Monday, July 12, 2010

More Dancing!

Sorry about the lack of activity here -- we've been gone for a week of family dance camp. Totally, fabulously, fun. Have I mentioned that my New Year's resolution this year was "More Dancing!"? Maybe yes. Anyway, although it's no doubt a tangent from whole behavior science theme, I would like to point out once again that "More Dancing!" is a highly worthwhile motto. Dancing, of course, is good for you physically, since any form of dance pretty much provides aerobic exercise, and since it's fun, you do it for longer than something tedious, like running on a treadmill. Most kinds of dancing provide mental exercise as well. Learning steps involves spacial awareness, memory and the ability to connect intellectual and physical learning. It also provides the opportunity to enter a kind of meditative focus in which everything but the dance disappears. Better still, most forms of dance are social, so you get to have fun and connect with other people at the same time you exercise your body and mind. As blueberries are the perfect food (exceptionally healthful and delicious), dance is the perfect activity. Although I could make a good case for dark chocolate and choral singing.

The best part of dance camp is the chance to hang out with people who like to dance and make music. I find it a very sad thing that most of Western, or at least American, society seems to think of music and dancing as something to be consumed, not something that we produce. Now, I'm all in favor of enjoying the gifts of those more talented than I, and my family is pretty crazed about the dance competition show So You Think You Can Dance, but it's kind of sad to me that most people don't seem to think of music and dance as things that you do. Yourself. With other people.

So here's my behavior science question of the day: Given that music and dancing are inherently reinforcing, why doesn't everyone make music and dance? Perhaps it's because you have to get past the threshold of being "bad" at it before you have a really good time. Certainly playing an instrument is a lot more fun after you've reached a certain level of proficiency. Even comparatively simple kinds of dance take a bit of practice to get the basics to a point where things flow. So what gets people to put in the effort to get to the fun part? Can we sustain effort when it takes a long time to get to the payoff? (Most people, especially children, don't do well at this.) Or do we manage to take joy from small successes, even if it's one clear note or a couple of times that we turn the right direction?

What have you taken joy in learning, and how and why did you choose to learn it?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Taz Talks -- Wii, Wii, Wii All the Way Home

Hey Dudes and Dudettes,

Did you maybe read the Seeker Circuit post Mama wrote a whiles back about how she got all into online shopping, but came to her senses before buying anything? And how she really didn't need to watch the Netflix on the TV after all? Well, guess who came home from the Big Boxes of Goodies store with boxes and wrappings and wires and stuff, and now there is a Wii box and a balance board and expensive pointer thingies.

I would be kinda ticked that the people are spending our meat money on plastic stuff that you can't even chew on, but Mama says it is all about More Funner, which is my personal motto. As in stuff should be More Funner. And apparently after your butt gets fat sitting around watching those Netflix movies on TV, then you can get up and doing goofy moving-around games with the board and the pointers and everything, which is More Funner than regular exercising because of there's a dot that shows you if you're starting to fall over, and cartoons of you hula hooping and ski jumping and everything.

Now personally, Mama is always complaining about the not-fat-ness of my butt, as in "Tazzie, do you have to park your bony butt on my lap?" but I know that exercise is a good thing. Personally, I would rather go running in a park that smells good rather than having a cartoon trainer tell me that I'm doing a good job, but hey, that's just me. The machine does a good job of giving information about what you're doing wrong or right, which is always helpful. Cause it's easier to have fun learning a new trick if the clicker right away says "yes, that's it!" and there's cookies. The Wii machine doesn't have cookies, just "Good job" and the dot that shows if you're wiggling, but it's a start. And it tells you that you have done 17 minutes and burned 43 calories, which is like, one cashew, which might be a little discouraging, but hey. Like I said, getting information back right away is very helpful for learning, so maybe there will be happy human learning, and trimming of the sitting parts.

Or maybe there will be sitting on the couch and eating cheese popcorn and watching the Netflix which has traveled from the computer to the TV, and that will be even better.

Wags and kisses,

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

Sorry, been a while since I had something to say here, since I've been out of town. I thought Taz would take over for me, but apparently he got lazy.

So here's what I was thinking about, last I thought I might write something here....I was listening to the radio about retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan, or maybe it was Pakistan, and it just occurred to me to wonder what would happen if one simply didn't respond. I mean, Palestine and Israel have been retaliating on one another for generations. We, mystifyingly, responded to the 9/11 attacks by going to war on an unrelated country. Everyone knows how well that turned out. But what would happen if someone did something rotten and unacceptable and you just didn't do anything about it?

One of the things that we know from behavior science is that there are some behaviors you can make go away simply by ignoring them. Those of us with kids have surely gotten the information that the best way to handle a temper tantrum is to walk away. If you plead or punish or yell or console, the tantrum becomes endless. If you give in you plaster "SUCKER" across your forehead in large letters, and can pretty much guarantee that your kid will fall to the ground screaming the next time they don't get what they want. But if you walk away (or just stand there, on the unbearable occasions that said tantrum happens in a public place) then the tantrum will just kind of burn itself out, like a fire with insufficient fuel. If a behavior doesn't buy you anything, eventually you just stop doing it.

Of course, this doesn't work for all kinds of behavior. If doing something is self-reinforcing (you get something out of it), then ignoring the behavior doesn't help. If a kid (just some kid, mind you, not necessarily MY kid) makes a habit if dumping her backpack on the couch and leaving it there every time she comes home from school, ignoring this annoying habit is not going to change it. It is marginally easier to offload your backpack on the couch than to take it to your room, so the behavior rewards itself. Ignoring it won't help. Apparently, repeated requests to move the backpack also won't help. Removing the couch might, but probably not. But I digress.

What I'm wondering is whether bombing people is an intrinsically rewarding behavior. I mean, it doesn't really strike me as good fun, but I guess I've never tried it. And if the people who are actually doing the bombing die in the process, I suppose those folks aren't going to go back and bomb some more people because they had a good time. But if you bomb people because you have decided they are evil and cruel, and then if they bomb you back, it's kind of proof that you were right. If nothing changed because of your attacks, wouldn't that make the whole thing less exciting? Maybe you'd try harder for a while to up the ante to get a reaction (technically, this is called an extinction burst), but you might find that it would be harder to convince your folks that they wanted to blow themselves up in order to bomb people who didn't really respond.

Of course, I'm no expert on military strategy. But the people who ARE experts on military strategy have spent hundreds of billions of dollars not accomplishing very much. Not responding is, at least,a whole heck of a lot cheaper. And unless people are actually working on taking over your country, it's probably a good deal safer as well. I could be out and out wrong about this, but I suspect that, although leaders always promise a swift and decisive response to aggression, sometimes the best response might be no response at all. As those of us who are veterans of the child tantrum wars can attest, not responding is counter to all instincts. Mostly it's not the kind of thing that occurs to you in the moment as the right thing to do. But sometimes it really is best to heed the classic advice "Don't just do something, stand there."

Friday, June 18, 2010

What Dog People Really Argue About -- Food

I have a great idea for a book that will make me millions. Except that there's really only a few paragraphs worth to say on the subject, so you'll get it here for free.

