A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. – B. F. Skinner
Science is a willingness to accept facts even when they are opposed to wishes. – B.F. Skinner
Welcome to my blog! This is not the post I set out to write as my flagship post in a series on applied behavior analysis (ABA). Nor is it even the second post I had begun to write following the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. But it is the post I am compelled to write in response to my recent “time-out” from the Academy for Dog Trainers’ Facebook groups.
In order to be perfectly clear:
I do not in any way promote shock, prong, choke, strangulation, or intentionally inflicting fear and/or exposing dogs to painful stimuli in order to effect behavioral change.
As such, I will not tolerate attempts to undermine my professional credibility with false information or deliberate misrepresentation of my training practices and professional ethics.
I will not be cowed by Jean Donaldson’s “time-out” from Facebook for my alleged conduct violations, and I will vigorously defend myself. I will not tolerate being maligned nor will I leave colleagues whom I admire and respect with the impression that I have committed misconduct, as characterized by Jean, without the benefit of due process or a platform on which to mount my defense. Having been denied due process and the opportunity to defend myself within the Academy community, and out of concern for how this information about my alleged conduct violations and sanction may be represented, I have chosen this course of action to protect myself and my professional reputation in the animal-care industry.
Why this Matters
The animal training community is very small and my reputation is at stake.
- I hold doctoral, masters, and bachelors degrees from three different universities.
- I have a university certificate in Applied Animal Behavior.
- I am currently enrolled in a university graduate program for Applied Behavior Analysis, and I am accruing supervised fieldwork experience to sit for the exam to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
- I am a licensed psychologist with over 30 years of clinical experience. I have provided assessment, treatment, intervention, consultation, and training services to individuals, groups, and families in outpatient, inpatient, educational, residential, and correctional settings.
- I have held five consecutive Governor’s appointments to the Pennsylvania Sexual Offenders Assessment Board since 2000.
- I am a court-qualified expert witness in the field of sexual offender assessment and treatment.
- I have written hundreds of formal behavior change plans for children, adolescents, and adults.
- I have chaired the Behavior Management Committee of a large residential treatment facility which provided ethical and regulatory oversight of the development, implementation, and monitoring of behavior change plans written by the psychologists and behavior analysts employed by that facility.
- I am a former adjunct university professor who taught classes in introduction to psychology, learning and behavior, developmental psychology, and psychopathology.
- I am bound to ethical practice by the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct and the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code, to the regulatory standards of the Professional Psychologists Practice Act promulgated by of the State Board of Psychology in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to the Governor’s Code of Conduct.
- I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT).
- As the CCPDT is an independent certifying organization for the dog training profession, and not a dog training school that issues a certificate of completion, I am bound by the enforceable standards of the CCPDT as set forth in their Code of Conduct.
- I have a successful private practice in canine behavior consulting.
I pride myself on maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct and professional practice in every educational pursuit and professional endeavor, including those in the animal care industry.
My Alleged Mis-Conduct and Action Taken Against Me
I have never been accused of inappropriate conduct or impropriety in any academic or professional setting, and I take such accusations extremely seriously.
On April 15, 2020, I was accused of, and sanctioned for, violating the Academy for Dog Trainers’ Mission and Code of Conduct regarding the use of aversives and assumption of goodwill towards Academy staff, students, graduates, fellow professionals, and clients. I was denied due process as specified in the Mission and Code of Conduct and the Academy’s Student Handbook (2018), which states:
“Students who require coaching in professional conduct will have the opportunity to improve with successive approximations. All students are granted a warning with detailed feedback for a first offense [italics mine], and probation with further feedback for a second, before being expelled for a third offense (this is a “three strikes” system). Warning, probation or expulsion may result from hostile or unprofessional conduct on discussion platforms, during interactions about your work, i.e. during video or assignment feedback, regarding test results, or any combination of these… In Academy discussion platforms, critical thinking and healthy debate on technique and philosophy are encouraged, but ad hominem attacks, combative, hostile or passive-aggressive tone directed at fellow students, grads or staff will be considered incidents of unprofessional conduct (see Infringements above).” (Student Handbook, pg. 15)
I was not issued a warning with detailed feedback for my first alleged offense. I was not provided with any information via email, phone, text, a messaging system, etc. to express any concern about my conduct whatsoever prior to my receipt of the email above. At no time did Jean or any other Academy staff member attempt to shape my behavior through “successive approximations” as specified above. Nor has Jean, or any other Academy staff person, contacted me since the issuance of the email above.
