Sunday, May 16, 2010

They Invented Animal Training


This article was written for the June issue of Dogs Today magazine. Illustration by Kevin Brockbank.

Who invented animal training and what can we learn from them?

The question may seem silly. Animal training is older than the hills. For certain, it is as old as the dog.

That said, most of what we call animal training today fits into the folder of "operant conditioning," a term first coined by American psychologist B.F. Skinner in the early 1930s.

Chase it around the room, and operant conditioning is simply learning from consequences.

Skinner codified the basic principals of operant conditioning, and he invented a laboratory-based mechanical-training machine which rewarded animals with food when they pulled levers and pecked at spots.

Skinner's real claim to fame in the world of dogs, however, is that he hired Keller and Marian Breland -- two young assistants who more or less invented the modern art of animal training.

Teaching Pigeons to Bowl

The Breland's made their first big discovery while working with Skinner in 1943.

As odd as it sounds, the goal on this occasion was to train pigeons to "bowl" a ping-pong ball down a short alley to knock down a few pins. Keller Breland decided to use a hand-held switch to trigger a food reward, rather than a purely mechanical device. A small problem was that the pigeons had no interest in pecking at the ping-pong ball! Though Keller waited for hours for the right behavior to express itself, it never happened. In frustration, Keller decided to give the pigeons a reward for doing anything approximating movement in the right direction. To his amazement, the pigeons caught on pretty quickly, and the completed trick was learned in short order.

Thus was born "shaping," or progressive rewards based on approximating a task.

The second big development occurred in 1945. By this time, B. F. Skinner had left the University of Minnesota, and the Brelands had decided to strike out on their own as professional animal trainers.

While shaping tricks, the Brelands noticed that the animals themselves seemed to be paying attention to the noises made by the hand-held food-reward switches.

Keller and Marian Breland soon discovered that an acoustic secondary enforcer, such as a click or whistle, could communicate to an animal the precise action being rewarded, and it could do so from a distance.

The Brelands called this a "bridging stimulus," (now generally called a bridge) and it dramatically sped up animal training by increasing the amount of information going to an animal.

Thus was born clicker training.

The Rise of Commercial Animal Acts

By now the Brelands had created their own animal training company -- Animal Behavior Enterprises. Their first contract, with General Mills, was so successful that other contracts with movies, circuses, museums, fairs, and zoos soon followed.

Over the next several decades, the Brelands trained more than 15,000 animals representing more than 140 species. At one point, the Brelands had more than 1,000 animals under training at a single time -- a jaw-dropping level of production.

The Brelands did not just train animals; they also trained other animal trainers who went on to work at such venues as Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Sea World. The Brelands themselves signed contracts with such major amusement parks as Marineland of Florida, Marineland of the Pacific, Parrot Jungle, and Six Flags.

Rewards-based clicker training worked so well that in 1951, the Brelands authored an article in American Psychologist, in which they said they thought rewards-based clicker training might work on any animal to train just about anything.

And then something happened. They noticed that clicker training was, in certain circumstances, beginning to fail in ways they could no longer overlook.

When Clicker Training Failed

In a 1961 paper entitled, The Misbehavior of Organisms, Keller and Marian Breland described their first experience with the failure of reward-based operant conditioning.

It seems that when working with pigs, chickens and raccoons, the animals would often learn a trick and then begin to drift away from the learned behavior and towards more instinctive, unreinforced, foraging actions.

What was going on?

Put simply, instinct was raising its inconvenient head.

Though Skinner and his disciples had always maintained that performance was driven by external rewards or punishments, here was clear evidence that there was an internal code that could not always be ignored.

The Brelands wrote:

These egregious failures came as a rather considerable shock to us, for there was nothing in our background in behaviorism to prepare us for such gross inabilities to predict and control the behavior of animals with which we had been working for years.... [T]he diagnosis of theory failure does not depend on subtle statistical interpretations or on semantic legerdemain - the animal simply does not do what he has been conditioned to do.


The Brelands did not overstate the problem, nor did they quantify it. They simply stated a fact: instinct existed, and sometimes it bubbled up and over-rode trained behaviors.

Clearly, every species had different instincts, and just as clearly, a great deal of animal training could be done without ever triggering overpowering instinct. Still, the Brelands noted,

After 14 years of continuous conditioning and observation of thousands of animals, it is our reluctant conclusion that the behavior of any species cannot be adequately understood, predicted, or controlled without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche.


The Problem with Dogs

What does this have to do with dogs?

Quite a lot. You see a small, but vocal and militant group of clicker trainers believe everything a dog does is learned by external rewards, and internal drives are "old school" fiction.

While the Brelands argued that a species could not be adequately controlled without “knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche," the most extreme militants in the world of clicker training now seek to minimize and disavow the very nature and history of dogs.

Dog packs? There are no such things, we are told.

Dominance? It does not exist in feral dogs or in wolves, and never mind the experts who disagree.

Prey drive? Not too much said about that!

Of course, instinctive behaviors and drives do not disappear simply because they are inconvenient.

