[00:00:00] Emily: There is so much more to physical, behavioral, and emotional health to affecting behavior change, to helping a learner be the best version of themselves than just operant consequences. There’s no, so much more to learning theory than that, and there’s so much more to behavior than just learning theory.
[00:00:17] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…
[00:00:37] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…
[00:00:39] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.
Last week, Emily and I skimmed the surface of how learning and behavior work. This week we’re coming back for part two, focusing specifically on positive reinforcement and what that means for the pets in your life.
In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about what positive reinforcement is and isn’t, and why taking a prescriptive approach might be messing up your training, toxic positivity and trends, not moments. Let’s get started.
So, Emily, when you and I were talking about the implementation episodes for Dr. Susan Friedman’s episodes, we, decided that there were a lot of topics that we wanted to touch on in relation to how learning and behavior work, and we decided, We wanted to talk about all of those and also wanted to talk about positive reinforcement in general because it is a phrase that is used so frequently in especially the dog training communities.
And so, we have clients ask us all the time, are we positive reinforcement trainers or they, they’re looking for people that fit that bill, and the answer is hard because when you know things about learning and behavior, that’s, uh, kind of a weird question. And so, we really wanted to talk today about what it is, what it isn’t, why that’s a weird question, to help give more information for the folks who are looking for LIMA based trainers, which is ultimately I think what they’re asking for.
[00:02:34] Emily: Yeah, I agree. Although I will say that the word LIMA can also be contentious, and there are a lot of people who use LIMA to mean, I’ll, I’ll be humane with animals until I get stuck and can’t figure out what to do, and then I’ll be as aversive as I need to, to get the job done. So, I, I wanna just acknowledge and recognize that there are a lot of people who don’t like the term LIMA because of the ways that it is frequently misused.
So, it’s really hard to, to come up with a really pithy way of describing what we’re talking about, but what we mean is ethical and humane training that is focused on giving the learner the most control and meeting all of the learner’s needs. And that’s way too long, so we frequently use LIMA as our, like shortcut, our he, heuristic for that whole big phrase.
Um, so I just wanted to clarify that for anybody listening who might have yucky feels about the, the term LIMA. But yes, people also misuse the term positive reinforcement all the time. It’s really common in the dog training world because we’ve got this kind of dog trainer-ized version of the behavior sciences out there, and everybody kind of repeats these, dog trainer-ized versions of things.
And so, we’ve got, we’ve created this echo chamber where we’ve all decided that the definition of positive reinforcement is happy, good, healthy things that animals love to do, appetitive. A lot of times we’re treating positive reinforcement as a synonym for appetitive, and um, and that can be really problematic because either people are trying to make it mean too much, right?
So, positive reinforcement isn’t a synonym for humane training. It doesn’t always mean that the learner has full control, and finds it appetitive and, um, is, is eagerly participating in the process, or people assume that positive reinforcement is happening when it isn’t.
So, being aware of our industry’s misunderstanding and misuse of this term helps us to be better professionals, or if you’re a pet parent, it helps you to be a better shopper, a better consumer when you’re looking to hire a professional. So, let’s define what positive reinforcement actually means. Positive reinforcement just means that in the presence of a certain antecedent, an event that happens in time when a behavior happens in response to that antecedent, the consequence that comes afterwards will strengthen the behavior in, in the future by being added to the learner’s environment. So positive is not good, it doesn’t mean good in this context, it means added to, like a plus sign. And reinforcement means, uh, making the behavior stronger or more reliable.
Those three components, the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence occur together. The antecedent happens, the specific behavior responds to that antecedent, the consequence that happens increases the behavior because it was added to the environment. That’s what that means. That’s what positive reinforcement is.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the learner has control over their outcomes or is enjoying what’s happening. For example, one of my favorite examples of this is actually something that happened to you, Allie, at the sanctuary where we both worked, where there was a fearful dog who was afraid of people and some of the caregivers had been training the dog to approach people to get food, and that sounds like great, right? If, if I just stopped there, it would be like, “Yeah, look at that! That’s a really good example of positive reinforcement resulting in good things.” However, the dog wasn’t actually comfortable approaching people. The dog was just approaching people for that food.
So, the cue to come to the person would happen, the dog would approach, the dog would get food as the consequence, and that behavior did increase because food was added, but the dog became increasingly uncomfortable to the point that she would bite people after she ate the food. And so, then Allie, who was, the kind of behavioral person in charge of that area of that part of the sanctuary, came into that enclosure, and did not know that that’s what the caregivers had been doing, and the dog approached her and bit her.
