What the Vacuum Taught the Dog Trainer


Dog training is such a glamorous job. Liver and hot dogs embedded under your finger nails, cleaning up potty messes, wearing rubber shoes to work in case your shoes get peed on (it happened once!), and yes...vacuuming and mopping. *sigh*

I admit that for me, the first three situations are preferable to the final two. I just hate vacuuming and mopping 6,000 square feet of classroom.

At home, I am relatively spoiled with a fantastic Dyson vacuum. I remember excitedly awaiting its delivery, and being shocked at what a great product it was. If I had a Chihuahua instead of a Chow mix and a Saint Bernard, I might need to crate my dog to prevent her from getting sucked up by the ultra-strong Dyson. I know this because my Dyson recently consumed a dust bunny under my bed that was nearly Chihuahua sized with no trouble.

Owning a Dyson, I have a strong reinforcement history for vacuuming quickly and efficiently. At the classroom, the vacuuming process is entirely different. It is slow, tedious, and a task which is made marginally better by my iPod and Madonna's "Immaculate Collection."

At the classroom, we have this old Hoover vacuum. The thing sucks; figuratively, not literally. I swear it could hardly pick up a kitten's toenail clipping. The first time I used it, I wondered if I were on some sort of hidden camera reality show. This must be a joke, right? I continued vacuuming, imagining throngs of television watchers laughing at me as I stomped through my task.

Occasionally, I'd come across a minuscule treat crumb on the floor, the kind of job that my Dyson would not blink an eyelash at, if she had eyelashes. (Yes, the Dyson is a she.) I'd go over the speck of food again and again in frustration, hoping that the Hoover was also in on the joke and would spontaneously start working as well as my Dyson. Alas, it was not to be.

I cleaned out the filter. The Hoover let me down again. I cleaned out the roll bar. No dice.

Only then did I realize that I needed to employ two incompatible, alternative behaviors. A) Just pick things up if I know the vacuum won't get them. This really does save time and frustration, in the end. B) Add a Dyson to my wish list of things to get for the classroom.

What happened here, and how is it relevant to dog training?

Dog trainers frequently recommend the use of a training technique called exinction. Extinction is, essentially, the absence of all four quadrants - it is not punishing, not rewarding, but completely ignoring an unwanted behavior. "Being a tree" (standing completely still with the leash anchored against your sternum) when the leash goes tight is an example of extinction. We begin moving again when the dog chooses to remove tension from the leash by stepping in the owner's direction (positive reinforcement).

In the "Be a Tree" example, pulling on the leash is a learned behavior with a strong reinforcement history. Reinforcement increases behavior, so the more dogs learn "pulling works," the more likely they are to pull. Extinction is a frustrating process - it's hard to accept that something which has always worked is no longer fruitful or productive.

A human example might be a soda machine. Each day, you put in your money and a soda comes out. One day, it doesn't. You go back the next day, still nothing. The following week, you might assume the machine has been fixed, so again you put in your money. When nothing comes out, an extinction burst might result. You may begin shaking, kicking, or slapping the machine, desperately trying to quench your thirst and vent your frustration.

What happens after the extinction burst? You give up and try something different. Another soda machine, a drink from the fountain. Picking up the treats or buying a new vacuum. Walking on a loose leash.

Perhaps three months down the road, you stare down your arch-nemesis, the soda machine. You contemplate forgiveness - maybe we can try just one more time to make this work, for old times' sake? You put in your money, press the button, nothing. Chances are, at this point, you give up. You are less likely to frequent this machine in the future. The reinforcement schedule has been broken and replaced with....nothing.

When using extinction, it is important to remember that you can spontaneously have these brief spontaneous remissions of the behavior. Generally, as time progresses, they will become less frequent, less intense, with shorter durations, until the behavior disappears altogether.

It is also important to remember that if the behavior gets reinforced again, even one time, you may have a full-blown remission. If the soda machine works one day, you're more likely to start going back to it regularly. Using extinction must be carefully managed to prevent reinforcement of the unwanted behavior.

A final note before I end for today: extinction tends not to work so well for self-reinforcing behaviors like mounting, digging, chewing, nipping/biting, certain types of barking, chasing prey animals, etc. In these situations, it is best to implement a training plan which may consist of redirection, desensitization and counterconditioning, or the training of alternative, incompatible behaviors.

Since I stayed late to vacuum last night, I'm looking forward to tonight's classes in my nice, clean facility, to liver and hot dogs under my nails, and puppy kisses! Until next time, dogsters!

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