The other week I wrote a blog about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment – and suggested that the use of a full toolbox of techniques could open the door to more live outcomes for animals in shelters. I received some great feedback, including a comment by Heather:
“I personally am unsure where my line is for which punishment to use in the shelter world for which dog for what behavior until I am there. In the shelter environment the context is so different than in a home with a client. The stakes are so much higher, and we are often left with only a handful of days or less to get a behavior change that could save a dog’s life. This article gets us thinking about where our lines are when we are in that sort of uncomfortable space. I am curious for all of you in this field… of all the things that we can use in our interactions with shelter dogs, what do you find acceptable if the outcome is euthanasia?”
First, we need to remember that none of you are really using just positive reinforcement… from leashes and time-outs to citronella collars and ignoring, you are already using a bigger toolbox than you may be aware of!
What tool should you use? One that is strong enough. Ask the question – What is the motivator for the behavior? I have written in the past about motivators and how sometimes they might be difficult to control and recognize. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement work when they are strong enough (not painful enough – but strong enough). Something startling and uncomfortable can be very powerful reinforcers – but take skill and timing. Startling and uncomfortable is force – the animal is working to escape or avoid as opposed to working to obtain. These motivators just need to be more motivating than the stimuli responsible for the behavior you want to modify. If it works and is the least invasive – that is what we should use… Which means we need to know our science of learning and we need to know when to apply what tool to what behavior…
I want to share a great example that was just featured by Kelley Bollen (a masterful modifier of behavior if you have the chance to see her) at the ASPCA/Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference hosted by Cornell earlier this month. The example is actually by Jean Donaldson (another great resource for those interested in learning more about behavior modification in shelters) using the strong tool of the head harness to modify on-leash dog reactivity or leash frustration. See the video here:
The head harness is being used as a negative reinforcer. The pressure is applied until the dog settles in the presence of the other dog – the moment he settles, the pressure is off. It is important to note that the head harness is perceived as aversive by the dog – and it is a powerful reinforcer (or punisher, depending upon how it is used) – but that does not mean it is causing horrible pain. It is absolutely uncomfortable – and so much so that the reactivity quickly dissipates… That is using that toolbox! You want to change a behavior in a human, try nails on a blackboard – it does not cause physical pain but it sure is motivating! And while I certainly would never want to torture someone with those nails on a blackboard, if doing so can save their life… cover your ears!