Jean arbitrarily leveled a sanction in direct violation of her own Mission and Code of Conduct. She stated that she “let go” my first alleged mis-conduct, and that perhaps she had done so “mistakenly.” Yet she saw fit to level a high-magnitude punisher to me, her learner, for her mistake. Arbitrarily changing the criteria of a teaching or behavior change plan and then leveling an aversive punisher is an egregious mistake on the part of a teacher or trainer. To do so as the founder and owner of a dog training school has more sweeping implications. In doing so, Jean has invalidated her own Code of Conduct. In true academia, college and university students are afforded protection from arbitrary and capricious disciplinary action, either by the Constitution of the United States if the university is publically funded or by contract law if the institution is private. Students who are denied due process may seek legal recourse as universities are obligated to deliver on the promises they make in their handbooks, including their promises of due process.
My Comments on Negative Reinforcement
My comments in the Academy Café Facebook group regarding negative reinforcement, as referenced in Jean’s email above, occurred on April 14, 2020, and April 15, 2020. I commented in response to a post on Dr. Lore Haug’s May 25, 2020 IAABC lecture entitled “Humane Use of Negative Reinforcement in the Real World – The Lemonade Conference.”
Below are my comments from that thread. I do not know Dr. Haug personally, and I have no direct knowledge of the content of her lecture aside from the description on the conference website. It was in the spirit of extending the assumption of goodwill to Dr. Haug that I responded to comments of Café members and staff, including Jean Donaldson.
“I’ve heard her [Dr. Haug] present, as well, and she was great. I’ll be attending [The Lemonade Conference], too.”
“It may helpful to think about the range of behaviors that are maintained by R-. Any time we brush a hair out of our eye, wash our hands, shift in our seat, open an umbrella, adjust a wedgie, that’s R- in action. When an animal scratches an itch, moves out of the sun, or avoids an outstretched hand, that’s R- in action. All escape and avoidance behaviors are maintained by R-. Allowing animals to ‘vote with their feet’ is R-. We instruct clients to do petting ‘consent tests.’ In that context, if a dog moves away to escape or avoid petting, that’s R-. If I’m training at the vet clinic and the dog growls when approached by the veterinarian, I’ll have the veterinarian back away and we regroup. That’s R- in action.
Whether we realize it or not, R- is happening all the time. And even positive trainers are using R-, whether they see it as such or not (think petting consent tests, voting with feet). It’s disturbing to me that there seems to be an automatic assumption that Dr. Haug is going to be using or promoting the use of aversives in her talk. I certainly didn’t get that impression from her workshop description.”
“Actually, Dr. Haug doesn’t even mention ‘aversive’ in her workshop description. So I’m confused about this assumption…”
[In response to a different definition written in the discussion] “By ABA definition, it’s [an aversive is] any stimulus an organism will work to escape or avoid.”
“If a vet approaches a dog with a stethoscope and the vet stops the approach b/c they feel the dog is afraid, that’s R-! And I don’t think anyone would object to a vet doing this. It’s what’s taught in Fear Free. Which is why I’m scratching my head.”
“Actually, Jean [Donaldson], I don’t see that her [Dr. Haug’s] workshop is about procedure-related pain or fear being made to continue until an animal does something the vet or trainer prefers. And it’s incredibly disturbing to me that you would make that assumption. It’s patently false to conclude that that is the only way that R- functions. I do hope you attend!”
