The Whole Truth About Training Dogs to Avoid Snakes

Everyone loves their dog. We have dogs because we enjoy their company, they make us laugh, they help us relax, they get us out and about. We like the way they look, enjoy training them, or just walking or petting them. Everyone has their own reasons for owning a dog, but most of us can agree that we also enjoy them more when they are well behaved.


Training a dog isn’t easy for most people. There is an art to dog training. It involves skill, good observational skills, good timing, patience, understanding, consistency and knowledge. This is just for your average obedience tasks. However, it’s even more difficult if a dog has behaviour problems. Behaviour problems with dogs are only problems if they impede on our lives in some way, the lives of others or most of all, the life of your dog. When we evaluate the life of a dog, we should consider his overall wellbeing which includes both his physical and mental wellbeing. Let’s face it, if you don’t feel good mentally, your physical well-being also suffers. It is well accepted these days that many of us suffer from a mental illness of some kind and we are encouraged to take care of ourselves in all areas of our lives. This is the same with our pets. If we don’t look after their mental wellbeing they will suffer physically at some point.


Science, over the years, has discovered many things about psychology and unravelled the mysteries of how our brains function and how we learn about the world around us. A lot of the research has been conducted on animals which includes, but is not limited to, dogs and cats. From these studies we have discovered how animals learn, that they have feelings and that they are also sentient beings and should be treated as such. This is important when we are training them to conduct ‘particular’ behaviours under what we call stimulus control. (On request)


One of the areas that we should understand is that of the four quadrants of learning.

The diagram below represents these four quadrants of learning which outlines the principles of behaviour. We have ‘law of effect’ which means that a behaviour is a function of a consequence it has previously generated. This is also referred to as Operant Conditioning. There are two types of consequences, those which result in something pleasurable and so those behaviours are more likely to be repeated and those behaviours which result in something unpleasant and so are less likely to be repeated.


Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement results in an increase in behaviour i.e they will be repeated, and Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment results in a decrease in behaviour, they are less likely to be repeated.


Diagram adapted from Skinners


In an article written by Canine Snake Avoidance International (1), they state that by understanding this diagram, ‘the quadrants of reinforcement and punishment’ that is acknowledged universally as a true science. We can see that our core tools for training a dog to avoid snakes are Positive Punishment (+P) and Negative (-P) because they want to decrease the dogs engaging or investigation behaviours with reptiles.


What’s wrong with that? Well, firstly they are assuming that the dog does engage with reptiles and they are asking themselves the question, how can we stop this? What they should be asking, is, if the dog does engage with reptiles, what would I like him to do instead??


By asking and answering this question you are able to;


1) Decide on what the new behaviour should be

2) Choose positive reinforcement (+R) to train this new behaviour.


In the same article they argue that Differential Reinforcement is a type of distraction. They say it preserves the current unwanted behaviour; i.e the dog will still desire the reptile over the reinforcement on offer plus the owner still needs to be present. The true definition of Differential Reinforcement (DR) is as follows: A procedure in which a target behaviour is reinforced while another target behaviour is extinguished(2). If we apply this definition to training dogs to avoid snakes with positive reinforcement, we would be reinforcing our new behaviour, such as ‘coming away’ from the snake as well as managing / preventing the dog from practicing interacting with the snake. Therefore, coming away is heavily reinforced and is more likely to be repeated. In addition to this, in their definition they are still assuming that the dog will, or has previously engaged, in some form of reptile interaction. This means that the dog’s behaviour would have been reinforced by the ‘act’ alone. However, ‘extinction’ of a behaviour has no ‘postcedent’ (what occurs after a behaviour) changes in the environment, unlike reinforcement or punishment. Therefore, extinction is a ‘behaviour change process in which no ‘functional postcedent’ environmental changes occur and, as a result, the rate or frequency of the previously reinforced behaviour decreases over subsequent occasions.’(3) In laymen’s terms, what this means is, that extinction changes the reinforcement contingencies. Therefore, if we prevent a dog from practicing a skill there are no reinforcers available, it therefore decreases or eliminates behaviour rather than just suppressing it through super-imposing a punisher over a reinforcer.(4) i.e the application of a shock. As to whether the owner still needs to be present will depend upon what the chosen desired behaviour is. Then we train it!


Let’s evaluate how applying punishment to a dog affects his behaviour


The true definition of a punisher is that it reduces behaviour. If there is no behaviour to reduce, i.e your dog has never seen, chased or bitten a snake. What is the shock being associated with - EXACTLY??


Scientists that studied fear conditioning noticed what they termed as ‘context fear conditioning’.(5) During their studies they observed that the rats they were working on, began to become fearful to the chamber in which their training took place. The rats were beginning to predict that circumstances in their environment predicted a particular outcome. This means that a certain generalisation takes place under such conditions. Is your dog associating the shock to just the snake, if at all? Is he associating the shock with whoever is present or to the location of where the shock took place? Remember, this is fear conditioning, so what long term affects will that have on him?


Fear is a biological response to the environment and its function is to signal danger, threat, or motivation conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses.(6) (Steimer, 2002). Fear is usually elicited in response to danger when it is imminent. Coping strategies and styles of coping during fearful events are characterised by consistent behavioural and neuroendocrine patterns.(7) As individuals we all respond differently to such events and this may explain why some of us are more vulnerable to stress than others. Different coping styles to stress have been found in different strains of rats (8) which may also indicate that stress has a genetic basis.