What dog people really argue about it what to feed their dogs. OK, maybe this is off topic from the whole behavior science thing, but what can I's free insights. So anyway, dog people and dog food. If you are someone who says "What's the big deal? You feed dogs dog food -- what else would you do?" then you may have dogs, but you are not a dog person. Dog people argue about whether to feed dogs raw food, cooked food, kibble or some combination of the above. The raw food people argue about whether or not to feed veggies, pureed or cooked, and the merits of prey model vs. "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" aka BARF. And yes, they do call it BARF with a straight face.

The raw food movement is predicated on the fact that wolves eat raw meat, not kibble, so it stands to reason that dogs would do better eating raw meat and raw bones, rather than extruded grain-based products. But here's my idea. Dogs became dogs by hanging around human habitation in order to eat stuff off of scrap heaps and garbage dumps. They evolved into the friendly, let me hang about your feet, beings that they are because of the opportunity to eat leftovers and the grody stuff like intestines that we didn't want. So really, the evolutionarily appropriate diet for dogs should be the leftovers and scraps of whatever it is that we are eating. My dogs are extremely enthusiastic about this idea. In the name of science, they have volunteered to lick all of the plates and pans, and to empty out any leftover containers before they get forgotten and ugly in the back of the refrigerator. Taz is even happy to serve as the pre-rinse cycle for plates that are already stacked in the dishwasher.

Think about it, though. It totally makes sense. In fact, dog food has only been around for the last 50 years or so. Feeding your dog anything other than table scraps is an extremely recent invention, and the whole "never feed human food to a dog" thing is largely an invention of the dog food companies. But here's the really brilliant part of the Feed Your Dog the Same Thing You Eat campaign. What would it do to your diet if you only ate stuff you'd be willing to feed your dog? Now, there are a few things that are fine for people that are bad for dogs -- onions, macademia nuts and grapes are pretty much it. Alcohol, caffeine and chocolate are certainly worse for dogs than they are for people, and I for one do not plan on giving them up.

But other than that, really if you just limited yourself to eating things that you'd be willing to feed your dogs, just think how healthy you'd be.Any kind of meat -- good. Dairy products and eggs -- excellent. Any kind of fruit or vegetable -- fine. Legumes, nuts (macademias aside), whole grains -- all cool, although your dog probably doesn't really need them. But Coretta would like to point out that the crusts of peanut butter sandwiches could be a staple of the canine diet without any objections on her part. Heck, entire peanut butter sandwiches (or jars of peanut butter) would be just fine by her.

What if, every time you put something in your mouth you had to evaluate whether you'd be willing to include it in your dog's diet. Sure, your dog could probably handle a french fry or chip every now and again, but you wouldn't want it to be very often. You wouldn't (I hope) feed candy or soda to your dog. Coretta would, however, like to point out that a little cheese popcorn or crunchy green beans from Trader Joe's never hurt a dog, and provide a very satisfying snacking experience. Even if you're human. You might not end up with the idea diet for a dog, but it wouldn't be too bad, and just imagine how much healthier the people would be.

It just might turn out that watching out for your dog's health would turn out to be more reinforcing than watching out for your own.

So there you have it -- my brilliant idea. Yours for free.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Taz Talks -- Excellent!

Hey Dudes and Dudettes!

Since Mama has been neglecting this blog, I think it's high time I put in a word. The word for today is Excellent! That word was added to my name on Saturday. Yup, we went to two days of agility trials this weekend, and I finished up my Agility Excellent (AX) title. So now Excellent is part of my name. Actually, it already was, since I've had my Companion Dog Excellent title for some while now. I'm doubly Excellent! I am Excellence squared!

How did I get to be so excellent? Well, the games we play are team games -- Mama must be Excellent along with me, which is sometimes hard for her. For instance, in order for me to get my obedience Excellent title she had to learn to throw a dumbbell, which was a very scary thing. Really. Finally I made her go out and practice on her own, so that I didn't have to stand there and listen to the dumbbell going CRASH!!! into the jump, which was deeply disturbing.

That's our training message for today. In order to be Excellent, you must practice. We all know this, but we like to pretend to forget it. Mama wants me to be ready to show in the next level of obedience, but she never gets around to taking the jumps to different parks so that I can figure out where the heck she wants me to go when she says "Go!" Mattea wants to do a fabulous tap solo, but she has to be reminded to practice, or she wouldn't be fabulous at all, she would just show up at her lesson and look confused. Not that THAT ever happens.

But if you practice, then you can be Excellent. Like Mama set up the weave poles in the front yard and for two weeks before the trials we went out for a few minutes every day and practiced finding the one good place to start weaving in and out of those poles, and not the the 20 "that's not right, try again" places. When we practiced I found a lot of those other places, but by the time we got to the trial Mama just said "Go poles!" and I goed, just like that, bam, pole-seeking missile into that sweet spot where if you get all the rest of those poles weaved without missing any then there are cookies and parties where Mama tells me what a brilliant dog I am.

Mama told me many times this weekend what a brilliant dog I am. I believe her. She wouldn't lie to me. But even someone as brilliant as myself needs practice.

PS. I also finished my Open Agility Jumpers title, and I did not make one mistake in all four runs. I told you I am brilliant. Also, Mama did not get lost, and remembered her plans about how to guide me around the course. She may not be brilliant, but she has practiced, and she sure is getting better.

Wags and kisses,

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Get Out the Vote and Premack's Principle

I just got back from voting. I always vote. I figure if you don't vote, you can't complain, and that is not a right I care to lose. I suppose that one of these days I'll get around to absentee voting, but I have to admit I like marching down to the polling station and filling out my ballot. It feels responsible, and honorable, and empowered, and ever so adult. (Geez, you think by the age of 46, feeling like an adult would be old hat.) I like voting.

But...I have to say there wasn't exactly a crowd there panting for the opportunity to exercise their hard-won constitutional rights. (OK, harder won for some than for others.) So that got me to thinking about how it might be possible to encourage more people to vote. For instance, I have a cute little "I Voted" sticker on my shirt right now. What if businesses were encouraged to offer special deals to people wearing their "I Voted" sticker? It would be cool if on Election Day you could go collect a free cookie or a free coffee or two-for-the-price-of-one bagels. Your local chamber of commerce could print up copies of a map showing where you could get your voter goodies. (Just don't take advice on how to vote from them.) Nice advertising for the businesses, and rewards for the voters.

Better still, if we made Election Day a little more like Halloween, but with adults going around collecting goodies, people might develop a whole set of positive associations with voting. Voting would be fun, because it would lead to free stuff. (Everybody loves free stuff.) In behavior science lingo this would be an application of Premack's Principle, which says that beings will do something they like less in order to get to something that they like more. In my house we call this "you can watch TV after your homework is done" or "you can have dessert after you've had vegetables." Oddly enough, you can use this principle to, say, train a dog to stop sniffing the ground when you're out walking by giving the dog a chance to sniff the ground. Get a couple of good steps of walking, then release the dog to go sniff -- "OK! Go sniff!". As with all things training, work up from there in small increments. You walk nicely with me to get to the preferred behavior of sniffing. Now here's the really odd part. Walking nicely without stopping to sniff then starts feeling like fun to the dog, because the walking gets associated with the happy feelings about being allowed to go sniff. You can even end up with a dog who doesn't really want to sniff, because they're having such a good time walking with you -- all in anticipation of being allowed to sniff.