“Yes, I completely understand your concerns, [name omitted], and I totally agree! Fear Free is predicated on observing and understanding an animal’s body language and backing off (allowing the animals to escape or avoid) when an animal is showing signs of fear/anxiety/stress. That’s R- in action. But there seems to be a misconception operating that R- only involves abject fear and/or intense pain and that’s just not true. Although I work very, very hard to go slowly and carefully through husbandry plans, I have had dogs hard stare or growl on occasion. And my instruction is for everyone to immediately “back off” in those instances. So you could say that I’m using R- in a planned way. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that this is R-. And I do worry when it’s automatically assumed that Dr. Haug will be promoting hurting or scaring dogs because her topic is R-.”
I responded twice more to additional questions and comments on the thread. One poster assumed (and asked to be corrected if they were wrong) that I was advocating for restraining an animal in a veterinary setting until they performed a desired behavior. Absolutely not! To the contrary, I provided a specific example of a Rottweiler I have worked with at a veterinary clinic on numerous occasions for a variety of procedures who was never restrained. I respectfully submit that those comments were similar in tone to the first several comments above.
My Comments on Negative Punishment
My comments in the Academy Café Facebook group regarding negative punishment, as referenced in Jean’s email above as the “previous” incident, occurred at the end of February 2020.
“There are studies that demonstrate time out from positive reinforcement functions as an aversive stimulus. Perhaps that’s what the individuals are referring to? And the applied literature indicates that there are side effects related to the use of punishment procedures, including P-. All punishment is used judiciously in ABA practice. Contingent exclusion, or physically moving an individual to a “time-out” area, can be fraught with issues, particularly if the individual resists. In that case, there’s the risk of the procedure tipping over into P+ territory. Unfortunately, I’m speaking from the trenches and not just Theorestistan* on this one. I generally have my dog-clients use time-out only when they can remove themselves from the area to avoid physical struggles. But I’d consider the alternative if I felt the risks outweighed the benefits.”
* “Dwelling in Theorestistan” is Academy parlance for speaking from academia or an ivory tower without having hands-on professional pet dog training experience. Any mistake or misrepresentation of this definition is entirely my own.
“I agree that it’s problematic to say that any operant contingency is inherently ‘bad.’ And in discussing the science of behavior change, I just wanted to share about the experimental applied research. Time-out functions as a punisher because the animal or individual finds the time-in situation reinforcing. The time-out is defined as aversive in the relationship in terms of the time-in contingency. That’s according to the literature, not me. And it’s not referring to poorly executed time-out. If an animal, or person, attempts to avoid time-out, why might that be? Additionally, if we are physically escorting a person (or pulling a dog on leash) to time-out, there is the risk of the procedure working via P+ rather than P-, even though that’s not our intention. This is a significant consideration in using time-out procedures with humans. And it’s why all punishment procedures, including P-, are used judiciously in ABA. The cautions regarding the use of punishment don’t just apply to positive punishment procedures, they apply to negative punishment procedures, as well. I’m not suggesting that P- be ‘abandoned,’ but I do consider the risks and use it only when I feel the benefits outweigh the risks with a given individual or dog.”
“Yes, I’m referring to the experimental and applied literature in ABA which defines an aversive as a stimulus that an organism will work or behave to avoid. Although appetitive stimuli are ended routinely, just as R- and P+ are happening routinely we’re talking about the contingent use of negative punishment [meaning in the context of a behavior change plan]. And I agree completely, [name withheld], that our intention doesn’t make something any more or less aversive. A gentle touch can function as an aversive for a person or a dog whether that’s our intention or not. We probably all agree that giving dogs the option to ‘vote with their feet’ is a good thing. And that behavior (voting with feet) is maintained through the process of negative reinforcement. The dog is behaving to avoid/escape a particular stimulus in that moment (for example, a touch or petting, maybe a training situation, etc.) which they find aversive. It doesn’t mean that the stimulus is necessarily scary or painful, it’s just something that, for whatever reason, the dog is behaving to avoid.
I do think discussions about contingencies can be confusing if people are approaching them from different frameworks. I just wanted to weigh in from an ABA standpoint.”
“ Interestingly, [name withheld], the research on time out from positive reinforcement, dating back as early as the ’50s, was done with animals – Pigeons, chimps, and rats. And that’s where the time-out from positive reinforcement as a form of aversive control comes from.”