So, they had, through positive reinforcement, trained this dog to approach and bite people. And obviously that wasn’t their goal or intention, but that’s what happens when we assume that positive reinforcement is always a good thing for the learner, is that we sometimes get dogs who have really yucky feelings about what’s happening, but they’re doing the behavior anyway, and they’re not actually feeling good about it, and that discomfort can express itself as biting, right? So that’s a perfect example of how positive reinforcement does not always mean that the learner’s needs are being met, that they’re comfortable, happy, and enjoying the process.
[00:07:11] Allie: And I think the problem is that when people are talking about positive reinforcement, they’re often taking a prescriptive approach instead of a descriptive approach where they’re saying, “Well, I’m adding food, and therefore it should be positive reinforcement.” When we don’t actually get to know if that’s true without knowing if the behavior is increasing or decreasing in the future. And so, this prescriptive approach can blow up and, and can create situations where people think food doesn’t work, or positive reinforcement doesn’t work. Positive reinforcement is what it is. It doesn’t work or not work. It just is a phrase that explains a behavior phenomenon that is already happening. It’s the outcome.
[00:07:58] Emily: So, it either happened or it didn’t.
[00:07:59] Allie: Right? There’s, there’s nothing works or not works about it. Um, and that’s, that’s not just true for positive reinforcement, that’s true for any of the, the behavioral contingencies that we’re talking about here. Uh, they’re, they’re just describing outcomes. And so, these labels can create unnecessary conflict, can create unnecessary self-limiting beliefs. It can create, uh, situations where people are arguing over things that are not actually happening or not actually true instead of trying to get to the root cause of what is actually happening and we’re wasting time and resources. And for our clients oftentimes money while we’re arguing about semantics, sometimes.
So, just like we talk about with enrichment, we needing to take a des descriptive approach and talk about what we’re actually seeing, and, and the outcomes. The same is true for the behavioral contingencies that we are using as well.
[00:08:59] Emily: Yeah, absolutely. One of my favorite metaphors for this that I, that I use frequently when I’m talking to fellow professionals is that arguing about operant consequences and which consequence is the best, is kind of like arguing about which letters to use in a debate about masterful writing.
You have to learn the letters, know what they are, be able to identify them, see when they’re happening in order to spell, and you have to learn how to spell in order to read and write.
But when we’re talking about masterful writing, nobody’s arguing about which letters to use, right? It’s just we’re on a much broader scale than that, and that should be also true for discussing masterful training. When we’re talking about masterful training, I don’t think it’s particularly productive to be down on the level of the letters and arguing about which operant consequences are occurring because there is so much more to physical, behavioral, and emotional health to affecting behavior change, to helping a learner be the best version of themselves than just operant consequences. There’s no, so much more to learning theory than that, and there’s so much more to behavior than just learning theory.
So, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to be arguing about operant consequences. I think instead we need to be looking at behavior change through the lens of enrichment. And maybe I’m biased, but this is, this is why we talk about enrichment all the time because I believe this to my core, that if we focus instead on identifying what needs are unmet, and meeting those needs, and setting up an environment that promotes physical, behavioral, and emotional health for our learner, and helping them to perform species typical behaviors and safe, healthy, appropriate ways, and develop really healthy, strong, trusting relationships with the people and other animals in their lives, there’s so much more to that type of behavior change than just operant consequences. But if we did that, if that was our focus, every time we’re talking about behavior change, most of the time, the operant consequences that would be occurring as an outcome of how we were working on would actually be positive reinforcement.
But that wouldn’t be our goal, that would be a byproduct, right? The goal would be physical, behavioral, and emotional health so that the animal can be the best version of themselves, and positive or reinforcement would be happening in abundance along the way, but that wouldn’t be the focus of the conversation.
[00:11:30] Allie: So, let’s get into what this actually means. We’ve been kind of talking a little bit more high level here about positive reinforcement, and I know you and I could soapbox about this topic for many, many more minutes, but let’s get into what this actually means for people working with their pets.
[00:11:51] Emily: Yeah, so I think our first takeaway is that positive reinforcement isn’t a guarantee of learner consent or control, or learner enjoyment. So, we have to pay attention to the whole learner and, and their entire environment, not just whether or not they’re doing behaviors that we want more often. That’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, but that’s not the whole puzzle.
So, that is the shift that we should take is instead of assuming that because positive reinforcement is happening, it good training is happening. We should be focusing on learner control and consent and whether or not we’re meeting their needs.
