ORCA: Part 5. Steve White

These are my notes from the ORCA Great Minds conference at UNT in March 2009. The Great Minds conference brought half a dozen top trainers together to talk about animal training, clicker training, operant conditioning and the future of training. This is the fifth post of my thoughts and notes and the second page about Steve White. To read more about the conference in general, please see this post. To read the other page of notes on Steve White (Part 4) please see this post.

The meat of Steve White’s talk was a lengthy discussion on the use and misuse of punishment. Punishment is still a common training technique for many trainers since it’s often very self-reinforcing for the trainer. As well, it doesn’t help that punishment is still socially acceptable in many training circles.

Steve began talking about punishment by describing a continuum between aversive training and positive only training. At the far end, the trainer can completely eliminate the problem (by getting rid of the animal or “shooting the dog”), then comes a whole range of aversives and punishers (such as prong, pinch, choke and e-collars), then comes praise only training, then comes training with even better reinforcers (such as food or toys), then at the other far end is what Steve called “let it be” (meaning, by subjecting an animal to training, we are often limiting it’s access to other things it wants, such as food, toys or fun. By training we are exerting control of the animal and doing other things that could be considered mildly negative or aversive.)

Since training methods are a continuum, there is no strict line between aversives and positives. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t make our training as positive as possible. The analogy Steve used was that aversive training is like nuclear war–if the blast doesn’t get you, the fallout will. As in nuclear war, with aversives we should consider how toxic each dose will be, how long the effects of each dose will last (often much longer than the trainer thinks!), the subject’s current baseline (emotional, mental and physical health) and how much is enough compared to how much is too much.

But, occasionally, we still might have to use a punisher. Here are the guidelines Steve gave us for using punishment and aversives effectively.

Eight Rules for Using Punishment:

1. The punishment must be something the animal dislikes and something the animal does not expect.

2. The punishment must suppress behavior. (This is, in fact, the very definition of something that is a punisher.) If something is being used for punishment, but it does not suppress behavior, it’s ineffective and often just plain abuse.

3. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much and there will be negative fallout. You’ll end up hurting your relationship with the animal and loosing more than just that behavior. Too little and the punishment will only serve to desensitize the animal and build resistance.

4. The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior it is to be associated with. Otherwise, a clear enough association between the wrong behavior and the punishment will not be made.

5. The punishment must be associated with the behavior, but not with the trainer. Otherwise, the trainer becomes part of the punishment and the animal starts fearing and disliking the trainer.

6. The punishment must happen every time the behavior occurs. If punishment does not happen every time the behavior occurs, the behavior gets put on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Depending on the behavior and how often the punishment actually occurs, the animal could decide that performing the behavior was worth the risk of getting punished.

7. There must be an alternative for the animal.

8. Punishment must never be used to the extent that punishment outweighs positive reinforcement (from the animal’s perspective, not yours!)

If you can’t follow all 8 of these rules, you’re probably better off avoiding the use of punishment. Heck, even if you can follow all 8 rules, you’re probably better off avoiding the use of punishment, as punishment can result in so many unintended and undesirable side effects.

Why People Train

Steve concluded by discussing why people train. His opinion is that the two most common reasons that people train their animals is to get the annoying things to stop and to have the perfect relationship.

Many of the clients he sees and many average pet owners focus on the first, getting the annoying things to stop. This usally just accomplishes the first goal, getting the annoying things to go away.

However, if pet owner and trainers would focus on the second idea, having the perfect relationship with their animal, many of the annoying things would go away on their own or would be much easier to get rid of.

So, are we trying to get rid of the annoying things, or are we developing the perfect relationship and setting our animals up for success by giving them opportunties to do something right?

Be sure to check back tomorrow and later in the week, as I’ll be blogging about the rest of the conference speakers. If you don’t regularly read my blog, but find this interesting, I encourage you to subscribe via the RSS feed or by e-mail subscriptions (both located at the top right. Thanks for reading!

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