Sunday, September 19, 2010

Training Opposite The Tendency/Theory of Opposite Action

Yesterday at at the barn where I take riding lessons, my instructor, Mary Flood of Wildfire Farm was telling a student to "train opposite the tendency" because her horse had a tendency to raise his head when she stopped. Rather than trying to fix the halt, they worked on the horse's tendency to raise his head by training him to walk with his head lower. She pointed out they could practice halting over and over but likely that would mean only getting 1 out of 10 correct. The net result of that would be practicing wrong most of the time. The raised head was a symptom (I think a symptom of being out of balance but I'm not 100% positive). So it was important to fix the problem, not the symptom by training opposite the horse's tendency.

This caught my ears, since there's a psychologist, Marsha Linehan who has created a therapy for people with extreme emotional and behavioral problems which extensively uses the Principle of Opposite Action to get people to change their emotions. In a nutshell, this is billed as a skill the patients learn to do (one of many skills; don't worry, this is not their only recourse) such that they engage in behaviors consistent with the opposite of an unpleasant emotion they feel. For example, if you feel overwhelmingly angry you act like you aren't by smiling and offering to do a favor for the person who has just irritated you and remarkably eventually you don't feel so angry anymore.

Although that may seem a bit trite & gimicky it turns out that humans at least with respect to facial emotion expression actually can feel pleasure when they are made to smile. Experiments have shown that if you can hold their cheek muscles up or give them botox so they can't frown their mood will change just from the physiological feedback their brain is getting from their face.

This is then coupled with the social feedback they get when they don't look angry (people no longer afraid to approach the grouch=more pleasant social interaction) and their negative mood improves even more because of how people are treating them.

So this made me wonder to what extent the same thing is happening in horses or dogs with training. Many of the postures a dressage horse learns look like the postures of a confident stallion. Does practicing this confident posture increases their feelings of confidence? And conversely if one is overly confident but has to submit repeatedly does this reduce his dominance?

When I took Ivan (my terrier) to work on his aggression issues, we trained him using an electronic collar to fetch even though he already knew how to do a play retrieve or a prey drive motivated retrieve. The idea was that Ivan learned to comply quickly to avoid pressure by first holding, then taking and holding, then taking holding and giving back an object. Even though he's not a retriever and retrieving goes against his nature, the idea was that we would have a more livable dog-owner relationship if Ivan did my bidding by bringing and relinquishing stuff to me. The force fetch is definitely training opposite the terrier tendency if ever there was one. Ivan's loves to carry things around but its in a very proud "hey look what I killed today" kind of way even if its only his sister's bone that says "bitch" on it.

I have had terriers my entire life (off and on) and have had a very ambivalent relationship with them because they are smart and curious and cute and they are also little killing machines. If you take umbrage with that characterization, please understand I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with killing machines. Back in the day, the farmer needed a small dog to kill vermin that got into feed and went after his chickens. The horse breeder still needs the groundhogs exterminated so his pastures and riding venues won't be full of dangerous holes where horse can break their legs. The city dweller needed a critter to rid warehouses of rats that spread plague. Terrier type dogs had to be extraordinarily fast and kill quickly or be bitten, get infections and die. If you are a rat and you are going to die its probably a lot better to die from a quick shake than to die of slow poison.

However killing machines can be difficult for the average person who doesn't have a lot of time to devote to training a pet or the average person who wants to train but doesn't know how to train to to live with; just ask Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The reason Dorothy had Toto in the first place was because she lived on a farm where his killing machine tendencies were valuable. The reason Toto was on death row with the neighbor and the sheriff forcing Dorothy to run away to save him was Toto was a terrier and he didn't discriminate between rats in the corn crib and Mrs Gulch's cat. If you think about it, the entire driving force behind one of the most popular children's books and movies of all times was a terrier. Being a terrier is being a force of nature and to an extent being at the mercy of your nature. It is "bred in the bone".

