Behavior happens. All the time. Whether we want it to or not.
Ok, I know those are glib statements, but understanding the nature of it seems to elude many us. Take the case of Kira and me. Eighteen months ago, I wrote a blog about the incessant barking in our household. Three dogs, three barkers, and a professional trainer. What on earth did I think I was doing? Well, I knew what I was doing to cause the behavior, but “fixing it” was proving to be a whole new ball-game.
Using the ABC model of applied behavior analysis, here was how Kira’s barking used to play out in our household:
- Antecedent (what happened that preceded or triggered the behavior): I would leave the room Kira was in.
- Behavior (what Kira would do): Kira barked, shrilly.
- Consequence (what happened during or immediately after the behavior): I would return to the room.
Prediction: Clearly, based on this model, Kira was learning that her barking caused my return. My attempts to extinguish the behavior by simply not returning for ages didn’t have the desired effect. The barking would continue for those same ages! Kira had learnt that I would invariably return, and the longer she kept up with the barking, the more likely I was to come back. That wasn’t true, of course, I would just simply come back to her room if only because I had finished whatever I went to do in another room. I tell you, my bathroom breaks were loud and problematic.
Here we are, eighteen months later, and I can hardly remember that this was ever a problem. Our household these days is a quiet and peaceful one. So what did I do to solve it? Back then, I told you all that I had taught Kira a “Quiet, shhh” cue and a “Whadd’ya say?” cue. The idea behind these two cues is that by putting the barking on cue, and reinforcing only the cued barking, the dog learns to not bark at other times. At the same time, by reinforcing the “Quiet” cue, and teaching duration on it, “Quiet” will become more of a default mode.
Well, the change hasn’t happened overnight, I can tell you that. Yes, I worked hard to put these two cues under stimulus control, but I don’t think that was the only change that made the difference. Remember that stimulus control has four conditions before a behavior can be said to be truly under stimulus control:
- The behavior must occur immediately on cue.
- The behavior must not occur when not cued.
- The behavior must not occur in response to some other cue.
- No other behavior should occur in response to this cue.
We had frequent training sessions working these two behaviors. And within a two-minute training session, her cued behaviors were perfect. Translating that to normal everyday life, when we were not within a training session, was a lot harder. So here is what we did:
I started to decrease the amount of times that I’d cue “Whadd’ya say?” Essentially, we spent less time in barking mode together. And because I wasn’t asking for the behavior, she wasn’t doing it. Yay for stimulus control.
But here was the bigger difference: I started to cue “Quiet” proactively before I’d leave the room, and then from the other room, I’d reinforce her quietness with praise, and an eventual cookie when I returned. I made sure that my absences were built up in the same way as any duration behavior such as a sit or a down. At first, I’d just cue “Quiet”, then walk out, then immediately after passing through the doorway, I’d turn around, rush back to her, and tell her what good “quiet” that was. Gradually, I extended the duration of my absence by milliseconds, to seconds, to minutes. Always reinforced with praise, and treats. Over time, the treats went onto a variable schedule of reinforcement, which meant that I’d randomly give her a treat for some episodes of “quiet” but not for others. She never knew when she’d get a cookie for her next attempt at “quiet” and when she’d get just praise.
And here we are, eighteen months later, and I really cannot remember the last time that Kira uttered her shrill bark whenever I leave the room. Together with the decreased barking has come a decrease in both of our stress levels. No doubt that has contributed to our success.
Of the other two barkers in the household: Well, one was Tycho. Tycho is no longer with us, and his barking, when it happened, was always only in response to emotional upheaval in his psyche. You will know about his story from a previous post. It still hurts.
And the remaining barker was Dakota. Dakota was never really a big barker, and I think much of his barking was simply in response to the other two barking. He was a joiner, not an instigator.
And so our household is now one of peacefulness and decreased stress. And that’s just the way it should be.