts now to reduce the time between the movement and the reinforcement to the very minimum. Presently the dog will touch the handle with its nose, and after reinforcement it will repeat this behavior so long as it remains hungry.
Usually it takes no more than five minutes, even for a beginner, to teach a dog this behavior. Moreover, the dog does not have to be particularly “smart” to learn it; contrary to the usual view, all normal dogs learn with about equal facility with this conditioning technique.
Before going on with other experiments test the effect of your conditioned reinforcer again two or three times. If the dog responds quickly and eats without delay you may safely continue. You should “extinguish” the response the dog has already learned, however, before teaching it another. Stop reinforcing the act of touching the cupboard handle until the dog abandons this activity.
As a second test, let us say, you want to teach the dog to lift its head in the air and turn around to the right. The general procedure is the same, but you may need some help in sharpening your observation of the behavior to be reinforced. As a guide to the height to which the dog’s [head is] to be raised, sight some horizontal line on the wall across the room. Whenever the dog, in its random movements, lifts its head above this line, reinforce immediately. You will soon see the head rising above the line [more] and more frequently. Now raise your sights slightly and reinforce when the head rises above the new level. By a series of gradual steps you can get the dog to hold its head much higher than usual. After this you begin to emphasize any turning movement in a clockwise direction [while] the head is high. Eventually the dog should execute a kind of dance. If you use available food carefully, a single session should suffice for setting up this behavior.
Having tested your ability to produce these simple responses, you [may] feel confident enough to approach a more complex assignment. Suppose you try working with a pigeon. Pigeons do not tame easily. You will probably want a cage to help control the bird, and for this you can rig up a large cardboard carton with a screen or lattice top and window in the side for observing the bird. It is much less disturbing to the bird if you watch it from below its line of vision than if you peer at it from [above]. In general keep yourself out of the experimental situation as much as possible. You may still use a cricket as a conditioned reinforcer, and feed the bird by dropping a few grains of pigeon food into a small dish through a hole in the wall. It may take several daily feedings to get the bird readily [eating] and to respond quickly to the cricket.
Your assignment is to teach the pigeon to identify the visual patterns on playing cards. To begin with, hang a single card on a nail on the wall of the cage a few inches above the floor so that the pigeon can easily peck it. After you have trained the bird to peck the card by reinforcing the movements which lead to that end, change the card and again reinforce the peck. If you shuffle the cards and present them at random, the pigeon will learn to peck any card offered.
Now begin to teach it to discriminate among the cards. Let us say [you start by] using diamonds and clubs (excluding face cards and aces) and want the bird to select diamonds. Reinforce only when the card presented is a diamond, never when it is a club. Almost immediately the bird will begin to show a preference for diamonds. You can speed up its progress toward complete rejection of clubs by discontinuing the experiment for a moment (a mild form of punishment) whenever it pecks a club. A good conditioned punishment is simply to turn off the light [“blacking out”] or cover or remove the card. After half a minute replace the card or turn on the light and continue the experiment. Under these conditions the response [which] is positively reinforced with food remains part of the repertoire of the bird, while the response which leads to a blackout quickly disappears.
There is an amusing variation of this experiment by which you can make it appear that a pigeon can be taught to read. You simply use two printed cards bearing the words PECK and DON’T PECK, respectively. By reinforcing responses to PECK and blacking out when the bird pecks DON’T PECK, it is quite easy to train the bird to obey the commands on the cards.
The pigeon can also be taught the somewhat more “intellectual” performance of matching a sample object. Let us say the sample to be matched is a certain card. Fasten three cards to a board, with one above and the two others side by side just below it. The board is placed so that the bird can reach all the cards through windows cut in the side of the cage. After training the bird to peck a card of any kind impartially in all three positions, present the three chosen cards. The sample to be matched, say the three of diamonds, is at the top, and below it put a three of diamonds and a three of clubs. If the bird pecks the sample three of diamonds at the top, do nothing. If it pecks the matching three of diamonds below, reinforce it; if it pecks the three of clubs, black out. After each correct response and reinforcement, switch the positions of the two lower cards. The pigeon should soon match the sample each time. Conversely, it can also be taught to select the card which does not match the sample. It is important to reinforce correct choices immediately. Your own behavior must be letter-perfect if you are to expect perfection from your subject. The task can be made easier if the pigeon is conditioned to peck the sample card before you begin to train it to match the sample.