“’ABA’ is frequently used in a colloquial sense In the field of dog training. It’s become shorthand for, or synonymous with, learning theory, ‘quadrants,’ operant contingencies, etc. This is where so much of the confusion about these terms and their meaning comes from. And it’s contributed to much dissension in the training field and among positive trainers, which is so unfortunate.
For those formally trained in the natural science and technology of applied behavior analysis, emotions don’t play a role in defining operant contingencies, reinforcers, or punishers. From Cooper, Heron, & Heward (2007), ‘Just as positive reinforcers are not defined with terms such as pleasant or satisfying, aversive stimuli should not be defined with such terms as annoying or unpleasant. The terms reinforcer and punisher should not be used on the basis of a stimulus event’s assumed effect on behavior or on any inherent property of the stimulus event itself.’ And the literature indicates that punishment (both positive and negative) and negative reinforcement operate as a function of aversive control. Again, that’s not me speaking, that’s the science. It certainly wasn’t my intention to ruffle feathers. I just thought it might be useful to share some information from my formal training in the science of ABA.”
“Thanks everyone! I’m so glad you found the conversation interesting and informative. I’ve had some people reach out with questions about the literature on negative punishment and ABA, in general. I’m planning a Zoom session for anyone interested in chatting more. Please PM me if you’re interested in joining. Everyone’s welcome!”
“My apologies, Jean [Donaldson]. Again, my intention was not to ruffle feathers. I do feel, however, that it’s important for people to know that there is a significant body of experimental and applied research indicating the negative punishment functions as a form of aversive control. The literature dates back to the 1950s and has continued into the 2000s with both animals and humans. It’s cited in ABA textbooks, as well. All punishment, not just negative punishment, is subject to unwanted side effects and is used in caution in ABA for this reason.”
“You haven’t ruffled my feathers at all, Jean [Donaldson], because it’s not my opinion, it’s the science. If we wish to say we are evidenced-based or science-based practitioners, then it’s important to know and understand the science and its application. And if the scientific framework we’re coming from is ABA, well then that would be the body of literature to be versed in. It’s at our own peril if we’re not. It’s not possible for us to have educated discussions with trainers who do know the research otherwise. And ethics in practice dictate being informed by the literature and using evidence-based practices. That’s what I strive for as both a psychologist and ABA practitioner in my work with both dogs and people.”
The above comments on negative reinforcement and negative punishment are the stated cause of my suspension from Academy Facebook groups without the prior warning stipulated by the Academy’s own written procedures.
The Science and My Motivation to Speak About It
“As behavior analysts know, definitions matter. A well-conceived definition can promote conceptual understanding and set the context for effective action. Conversely, a poor definition or confusion about definitions hinders clear understanding, communication, and action.” (Slocum et al., 2014, p.43)
It is easy to conclude from my comments above that the discussions in those Facebook threads arose out of the critical differences between how the Academy views the terms “aversive(s),” “negative reinforcement,” and “negative punishment” and how these terms are defined in the sciences of psychology and applied behavior analysis. Unfortunately, no references, citations, textbooks, journal articles, etc. were ever offered to support the Academy’s views.
I struggled to understand the source of this confusion. I could not recall any references or citations in the Academy training materials. So I went back to the source – my binder of PDFs from the Academy’s training modules – in an attempt to understand how my speaking about the scientific definitions of operant contingencies could be construed as misconduct and as condoning the use of pain and fear in training. And in those training modules lay some answers.
The Academy’s freshman module, Animal Learning and Motivation Part 1, introduces the concept of operant contingencies as “Quadrants by Intuition.” The module indicates that “R+ and P- Deal with ‘Good Stuff’” and “P+ and R- Deal with ‘Bad Stuff.’” It further states, “So carrying on with our intuitive sense of ‘good stuff’ and ‘bad stuff,’ we can start to group quadrants along this dimension. Positive reinforcement and negative punishment both go together because they deal with good stuff. Positive reinforcement gives it to you and negative punishment takes it away…Ditto for ‘bad stuff.’ Positive punishment is the dishing out of bad stuff and negative reinforcement is the taking away of bad stuff – In everyday language this is called relief.”
