Sunday, September 7, 2008

What has Dog Training got to do with Plastic Bags?

Ever since learning about clicker training and other methods of positive reinforcement, I've begun to notice ways in which such principles apply not only to Nutmeg but also to myself.

Here's a brief synopsis of the four ways you can train a dog, or really any animal. (Okay, I'm not so sure about amoebas or bugs... but mammals, birds and fish for sure!)

When we're talking training, "positive" means that something is added, and "negative" means that something is taken away. It can be confusing, because usually when we say "positive" and "negative" we mean "good" and "bad," but in this context it has a much less emotionally charged connotation.

A reinforcer is anything that the training subject finds pleasurable - food, a toy, attention, etc. A punisher is anything the training subject finds unpleasant - a smack, a shock, etc.

There are four quadrants of training (excuse the lame little diagram):

+ reinforcement + punishment


- reinforcement - punishment

Positive Reinforcement: Adding something desireable to increase the occurence of a behaviour. Example: Doggy sits, she gets a treat.

Negative Punishment: Adding something undesireable to increase the occurence of a behaviour, and then removing it once the behaviour has been demonstrated. There are actually two sub-categories of this one.

  • Escape: The animal receives an unpleasant stimulus, which is only removed after it performs the desired behaviour. Doggy wears a shock collar and receives electric shocks until it comes back to its owner. Once it comes back, the shocks are turned off. Eventually this leads to...

  • Avoidance: The animal does something to avoid receiving an unpleasant consequence Doggy comes when called in order to avoid the shock.

Positive Punishment: Adding an unpleasant consequence to decrease a behaviour. Doggy jumps up on visitors, Doggy gets a smack from her owner.

Negative Reinforcement: Removing something pleasurable to decrease a behaviour. Doggy nips her owner during play, owner removes playtime and ignores Doggy.

As you can probably guess, most positive reinforcement trainers use a combination of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and avoid the use of punishment at all costs. For example, I recently trained Nutmeg to hold a small bucket in her mouth. I could have done this a number of ways. Many old-school hunting dog trainers use an ear pinch or shock collar to train what is called a "forced retreive". The dog receives a painful ear pinch or an electric shock unless it picks up an item. Once it's holding the item in its mouth, the pain is removed. I could have done this to train Nutmeg - but I think it's barbaric. Instead, I used the clicker and gave her a click and a treat everytime she sniffed, mouthed, picked up and held the bucket, progressively upping the ante. If she did not perform as I intended (e.g. by picking up the wrong end of the bucket) she did not get a treat. Within a week I had a fairly reliable bucket-hold, and I had a dog who was excited to work. And looked completely adorable too. :0)

Anyway, this post was meant to be about me, and how some of this theory applies to my own life and behaviour, wasn't it.

An example that I've become particularly aware of these days is my reliability with resusable shopping bags. I'm happy that they've become pretty trendy nowadays, because I've always hated those nasty plastic bags that clog up not only landfills, but every nook and cranny in the kitchen. They only hold 4 bananas, so I end up returning from the grocery store with about 12 of the things, whereas one cloth bag would be sufficient.

Despite my fondness for them, it's not uncommon for me to forget to bring them to the grocery store. If the consequences are good (or bad) enough, the chances of increasing this behaviour are better. Let's look at a few ways this happen at the three grocery stores I tend to frequent.

At Superstore, I have to buy plastic bags for 5 cents each: Positive Punishment - paying extra is an unpleasant thing for me, so I decrease the behaviour of forgetting my cloth bags.

At IGA, I get 3 cents off my grocery bill for every cloth bag I bring: Positive Reinforcement - getting money off my bill is a pleasurable experience, so I increase the behaviour of brining cloth bags.

At Safeway, there is no consequence (positive or negative) for bringing cloth bags, so in this case my behaviour of using them is extinguished because it goes unnoticed.

I'm proud to say that my cloth-bag-bringing is at about 90%. There are some other reinforcing consequences for using them: sometimes a cashier will thank or praise me (positive reinforcement); they're easier to carry (negative punishment - removes the hassle of carrying lots of plastic bags); and there's the environmental aspect (negative punishment - we avoid global catastrophe).

Obviously, there are some ways these shops could further increase my behaviour. For example, Superstore could charge 25 cents instead of 5 cents per plastic bag. That's like upping the wattage on a shock collar. Make the punishment worse! Similarly, IGA could take off 25 cents instead of 3 cents for every cloth bag I use. That's the equivalent of using some stinky garlic sausage instead of boring old kibble for training Nutmeg!

As it stands, Superstore's technique is the most effective one for me - punish plastic-bag users! And actually it's really effective. I hardly see anyone in Superstore needing to use plastic bags. Imagine a positive reinforcement trainder singing the praises of punishment!

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