So if you had to go vote before you could go out and collect some free stuff, voting could start feeling like a joyful opportunity, rather than a pointless chore. (Of course, voting should feel like a joyful opportunity anyway, but should has very little to do with reality.) Personally, I'm feeling rewarded not only by my sense of responsible citizenship, but also by the knowledge that after tonight I'll be getting a break from the relentless ads for Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, and the robocalls pro and con this or that.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Seeker Circuit -- Training and Shopping

We're all (humans and other animals) programed to explore and to learn. As a religious educator this makes me happy. As a dog trainer it makes me really happy. Dogs, like people, are hard-wired by evolution to enjoy figuring out puzzles, to like exploring their environment, seeking out, like the USS Enterprise, new life and new civilizations (or at least new places where someone peed). Scientists talk about a "seeker circuit" in the brain -- a part that is engaged in the task of exploring, discovering and learning. They've found that rats, given a choice between having the pleasure center of their brain activated or that "seeker circuit" will opt for the excitement of exploring and learning over electronically-induced bliss.

I suspect that's why people get so invested in video games, although I wouldn't know from personal experience. But hey, what is the Web if not a great big field to sniff around in. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can waste vast amounts of time "seeker-ing" amongst the intertubes. Somebody posts an interesting article on Facebook...which has a link at the bottom...which takes you to a video on YouTube...which suggests a couple of other interesting possibilities...and before you know it the morning has evaporated like footprints by the pool on a hot day.

But, Taz would point out, the one thing that makes this metaphorical or literal sniffing about REALLY exciting is when you have something in particular to chase and track down. He loves the game where I hide a toy and he has to sniff around to find it. It would be even better if we could play that game in the back yard with the neighbor cats.But the point of the game is not really so much finding the thing as knowing that there's something out there to find and hunting it down.

I realized this for myself recently as I was, once again, sucked into the black hole of ...internet shopping. It started innocently enough, with the observation that it would be nice to be able to watch streaming video from the computer on the TV. So Lynn enters seeker overdrive, looking online at how this is possible. Which leads to serious contemplation of the purchase of a Wii, which streams Netflix, and hey, you could even use it to exercise. In which case you'd want a balance board. And exercise games. And extra controllers for Mattea's friends to be able to play. Or, there's hooking your laptop to the TV, which would work a whole lot better if you had a TV with more modern connections in the back than our semi-old CRT. Maybe we need a big-screen LCD TV! Or hey, you can buy internet-ready TVs already set to pick up your wireless signal! For only $1500!

For a couple of days my eyes glazed over with seeker circuit-induced techno lust. But really, I don't need to spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for the privilege of watching something from a couch rather than a chair. I didn't really want the stuff as much as I wanted the process of finding the best stuff: reading reviews, figuring out connections, exploring the possibilities of HD wonders.

This, I believe, is why there are malls. People really like to roam around hunting for stuff. Just imagine how much money people could save by thinking of a mall expedition as the kind of African safari where you take pictures of the animals you see, rather than shooting them to take home trophies. There! The perfect LBD! Quick, whip out the iPhone and take a shot to send you your friends, documenting your hunting prowess. And then on to the next store, where the perfect earrings surely lie in wait, ready for digital transfer to your admiring pals.

Hey, maybe that means I need an iPhone....

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Taz Talks -- Successive Approximation

OK, frankly this blog has gotten a little too grim and preachy for my taste. I think it's high time that we got back to a subject of interest. In other words, how to train a human. There is a very important concept in training that we have not talked about, and that is called Successive Approximation. In normal people language that means, "I will help you figure out the game by rewarding you for each step in the direction of what I want." For instance, when Mama taught me to jump in the laundry basket she rewarded me for coming near it, then for pawing it, then for putting my head in, then for putting one front paw in, then for two front paws in, then for hopping all the way in and then out again, and finally for jumping in and staying there.

Let us take a more interesting example. (Who wants to sit in a laundry basket, anyway? Actually, the cat does. We had to take the cat out so that I could play the game. Although it might have been more funner to jump on the cat.) Anyways, say you want to get a person to scratch your butt. Well, you could just back on up to them, which often works, but what if they don't get it, or they say "Bug off, Tazzie, I'm trying to work here."? Then you need to train them step by step.

Start by putting your head in their lap. No human can resist the chin on the knee, especially if you do the ol' melting puppy eyes bit. They will at least give you a pat on the head. Reward this with a little more chin pressure, and maybe a deep sigh. That should get them to rub your ears. Reinforce this behavior by leaning in, and maybe giving a little moan. Now turn your head enough that their hand slides to your neck or shoulder. Again, reinforce continued scratching by leaning in, and maybe looking up again with the puppy eyes. From here it should be a fairly simple matter to inch yourself forward until they are scratching that ever-itchy spot behind the hips. Heaven! And so simple. Just take it a step at a time, and reward every step of the way with the kind of expressions of adoration that humans crave.

Actually, the peoples might want to give some consideration to this technique. I notice that when they want a spouse or kid to do something that people get snarkier and snarkier trying to get the other person to comply. But maybe it would work more better to draw the person in the right direction with lovey-type stuff instead. I'm telling you, works for me every time.

Wags and kisses,

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dominance, Cesar Milan, and the Corporate Control of America

While we're on hot-button issues for dog trainers, let's talk for a moment about dominance. There's a school of dog training, most famously represented at the moment by TV dog trainer Cesar Milan, which holds that the way to have a happy canine/human pack is to make sure that the human being is always in the dominant role. People who train from this perspective advocate things like making sure that the person always is the first to go through a door or the first to eat, and practice things like "alpha rolls" where the person pushes the dog into a "submissive" position belly-up on the floor. The kind of trainers who spend a lot of time talking about things like the timing and placement of reinforcers are not big on this particular theory, pointing out that a) social relations in wolf packs are a lot more subtle and complicated than these dominance trainers assume, b) dogs are not wolves and c) people are not dogs, so even if dogs do have dominance hierarchies, humans trying to create those the same way that dogs do might just confuse everybody. (Want to look tough? Try holding your tail stiff over your back. How's that working for you?)

OK, so I'm not a big fan of a lot of the dominance stuff, but it's also true that there are a lot of problems created in households where the dogs are running the show. If you can't sit on the couch when and where you want to sit, if you can't pick up your dog's food dish or take away something they want but can't have, there's a problem. Now that I think about it, there are a lot of households where the kids are running the show, which doesn't work any better. (If you can't set a bedtime, have homework and reasonable chores completed and get to school on time, to my mind, you've got issues.)

The solution to these problems, however, is not dominance, it's leadership. Leadership doesn't mean that I shove you around. Leadership means that I have access to the resources you want, and that you have to come through me to get them. Want the treats? Do the tricks. Want the TV? Get the homework done. Want access to the good things in life? Then follow the rules.

Here's where I go global (and maybe postal). For some reason, we seem to think it's OK for corporations, rather than the government, to be running the show. To my mind, that's like having the kids, or the dogs, in charge of the household. But now corporations have unlimited right to contribute to political campaigns. There's been deregulation of everything from banks to minerals management, and the rules that are in place are a) set by the corporations themselves and/or b) not enforced. And gee, it turns out that, like children and dogs, corporations really aren't qualified to be running the show. If the financial crisis was not enough to prove that point, the BP oil disaster ought to be driving the point home pretty good. If you want the right to drill for oil, you should have to conform to the safety rules. (Whether they can ensure that it's safe is a topic for another day.) If you want the government to loan you money, you should have safety limitations that prevent you from throwing people's money away on ludicrous gambling schemes.

