Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Signs of Affection

Do Dogs Really Like Hugs? | i Love Dogs

When I saw this post last week on Facebook, it piqued my interest.  That's mostly because my cockatoo and I have been having a discussion of late about what constitutes friendly gestures and what is actually aggression under the guise of friendship.  He's pretty much convinced now that anything ending with his beak through some piece of another creature's skin is going to earn him time in solitary.  Bleeding is not a good outcome of a friendly gesture.

I'd also been watching Stinky,my elderly, mostly blind and half-deaf cat, who has changed the parameters on "cuddling" dramatically.  Where he used to be aloof and kind of just there without much contact, now, while he'll sleep in the living room in his spot on his designated blanket, he wants to visit me early in the morning in my bed.  There he wants to lay his entire body length, which is considerable as he's a big cat and sixteen pounds of dead weight when he's sleeping, against my back, legs, or whatever else isn't moving.  I'm allowed to caress his head, neck and most of his back, but not his midsection unless I'm anxious for first-aid practice.  Not if he's lying down.  Standing midsection strokes are fine.  Lying down, not.

And then there are the horses.  Each of them has a different reaction to my gestures of affection.  Zip loves being stroked and fussed over but expects to be allowed to reciprocate, which can be bothersome and even a little painful.  His level of love is a hazard to humans as he thinks nothing of putting his head atop mine.  That's one heavy head when you're not expecting it.  Duke wants to be rubbed and cuddled and generally would prefer to be brought into the house now and then.  That's not in the cards.  Dolly rarely reciprocates but loves to be caressed and hugged.  Leo is the most human-oriented animal I own, which, like Zip, makes him a bit of a hazard.  His face seems to be wherever I look while I'm working, and it's only inches from mine.  He begs for hugs of the sort we like to bestow on each other and our animals.

Duke welcomes any hug anytime.

Dakota is a different horse.  It took me two years to get him to tolerate head hugs.  Not head-shy, just not into that level of intimacy.  Even now, eight years later, he's still not the one most likely to beg for contact.  He's stopped fleeing at the thought, but he's not going to initiate it either.

So this blog post based on information from the Penn Vet Behavior Facebook page gave me some of the answers I'd been missing.  Of course some animals are more protective of their personal space than others are.  Humans are like that too, and we accept it.  The woman I knew slightly and attempted to hug at a dinner party last weekend seemed uncomfortably stunned that I'd touched her.  I got that and stopped trying to be physical about my joy at seeing her again.  The one who recently offered me a hand for the shaking but kept all her fingers together so the experience was more pump-handle than warm hand embrace seemed to be trying to do the socially acceptable thing without actually crossing the line into discomfiting contact.  And I accepted that as it was given.  Perhaps we need to give animals more of a right to their individuality than we sometimes do.

Oh, we're very good at "well, she's a rescue, so she's a little afraid of feet and mustaches," and we'll roll with "he's a [fill in the breed], and they're more protective than affectionate."  But we still kind of gloss over the "He just isn't that into you."

Stinky is more of a "if it fits, I sits" kind of hugger.

I've said it before, and I'm going to say it again:  Know your animal, whatever species, and stop beginning sentences with "All horses/cats/dogs/gerbils/honey badgers..."  Granted we humans probably have more psychiatric issues than any animal is ever likely to have.  We've created a society that's nearly impossible to live in without some level of anxiety.  But just because they're not human doesn't mean animals don't have their own personal opinions that need to be considered.

So, good on Penn Vet Behavior and Sonya Simkins, author of the linked article.  Keep reminding us that we're really not all that and a bag of chips, and we've got a long way to go before we really understand our animal companions and fellow travelers on this planet.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What's your decision-making style?

When Making Decisions, Are You a Satisficer or a Maximizer? | LinkedIn

The article linked above is a very clear explanation of the two main categories of decision-making.  In brief, a "Satisficer" is someone who sets a rubric--a set of rules or qualifications that the option must meet--and chooses the first option that meets those standards.  I am a Satisficer.  The decision-making process, in my head, is simple.  I figure out what I want, find that thing, and I'm done.  If I can't find the perfect option, I pick the closest thing to it.