This reduction to “good stuff” and “bad stuff,” which is rejected by every learning theory and ABA textbook I consulted, is followed by the correct statement that reinforcement and punishment are determined by their effect on behavior (increasing or decreasing). But unfortunately, the categorizations of good and bad stuff are the “default” positions of the Academy. And those categorizations go straight into the Academy “definitions” of the learning processes.
- Negative Reinforcement: “Doing what works to stop something painful or scary.” [bold mine]
- Negative Punishment: “It’s the less ferocious kind of punishment…in negative punishment, you’re negating or removing or terminating good stuff.” [bold mine]
- Aversive stimulus: “Painful, scary stuff is in the psychology of animal learning called an ‘aversive stimulus’…the same aversive stimulus can have two ‘ends’: a start, which will function as positive punishment, and a termination, which will function as negative reinforcement.” Jean’s stance is that due to the attendant pain and fear that accompany aversives, the Academy rejects their use.
While the module indicates that the above constructions are derived from the fields of psychology and behavior analysis, there are no citations or sources offered anywhere in the module to support the Academy’s “definitions.”
Further, it is important to note that the phrase above is not actually a definition of “aversive stimulus.” It is a categorization of certain types of stimuli into “aversive.” An aversive stimulus is defined in psychology, and in ABA, as “any stimulus or occurrence that evokes avoidance or escape behavior” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Again, an aversive is “any stimulus an animal or person will avoid, given the opportunity to do so; any stimulus the removal of which is reinforcing” (Chance, 2014, p. 393). This definition is both simple and profound, because it is highly inclusive, far beyond stimuli that are “painful or scary.” Understanding what it can include sheds a whole different light on the contingencies operating in humane training. However, the limitation of aversive to “painful and scary” is the Academy practice, reified in every Academy discussion I have ever seen.
The Clash of Science and the Academy’s “Definitions”
With regard to the thread on negative reinforcement, my intention was to extend the assumption of goodwill to Dr. Haug through explicating the many, and often subtle, ways that negative reinforcement functions in our work as positive trainers. I attempted to locate a possible source of the Academy’s definitions by consulting the psychology and ABA textbooks I had on hand, as well as doing a literature search, but was unsuccessful. The Academy’s definition of negative reinforcement is erroneous. While organisms will indeed behave to avoid and escape painful and “scary” stimuli, this is not how negative reinforcement and aversive stimuli are defined in psychology or applied behavior analysis.
In Learning and Behavior (2018), a highly regarded introductory psychology textbook, Paul Chance writes, “In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of a stimulus. This stimulus, called a negative reinforcer, is ordinarily something the individual tries to escape or avoid… What reinforces behavior in negative reinforcement is escaping from an aversive [unpleasant] stimulus.” (p. 134). Chance gives the example of turning down loud music. “The reduction in sound reinforces the act of turning the volume dial.” (p. 134). He further states, “As with positive reinforcement, identifying consequences that will strengthen behaving when they are reduced or removed is not always easy. What you find aversive, another person may find rewarding. The only way to be sure if an event is negatively reinforcing is to determine its effect on behavior.” [bold mine] (p. 134) Fear and pain are conspicuously absent from Chance’s definitions of aversive stimuli and negative reinforcement.
Another highly regarded and widely used introductory psychology text, Psychology of Learning and Behavior by Schwartz, Wasserman, and Robbins (2002), explains how operant avoidance and escape behaviors are maintained by negative reinforcement, “…one escapes from bad television programs by turning off the set and from bad movies by leaving the theater; one escapes from hot summer weather by going north and from cold winter weather by going south.” I would not characterize a bad movie or TV program and hot or cold weather as “scary” or painful, and yet they function very effectively as aversive stimuli to evoke avoidance/escape behavior. Fear and pain were absent from Schwartz et al.’s definitions of negative reinforcement and aversive stimuli, as well, because these terms are not defined by possible underlying emotions.
