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That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior


It took only four pieces of kibble to fix a problem I’ve had for about eight years.

Long ago, I sought to stop using body pressure to move my dogs around in space. This was a conscious and serious effort. For me, and for my dogs, using body pressure was not a benign endeavor. You can see two of my very early YouTube videos about it. Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement and Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure.

Maybe it’s because I have had a fair number of scaredy or sensitive dogs, but I have seen the fallout of using body pressure so frequently. And I don’t want my person to be something a dog avoids! I want them to be comfortable with me, to approach me, to move into my space, and not flinch or flee if I move gently into theirs. I want them to have pleasant associations with my physical presence.

But from the title, you can see I didn’t completely succeed. There was one last behavior I taught with R-.

I’m not talking about the accidental ways R- creeps into our lives with our dogs and even into our training. That probably still happens sometimes without my knowing it. And I’m not talking about things like letting a dog leave a training session, which may be a planned choice but still represents a mistake on my part. I’m talking about a deliberate choice I made to apply pressure to get an escape behavior. Yes, reader, I did it.

How We Got There: Arranging Dogs on the Bed

Clara didn’t get “sleeping in the bed” privileges until she was almost two years old. That didn’t have to do with her behavior. It was the reality of having a household with four dogs, one of whom (Summer) really wanted to take out another (Cricket). I had a size 300 crate on my bed for Summer, Cricket and Zani were loose on the bed, and I didn’t have room for Clara the hulk. She slept as she had from the first night in my house, in a crate on the floor right next to my place on the bed.

A large bed with a dog crate on top of it with a brown dog in the crate. There is a smaller black and white dog loose on the bed. There is a lump under the covers where another dog is lying.
Summer in the crate, Cricket up by the pillows, and Zani under the covers in the foreground

I dismantled that whole setup after Cricket died in 2013. I moved Summer’s crate to the floor (she still slept there most of the time). Clara got bed privileges and never left. I’ll never forget her first night. She planted herself right up against my leg and didn’t move all night. Anthropomorphizing just a little: she seemed incredulous at this development and stayed still as if not to blow the opportunity. She has never once gotten off the bed at night unless she was about to be sick.

The Unwanted Behavior

A black and tan dog rests her head on the bed covers and looks seriously at the camera
I’m pretty sure this photo from August 2013 was Clara’s first night getting to sleep on the bed

So what was Clara’s undesirable behavior on which I used negative reinforcement? Was she bullying other dogs? Being noisy? Trying to play or otherwise making trouble at night? No. It was that every night as I was getting ready to go to bed, she got in bed before me in my exact place. She got right up against my pillow and made herself comfortable right where I planned to sleep. Every. Single. Night.

So every night when I was ready to go to bed, I needed Clara to move.

Years before, in another context, a trainer I respected told me that while she let her dogs get on her bed and sleep with her if they liked, she never used treats on the bed. She said the bed was rewarding already and hanging out on the bed was a privilege. Also, she discouraged play on the bed because she wanted it to be a place for relaxation.

I took these words to heart, probably out of the context in which she originally meant them. No treats, no play on the bed. Check.

The result: I left myself with no potent positive reinforcement methods to move my dog. And it didn’t occur to me to try a hand target, for instance, and reinforce with petting and sweet talk. Or I could have made some other area on the bed extra enticing with fluffy blankets. Neither of these would probably have worked against “that special spot” but I wish I had at least tried.

How I Used Negative Reinforcement

Every night I made Clara move over by saying, “Move,” and nudging her or pushing into her space. I did this knowing it was not in concert with my ethics, but I couldn’t think of any alternatives. I wasn’t forceful about it, but R- is R-. You can get avoidance with a tiny stimulus. And in the typical progression of negative reinforcement, Clara started moving away earlier in my behavioral sequence, before I even said anything. All I had to do was walk toward my place on the bed and she leaped up and out of the way. (She never stopped getting there in the first place.)

I didn’t like this. It made me sad for my dog to see me coming and move away as if I had prodded her with a stick. That’s the thing about R-. I wasn’t even touching her at this point. I didn’t have to. She saw the precursor, which had become the (aversive) cue to move, and she moved. And the move was recognizable as a move away from something unpleasant. It didn’t have the look of a happy, positively reinforced behavior.