On the outside this looks a lot like making snap decisions, but it's not.  It just b-a-r-e-l-y side-steps the craziness of second-guessing myself.  I learned Satisficing at the knee of a brilliant and cut-throat businessman:  my dad.  He said (more than once, as I'm a slow learner), "There's no right decision.  There's only the best decision for that moment in time."  Granted, this approach can drive Maximizers to drink if it's the one used by a partner (life or business), but it's pretty efficient.

It's also how I wound up with such an odd assortment of horses, vehicles, living situations, investments, and personal possessions.  In my book, that's what makes life interesting.  My friends think I need help.

The second main category mentioned above is "Maximizing".  The Maximizer is the person who continues to search even after the decision has been made and all options appear to have been exhausted.  There's no such thing as exhausted options to a Maximizer.  If s/he finally settles on a house to purchase, s/he will spend endless hours poring over additional real estate ads looking for that better deal or for proof that the option chosen was the absolute best one.

This approach would drive a Satisficer like me completely insane.  "Pick one!" I yell in my head as I watch my friend try on seven nearly identical dresses. Eventually I also yell it out loud, which may be why she stopped taking me shopping with her.  In my defense, she picked me because 1) I have better taste than she does, and 2) I'm good at making decisions.  Had she picked a fellow Maximizer, they'd still be at Marshall's with armloads of dresses for that 2009 dinner-dance she and her hub were going to attend.  Or she would have chosen three, taken two spares with her to the dinner, and done quick bathroom costume changes at appropriate moments.  Maximizers lend comic relief.

I think it's obvious how this applies to this horse life, but I'll belabor that a smidge here anyway to fill up the page.  As I said, I have always had a rather odd bunch of horses in my life.  I bought the first one because that ugly, attitudinal Appy mare was the only thing in my price range ($800) at the time at the only barn I knew about that sold horses.  Easy-peasy.  When that didn't work out so well (she gave me some fun times and my first major concussion), her replacement was the only male horse I could afford to trade her in on.  At least I'd set two qualifications at that point:  price and gender.  I didn't know enough to add more, like "training" and "soundness".

No, not a really tall toddler.   At 34.5 inches, Duke met two
of the qualifications in my rubric as a replacement for 15.3 hh
Rat, my daughter's Morgan.  1) He's a horse. 2) He's the spitting image of Rat.
Done and done. 

So it went down the line.  As my knowledge base grew, so did the requirements in my rubric.  But in each case I never looked back, never looked around, and never second-guessed.  I worked the choice until it stopped working, then made a new one.

My Maximizer friends are hell bent on finding the Perfect Horse.  One of them will never buy a horse because her standards are way higher than her budget will support.  Another will buy something soon, and in a year find something better and pass the first one along and so on, because that's how this particular Maximizer rolls.  Most of my friends and family lie somewhere between those extremes.

But this summary leaves out the most popular (and in my view, the most fun) decision-maker of all.  If you haven't read the book Blink, by economist Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, you really might want to add it to your winter reading list.  What else have you got to do now that you've watched all your horse training vids for the eighth time and it's too blasted cold to ride?

Blink is about how we make snap decisions.  I'll guarantee it will make Satisficers smile and Maximizers itch and whimper.  We Sats (I made that up; it's not a thing...until now) are always looking for a quicker way to the end result, so we'll jump at the concept that our brains have ways of sorting options without our being entirely aware that they're doing so.  Maximizers will be screaming at the pages because, "How can you be sure there isn't something better that you're missing?"

Satisificing makes my world go round in some oddly entertaining ways, so I am not likely to change.  But if you find that your decisions are leading you down paths to which you simply can't adjust, you might want to consider switching modes.  We all write our own stories, so write it the way it works for you and phooey on the haters.

Monday, January 13, 2014

How effective is the "Catch him being good" theory?

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Waiting to capture a behavior? | Stale Cheerios Blog

My horses are probably as intelligent as any out here.  At least most of them are.  They  might have some intriguing quirks, but their brains are essentially intact.  Yet no matter how much I plead, yell, cajole and demonstrate the behaviors I'm after, they don't quite get it.