The Academy definitions do not hold up in the field of applied behavior analysis, either. In the “White Book” or “White Bible” of ABA, Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) explicitly warn against the types of definitions that the Academy materials promulgate:
There are no inherent or standard physical properties of stimuli that determine their permanent status as reinforcers and punishers. In fact, a stimulus can function as a positive reinforcer under one set of conditions and a negative reinforcer under different conditions. Just as positive reinforcers are not defined with terms such as pleasant or satisfying, aversive stimuli should not be defined with terms such as annoying or unpleasant. The terms reinforcer and punisher should not be used on the basis of a stimulus event’s assumed effect on behavior or on any inherent property of the stimulus event itself. (pg. 41)
Behavioral scientists accept that it is not the teacher who determines what is aversive to a learner, but the learners themselves. In educational settings, the presentation of a task, such as a worksheet, commonly functions as an aversive stimulus. Teacher places a worksheet on the student’s desk, student flips the desk, student is sent to the principal’s office – thereby escaping the work. Desk flipping behavior is maintained by escape from the aversive stimulus. While I would not generally characterize an educational task as “scary” or painful, perhaps for some learners this may be the case. Truth be told, we simply do not know! So we must look at how the stimulus functions for the learner in order to determine if it is an aversive. That’s according to science and not my intuition or interpretation or ethics.
Science Trumps Intuition
With my comments, I did not intend to “re-litigate” Academy philosophy but to share basic factual information from the relevant branches of science. I operate from the psychology and ABA definitions of reinforcers, punishers, and aversives, not the Academy for Dog Trainers’ “definitions.” Unfortunately, because these inaccuracies have become imbued in the culture of the Academy, my intentions were construed as supporting the use of things that are “scary” and painful in dog training. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I contend that my comments were construed as “patronizing and hostile” because they threaten the very foundation on which the Academy’s “R+/P- good; R-/P+ bad” philosophy is based. Challenging questions and difficult discussions inevitably arise from this false reduction. While it may be convenient and highly reinforcing to squelch these discussions in Academy forums, the relief is only temporary. Because the Academy is using “definitions” that conflict with those from the relevant scientific fields, the same issues are bound to arise again and again and again.
It leads me to ponder the questions: How fair is it to leave students to argue their positions – which are based on erroneous definitions – with other professionals who are versed in the science? Wouldn’t it better serve trainers to be educated in the real science so they may correctly evaluate methods and protocols rather than to assume at the mere mention of “negative reinforcement” that someone is promoting hurting and scaring dogs in the name of training? Is it really about creating a “safe,” aversives-free community that any discussion of the true science involving negative punishment and negative reinforcement be shut down, or is it in the service of protecting an idiosyncratic construction of the truth?
The Academy is marketed on its website as a “virtual university for dog trainers” based on “the latest science.” The Academy’s website indicates that it has trained and “certified more than 700 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training, and private behavior counseling” and that it “curates information so that students can feel confident that what they are being taught is grounded in sound science.” It further states that “The program does not rely on surface-level learning. Graduates understand canine ethology, applied behavior analysis, evolution, learning theory, breeds and genetics and the effect of these on behavior, and more.”
When an educational program makes bold claims to be grounded in science, it has an obligation to deliver. When an instructor proclaims to be drawing from the evidence to support their position from a field of science, whether from the social science of psychology or the natural science of applied behavior analysis, they are duty-bound to do so and to cite their sources. The instructor relinquishes the luxury of making unsupported statements about animal learning and behavior, shoehorning processes/procedures into certain preferred “quadrants,” or proffering definitions about operant contingencies based on their own notions or ideals, no matter how well-intended they may be. They are obliged to distinguish between an assertion based on their own personal experience, opinion, or ethics from one based on the empirically-supported literature in a field. That is what it means to be evidenced-based. That is what it means to “do science.”
The Mis-Characterization of My Behavior
It is not lost on me that I was suspended for following the Academy instructions on discourse to the letter. There is a training module devoted specifically to “Critical Thinking” as it relates to science. I emphatically agree with a number of points in the module, including:
- “Nullius in Verba” – “take nobody’s word for it.” “Demand evidence.” Do not accept unsubstantiated “proclamations from authority figures.”
