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....