[00:12:27] Allie: And the next part of that is to pay attention to trends instead of moments. So frequently clients will say, “I did this thing, and my pet didn’t do X, they didn’t do the behavior. What do I do?” And my answer is, ” Try again?” It’s, and that sounds a little flippant, but truly my answer is, try again,
does that happen again or does it not? I, it’s hard to tell when we are looking at a very, very specific moment in time, it is so much easier to see what’s going on and to see that larger picture when we’re paying attention to trends and when we’re talking about is our animal enjoying this type of training? Are they providing consent? Trends are going to give us more information than a particular moment because learning isn’t linear. There are going to be moments where your learner isn’t having a great day. It happens to all of us. Maybe you’re, as the teacher or the trainer not having a great day and, and so there may be regressions, but if we are trending in the right direction, that’s more important than what happened in this one particular moment in time. And when I talk to clients about that, a lot of times I see a sigh of relief because there will be times where clients will tell me this situation happened. I reacted in a way that I’m not proud of.
And what I tell them is, you’re human and you reacted like a human, and were going to hopefully gain skills so that you can react in a different way later on in the future if this happens again. But it, are we still trending in the right direction? And if they say yes, we’re still trending in the right direct.
Okay, cool. We, when we know better, we do better. We’ll try to onboard skills so that we can react differently in the future, but it sounds like it was okay. It wasn’t the end of the world that you reacted in the way that you did. And so, I think it’s very freeing to pay attention to the trends and not the moments in, in learning.
[00:14:26] Emily: I absolutely agree, and sidebar, when I was in physical therapy, my physical therapist would say very similar things to me about like how progress isn’t linear and that you’re going to make steps forward and then make steps back, and it’s important not to get discouraged because we’re looking at those trends.
So, it was nice to see that our profession isn’t the only one for whom that is true, right? That I think that’s just true of growth and change in general, regardless of what we’re talking about.
[00:14:52] Allie: And our third takeaway for today, one of the reasons that we often see people saying positive reinforcement doesn’t work, and y’all can’t see my air quotes as I’m saying that phrase, but I can’t say it without the air quotes. So, one of the reasons that we see people saying that is because they don’t actually have something that is reinforcing in that moment, and so there’s no reason for the behavior to continue.
We see this with situations where there’s a lot of distraction going on, and I think one of the things that gets people into trouble is thinking that because a reward works in one scenario, and is actually reinforcing in one scenario, that it would be reinforcing in another. And an example of this is asking for the same behavior in different situations where inside Oso, Oso would honestly do a behavior for a Cheerio or a piece of kibble, half a piece of kibble inside.
Let’s be real. It does not take a lot for his behavior inside to be reinforced. However, when we go outside, even into the backyard, I need to really up the ante. A cheerio or a piece of kibble is not going to actually be reinforcing in that moment, even though it’s food, I’m giving it to him, et cetera.
Again, positive reinforcement means that the behavior has to actually increase or stay the same in the future. It’s an outcome, not an action. So, to be able to, to see everything that we’re talking about, I invite you to teach a trick or use a known behavior that you don’t mind corrupting. So, don’t use your recalls here, don’t use a safety thing. Use a thing that doesn’t matter. For Oso, I would probably choose a head down or, I care about a lot of his behaviors because motion. I would probably choose a head down or maybe even a go to place behavior. I don’t use that super frequently. He, he has a lot of that installed without me having to have a cue for it. So, you’re going to teach a trick and identify the reinforcer for that behavior in three different scenarios, for example, inside, outside and with a distraction. Those would be the scenarios that I would use for Oso.
And you can see, does for example this same piece of food actually reinforce this behavior in all three of these scenarios, or does this toy reinforce the behavior in all three scenario? So, that’s a way that you can really see what we’re talking about of reward does not necessarily reinforce a behavior when we’re talking about it in, in the actual definition of the word.
[00:17:31] Emily: And this is so important because in, even though I’m really glad that this positive reinforcement movement happened and it was definitely an approximation towards a profession that is based in science, ethics, and humane treatment of the learners, one of the, the unintended side effects of that is this kind of toxic positivity that happens where it’s like, ” Oh, You have to be positive reinforcement, anything other than like absolute like joy and being nice and warm fuzzies, um, is a violation of this philosophy.” And that is, that’s not realistic to life. People are allowed to be upset, people are allowed to have confusions, people are allowed to speak out against things that they don’t agree with, and, and even our learners are going to sometimes encounter unavoidable stressors and have moments where they don’t feel good.