Go ahead. Call me a socialist. But I would rather have a government elected by the people in the leadership role, rather than a bunch of corporations following their own interests without regard for public safety or welfare. Leadership through regulation and control of access to resources is all we've got, because I've yet to figure out how to alpha roll BP.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bribes/Lures and the Great Oreo Question

OK, so nothing gets dogs trainers as up in arms as does the question of punishment. But you can get some pretty good (if somewhat less snarky) disagreement going over the question of just how you use rewards. For one group of people (clicker trainers) the reward always comes AFTER the behavior. It's, like, the definition of a reward. You do what I want, and I give you a reward. But how does the animal figure out what you want? Long story. We'll get there some other time. Suffice it to say that there is another group of people who find it useful to use the goody to show the animal what you want. For instance, if you have a puppy that you want to teach to sit, you can hold a treat just above its nose. The nose goes up and the bottom goes down. Puppy physics. Then the puppy gets the cookie.

Works just fine.'ve basically just bribed the dog. Rather than cheering after the fact, you've established the treat as the basis for getting the behavior. The puppy has lost the opportunity to use its own little brain to figure out the problem itself, and might not try it again until you pull out the treat to follow. Or, if you're on the other side of the argument, you've saved both yourself and the puppy the frustration of it wondering what the heck you want, by giving it a nice, clear, fun explanation. I told you there was disagreement.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with the wonderful world of people? And, yes, Oreos, which we were promised in the title? Well, it goes like this. Mattea (the kid) does a lot of dancing. Like ten classes a week. She and the girls she dances with compete in dance competitions and all. And the studio just added three new classes for kids her age with amazing teachers. To our surprise, however, Mattea didn't want to take the tap class with the ultra-cool, extremely hip and up-to-date tap teacher.

Mattea loves tap -- tap and hip hop are her favorite kinds of dance. However, unlike, seemingly, most of the girls she dances with, while Tea loves dancing, she has a limit. She likes to dance, but not if it takes away from her playing time. And this class was happening on a Tuesday evening, and she wanted her Tuesday evenings free. Now, from a parental perspective, we could see a variety of ways that Tea was going to get left in the dust if she blew off this class. But our policy has always been that dancing is a recreational activity, and recreational activities are things about which you get to choose (within the limits of the rules of the studio, which explains why she is taking ballet). So...we encouraged and we reasoned and we explained our concerns. And Mattea said no, she didn't want to.

And so Kelsey went to pick her up from hip hop, which immediately precedes this new tap class. But Kelsey brought with her a small package of Oreos. And she told Mattea that if, on the off chance, she were staying for the tap class, well then she'd probably need the cookies for extra energy. In other words, Kelsey bribed Mattea with cookies to take the class. Have I mentioned that Tea, like the dogs, is highly motivated by cookies? As in, pictures of Oreos on her computer background, just because it makes her happy to look at them?

Yeah, she took the class -- and the cookies. So, have we now ruined her intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of learning? Or have we helped her over the hump to realize that the rewards for taking the class will exceed the costs? Will she take the class again? Will she demand cookies? Stay tuned...the class comes up again tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


It's coming up on the end of the school year -- always very exciting when you live with a kid and a high school teacher. But it's got me thinking about grades. I will avoid commenting on Mattea's grades in this public forum (but babe, if for some reason you should happen to read this -- since you DO your homework, is it that much more trouble to HAND IT IN?) But, you know, in a general, theoretical, totally non-parental, and certainly unconcerned way, what helps kids get good grades?

Karen Pryor, popularizer of behavior science and queen of clicker training, has an interesting post on her website about four schools that experimented with rewarding kids with money. As she summarizes the experiment:

New York set up a program to pay fourth-through seventh-grade children for their test grades during the school year. For great results you could get as much as $50. The money went right into a savings account.

Chicago also paid for test scores during the year. Good scores could earn up to $2,000 per year, half of which went into a savings account payable on graduation.

Washington, D.C. had a complicated system in which high school students were paid $100 every two weeks by getting perfect marks in five different areas, including attendance and good behavior.

Dallas kept it simple. Second-graders got $2 every time they read a book and passed a little computer test on it.

Care to guess which school had the best success? Right, Dallas. A test is an outcome, not a behavior. The way to change outcomes is to change behaviors. If you pay a kid $2000 at the end of the year for getting great grades or doing well on important standardized tests, all of the behaviors that would lead to success over the course of the year go unrewarded. Outcomes aren't really something that we can control -- behaviors are.

So if I were to promise Mattea $1000 for getting all A's on her report card at the end of the year (not gonna happen, babe!) she wouldn't really know what exactly she needed to do in order to achieve that goal. And the delay between the action and the reinforcement would be so long that she wouldn't really know what was being rewarded anyway. (And if I put the money into a saving account, it would hardly count as a reinforcement at all.) Far better for me to figure out what is standing in the way of her success and how to change that behavior. For instance, maybe I would need to give Tea a bag of M&Ms, and tell her that each time she handed in an assignment she could have an M&M. (If, of course, I could trust her not to gobble them all on the way to school. "Leave it" is a crucial command for both children and dogs. Mine are less reliable than they should be.)

How often have you talked to someone about their goal to lose 20 pounds, or to win a competition, or to learn to play the violin? All fine and good as far as it goes, but those are all outcomes, not behaviors. You can't get to the outcome unless you figure out what things you would actually need to DO to get to those goals. Much more effective to have a goal that you will eat fruit for dessert instead of ice cream, or practice for 20 minutes four times a week. Those are behaviors that you can control. And yes, that you can reward. (But you can't reward yourself for being good and eating fruit by having ice cream. That's cheating. It turns out that people very commonly reward themselves for exercising by eating more, or less healthfully, than they would otherwise. Wrong kind of reward.)

Personally, I would just like to say that this is the first year that I have actually fulfilled my New Year's resolution. That resolution was "More dancing!" (Always with the exclamation point at the end.) In addition to being a behavior, rather than an outcome, it has the advantage, as Taz would say, of being "more funner." So much easier to be successful at doing something that you wanted to do anyway.

What are your goals?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Punishment...and Crime.

If you ever want to see a big, snarly, hairy fight, you can toss a squirrel into the middle of a dog park, or you can bring up the concept of punishment in a group of dog trainers. Dog trainers run the gamut from "no kind of unpleasant thing shall happen to a dog on my watch, ever" to "if you don't shove the dog around he'll shove you around, so you better shove harder." I have no desire to become the squirrel at the dog park, so I'm just going to put out a few things that we do know about punishment and then ponder how they might apply to our penitential system.

So, what do we know about punishment? Well, for one thing, it's only effective if it happens right after the offending behavior. If you turn a hose on your dog as it's fence-fighting with the neighbor dog, it might (might!) think better of it next time. If you come home and find that your dog has chewed a corner out of your drywall or eaten a sofa cushion, your yelling or smacking will have no effect whatsoever, except to make your dog wonder why you have suddenly turned into a raving and dangerous lunatic.

