The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

One thing that training dogs has taught me is to better understand certain behavioral patterns in myself. Here’s an example.

I dislike unsolicited advice. I try to refrain from giving it to others, and it annoys me when it is bestowed on me by friends who (I feel) should know better.

And yet, a lot of the time, my response to unsolicited advice is to reinforce the unsolicited advisor by thanking them for their help. As a result, the friend is likely to give me more unsolicited advice in the future. The spiral of miscommunication continues.

Why on earth would I thank them for something I didn’t want? I recognized what I was doing, and I was puzzled by it – until I observed a completely unrelated behavioral pattern in dogs.

Learning to tug

Some dogs show little natural interest in playing with a tug toy. A common method of teaching them to tug is to excitedly tease and slap them with the toy and push the toy into the dog. Lots of dogs learn to tug this way.

Throughout the training process, a handler who uses this method is getting positively reinforced for teasing and slapping the dog with the toy: the dog grabbing and pulling on the toy is equivalent to me saying thank you to an unsolicited advisor. It’s a powerful positive reinforcer for the handler or the unwelcome advisor, respectively.

But what is happening from the perspective of the dog? Pause for a second before you continue reading past this paragraph. Is the dog’s tugging behavior strengthened and maintained by …

(A) positive reinforcement,
(B) positive punishment,
(C) negative reinforcement,
or (D) negative punishment?

Scroll down to see if you were right!

tugging, dog training, dog trainer, play

The answer is (C): negative reinforcement. The dog in our example doesn’t naturally care about tug toys. The trainer slapping and teasing him with the toy, trying to put it in his mouth, slapping some more while talking excitedly is irritating, confusing, intimidating or annoying to the dog. In an effort to escape the trainer’s behavior, he will sooner or later try grabbing the toy.

That very instant, the slapping, teasing and pushing stops. Wow! A moment of relief! The dog just learned that he can stop his owner’s craziness by grabbing and holding on to the toy. The better he understands his ability to influence the handler’s behavior, the sooner will he grab the toy. Eventually, he’ll start tugging as soon as the toy is presented. Voilà – the dog has learned to tug via a negative reinforcement procedure.

I assume many dogs eventually start to enjoy tugging as such, even if they initially learned by means of negative reinforcement. Some dogs, however, may never truly enjoy to play tug, and keep doing it mostly in order to not get slapped and teased with the toy.

Me? I’m like the latter kind of dog when it comes to thanking people for their unsolicited advice. I keep doing it to escape the pressure of being expected to respond.

Unsolicited advice

Being showered with unsolicited advice from friends – whether it is dog training advice, dating advice, or life advice – feels like being slapped with a tug toy. It’s irritating. It makes me feel yucky and disrespected. If that were the only force at play here, I’d probably actively reject the advice (applying positive punishment), or ignore it (applying extinction).

The pressure to respond and the crux of kindness

However, two other strong forces come into play as well:

  • My need to respond to my friends’ messages (the equivalent of “will to please” in a dog),
  • and the belief that kindness is more important than honesty, i.e. we should not do things that may hurt our friends’ feelings (the equivalent to living by a certain rule structure we sometimes observe in herding breeds).

When a friend writes me a message, the ball is in my court, and I feel like I NEED to give the ball back to them. As long as the ball is in my court, it’s as if the slapping and teasing with the tug toy continued. Having a friend’s ball in my court is pressure – that’s why I’m having a really hard time just ignoring unsolicited advice.

So I will eventually respond – and I’ll be nice about it. I feel like I need to respond to my friend’s good intentions rather than to the effect their unsolicited advice-giving behavior has on me.

I’ll probably at least say “Thank you” or a send a smiley face or a thumbs up emoticon. While this is the weakest reinforcer available to me, it is still strong enough to maintain my friends’ unsolicited advice-giving.

The Challenge

Now that I’m aware of what has been maintaining my grateful responses to unsolicited advice, I’m going to conduct an experiment: I’ll try to change my own reaction, and find out if I can reduce unsolicited advice giving that way. At the very least, I expect to feel better when learning to respond in a way that is in line with my feelings about unsolicited advice. (The training parallel here would be giving the dog a way to opt out of playing tug.)

I’m going to start with focusing on advice given in written form, online. My alternative response to unsolicited advice will be to close the chat window instead of replying. I’m going to use a food reward for myself: I will treat myself to the world’s best cheesecake, which is sold at a local café, contingent on closing the chat window. I’ve only had this cheesecake twice because it’s fancy and expensive cheesecake, but I think about it every time I walk past the café. Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’ll have cheese cake every time I close a chat window on an unsolicited advisor. I’ll see how it goes!

How about you? Has dog training changed your understanding of your own behavioral patterns or the behavioral patterns of the humans around you? Would you like to design your own version of the cheesecake challenge? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.