What I am highlighting is, that dogs, like us, have varying sensitivity levels, varying degrees of social behaviour, thus varying degrees in how each would respond to such a form of punishment. Many end up with long term side effects that influence the way they live life in general, not just when they may encounter a snake. If a generalisation to the event has taken place, an enhanced memory to that event is imminent, walks become extremely stressful. Dogs show high levels of anxiety when leaving home or entering specific terrain which often spills over into everyday life at home. Anxiety takes place when an animal feels they have no control over their environment and can no longer predict what may occur. Trust between them and their owner is diminished due to the unpredictable nature the dog has associated his owner with.


Furthermore, punishment only reduces the strength of a behaviour. Punishment procedures do not, on their own, change the existing reinforcement contingency that was prevailing on that behaviour – that would be extinction.(9) Therefore, to suggest that the application of shock training is the only ‘reliable’ form of ‘training’ dogs to avoid snakes is totally missing the point. If the dog has a high prey drive and has previously killed a snake, the reinforcement contingency to that behaviour would be relatively high. Therefore, the application of +P may suppress the behaviour but once +P has been discontinued, the existing reinforcement contingency prevails again, and the behaviour would be expected to return to its pre-punished strength.(10) Not to mention, there is also a further problem with this training as we generally see an increase in the strength of the returning behaviour known as post-punishment over-recovery.(11) Needless to say, the application of this punishment-based method needs to be repeated in order to maintain the desired response. Therefore, these dogs are subjected to shock training on a regular basis. It is the author’s opinion there is no training here at all, this is just the application of an electrical impulse, a treatment to suppress a behaviour that a dog may or may not display. There are no skills involved. In applying a shock, there is no functional assessment of the dog, the behaviour responses before and after treatment are not measured, analysed or reviewed and above all there is no regard to the dog as a sentient being with feelings.


The Power of Positive Reinforcement.


As we have already identified, reinforcement means an increase in strength of behaviour. The experience during reinforcement must have three characteristics.


1. A behaviour must have a consequence

2. The behaviour must increase in strength

3. The increase in strength must be the result of the consequence (12)


When you look at behaviour with these guidelines it becomes apparent as to why a dog’s caregiver may struggle to train the behaviours that they would like over those that they don’t want. As the saying goes, dogs do what works for them, and this is so true. How many dog owners have inadvertently taught a dog to greet them by jumping up rather than sitting?


So how does reinforcement affect our dogs?


Research suggests that reinforcement is mediated by structures known as neurons in the septal region of the brain. The neurons involved in this process are those that produce dopamine and adrenaline, both of which produce generally positive sensations.(13)

We have all heard about the adrenalin junkies who want to jump out of aeroplanes. Well, their brain releases dopamine (a source of a natural high) which is then converted into adrenalin and provides them with a feeling of euphoria. As a result, they want to do it again and again and so on.


Just about anything that is good will release dopamine - a glass of wine, chocolate, a cold drink on a hot day. The amount that is released will be dependent upon the trigger and circumstances that surround it. i.e a surprise will release more dopamine than an event that is known to occur. Research demonstrated that large gains in early learning followed by smaller gains as learning occurred resulted in what is termed a ‘decelerating learning curve’. It is thought that the reason learning slowed down was because the consequence (the reinforcer) was more familiar as well as being expected and therefore less dopamine was being released. This is very interesting for us as dog trainers as we have all seen our dogs peek and then slowdown in their training. If you evaluate this correctly and add a different treat to the scenario, generally their motivation perks back up and learning begins to accelerate again.


Generally, by utilising positive reinforcement correctly, communicating to your dog with clarity, choosing the right reinforcers, manipulating your environment in such a way that we set our dogs up to be successful, we can achieve great things. We empower our dogs. We can develop a dog who becomes industrious, resilient, creative and persistent (14) but above all one that still has a choice within his environment and is not afraid of anything!


I know which method I would chose, do you?


References


1 – Canine Snake Avoidance International(now SAT -Snake Avoidance Training) – downloaded from https://www.slithersandslides.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Can-Snake-Avoidance-be-achieved-using-force-free-or-reward-based-methods.pdf


2 - O’Heare, J – coursework definitions


3 & 4- O’Heare, J (2010) – Changing problem behaviour, a systematic & comprehensive approach to behaviour change project management. BehaveTech Publishing. Ottawa Canada


5 & 6- Steimer, T (2002) – The biology of fear- and anxiety related behaviours. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience – Vol 4.N.o 3


7 – Koolhass JM, Korte SM, De Boer DF, et al. Coping styles in animals: current status in behaviour and stress-physiology. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999.23:925-935


8 – Parmigiani S, Palanza P, Rodgers, J, Ferrari PF, Selection, evolution of behaviour and animal models in behavioural neuroscience. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999.23:957-970


9 & 10 - James O’Heare – (2010) – Changing problem behaviour, a systematic & comprehensive approach to behaviour change project management. BehaveTech Publishing. Ottawa Canada


11 - Fraley, 2008 cited by James O’Heare (2010) in Changing problem behaviour, a systematic & comprehensive approach to behaviour change project management. BehaveTech Publishing. Ottawa Canada


12 & 13 – Chance, P (2008) – Learning and behaviour; active learning edition. Sixth Edition. Wadsworth USA


14 – Lawrence, K (2013) – Clicker Revolution. Learning about dogs. Glos UK

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