We know that, unlike rewards, punishments need to happen every time the offending behavior occurs in order to be effective. If you sometimes get doused for barking and snarling at the neighbor dog and sometimes you just get to carry on, most likely you're going to keep carrying on.

We also know that punishment, especially if not skillfully applied, can create unforeseen associations and resentments/fears. If you hit a dog (or a child), you probably expect them to come out thinking "That was unpleasant, I should never try that again!" However, they may just end up with an impression of "Ow! That was nasty. Apparently I can't trust you not to hurt me." You can also end up with weird phobias, like the horse that Temple Grandin (Animals in Translation) talks about who is terrified of people in black hats after being hurt by someone wearing a black hat. You don't always create the same negative associations you planned on. about that crime and punishment? Say that you have someone who is using illegal drugs. Say that this person gets caught. How close in time is the punishment likely to be to the offending behavior? (Actually, I have no idea. I don't even watch Cops. But I know that people go for quite some time awaiting trial.) Is the punishment likely to happen every time the offending behavior occurs? Not a chance in hell. This one I'm sure on. Is putting this drug user in jail likely to create unintended negative consequences? It certainly wouldn't surprise me. I'm just kind of guessing that your average prison inmate doesn't spend most of their time reflecting on how prison is a logical consequence for their poor choices, and how they will never make such poor choices again. I could be wrong, but I'm kinda guessing that inmates are much more likely to be resentful of people in authority than otherwise. Not to mention that what small-time offenders are likely to learn from spending time with bigger-time offenders is hardly likely to be the kind of education you were hoping to sponsor.

Now, I'm not saying that we should abolish prisons. There are some folks who are simply too dangerous to have walking around, and they need to be contained. There's a difference between teaching and management. If your dog bites, put a muzzle on it before you go out in public. But the number of pathological serial killers/serial rapists, etc. has got to be vanishingly small compared to the number of people in prison. If prison doesn't work as punishment (punishment being defined as something that reduces a behavior) then aren't we spending a whole lot of money on something that simply doesn't work? (See here for one of many articles indicating that this is, in fact, the case.)

Nobody has asked my opinion on how to solve California's many-billion dollar budget deficit, but here is my modest proposal. Let everybody who isn't dangerous out of jail. Legalize drugs, since punishing people for taking them simply isn't keeping people from taking (or selling or producing) them. Have clear labels on all drugs indicating how dangerous they are, and levy high taxes. Use those taxes for drug treatment and prevention programs, and for public education programs about the hazards of drug use. These changes will, and the very least, save us many billions of dollars, and will probably result in lower rates of drug use.

Here's my question for politicians (and the people who vote for them) who are "tough on crime": does tough on crime mean "finding and implementing the most efficient possible ways to reduce crime" or does it mean "make people who commit crimes suffer"? Personally, I'd rather that we used the best information we have to get the best results, rather than assuming that our main goal should be to look as tough and snarly as possible. But hey, maybe I'm just the squirrel at the dog park....

Friday, May 14, 2010

Taz Talks -- More Funner

Hey Dudes and Dudettes! Mama says that she is thinking about a post on punishment, but she's not ready yet, so I can write this time. My topic is better. My topic for today is More Funner.

I will explain. I have a theme song. (Everyone should have a theme song!) Mine is "Tervs Just Wanna Have Fun." Actually, I think the lady originally sang it about Girls, not Tervs, but I'm not a girl, and I am a Terv (that's short for Belgian Tervuren), so it works better this way.

Tervs just wanna have fun. Dogs in general, really. People spend their time working and doing laundry and shopping for groceries and vacuuming and whatever, and when they have a bit of time left over, they figure that is their time for fun. Which they usually squander watching something stupid on the television -- although television can be an excellent way to keep people still for snuggling pets, which is, of course, crucial.

Dogs, on the other hand, are all about the fun (and napping). Yes, there are working dogs, with real, important jobs. But hel-LO! Check out the drug detection and search and rescue dogs -- big game of hide and seek, with games and prizes when you find what you're after. Herding sheep? Funnest game on the whole entire planet, no exceptions. K9 officers taking down bad guys? BAM! Human tug toy. Wicked awesome. Mostly dog jobs are a big ol' fun fest.

Now, I'm not saying that people jobs are necessarily the same way. Don't go all "following your bliss-y" and neglect to shop for dog food. But hey, why not make things More Funner? That's my point. With a little creativity, even the annoying stuff can maybe be More Funner.

For instance, Mama is always fighting with Mattea, the kid, over what stuff she should be eating. Mattea says that she never gets anything good to eat. Mama says that Mattea wants to eat nothing but junk food, and that bodies need protein and vegetables and not just empty carbs. (I'm not sure what empty carbs are. I am familiar with empty cartons, which are a whole lot of fun, but this is apparently not what she is talking about.) So a couple of days ago Mama made Chex Mix like stuff with the whole wheat cereal that isn't Chex because it's cheaper, and peanuts and almonds and some cheese crackers and spices and parmesan cheese and all of a sudden it's Party in a Bag for snack. Apparently it still has some empty carbs in it, but not all sugar and chemicals and stuff, and me and Coretta got to taste it and boy howdy is that stuff crunchy and delicious. Way More Funner than arguing about healthy snacks, but not so far off from healthy after all.

You want more kid examples? Unlike me, Mattea does not like to get up early in the morning. And she does not like people telling her to get up for school, but she also ignores the alarm clock. The other day Mama went in and sang to her the chorus from this old song:
Hal-an-tow, jolly lum-a-low
We were up
Long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer,
To welcome in the May-o.
For summer is a comin' in
And winter's gone away-o.

Mattea thought that was More Funner than just being told to get up for school. Now Mama sings the song this way:
Hal-an-tow, jolly buffalo
They were up
Long before the day-o
To welcome in the mustard,
To welcome in the May-o.
For buffalo are comin' in
So you better get out of the way-o.

Which is More Funner still. One more kid example. The other day Mattea was super mad about something, and told Mama that she wanted to hit her with something. So Mama got pillows out of the closet, and they both whammed on each other with pillows until Mattea was laughing and not mad. Personally, I found the sight of my people whacking each other a bit disturbing, but I guess the pillows turned out to be way More Funner than Tea yelling and Mama going on about Responsibilities and Self Control.

I think that if people want to make changes in their lives that they should find creative ways to make their lives More Funner. I will give you a hint. Stuff that you do with dogs is More Funner than stuff where dogs stay home and have a nap.

Wags and kisses,

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Which Lynn Wrests Back Control of her Blog to Talk More About Reinforcement

Here's the thing. I pay for the internet access. It's my blog. I don't mind sharing with Tazzie, who is, in all fairness, a more entertaining writer than I am, but I insist on at least getting my turn.

Now, where were we...ah yes, reinforcements (aka rewards). I believe before someone's long, pointy nose butted in, I was talking about how the properly applied use of rewards had resulted in a radically cleaner room for my daughter. It turns out that at this point in her 11-year-old life she is strongly motivated by money. Mostly because it will purchase the kinds of food that I refuse to buy. Some other time I will go on about just how much Mattea and Taz are alike.

