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The On and Off Pressure Switch - Negative Reinforcement - the Forgotten Quadrant

I have a good number of horse people in my life. I've held long conversations with them on this topic and it's always been fascinating to see the parallels between horses and dogs in regard to training. There are huge differences in training methodology between the two species, but there are a lot of concepts that are highly applicable between not just horses and dogs, but between all species. One area where the horse world is miles ahead of the dog world is the idea of pressure/release work.

Before we discuss the purposeful application of pressure in a training setting, lets address the variety of pressures that dogs (and everyone) face simply by existing and living their life. This is a topic that I've spoken on before. I find it deeply applicable to working successfully with Azawakh in particular.

Quoted from the link post above, there are different types of pressure:

Social- the dog sees another dog or person doing something and is more inclined to follow the leader. Pretty much peer pressure for dogs. Examples:

  • I go to investigate a statue and my dog that had previously been nervous follows.

  • My four older dogs sit, so my puppy sits.

  • An off leash dog runs up to your dog barking and growling and your dog is intimidated

  • You have a play date with your friend's dog. Their dog is curvy and calm and play bows to yours. Your dog is interested in engaging in play.

  • A person approaches you and wants to pet your dog.

Tactile- the dog feels something physically and responds to it. This is where opposition reflex comes into play (which is much of the reason dogs pull on leash). Examples:

  • Dog feels the leash pulling a direction (and has been properly conditioned to the leash) so the dog goes with the pressure.

  • Owner places a hand on their dog's rear end to remind them to sit (not my favorite method, but a common example).

  • Owner uses low level e-collar pressure to metaphorically tap their dog on the shoulder and get them to return.

  • Owner grabs collar to lead a dog from one competition obedience exercise to the next.

Spatial-the owner uses body language cues (or enviornmental cues) to indicate to a dog how they would like the dog to behave. Stepping back is inviting your dog into your space. Stepping toward them should stop them if they're moving or encourage (pressure) them to move backwards. Examples:

  • The owner is working on a dog's sit duration ("stay"). The dog starts to break out of position and the owner steps back towards them, which causes them to sit again

  • The owner is working recall ("come here") and runs the opposite direction inviting their dog to chase and follow them

  • The dog is trying to bolt through a door and the owner closes the door before the dog can get through

  • The owner wants the dog to turn more collected when turning towards the dog (turn in place as oppose to making a big looping arc). The owner steps into (not on) the dog's space by their shoulders. This encourages the dog to back up while turning instead of forging ahead.

  • The owner is working fetch in an enclosed space- there's chairs and other objects scattered around. The ball rolls under a chair and the dog is nervous to retrieve it

  • The owner is working scent detection. The hide is in a tight corner behind a shelf. The dog is hesitant to approach.

  • In agility the owner steps toward a jump to push the dog in the jump's direction or away from it to pull the dog toward them and bypass the jump.

Environmental- a noise, smell, or sight elicits a response (or emotion) in the dog. Many of these can also be examples of other types of pressure. Many examples of environmental pressure are hard to harness and beyond our control. Examples:

  • A car zooms past while you're on your walk and your dog flinches away

  • Your dog walks on a metal grate and it suddenly moves under them and they jump off

  • Your dog dips a foot in a creek on a hot day and realizes that the water is pleasant and cools them down (the pressure in this case is the heat)

  • Your dog chases a ball into a creek on a winter day and realizes the water is freezing and unpleasant (the pressure in this case is the cold water)

Some of these examples involve multiple types of pressure at the same time. Some involve scenarios that happen spontaneously throughout the course of the dog's lives. Some of these scenarios involve pressure applied thoughtfully and purposefully by the owner to help elicit a response in the dog.

We cannot protect our dogs from all the pressures of the world. It's simply an impossibility. You have to take them to the vet, you have to groom them, it is likely that at some point you will be rushed by an off leash dog, that a car will zoom past overly close, that some playing children will accidentally send a ball pelting your dog's way. With horses, pressure work is typically understood to be a necessity. Horses are animals that outweigh their human companions by many times. They must understand the response to a rein, to be gentle on a bit, to give a leg, or move out of the way when asked. This can be lured and taught through various means, but pressure work must be part of the process because without it the horse is not conditioned to respond to the light pressure a human applies and it can become very dangerous.

In dogs, this same philosophy has fallen out of favor. In horses, you can certainly apply too much or too harsh of pressure. I would argue, in dogs, it's even easier to do so and to my eye, there are many who avoid pressure work in dogs as an overreaction to an overly broad, harsh application pf pressure in the past.

The idea of pressure work is that the handler applies pressure, to cue a behavior, that pressure releases when the animal commits to the behavior. The goal, with this work is to create a response with the absolute minimum amount of pressure needed. This is working within the Negative Reinforcement quadrant that you almost never see addressed in training articles. Specifically in regards to operant conditioning, it is critical to remember that positive means to add and negative means to subtract. Reinforcement is something (object/action) that make a behavior more likely. Punishment is something (object/action) that makes a behavior less likely. A dog sits so you give them a treat is positive (add) reinforcement (food to increase likelihood of sitting).

I would argue that Negative Reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood training concepts in modern dog training. What people often think of is heavy handed leash pressure. You want a dog to sit so you apply heavy leash pressure up to force the dog into position. The pressure is released when the dog's butt hits the ground. However, just like every other quadrant, there is nuance of application.