- “Science is about evidence.” Determine if a claim is based on “authority and intuition” or “reason and evidence.” It is important to vet the quality of the evidence, too.
- “Question authority” – “It’s nothing personal to ask for evidence, it’s not a hostile act. It’s just respect for the truth.”
- And this:
“The thing science does so well is strip out conventions of normal social discourse…you’re not allowed to appeal to authority. The lowliest undergrad can question the highest Nobel-Laureate about something, and the Nobel prize winner is gonna have to produce evidence just like everybody else, or her ideas just won’t be respected. You’re also not allowed in science to cry foul based on feeling bad because somebody called you on your made-up rubbish. Science is about finding the truth, not about being nice…We need more of this attitude, not less of it, in dog training. Dogs deserve real science.” [Italics mine]
These are guidelines I follow, and have followed since long before my involvement with the Academy. One certainly would expect a response in keeping with these guidelines. But rather than inquiring about my sources, or promoting an open discussion about the evidence and the quality of the evidence, or offering her own sources/citations/evidence – all normal and expected responses in discourse – Jean effectively shut down the discussion in both threads, ostensibly because I was “re-litigating aversives” and writing in a “schooling,” “patronizing,” and “hostile” manner. But I’m calling foul on Jean’s narrative. My intention was to enhance clarity and promote understanding of operant contingencies. Because science is about finding the truth. Because dogs, and dog trainers, deserve real science.
Did I attempt to clarify where some of the confusion may be resulting from based on my formal education? Yes I did. It had become increasingly painful for me to see the same issues arise repeatedly without being addressed on the basis of the science. Were my comments to Jean direct? You bet! However, they were quite low-key when juxtaposed with the healthy debate, robust discussion, and spirited discourse I’ve been fortunate to experience in true academic institutions, both as a student and as a professor. Presenting the evidence, discussing the research, arguing based on the science, knowing the strengths and limitations of the evidence and your argument are highly valued in academia and science. My son will be applying to college this fall. I would never support his attendance at an academic institution that would sanction him for engaging in similar discourse. It would be unheard of, and it is antithetical to the mission of academia.
But perhaps most troubling to me as a psychologist, aspiring Board Certified Behavior Analyst, educator, behavior consultant, and dog trainer is Jean’s characterization of my behavior as “odd.” That is a profoundly disturbing way to provide feedback to anyone. This is another example of a big disconnect between what the Academy teaches and what it practices. There is a “Counseling” module to the Academy program. In fact, Jean bestows her graduates with a Certificate in Training and Counseling (please note that this is not a certification in counseling). Calling out a community member’s behavior, in writing, as “odd” does not represent a professional level of counseling. It is not acceptable. It certainly did not leave me with the feeling that I was truly a “valued contributor” to Academy discussions and the community.
Membership Has Its Privileges and Its Costs
As a new student in the Academy, I saw the limitations of the program and set them aside because I knew they would not inform my practice. I filtered the materials through the lens of my formal education in behavior science and regurgitated the materials Jean’s way for the purpose of completing the program. I understood that the material on learning and behavior needed to be condensed to fit into the larger structure of a dog trainer-training program. And I learned a hell of a lot about dogs, training mechanics, writing dog training plans, and developed a passion for helping dogs to feel more comfortable during veterinary procedures.
I availed myself of opportunities that were presented as a result of my association with the Academy. Jean granted permission for me to present about my work with the Academy’s Husbandry Project training plans at several national and regional conferences. I proudly presented my work and represented the Academy. My training was featured a number of times on the Academy’s Facebook page. I was invited to present webinars on client counseling for the Academy community for which I was well-compensated. I won two “Academy Awards.” Over several years, I received kudos, branded Academy swag, social media “likes” and “shares,” and positive comments from Jean on my business Facebook page. This was highly reinforcing. I was asked to provide a testimonial for the Academy’s website and gladly obliged in the spirit of goodwill and reciprocity.