Sure, the nicest thing one can do for any students regardless of species is to notice their best behavior and reward them for it.  The little girl in the first row of English class puts her name and the class period at the top of her paper for no apparent reason, but you like it, so you praise her for it and insist that everyone follow suit (thus ensuring future bullying as she quickly becomes Nerd of the Year).  Your dog brings you your newspaper because he mistook it for a chew toy, and you ignore the motivation and praise the effort, ensuring that he will bring you everything lying around the front yard for the next two days.

Your horse performs a perfect "back away from me while I open the gate" and you pat him and tell him there is no better horse on the planet.  He may or may not know exactly what he did to make you happy, so be prepared for a whole flurry of behaviors, one of which might be "back away from me" but many will be on the order of "swat a fly lift a hoof snort twice blink poop" because your praise wasn't quick enough to target the desired behavior.

The difference isn't in intelligence level among species but in the types of behaviors and their complexity and our inability to cut to the bone of the situation by using task analysis appropriately.  Even the paper-delivery dog may not be sure whether it was the bringing of the paper or how he was holding his tail when he delivered it to you, but those are small differences.

If we really want to put forth the best possible effort to teach our horses what we want them to do, we should take a page from dog trainers and spend as much time as we can actually shaping the behavior we want.  That takes time, energy and focus.

As I discussed last week, horses, though there seems to be evidence to the contrary, do not actually understand human language.  We can teach them to connect our vocal cues ("stand!") with a specific behavior by physically putting him in a spot, speaking the command, then walking away.  If he follows, we can say "No" (I don't consider that a curse word), and put him back in the same spot.  If he stays put for even a second, reward him.  If he doesn't, repeat until you're both sick of the process or he's done the behavior to your satisfaction at least 100 times.


Lucky for me, Duke thinks wearing the bareback pad is a reward.
He'll stand there all day without fussing as long as he can continue
stylin' like a rock star.

Clicker training advocate that I am, I promise that you can cut the learning curve down considerably by the use of the clicker as a secondary reinforcer.  If he stands for a heartbeat, and if you have taught him the basic "This sound means a treat is coming next", he'll be doubly reinforced, once when he hears the click and anticipates his reward, and once when the treat enters his mouth.

Why not just pat him on the head and tell him he's good?  Well, that's fine, and he'll appreciate it, but not as much as food.  Food rewards win hands down every time. Anything more complex (like giving him turnout after he's performed eighteen various behaviors under saddle) results is a more vague response.  He's not clear about exactly why he's being rewarded, and you are going to have to be absolutely certain that the reward you've picked for him is actually part of his personal currency--the stuff he works for.

So catch him being good for sure.  But don't neglect the opportunity to explain to him exactly what you're after.  The process will be more fun and go faster if you're both speaking the same language.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Adding and Deleting Behaviors the Behavioral Science Way

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schedules of reinforcement/interval/ratio/extinction

Every  now and then I lapse into my native language, Psychologese.  This is one of those times.

It's a new year and many of us are facing a list of promises we made to ourselves and others, and it's daunting.  More than daunting.  It's one of the reasons that today is historically the most depressing day of the year.  The stress of the holidays went out with a bang over the weekend, and now 2014 stretches out before us.  From our perspective on the depression scale, it can look like a magic carpet that will fly us above the fray or like a bed of nails surrounded by hot coals daring us to move in any direction.

We get to pick which it is.  At this moment that's not apparent to the most downtrodden of us, but it's the truth.  We decide. We write our own stories, and we can write them however we choose and change them as we go.  Believe it or not, the details of our lives are not predestined or carved in stone.  What appears to be predestination is what happens when we set our feet on a path and refuse to see that there are options for change.

Today I'm talking about how to make those changes.  We'll consider our horses and other pets as well, but this is about every living thing capable of any kind of learning process.  Heck! Even the half-dead orchid on my window sill has the ability to grow toward the sun if I turn it around.  It's not a conscious decision, but the plant is genetically programmed to be a light seeker, and I can give it the opportunity to use that skill.