This has bothered me for freaking years: my beloved friend springing out of the way as if I were a danger to her.

What I’m Doing Now

Enter Lewis. Nothing like a new dog in your life to make you rethink things.

The first couple of nights, Lewis chose to sleep in a dog bed on the floor. Then he got up on the bed with Clara and me. Then he moved close to me and started to snuggle.

Then he decided he wanted Clara’s current place right next to my head and upper body. He is an ambitious little guy, and whatever Clara has, he wants. It was not OK with me for him to bump her out of her place, but Clara wasn’t assertive enough to stand her ground. I was going to have to move a dog around on the bed again.

So I thought about it for two seconds and decided the “No food on the bed” rule was going to go. I took the ridiculously easy option of grabbing four pieces of kibble from a jar, getting Lewis’ attention, and tossing two of them where I wanted him to go. Then I used the other two to bring Clara next to me (her usual spot) when he was out of the way. (Neither of them resource guards kibble.)

Instead of a dog looking up at me worriedly as I approached, I had two cheerful faces looking up at me. “Here come our last two treats of the day. Where are you going to toss them?”

One Other Change

Lewis’ arrival brought another change: my bed is now covered with chew items and toys. I see two Nylabones, a water buffalo horn, one of those hard tree roots, three stuffed toys, one unstuffed toy husk, and a piece of cardboard. Obviously, the “Bed is only for sleeping” rule has gone away as well. (All chews have risks; I’m not making recommendations for anyone else’s dogs.)

This means there are other forms of reinforcement available for Lewis besides comfort and cuddling. So when I direct him away from my spot, I’m not sending him to a desert. I toss the kibble toward one of his favorite items. He may settle there, or he may return to cuddle against my legs. His choice.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is curled up on a colorful blanket
Lewis doesn’t look too unhappy with his “second choice”

Fallout

No aversive is too small to be concerned about. I know of a dog who started growling and snapping at his owner when she brought out the Scotch tape to work on the “hide your face” trick. I know of another who became dangerously aggressive after his owner used a squirt bottle on him. I even know of one who started biting the family after being removed bodily from the couch, quite similar to my issue.

Clara has never been aggressive, lucky for me. The fallout for us was the avoidance. Her positive conditioned emotional response to me was damaged. Probably only in a small way, since there were so many pleasant experiences on the other side of the scale. But I really don’t want any of my dogs to see me coming and think, “OMG, better move!”

The Reason for This Post

I imagine I’ll get some horrified responses from fellow positive reinforcement-based trainers at my admission of recently using negative reinforcement to get a behavior. But this is not a new admission. Here’s a post where I listed situations in which I may have used it. I don’t condone it; in fact, I hate the insidiousness of it, and I always strive to figure out a better way. As I improve as a trainer, I can eradicate it and make things more fun for my dogs.

But I also expect the opposite reaction, that the issue is ridiculous and beneath consideration. “She wrote a whole post about how sad it was that her dog had to move over!” These readers may say my dogs need to toughen up or even that I am letting them dominate me.

But my reasons for the post are bigger than that one small behavior. One reason was to share that I took something too literally and didn’t think for myself. That is a mistake I make as a non-professional. I just don’t have the breadth of experience to avoid misapplying things as “rules.” The other, more practical reason for sharing is that I—and all of us—can always reconsider a training technique. Nothing should be below scrutiny.

I regret using my body as something to avoid.

Clara and Lewis

I’m glad Clara now gives me an eager look when I approach the bed at night, waiting for her pieces of kibble. (Kibble! That’s all it took!)

And Lewis doesn’t always vie for her place now. He waits next to the bed to see where I will throw his kibble. Sweet!

And the irony: Lewis is not a sensitive soul. I never tried it, but I’m pretty sure from other experiences that he wouldn’t have yielded to my body pressure at all. He is a master at getting suddenly limp and very heavy.

I’m glad for both of them I finally used my brain and stopped listening to a voice from long ago.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is sitting on a maroon rug next to a bed, looking up at the camera
Lewis waiting for his directional kibble

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Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson



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