Training in welfare environments (I)

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

In a previous article I commented about welfare or comfort signals which can be used to evaluate how dogs are feeling. My topic today regards one of the main pillars of our work: the different learning and conduct generation that dogs exhibit depending on whether they are in a survival environment or in a welfare environment.

Given the importance of the topic for the design of training techniques, this will only be an introductory article. Actually the methodologies for teaching and learning vary dramatically between both scenarios. An adequate understanding of the underlying relationships will enable us to make a systematic treatment of the mechanisms that guarantee that dogs enjoy working, as well as to replicate the training, without excessively relying on the talent of either the dog or the trainer.

First, I need to clarify that working in one type of environment or the other does not determine the quality of the work. In both scenarios we can rely on either positive or negative stimuli to promote learning. Then, what is the difference? What varies is the way these stimuli are used.

  • In survival environments animals have no guaranteed access to resources (e.g., food and water) and their safety is not taken for granted either.
  • In welfare environments animals have abundant resources as well as guaranteed security.

As noticed earlier, some species –including dogs and human beings- have a different way of learning and generating behavior depending on whether they are in one kind of environment or the other.

It is important to realize that in welfare scenarios the aim of dogs is to have a good time, increase their welfare, whereas in survival scenarios the aim is to obtain resources crucial for survival and security. The behavior differs and so the learning does.

It is crucial to understand this bifurcation because probably most of us live in a welfare scenario. Let me put an example. Almost certainly some of you have been looking for a particular item, even visiting different shops for days in order to find it. It does not matter what the item in question was, that damned Charlie Patton Yazoo L-1020 record, a particular book or some other thing. Probably when you returned home you found an empty fridge. You probably thought, “I’m exhausted, I don’t feel like going to the supermarket at the moment. I’ll do it tomorrow.” Summing up, we are capable of generating an enormous amount of conduct to get something which is not an actual need and yet we refuse to walk round the corner to buy food, that is, a primary resource crucial for survival. Isn’t it weird? No, it is not. The explanation is simple.

We know that we are not going to starve to death. In fact, we can probably obtain food whenever we want to. Once a primary resource is guaranteed its value as a motivator decreases. In contrast the self-reinforcement value and the extra-quality of life represented by our desired item gains a greater value as a motivator. This is one of the first differences between welfare and survival scenarios. In a welfare environment any thing or event that is self-reinforcing effectively work as positive stimulus, whereas primary stimuli lose effectiveness. In survival scenarios the opposite holds.

A second difference between the two types of scenario regards the way animals manage negative stimuli. For a negative stimulus to trigger conduct in a survival environment, it has to be clearly perceived by the learner. Moreover, if it is to work, it has to give rise to a negative emotional state that warns the animal about a possible risk. In contrast, in a welfare scenario it is much more effective to rely on low intensity negative stimuli. These are capable of interfering with the enjoyment of pleasant activities but without overruling the positive emotional state stemming from the latter. As a consequence, dogs will generate a great amount of conduct to offset the interference to keep enjoying the pleasant activity. This is the reason why it is so effective to introduce minor bothers in shaping sessions (e.g., attaching a post-it or a rubber band to the dog). This strategy also helps dogs to confront problems and teaches them to manage stress.

It is important to know that we cannot jump from one kind of environment to the other at will. We have to choose one of the two categories for each kind of work and be coherent henceforth. If you plan to rely exclusively on food as a reinforcer, it is better to propose a survival environment, because then food will have greater value and the learning obtained will be more consistent and of a higher quality. On the other hand, if your dog has a great time solving problems and experiences training as an aim in itself, pick up a welfare environment.

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