And instead of just trying to wrap and bubble wrap and avoid that completely, we should teach them how to successfully navigate those stressful encounters, so that they can be the most empowered and healthy versions of themselves possible. So, here’s a good example of this in kind of human interactions that happened a couple of years ago.
I used to belong to this, uh, community of behavior professionals, and within that community it came out that a trainer was doing some really harmful stuff to dogs. And several other trainers in the area spoke out against the harm that they were doing. Then other trainers came to their defense and were saying, “I thought you believed in positive reinforcement. This isn’t very positive reinforcement about you.” But that has nothing to do with positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean nice all the time and objecting to any discussion of what is and isn’t ethical, and speaking out against harmful behavior, in the name of positive reinforcement is a really good example of that toxic positivity I was just talking about.
You can practice humane teaching and training, and you can also take a stand against harm. Those two things are not in opposition. There’s uh, something called a dialectic, which is, dialectic means two or more seemingly mutually incompatible truths that are simultaneously true. And being able to acknowledge these things that appear to be incompatible but aren’t actually incompatible. And the, the kind of kernel of truth in that, discussion that was happening in that community is that we shouldn’t fall for a logical fallacy called the bandwagon fallacy.
Which is that just because, um, it seems to be trendy to before or against something, we should all just jump on the bandwagon. So, that is true. And simultaneously it is also true that we do need to give each other space to express frustration, or sadness, or indignance at injustices that are occurring. And that doesn’t mean that it is in conflict with this notion of humane training, or LIMA, or positive reinforcement, or whatever label we give to what we do as a community.
[00:20:39] Allie: And that’s another topic that we could spend a very long amount of time talking about. Uh, that would be a great Pro Campus topic. Actually, we should add that as, as a session for Pro Campus.
[00:20:52] Emily: That’s a good idea. Having a, a topic about like how to, first of all, make sure that what you’re opposing is true, and gather evidence first, and then how to oppose it without falling for the bandwagon fallacy.
[00:21:05] Allie: Yeah, I think that would be a great Pro Campus session.
So, mine is for the pet parent since yours was for professionals. We talked a little bit already that just because you think you are rewarding a behavior doesn’t mean it’s reinforcing the behavior. It doesn’t mean the behavior’s going to increase in the future. And so, I’ve seen this time and again when clients are trying to teach, especially recalls, I don’t know what it is about recalls that lends itself to this, but I see this all the time with recalls. And so, I had a client this was years ago, who was trying to teach a recall, and was patting the dog on the head before treating every time. I don’t think the client actually realized that they were doing it, uh, especially after we talked about it. I, I don’t think they realized what they were doing.
But this client was patting the dog on the head before treating every time. And you could see in the body language, the dog was not into that. The dog did not enjoy being patted on the head, and the dog stopped recalling. This dog, the dog stopped coming when called because, the consequence for coming was being patted on the head, which they did not enjoy.
So, they were like, why would I come to you when it means you’re going to pat me on the head? That’s gross. Even though there was food involved, and even though the dog enjoyed other forms of petting. It wasn’t like this was a dog that had massive handling sensitivity issues, or didn’t enjoy being petted in general, this dog did enjoy being petted, but didn’t enjoy being patted on the head in the way that the client was doing this after their recall.
And so, we had to talk through, ” Okay. I know that you think you are doing positive reinforcement. This behavior says otherwise the behavior is decreasing, and so you’re actually punishing the behavior.” By definition of punishment, means a behavior decreases over time. And so, we had to change up what we were doing. And like I said, I don’t think the client realized that they were patting the dog on the head, and so we removed that, we kept the treats, we retaught it, and, and the dog was able to come when called afterwards.
But I see this happening so frequently with folks where people think they are doing positive reinforcement because they’re adding something that they think the animal should like, but in actuality, that’s not what’s happening. And again, this is where we get people saying positive reinforcement doesn’t work because they think that one thing is happening, but another thing entirely is happening.
Thus ends Part Two of Unlocking the Learning Matrix. Thank you for letting us geek out a little bit today. I know that the ins and outs and nitty gritty details of learning and behavior is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I know that for many of you, you enjoy the deep dive that, that we get into sometimes with this.
So, thank you for hanging out today with us. Today we talked about positive reinforcement, what that actually means and why taking a prescriptive approach will set your training back, that positive reinforcement isn’t a guarantee of consent or enjoyment, to pay attention to trends, not moments, and to practice your observation skills by identifying reinforcers for the same behavior in three different scenarios.
Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.
Thank you for listening and happy training.