So are you a light seeker.  You just don't know it yet.

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The best way to change behavior is through behavioral training.  Duh.  What that means is that we decide on a behavior that we like or that will suit our purposes, and whether that behavior is going to come from us or from some human or non-human we're connected with makes no difference.  We pick a behavior, and we set about finding a way to effect it.  That's "effect" not "affect".

The list linked above is a great starting place.  But since some of you probably haven't set foot in an Ed Psych class, let's preamble it with a definition of Reinforcement.  

REINFORCEMENT:  whatever hinky thing it is that makes us want to do the same thing again another time.  Every critter, human and non, has what we in the biz call a "currency".  It's the payback, in whatever form, that will get us to climb that ladder, write that report, do that spin on the hindquarters, jump onto the kitchen counter, make funny faces, and so on.  You sort out who does which and why.

Food is a major positive reinforcer for all living things.  We Earthlings are pre-programmed toward survival, and food, water, air, and shelter are our currency.  Because we humans are also crazy, we have created false gods in the form of social acceptance, trendiness, and some version of "success" that we can't quite describe but which includes a Mercedes.

The key to learning--and unlearning--is the schedule we choose for that reinforcement, and the list linked above is very specific about the kind of learning (and inhibition--extinction--or unlearning that will occur with each type.  It's important, then, not only to determine the subject's currency but to look at the list and choose in advance the kind of learning you're planning on attempting.

Generally speaking, positive reinforcement is the most effective.  The kid makes it to school on time, you give him a cookie when he gets home.  Bingo!  Tomorrow he may do it again...or he may not.  There's always a testing by the subject to make sure there isn't an easier way to get the reward, so don't despair.  It's not you; it's him.  Just hold on and he'll eventually try it again, and again, and again until he  figures out how badly you want this and ups the ante, and you have to find something better than cookies, like a new car.

That's a pretty easy scenario to imagine.  Tell the human what you want, offer him a bribe, and off you go.  It's harder with a non-human-speaking critter, and there's more chance that a combination of positive and negative reinforcement is going to come into play.  Negative reinforcement isn't punishment.  It's the removal of something that makes the subject unhappy in order to get him to do what you want.  When Zip is standing on my foot, poking him repeatedly in the leg while I say (loudly) "Get off!" will eventually irritate him into moving.  Then he gets the positive reinforcement (cookie, pat on the neck, beer, whatever).  So it's a combination of styles because you can't tell him what it is you want in a way he'll understand.

There's more to the scheduling (try here for more details with photos:  http://www3.uca.edu/iqzoo/Learning%20Principles/lammers/schedules.htm)  But let's jump ahead to extinction, since that's something that is always under discussion.  How do you stop a behavior you don't like.  This came up recently regarding a horse playing with the leather straps on his bridle during tacking up.  How do you stop something without punishment, or is punishment the only possible route?

First, if it's something you've been reinforcing, just removing the reinforcer will result in a decline in performance.  Don't give the horse a cookie for bowing for, say, a month, and he will probably begin to hesitate when you give the verbal cue.  Eventually, if you're consistent with the no cookie thing, he'll stop entirely.  The thing with removing reinforcers is that intermittent reinforcement--a cookie every now and then just because you feel like it--results in stronger learning than if you reinforce every effort.  So you have to be religious about not reinforcing.

Better, though, is to replace the unwanted behavior with a similar one that you can reinforce.  If your child is getting up too early because he took your instruction one step too far, you can replace that habit with a specific time when he's allowed to disturb your shuteye and reinforce that instead.  If your horse is too excited to do his spin on the hindquarters so he does it every time you ask him to stand, stop reinforcing that and replace it with the habit of, say, taking one step back.  If he's playing with his bridle so you can't get it on him (your laughter and the attention he got from you were the reinforcers), teach him to lower his head or turn it toward you or something else entirely that preclude bridle molestation, and be sure you don't laugh or respond in any way to his strap-related antics other than to remove the leather from his mouth.

It's a Brave New Year, and time to get on all those nit-picky behavioral issues.  Good luck, and may the Reinforcement Schedule be with you!