Interestingly, practicing the retrieve as well as other obedience exercises using very low levels of electronic stimulation for noncompliance has made a world of difference in the life of Ivan. Surprisingly, it has not made him fearful. This summer I took him to our office picnic and he got tons of attention which made him wiggle his butt till I thought it would fall off. He adores attention more than anything except maybe trying to kill small objects. Everyone exclaimed over how wonderful he was and he heeled on a loose lead and sat calmly and had treats and had fun. I even took him to get my food at the buffet and he didn't pull or act like an idiot as 100% of the other dogs had done. Previously he would not even eat when other dogs were around (a sign that he was if not fearful at least on edge) but at the picnic he did his tricks and ate barbecue and was as good as any labrador retriever or border collie or poodle.

He was almost too good. One woman wanted to buy a dog just like him to which I had so say, "Oh really you should not. He is now a wonderful dog but it was sooooo much work to get him to this point. A normal family should never buy a dog like this!" (To be fair to the breed, Ivan is not neutered which certainly has contributed to his issues and he had a negative experience with an older dog as a puppy due to my lack of forethought which has also contributed to his defensive tendencies and because he was easy to train using positive methods as a puppy I mistakenly though that he would be easy to keep under control once puberty hit; Wrong! Once puberty hit he didn't care about food or toys so exclusively positive methods were fruitless. Most male Jack Russell type terriers are going to be like this without a ton of training. It is my opinion based on living with 3 of them and observing countless they are not the ideal family dog despite what My Dog Skip and Wishbone seem to imply!)

When I finally broke down and approached a trainer about training with avoidance methods I felt tremendously guilty. At times I still hear echos of my Catholic School ethics teacher saying that the ends can't ever justify the means. However, having been in the riding world for the past year it is clear to me that the vast majority of training horses receive would be classified by dog trainers as "negative" or based on avoidance principles. In riding the aids range from the slightest tap to an outright kick or flick of the whip. Horses naturally move away from pressure and the idea is to use the smallest amount necessary so it registers with the horse and then to immediately reduce the pressure once there's compliance. Its simply not safe to have a riding horse that only does what he wants when he's in the mood to get a cookie or to be petted. Clicker training from the back of a horse is not practical. A warmblood gelding might always be in that mood. A thoroughbred stallion around mares might be in that mood never. A 1400 lb skittish animal that does not obey can also be a killing machine. While being ridden and being led obedience by a horse is simply essential.

Additionally, watching my friends with their children over the years it occurs to me there often is a good deal more correction than praise. This is very much like real world adult life. At work and on the highway and in our relationships we do a lot of what we do to avoid sanctions and the anger of others. My decision to use the electronic collar with Ivan came from a Dorothy-like place of desperation. I had heard that a dog Ivan was related to had gotten into a fight with another dog and bitten off the other dog's toe. The owner of the two dogs simply took the offender out back and shot him. It seemed like if anything ever happened to me, many prospective owners would not be nearly as tolerant of Ivan's antics as I was. Out of control terriers do not lead a happy lives; at least not for long.

So the upshot of this overly long post is even though its not comfortable to do, sometimes correction and avoidance training are all we have to help a child, person or creature become a good citizen. This is probably one of those laws of the universe or laws of the jungle. I'm not saying this to justify child abuse but I'm saying it because the world does not soley dole out candy and pats on the head. I do agree entirely that the least noticeable aversive should be used and pressure should be removed as compliance is obtained. It is a signal the animal or person has done the right thing and it is also in its own way a reward. With regards to ourselves and the individuals we train, sometimes trying the same thing over and over in an attempt to get it right is self-defeating. Sometimes we must go back a few steps to see what it as the root of the problem and work on that rather than risk practicing incorrectly and inadvertently reinforcing the problem. Of course it really helps to have someone who knows what the problem is. Sometimes when we're stuck with have no idea. The outside perspective of a Mary Flood or a Patrick Nolan can make all the difference. If we are working with adults or simply trying to fix some personal problem or habit, sometimes working completely counter to our emotions at the time can do the trick. Working Oppositite the Tendency is not simply a mental trick, although it starts with telling yourself to try acting a way you don't feel like acting; but then doing those behaviors result in physical and social consequences that can produce lasting change.

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