In a more elaborate variation of this experiment we have found it possible to make a pigeon choose among four words so that it appears to “name the suit” of the sample card. You prepare four cards about the size of small calling cards, each bearing in block letters the name of a suit: SPADES, HEARTS, DIAMONDS, and CLUBS. Fasten these side by side in a row and teach the pigeon to peck them by reinforcing in the usual way. Now arrange a sample playing card just above them. Cover the name cards and reinforce the pigeon a few times for pecking the sample. Now present, say, the three of diamonds as the sample. When the pigeon pecks it, immediately uncover the name cards If the pigeon pecks DIAMONDS, reinforce instantly. If it pecks a wrong name instead, black out for half a minute and then resume the experiment with the three of diamonds still in place and the name cards covered. After a correct choice, change the sample card to a different suit while the pigeon is eating. Always keep the names covered until the sample card has been pecked. Within a short time you should have the bird following the full sequence of pecking the sample and then the appropriate name card. As time passes the correct name will be pecked more and more frequently and, if you do not too often reinforce wrong responses or neglect to reinforce right ones, the pigeon should soon become letter-perfect.
A toy piano offers interesting possibilities for performances of a more artistic nature. Reinforce any movement of the pigeon that leads toward its pressing a key. Then, by using reinforcements and blackouts appropriately, narrow the response to a given key. Then build up a two-note sequence [by] reinforcing only when the sequence has been completed and by blacking out when any other combination of keys is struck. The two-note sequence will quickly emerge. Other notes may then be added. Pigeons, chickens, small dogs, and cats have been taught in this way to play tunes of four or five notes. The situation soon becomes too complicated, however, for the casual experimenter. You will find it difficult to control the tempo, and the reinforcing contingencies become very complex. The limit of such an experiment is determined as much by the experimenter’s skill as by that of the animal. In the laboratory we have been able to provide assistance to the experimenter by setting up complicated devices which always reinforce consistently and avoid exhaustion of the experimenter’s patience.
The increased precision of the laboratory also makes it possible to guarantee performance up to the point of almost complete certainty. When relevant conditions have been controlled, the behavior of the organism is fully determined. Behavior may be sustained in full strength for many hours by utilizing different schedules of reinforcement. Some of these correspond to the contingencies established in industry in daily wages or in piece-work pay; others resemble the subtle but powerful contingencies of gambling devices, which are notorious for their ability to command sustained behavior.
The human baby is an excellent subject in experiments of the kind described here. You will not need to interfere with feeding schedules or create any other state of deprivation, because the human infant can be reinforced by very trivial environmental events; it does not need such reward as food. Almost any “feedback” from the environment is reinforcing if it is not too intense. A crumpled newspaper, a pan and a spoon, or any convenient noisemaker quickly generates appropriate behavior, [often] amusing in its violence. The baby’s rattle is based upon this principle.
One reinforcer to which babies often respond is the flashing on and off of a table lamp. Select some arbitrary response – for example, lifting the hand. Whenever the baby lifts its hand, flash the light. In a short time a well-defined response will be generated. (Human babies are just as “smart” as dogs or pigeons in this respect.) Incidentally, the baby will enjoy the experiment.
The same principle is at work in the behavior of older children and adults. Important among human reinforcements are those aspects of the behavior of others, often very subtle, which we call “attention,” “approval” and “affection.” Behavior which is successful in achieving these reinforcements may come to dominate the repertoire of the individual.
All this may be easily used – and just as easily misused – in our relations with other people. To the reader who is anxious to advance to the human subject a word of caution is in order. Reinforcement is only one of the procedures through which we alter behavior. To use it, we must build up some degree of deprivation or at least permit a deprivation to prevail which it is within our power to reduce. We must embark upon a program in which we sometimes apply relevant reinforcement and sometimes withhold it. In doing this, we are quite likely to generate emotional effects. Unfortunately the science of behavior is not yet as successful in controlling emotion as it is in shaping practical behavior.
A scientific analysis can, however, bring about a better understanding of personal relations. We are almost always reinforcing the behavior of others, whether we mean to be or not. A familiar problem is that of the child who seems to take an almost pathological delight in annoying its parents. In many cases this is the result of conditioning which is very similar to the animal training we have discussed. The attention, approval, and affection which a mother gives a child are all extremely powerful reinforcements. Any behavior of the child which produces these consequences is likely to be strengthened. The mother may unwittingly promote the very behavior she does not want. For example, when she is busy she is likely not to respond to a call or request made in a quiet tone of voice. She may answer the child only when it raises its voice. The average intensity of the child’s vocal behavior therefore moves up to another level – precisely as the head of the dog in our experiment was raised to a new height. Eventually the mother gets used to this level and again reinforces only louder instances. This vicious circle brings about louder and louder behavior. The child’s voice may also vary in intonation, and any change in the direction of unpleasantness is more likely to get the attention of the mother and is therefore strengthened. One might even say that “annoying” behavior is just that behavior which is especially effective in arousing another person to action. The mother behaves, in fact, as if she had been given the assignment of teaching the child to be annoying! The remedy in such a case is simply for the mother to make sure she responds with attention and affection to most if not all the responses of the child which are of acceptable intensity and tone of voice and that she never reinforces the annoying forms of behavior.
Published in Scientific American, December 1951. Vol. 423 of Scientific American Reprints.
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