As Keller and Marian Breland put it,

[A]lthough it was easy to banish the Instinctivists from the science during the Behavioristic Revolution, it was not possible to banish instinct so easily.


Of course, one must be careful to qualify the role of instinct.

Yes, dogs have instincts, but the history of dog breeding has largely been about reducing instinctive drives. As a consequence, most breeds have instinctive drives that are sufficiently attenuated that they are not much of an impediment to basic rewards-based training.

That said, not all dog breeds are alike. Not every dog is a blank slate, as the owner of any herding dog or game-bred terrier will tell you. Prey drive does not disappear because you want it to. Many problematic behaviors in dogs -- especially behaviors in hard-wired working dogs that are being raised as pets -- are self-reinforcing behaviors that express themselves without any external reinforcement at all!

Clicker training, the Brelands remind us, cannot solve everything.

Is rewards-based training the most important tool in any trainer’s box of tricks and methods?

Absolutely. There is not much debate there.

But the Brelands remind us that dogs do not come to the trainer as a tabula rasa, nor should we think of all dog breeds as being more or less the same, or that all responses are equally conditionable to all stimuli.

Dogs and other animals, it turns out, are a bit more complicated that white rats, and the real world is not a laboratory.

In the wild and on the farm, animals have managed to learn, all by themselves, since the Dawn of Time and long before clickers came on the scene. How did they do that? Does the real world have as much to teach us as the lab? Keller and Marian Breland thought it did.

9 comments:

Viatecio said...

A nice read!

What types of reactions do you get from people who read these? Does anyone ever write to the mail column about how awesome the piece is or how wrong you are? Between the "All at Sea with the AKC" article, this one, and everything else you've written for them, I'm surprised no one's shot off their collective mouth at the common sense they read!

PBurns said...

I never read the letters column ;)

But no, I have never been overwhelmed by people who wanted to touch the hem of my garment, nor have I ever been drowned out by applause from the audience ;).

Viatecio said...

You're probably all the better for it.

It's probably the same reason I never allow ratings on some of my YouTube stuff: if I post something original or arty or just a random video, go ahead and say whether or not you like it, but don't DARE rate my opinion or advice, whether or not you dis/agree. It's almost insulting to have someone just say "I don't like this" to the years and sweat that's gone into learning what I know.

Kind of like your assertion that, if someone disagrees and/or has actual, realistic, practical facts that contradict what you say, post them rather than just disagree.

I'm that close to subscribing to the magazine too...I'd really like to see that article on show Labs!

Seahorse said...

Not only was this an excellent read, but the illustration is hilarious. On the subject of commenting, I confess to feeling I comment here too often. I blame the interesting, eclectic content. (G)

Seahorse

PBurns said...

Always love your comments Seahorse! Can't you see my tail wagging?

The ones that are less thrilling are the single-space stream of consciousness ones sent to me by people who need meds, and the ones that ask me dosage rates for their dogs (because they don't want to read the instructions given on the web site), or the ones that ask for some kind of advice and, when it's given (always at a cost to me), they never even send back a note saying "thank you."

** Sigh. **

I have learned that when you write anything, few will take the time to say anything nice, but every crank will take the time to explain the circumstances surrounding your birth while illuminating their own universal theory of perpetual motion and time travel. So in that world, Seahorse, you are a breath of fresh air. THANK YOU!

Patrick

P

Viatecio said...

And of course, when you DO take the time and effort to write, not only do they not say "Thank you," but they most likely just ignore your advice because of "Can't/Won't" excuses, or they'll somehow manage to mess it up, and as a result, mess up their dog. Or something stupid like that. Happens all the time with people who want a 2-second analysis and fix to their dog's behavior problems. It just doesn't work that way, for me, them OR the dog.

I'm afraid I'm one of those stream of consciousness people sometimes...bless your heart for putting up with me :)

PBurns said...

No, you're fine Viatecio. Stream of consciousness is several pages without a paragraph return or a single citation.

Yes, I get those.

P.

Seahorse said...

Patrick, you ought not encourage me. ;) Seriously, I appreciate the extraordinary time and thought, let alone research and attribution, that you put into your wonderful blog. I hesitate for fear of sounding like a ditto-head ("Ditto, Rush!"), so I don't always say thanks, but please know I usually want to. :)

Seahorse

The Dog House said...

Patrick, we don't agree on everything, but I have to give credit where credit is due, and this post is quite simply the best defense of balanced training I have ever read.

Subsequently I have sent the link to quite a few "purely positive" junkies, so my apologies if you get a few quirky comments.

What I've discovered recently is that while the growing pressure against any type of aversive training has reached a near religious fervor, nothing causes more of an uproar than the concept of correcting a puppy.

Obviously we're talking about appropriate corrections. Physically placing the dog in a sit or a down was about the harshest recommendation. The explosion was immediate, and we were labeled animal abusers on site.

We were not suggesting corrections that caused any pain, nor ineffective corrections (correcting after the fact, for example).

I would love to see your thoughts on balanced puppy raising, and whether corrections have their place.

Oh, and keep me in mind if you come across that munchkin article.

Cheers