But not now, because what I was really trying to get down to was the question of what kinds of rewards get results. People like money. Dogs like food. We know that, and we tend to rely on it in getting both people and dogs to work. But those aren't the only things that people and dogs like. People like food. Dogs don't much like money, although Coretta once ate a paycheck when she was a puppy. (Try explaining that one to the treasurer!") The crucial thing about reinforcements is finding out what is rewarding to the particular being that you're trying to motivate.

People quite commonly train dogs by rewarding them with games, such as tugging on a tug toy. And, of course, petting and praise. But you can also reward a dog by giving it permission to sniff something interesting, letting it chase you, scratching that special spot, throwing a ball or doing whatever goofy thing your dog finds entertaining. Sue Ailsby, a well-known trainer, says that giant schnauzers think it's hysterical when you try to grab their front paws. I wouldn't know -- I've never had giant schnauzers. Coretta hates having her paws touched, and Taz would prefer that you scratch the tops of his feet. A reinforcer is only a reinforcer if the one on the receiving end likes it. For some people, the biggest reward you can give them would be public recognition. Other people would rather have their teeth drilled than stand in front of a room full of people applauding.

So given that dog trainers have figured out such a wide range of ways to reward dogs, why do we not get that creative with motivating people? Sure, people work for money -- we need money, and we like to get more of it. But there are other things we like as well. It seems to me that if I were managing a group of people in an office, that it would serve me very well to figure out what everyone liked. "Wow, Jordan, thanks for putting in all the extra time getting this report ready. It looks great -- why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off?" "Jesse, that's the best idea I've heard all meeting! (Tosses piece of chocolate to Jesse)" "Pat, thanks for listening to my long diatribe about upper management. I know you'll keep what I said confidential. Hey, I was wondering if you had any new pictures of your grandkids to show me."

The great thing about using a variety of rewards with kids is that the proper use of timing turns things that they were going to get anyway into reinforcements for behaviors that you wanted. "Just as soon as your homework is done you can go over to your friend's house." "Once you've finished your vegetables you can have dessert." "If you get the dishes put away by 9:00 you'll be able to watch Glee."

There is, in fact, no reason why you can't use rewards to modify your own behavior. I'm sure I'm not the only one who tells myself "Two more paragraphs and you can play a game of solitaire." "Answer this tricky email, and then you can look at Facebook." I once knew a guy in seminary who would reward himself for completing a paper by giving himself permission to go use the bathroom. I'm all in favor of the judicious use of life rewards, but that's just sick.

What do you find rewarding?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taz Talks -- Teaching People to Come When Called

Mama says she wants her blog back, but my friend Calli specifically asked that I write more about training people. Calli is a very smart dog (she's a Belgian Shepherd like me, but not fluffy), and I think we should respect her wishes. After all, if Mama is gonna take requests from her sister, why shouldn't I get to respond to my friends?

So here it is. Taz on training people: The Recall

Every dog wants their person to come when called, but people have a really annoying habit of ignoring you because they're "busy" at the computer or watching television or helping with homework or reading a book or whatever boring thing it is that people do when they're not paying attention to dogs. However, teaching your person to come when called is really very simple: Make a lot of noise.

Honestly, that's all there is to it. People cannot resist responding to big, agitated noise. Run to the door barking like your head is going to explode. Keep barking. They'll come check it out, guaranteed. And no matter how many times they say "You silly animal, there's nothing out there," or "What, all that noise about a squirrel?" they will still come. People just have a thing about big, agitated noise.

Don't believe me? Just turn on the talking radio or that Snooze Channel on TV. There's people who have shows that tons and tons of people listen to because those guys are barking super loud and agitated, and so people figure it's important. And they keep barking, so people figure what they say has to be true. It's like this -- Glen Bark: "OMG! OMG! OMG! There's a cat on the lawn! There's a cat on the lawn and it's gonna eat your grandma. The cat on the lawn is dangerous and scary and has big teeth and claws and it's gonna eat your grandma! It's a black cat, which is the scariest, most dangerous kind, and it might be after all a panther arrived here from Florida and it's definitely gonna eat your grandma!"

Oh wait, maybe that was me this morning. But Mama came when I called her like that, and millions of people around the world can be counted on to show up and pay attention if you just make enough noise and get all bent out of shape. It doesn't matter whether anything's actually there or not. Although there was a cat. I think. Maybe that was yesterday.

Wags and kisses,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Taz Talks

A-hem! It turns out that there has been a blog going on in my house for some little while -- a blog about training people, no less -- and I have not been invited to participate. Luckily, I'm not the kind of guy who stands on ceremony, and the Cheese Mom, who usually writes this blog, is otherwise engaged. (I am a lucky dog. I have both a Cheese Mom who is good at games with fabulous prizes and a Running Mom. Every dog should have this. Also an extra running partner called Peggy to take them on days when the Running Mom doesn't run. But I digress.)

What I was trying to say is that apparently this is a blog about training people, which is a subject that I know lots about. All dogs know plenty about training people -- starting tens of thousands of years ago when we started training you to feed us. I won't try to explain to you all of what I know about training people, as I expect I'll be able to get back to the computer at points future. For now, I thought I'd just pass on a few tips about a subject that people seem to be very interested in: food and exercise. Dogs are also very interested in food and exercise, but smarter, as indicated by the fact that you are the ones who have to go hunt down the food, while we get to eat it. Here are a few things I know that you should to:

  • Anything I can see, I will eat. Can you tell me that you are any different? If you don't want it to get eaten, hide it.
  • There are very few places you can hide food that I won't find them. You have opposable thumbs. Hiding it probably won't help. If you don't want to eat it, don't bring it in the house. (While there is plenty of stuff I can't get to, the cat can reach practically anything. And I make him share.)
  • We all need to chew on stuff. Dogs know this. People pretend otherwise. But seriously, don't you want to munch on stuff even when you're not hungry? Smart people give us dogs chew toys and bully sticks and kongs and stuff so that we don't eat the furniture. Why are there not better chew toys for people? Mama chews on gum. Coretta, my dog-sister, tried a pack and said it wasn't bad.
  • Exercise should be entertaining. For instance, running is best if you are chasing something, or something is chasing you. If you don't find chasing entertaining then find something else that's fun. People in my house like dancing. Also dogs in my house like dancing -- I'll put up video some time.
  • I get treats when I do something clever. How come people can just open up boxes and bags of treats and chow down without doing nothing for it? No fair. You should do something clever or useful before you have a treat. That way you will not only eat fewer treats, you will also be more clever and useful.
Uh-oh. The Cheese Mom is coming back for the computer. Gotta run. But hey, if anyone else has hot tips on food and exercise to share with people and humans, post a comment and let me know!

Wags and kisses,

Friday, May 7, 2010

Rewards: The Clean Room

Since I've only gotten one question in the brief life of the blog, it seems only fair not to let too long go by before I answer. My sister Lauren, quite rightly, wants to hear the story of Mattea (my daughter) and how I got her to keep her room clean. Which is a good story about reinforcement.

Let's start there -- what's reinforcement? Basically, it's a technical term for a reward. Even more technically, but usefully, a reinforcement is something that causes a behavior to happen more often. You smile at me. I smile back, so you're more likely to smile at me again in the future. When you're training animals, reinforcements are often food. You do a trick, you get a treat. But reinforcements can be anything that the animal/person who is learning wants. More about types of reinforcement some other time.