Early in my apprenticeship, my mentor was working with a toy breed dog that would dig in when their owners went for a walk. They would stop and freeze. Usually the owners would get the dog to move for a treat but that quickly turned into walking a few steps, the dog freezing, and the owners using food to bribe the dog forward. Part of assessing this issue is looking at it from a holistic perspective. Does the dog not want to walk because it's unpleasant? Is it too hot, have they walked too long, are they scared, are they in pain? Many would tell you if the dog doesn't want to walk there must be a reason, and it might just be their dog doesn't like walks. I would agree with the assessment that there must be a reason, but I have found in this scenario not liking walks is rarely the issue. Those same owners will often tell you that if they go up to their cabin their dog will hike around with them all day long. The difference? The dog is off leash.

My mentor told these owners to start for their walk as normal and when the dog stopped, walk to the end of their leash, apply no more forward pressure with the leash than you can apply by holding the leash between their thumb and index finger and wait. My mentor told them they needed to be patient and the first time to anticipate they may not even leave their driveway, but the mental exercise the dog was getting as they worked through the puzzle would be adequate in place of a physical walk. If the dog scooted enough to release the pressure, but not to commit to walking, then to take another step and go back to adding the pressure. If the dog sits, lies down, or pulls away you ignore all the undesired steps the dog was employing to solve the problem. As the dog works through this you can encourage "Good!" when they start thinking about moving toward you, starts slackening the leash at all, but you don't verbally tell them what you want. You allow them to think through what the light pressure means and how to turn it off. It's so important for the dog to understand that they are the ones who can control when the pressure turns off. When the dog finally commits to moving toward you (thus releasing the leash pressure), mark Yes!, praise, and continue on your way. You may take a treat out after the dog is moving with you, but it should not come out in order to prompt the dog to move.

The first time you do this can take some time with a dog. But in the case of my mentor, the dog was walking around the training room without pausing by the end of class. And I have never met a dog in all my time training that this technique didn't work for, even in cases where the dog had years of practice balking at walks. The vast majority of times in situations such as these, the root issue is not pain or discomfort, it is the dog gets stuck and doesn't know how to turn the leash pressure off, and getting stuck quickly becomes habit. Now, it's a different story if this is a dog that normally walks fine but is suddenly balking. In those cases, the change in behavior often indicates something has changed for the dog (heat, exhaustion, pain, etc).

Why work a dog through this? So what if they don't enjoy walks? That's a valid argument. And if it's not worth working the dog through that issue to you, that's totally you decision. However, you and your dog cannot escape the inherent pressure living life exerts and avoiding situations that create that pressure is only realistic in certain situations. Routine vaccinations put a lot of social and spatial and enviornmental pressure on dogs. Getting groomed puts a ton of spatial and social and enviornmental pressure on a dog. Traveling (whether you bring your dog or board them) is a huge envriornmental pressure.

Imboran is a well socialized dog. I showed him less than 24 hours after flying from Atlanta to Seattle. He travel with me five weekends in a row after arriving. He is a solid show dog I can hand off to other people when needed. He's good in the car. He's good in a crate, even crating in a new to him venue. He also is a door bolter. In the beginning, it was a problem I side stepped. He had a drag leash on in the beginning, so I just grabbed the leash and kept him from bolting away. His problem is not that he wants to flee or get away from me (or anything else). His problem is, like many Azawakh that the idea of brushing against the sides of the door/crate/gate is unpleasant to him, so he flings himself through the opening as quickly as possible. It's very much a deeply conditioned response, so he will do it, even when the opening is not intended to him. Once he gets through the opening, he doesn't actually go anywhere.

You can see where he scraped off fur from closing the gate on himself by bolting.

About two months into living with him, I finally had the time to address the issue directly, rather than managing it. Instead of controlling him with a leash we started working on a rock solid Wait. At first, he would fling himself at the opening, and then, finding the opening wasn't big enough for him, he would panic because the gate/door/crate door was now touching him. He wwould try to force himself through and once managed to scrape himself up by closing the gate on himself. So we worked not only Wait. But on leash pressure. And on backing up when a door swing open and pressures him instead of forging forward. I worked back up using spatial pressure outside of the context of gates so that it became fluent and that his muscle memory could kick in without spatial pressure. He still forgets no and again, but you can see that he understands now and that understanding brings him peace of mind.

Do I need e-collar tactile pressure to get my dog to recall to me? No. Are there situations where my dog can't hear me (roar of the wind, ocean, etc is too loud) where the dog having fluency in tactile pressure will not only come in handy, but potentially save the dog's life? Yes.

Notice both handlers have light leash pressure as the judge approaches.

Do I need leash pressure to get my service dog to sit? No. Is fluency in leash pressure helpful when doing public access work so I can subtly cue my dog to back up, sit, or perform any number of behaviors without me having to break of my conversation to do so? Yes. Definitely. Do I need leash pressure to show my dogs? No, my experienced show dogs are shown almost exclusively on a loose leash. My green dogs, my young dogs, when showing to a heavy handed judge? That leash pressure provides contact between you and them. It's a communication tool, a way of grounding the dog. Slight (we're talking two fingers of pressure) up pressure helps stabilizes the dog's head and reminds them to keep their feet planted.

Can I verbally cue my dogs to move ("Move" or "Excuse Me")? Yes, but when I'm carrying something, when I'm on the phone with a client or a friend, is it not more convenient that my dogs know how to yield to spatial pressure and stay out from underfoot automatically.

The more you practice with different types of pressure, the more control your dog has over the world. If you continually duck out or avoid certain types of pressure because your dog doesn't know how to cope with them, their response will not have occasion to improve and gain fluency. If you break the pressure down into manageable, successful, light components then your dog is far more likely to seamlessly adapt to the pressures of the world. No one is claiming there aren't other ways to teach dogs (I teach with shaping and luring often, but I typically proof with pressure) , but teaching them how to respond to pressure ultimately will help them navigate life more successfully than if they don't have that skillset.

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