However, the implications of how the science of learning was presented became increasingly apparent as I became more fully ensconced in the Academy culture. I saw issues and challenges arise, and I saw how they were dealt with. I mistakenly thought I could take the bad with the good. But the “bad” was distressing. It became increasingly apparent that critical thinking skills were not valued when it was Academy material in question.
My cognitive dissonance grew slowly at first, then escalated. The challenge of remaining silent about the science became increasingly difficult the longer my tenure in the Academy. And it began to exact a heavy toll. In response, I took a self-imposed “time-out” from the Academy Facebook groups for a period of time. I weighed the costs and benefits of various courses of action and considered just fading out of the Academy permanently. But motivating operations are complex, and there are always multiple MO’s at play. I chose to take the risk of sharing my knowledge and experience from psychology and ABA in the Academy forums. Jean’s response to me speaking the truth about the science was to suspend me from the discussion forums.
I found Jean’s response to be aversive, and because I am an organism with a spinal cord, I behave to avoid aversives. One widely-recognized, and not trivial, problem with time-out is that organisms will fight to avoid or escape it. They “resist arrest.” So I’m busting out of Facebook time-out early and will not be returning to the Academy discussion groups. Additionally, I am rescinding my Academy endorsement. Sometimes escape is permanent.
Others in the Academy
Despite the Academy’s stance that negative punishment is safe, humane, and at worst results in frustration, there is a body of literature that demonstrates the potential negative fallout from ALL forms of punishment. Time out from positive reinforcement has been demonstrated to have deleterious effects on human and non-human animals, alike.
I am fortunate to have a community outside the Academy. I have a wonderful network of friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues within and outside of the animal-care field. I am active in a number of professional organizations where there is a culture of openness, sharing, spirited debate, and true intellectual discourse. However, I worry for those Academy colleagues who are at risk of this type of ex-communication who may not have such a rich network of support. How harsh would be denying access to the Academy Facebook groups for a month? Taking away their community? During a GLOBAL PANDEMIC, no less? Extremely.
Shunning, whether contingent on an identified behavior, or just stopping responding to someone, hits us hard. We are social creatures. We need each other to survive. Being excluded can mean life or death, and our reptilian brains know this. That is not a trivial punishment at all.
The good news is that my behavior was not punished! I am more committed than ever to speaking and writing about the science and technology of applied behavior analysis, particularly as it applies to animal training. I’ll just be doing it in my own space. I have a series of blog topics planned about ABA and its application to training. I’ll be completing my ABA coursework over the summer and continuing with my supervised fieldwork experience. I plan to launch a behavior science discussion group in the fall where open discourse and spirited debate are welcome. And I plan to take the BCBA exam in early 2021.
I’m also extremely excited to see my behavior consulting practice continue to evolve and grow as I continue to learn and grow in the science of ABA. Learning is a lifelong endeavor for me. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. And the more I want to learn! I’m quite aware that I possess only a thimbleful of knowledge from the vast oceans of psychology and ABA. I plan to spend my remaining time on this planet learning everything I can about the science of behavior and sharing what I learn with others in the animal-care industry. Because animals, and animal trainers, deserve real science.
Oh, and I’ll be front-and-center for Dr. Haug’s lecture on May 25th! I hope you’ll be there, too!
Academy for Dog Trainers. (n.d.). Animal learning and motivation part I.
Academy for Dog Trainers. (n.d.). Critical thinking.
Academy for Dog Trainers. (2018). Student handbook.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Aversive stimulus. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://dictionary.apa.org/aversive-stimulus
Chance, P. (2013). Learning and behavior. Nelson Education.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. 2nd ed. Pearson.
Schwartz, B., Wasserman, E. A., & Robbins, S. J. (2002). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Company, Inc.
Slocum, T. A., Detrich, R., Wilczynski, S. M., Spencer, T. D., Lewis, T., & Wolfe, K. (2014). The evidence-based practice of applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 37(1), 41-56.
Any errors in my representations of the sciences of psychology and applied behavior analysis are my own. I will respond to comments and questions made in good faith, time permitting. – MRC
Copyright 2020 Melanie Cerone