So here's the thing about how rewards work. They're only effective is they're associated with the behavior that you're trying to encourage. Obviously, if you hand me a cookie at 6pm, that won't necessarily connect in my mind with the fact that I graciously made my bed this morning. In order to communicate with animals about what exactly is getting rewarded, trainers often use a little noisemaker called a clicker to "mark" behavior. You hear the click, you know that whatever you were doing when you heard the noise is what is getting the reward. OK, but we're people. You could just tell me that the cookie is a reward for making my bed. That works, right? Maybe.

I really suspect that for people, as well as for (other) animals, the closer the reward is to the action, the more likely it is to have an effect. Here's where we get to the story of Mattea and the Clean Room.

Let me preface this by saying that room cleaning has always been a huge issue for us. Tea's room has always been a disastrous mess, and telling her to clean it up induced total melt-down screaming fits. "I can't! It'll take all day! No!!!!" Ick. Then we'd get mad, and she'd get madder and either she'd convince us to "help," which meant us doing all the work while she got distracted by each item she picked up or she'd pick up a few things and then be mad when we said she wasn't done. So we said, "OK, you can have a messy room, but you have to clean it up each Sunday." See above for what happened each Sunday. So I said to myself "You have studied all this behavior stuff. You know about using rewards. Reward her for cleaning." So I told her that if she kept her room completely clean, I would triple her weekly allowance (from $3 to $9). That seemed like a pretty good deal, since weekly room cleaning was already expected as part of the $3 allowance. The room was really clean for about a day and a half, but pretty quickly stuff piled up, and so no extra $6, and no change in behavior.

Here are the two really important things that I forgot. 1) Learning happens a little bit at a time. You cannot teach large changes, only a series of small changes. Much more on this another day. 2) Rewards need to be connected as closely as possible to the event they're rewarding. With an animal, that means within a second or two. With people you get a little longer, but a week was clearly not going to cut it.

So...I helped Mattea get her room well and truly clean. (Yes, she actually did work on it this time.) Once it was as clean as I felt it should be, I said that I would check every evening at bedtime. If the room was still this clean, she would get a dollar. Each evening was a new try. If you miss the clean goal one day, you can always fix it by the next day. (But you never make up the dollar you miss -- one clean day, one dollar, pure and simple.) It's been a couple of weeks now -- not exactly a lifetime habit at this point. But her room is strikingly clean, and she's gotten a dollar for every night. Even the night that she got mad because she couldn't find something and started throwing things around. She picked everything up before she went to bed.

Here's the interesting part. I don't always have a supply of dollar bills on me. So I said that I would write down the date of each evening that her room was clean, and that I would actually give her the money at the end of the week. So the actual timing of the reward is not particularly different than the version that didn't work. You could interpret this two ways. One possibility is that, as with the clicker, if you use a marker (my writing down the date) as a promissory note, and that marker happens promptly, you then have considerably more time to deliver the actual reward. Or, on the other hand, you could figure that the difference wasn't really the closer connection between the action (clean the room) and the reward ($$), but rather that the reward was based on a smaller behavior. "Keep your room clean for a week" wasn't a behavior that Mattea could master right off the bat. "Pick everything up before you go to bed" was something she could manage. I expect that success was based on a combination of the two (and probably a whole bunch of other stuff which I can neither identify nor control).

Better still, "pick everything up before bed" seems to have transformed into "try to put things away so that it's easy to have everything clean by bedtime." Here's the really great part. I was forever harassing her to hang up her towel after she took a shower in the morning. The only thing worse than damp towels lying about on the floor is me getting out of the shower to discover that now both of the towels are lying on her bedroom floor. Multiple ick. But if you leave a towel on the floor then your room is not clean, and you don't get a dollar. So she's been hanging up her towel.

Training new behavior: $7/week. Being able to leave her bedroom door open and having a dry towel when I need it: Priceless.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Name the Task Pt. 2: The Tea Party

I'm not quite ready to move on from the subject of identifying the problem before you try to arrive at a solution. For one thing, I didn't mention in my last post the crucial bit that you are only likely to come up with a solution if you genuinely want to solve a problem. My dog jumps up on me. People who teach dog training classes aren't supposed to let their dogs jump on people. But hey, he just kind of gently rises up and puts his paws on my chest for a scritch and a snuggle, and I think it's kind of sweet. I haven't trained him not to do it because I get something out of this particular "problem."

I'm wondering if this might be the case with the Tea Party movement. Clearly this is a group of people who are upset, and demanding change. But it's very difficult to tell what change it is that they're demanding. The official website gives as their mission/motto: "A community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!" OK, two missions: 1) protect country and 2) protect Constitution. So in order to accomplish the missions we would clearly need to determine who is threatening our country (Iraq? Iran? Al Qaeda? Illegal immigrants? Liberals?) and what is threatening our Constitution (Gun limits? Don't Ask Don't Tell? Free speech for corporations? Health insurance mandates?).

If their mission is to protect the Constitution, does that mean that they will stand up to protect same-sex marriage if the court (as in California) declares it constitutional? If a court should find that Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law is an unconstitutional violation of civil rights, will they stand up to protect the Constitution and the right of people to not be racially profiled? Something tells me this is not at the top of the agenda.

In reality, what the group seems to have greatest unanimity about is that taxes are too high, which seems only tangentially related to the group's stated mission. And even then, there doesn't seem to be any attempt to frame a solution as far as which taxes are too high, and what we might do without in order to lower taxes.

Which leads me to wonder, is this really a group in search of a solution, or a variety of solutions for a variety of problems? Or is the mission of the group really to protest and be outraged? In that case solving "problems" would actually run counter to their mission of being outraged.

Of course, the Tea Party is just one example of a problem that doesn't seem to be in search of a solution. I suspect that most of us have problems that we really aren't looking to solve. Some people complain all the time about being overworked, but actually love the feeling of importance and being needed that their overwork creates. Many, perhaps most, people bitch about their weight without having the slightest intention of permanently changing their habits of eating or exercise.

Part one of Name the Problem: If you don't know what you want to change, you aren't very likely to change it. Part two of Name the Problem: If you aren't trying to work out a solution, maybe you aren't really convinced you have a problem. Time to have another look at part one. Or maybe what I should call part 1a: If you call the problem something different (Protect the Constitution!) than the problem you'd really like to solve (I don't have a job), you are unlikely to come up with a solution. In which case cynics like me might suggest that you aren't really trying to fix anything after all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Name the Task: A Dog Trainer's Take on Immigration Reform

So last post I wrote about how you get what you reward, not necessarily what you think you are rewarding. This brings me to what I believe is the most important step in changing/fixing anything. You have to figure out what it is that you want to change. It's just really awfully hard to teach something if you don't know what it is that you're trying to teach.

Say I have a cat who hangs out on the kitchen counters while I'm trying to cook. (This would be Finn McCool the Warrior Cat, who likes to snag broccoli out of the steamer, and tries to climb into pans. He's cute, but a pain in the butt.) I say to myself (and anyone within a two block radius) "The damn cat is in always in my food!" There. I've named a problem. The damn cat is always in my food. Now I can figure out how to solve the problem. I might toss the cat the into the gaping maw of the dog every time he got in my way (punishment), lock the cat in another room while I'm cooking (management) or teach the cat to sit on a chair while I'm cooking (training incompatible behavior). Pretty simple.

