Here’s something interesting I learned while working on a talk I’ll be giving at the Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Association of Behavior Analysis on August 15th in Madison. My talk is “Creating Harmony Between Dogs and Special Needs Children,” and it involves discussing the benefits to the family of having a dog, but also the risks to the dogs that need to be addressed and minimized as much as possible. As we all know, even parents of typical children sometimes struggle with interactions between their children and their dog, and things can be even harder for parents of children with special needs.
While working on my talk I read a research paper that is relevant to dog training in general, even though the case study was about changing the behavior of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. A 6-year old boy was “inappropriately touching” the household dogs (grabbing and pinching the dog’s anus, oh dear). Needless to say, this was both unfair to the dogs and dangerous for the child.
The therapist attempted three different types of intervention: 1) a verbal reprimand if the behavior occurred and attempts to physically block the behavior from happening, 2) DRA, or “Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior,” in which the child got a jelly bean for touching the dog appropriately and 3) DRO, or “Diff’l Reinforcement of Other Behavior, in which the therapist gave the child a chance to choose the reinforcer before each session, and then told the child “If you don’t touch the dog’s bottom, when the timer goes off (10 sec), you’ll get X (chosen reinforcer) afterward”. Appropriate touching was verbally reinforced as it was in DRA, and inappropriate touching received a verbal reprimand “No touching. That means no X. Let’s try again.”
No surprise to dog trainers, verbal reprimands had little effect. The DRA method (reinforcing appropriate behavior) resulted in an increase in appropriate touching BUT no decrease in inappropriate touching. However, DRO (don’t grab dog’s butt for 10 seconds and get a reinforcement of your choice) eliminated inappropriate touching completely. You can read more details in Bergstrom et al, 2011, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5, pg 218-221.
Note that there were at least 2 variables that differed between DRA and DRO: In the latter the child got to choose the reinforcement (rather than being given one, a jelly bean, that the therapist knew he liked). Second, in DRO the reinforcement came after 10 sec of not doing something, versus getting a reinforcement for performing an alternative action. This makes it a bit difficult to sort out which factor had more influence on the result (remember, this was a case, not an experiment). My guess is that both factors were significant. Certainly it is critical to understand that, just like us, dogs want different things at different times, whether it’s being let out to pee and sniff the sidewalk, get a piece of bacon or get to play ball. One of the key distinctions of good trainers is the understanding that we need to get into our dog’s heads as best we can and guess what it is that the dog wants at any given time. That said, I suspect that reinforcement for the absence of a behavior might also have been significant.
If you’re a learning theory expert then you are well versed in the term Differential Reinforcement, (DR) including DRI (where I = Incompatible behavior) as well as DRA and DRO. Most dog trainers use these concepts all the time, just without the formal labels to them. I bring it up here because so much of family dog training includes stopping a dog from doing something you don’t want it to do as much as teaching it what you do want (which should go hand in hand, right?) I teach incompatible behavior all the time, (sit when greeting people at the door rather than jump up), but we all know that some behaviors in some dogs can be challenging to turn around. I haven’t used DRO as described above very often with my own dogs or with my clients, however I did have good luck with it when Willie was obsessed with herding Sushi. Reinforcing incompatible behavior didn’t help, if anything, it made it worse because everything became a secondary reinforcer. Once I figured that out I could manage it reasonably well, but before Sushi left I had the best success with reinforcing a lack of herding for X amount of time (inspired by a seminar with Ken Ramirez, by the way). It’s not an intuitive method at all, and I suspect it’s best used only in specific circumstances. I’d love to hear your own thoughts about your own experience with it, or with dealing in general with behavior that is difficult to extinguish.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Even more rain! Whoopee, almost an inch in the last 2 days. It’s probably too late to save my pasture, it appears to be dead and gone; but maybe not, said Trisha the optimist? Maybe, just maybe, it’ll come back? I’ll give it another week or so before deciding to plow it up. That would be an ouch. I only have one other small pasture and if I replant I’ll have to do it in fall and then keep the sheep off for a long time afterward. Would have to buy lots more hay, and that’s not so easy to find right now.
Speaking of sheep, I realized it’s been awhile since they had the spotlight. About time I’m sure they’d say. Here are two of the ewes I call the “camel sisters:”
They are just visiting, to help me and Willie work flighty sheep.
Here’s a question for you: What’s wrong with the picture below?
Did you guess that sheep shouldn’t be eating hay in Wisconsin in the middle of summer? Yup, you’re right. The flock is eating their winter’s food and has been since late May. Maybe I’ll have to put them on a diet like I am?