But most things in life are a little more complicated. All right, a lot more complicated. Take for instance The Immigration Problem. This is something that a whole lot of people are up in arms about these days. Depending on your perspective, the state of Arizona is currently either a courageous leader in tackling this crushing problem, or a brutal regime bent on racial profiling and civil rights violations. But here's the thing. What exactly is The Immigration Problem? Well, I guess we're probably talking about illegal immigrants, not legal ones. But still, what is the actual problem we're trying to solve? Is the problem that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from US citizens? Is the problem that illegal immigrants are using social services without paying taxes? Is the problem that dangerous drug lords and other criminals are getting in?

All of those possibilities are things that can be examined -- information can be gathered as to whether these are actual problems, or whether they are only perceptions of problems that don't really exist. And if they are, in fact, real problems, then the different problems would have different solutions. For instance, if the problem is that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that citizens want, it might make sense to crack down on employers who hire people who are here illegally. That solution, however, won't help at all with the problem of people using social services without paying taxes. (If, in fact, that is a problem that really exists.) You have to gather data to figure out the real problem(s) before you can do anything about finding solutions. Maybe it turns out that illegal immigrants, for the most part, are taking jobs that US citizens don't even want, and the solution is not to punish employers, but to give them a way to legally hire the workers they need.

The reality is that the world is full of incredibly complex problems. But the only way to start to solve them is to figure out what the problems really are. There is no such thing as The Immigration Problem. At least there's no possible way to solve The Immigration Problem. The Immigration Problem could be anything from "I was hit by an uninsured, unlicensed and undocumented driver" to "I'm terrified that my wife is going to be deported." The solution to "I'm uncomfortable being around people who speak a language I don't understand" is not the same as the solution to "If you're going to live in this country you should pay taxes." You can't solve a problem without clearly identifying a) what the problem is and b) whether your perception of the problem is born out by the facts.

Maybe the damn cat isn't always in my food. Maybe he's only in my food around the time that he expects to be fed, and I could easily get the cat out of the pan by feeding him his dinner before I make dinner for people. Maybe it's actually useful to have the cat in the kitchen cleaning up bits of things that I drop (which is, in reality, the dogs' job), and the problem is not that the damn cat is eating my food, but that the cat is getting on the stove, and I need to teach the cat to stay off the stove. The more I know about the problem, the better the chance I have of coming up with a solution.

You get what you reward, not what you think you're rewarding. You can only solve actual and particular problems, not generalized perceptions of problems.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Dog Trainer Explains the Financial Crisis

OK, so here goes...

As I mentioned last post, behavior scientists have pretty well figured out that you can encourage a particular behavior by rewarding it. Go figure. Dog sits, you give it a treat, and dog is likely to sit again. Big financial corporations, as far as I can tell, have figured out the same principle. Banker-type makes money for the company, and the company gives Banker-type extra money as a reward, to encourage making more money. All very sound. You can think of it as training Fat Cats, rather than dogs. (Oh, and by the way, these training principles work just as well with cats as with dogs. Don't believe me? Come over and I'll have my cat do tricks for you. Of course, they also apply to chimps, horses, llamas, dolphins, fish and people. That's the point.)

Sorry...where were we? Oh yes, Fat Cats getting money for making money. OK, so where's the problem? Goldman Sachs, say, rewards folks for making money by giving them money. Success is rewarded -- capitalism at its finest. But here's the thing. The law of behavior says that you get what you reward. What you reward, not your idea of what you're rewarding. Say you have a dog that barks in an annoying fashion. Every time that dog barks, you yell at it. Well, if the dog happens to enjoy the fact that now both of you are yelling together, then you have rewarded the dog for barking by joining in on its yapping. Then you get both more yapping and a sore throat.

But making money is a good thing, right? That's what financial institutions are for is making money. Where's the problem with that?'s the thing. Legitimate businesses provide goods and/or services. Investment banks are supposed to make money for their investors. Business that just make money for themselves, without providing any goods or services in exchange, are known as things like Ponzi schemes, counterfeiters and bank heists. Bernie Madoff for sure had one these kinds of businesses. Financial institutions were rewarding people not for making money for the customers, but for making money for the bank. So Goldman Sachs (for instance), sold financial instruments to customers, knowing that they were likely to end up worthless, and then bet in the markets that those financial instruments would tank. So the bank made money, the bankers made money and the investors (and the rest of us who have been affected by this economic mess) lost out. The bankers were rewarded for making money, so they made money -- by essentially lying and cheating. Mortgage brokers were rewarded for selling mortgages. Not for helping people to get appropriate mortgages that would make it possible for them to own homes over time. Brokers were rewarded for selling mortgages, and the bigger the mortgages the bigger the reward. Until it turned out that people couldn't pay the mortgages that they'd taken out, and the whole company (say, Countrywide) collapsed, along with the housing market. Ultimately, making money by making money is not sustainable.

What if, instead, businesses had clearly and publicly articulated missions (which I presume they do), and they figured out a way to reward people for advancing the overall mission of the business? Better yet, what if bonuses were tied to particular innovations that led to measurably better performance in particular facets of the business's mission? (More on this distinction later.)

Here is my assertion #1: You get what you reward, so you should be pretty damn careful about what exactly it is that you are rewarding.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Blog!

Ok, so I suppose it was inevitable. Everyone with something to say has a blog, and I, like most people, tend to have something to say. Actually, I have a lot to say about a lot of things, but here's what I've been thinking about lately, and what I want to focus on for this blog. By now, we know quite a lot about how beings learn. People have gotten quite adept at training dogs and dolphins and chickens and what have you, and folks like Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor and now many others have handed on a lot of good and well-researched information about how to teach dogs and dolphins and chickens and, yes, people. The fundamentals are pretty clear, and kinda obvious when you write them down. If you do something, and that causes something you like to happen, you're more likely to do that thing again. If you do something, and that causes something you don't like to happen, you're less likely to do that thing again. No big surprises. But there are a lot of useful details that go along with that unsurprisingness.

Here's the thing. I read a lot about training dogs. I've read quite a bit about teaching people, particularly in the context of religious education. But I don't see very much about what basic learning theory might tell us about how people behave, and how we might change people's behavior.

OK, really, this blog started because last night, during the commercial breaks of Private Practice, I was trying to explain to Kelsey my theory about how what I know about dog training could explain the whole financial meltdown. I guess it's not big surprise that that conversation didn't really go so well. But she assured me that although I wasn't really making sense in the moment, I was no doubt brilliant, and should write it all down in a blog. She didn't promise to read the blog, but she didn't say she wouldn't either....'s what I want...I want this to be a blog that is equally interesting to my dog training friends and my minister friends, and maybe to other people who, like me, wonder why people do such funky stuff, and if there might be a way for all of us to act a little less funky. I'd like to explain the financial crisis, and maybe reform corporate America. Also, I have a thing or two to say about immigration reform and the fact that my daughter's room has been stunningly clean for over a week now.

So...should you have found your way here and are actually reading this, what can I say but...thanks, Mom! You've always been great about reading whatever I write.