The Potentially Obsessive Floor-Digging Riddle, Part 2

… in which our hypothesis is confirmed and we see some interesting video proof.

 

As you might remember, Hadley had me worried with his obsessive floor digging and biting, which appeared to be getting worse rather than better over time despite redirection. I implemented the changes Nicole and I had agreed on during our last consult (see Part 1). Here is a summary of my observations from November 30 to December 2, 2015: Summary Part 2 (pdf with video links).

 

What we hypothesized and how we intervened – a quick recap: 

 

In my last post on this topic, we had developed the hypothesis that floor digging/biting was being reinforced by owner attention:

 

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> Tom and Chrissi look at and talk to Hadley.

 

In order to test this hypothesis, we were going to change the consequence of the unwanted behavior by means of P-:

 

Reflections on floor – Hadley bites/digs floor –> all people leave the room.

 

If floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, leaving the room should function as negative punishment and extinguish the unwanted behavior. Furthermore, if floor digging/biting was truly reinforced by owner attention, it should never happen when Hadley was home alone. If, on the other hand, the behavior was self-stimulating, it should continue after I left the room, and also occur when Hadley was home alone.

 

What we learned and what this means:

 

In the three-day observation period, there were 7 incidents of floor digging/biting. I reacted by means of immediately leaving the room every time, and recorded 6 of the incidents. By means of having a camera pointed at Hadley, I could see what happened after I left. As you might remember from the last videos I posted, when I used to stay in the room and observe, the floor digging/biting tended to go on for up to several minutes. Here’s an example of what happened when I left – watch this video if you only want to watch one, since it has a better camera angle than most of the others:

 

 

Further video evidence for the effectiveness of P- for Hadley’s floor digging/biting:

 

 

 

 

 

 

In each one of the 6 incidents I have on video, Hadley immediately stopped the unwanted behavior. This confirms our hypothesis: his floor digging/biting was really reinforced by owner attention! Believe it or not, but this made me very happy. No other scenario was as easy to resolve as this one! Plus, Hadley was young and we had caught it early. There would most likely be no need for meds, and we should get a grip on his obsessive floor digging/biting in the course of a few weeks.

 

 

Differential Reinforcement from November 30 to December 2, 2015:

 

When using negative punishment, it is advisable to simultaneously strengthen alternative behaviors in order to avoid creating a “behavior vacuum” where no functional replacement to the unwanted behavior is available to obtain the desired reinforcer. In Hadley’s case, the reinforcer is attention (talking, eye contact, petting). While weakening the unwanted behavior, we strengthen a replacement behavior that will allow him to ask for attention in an appropriate way: sitting or standing in front of me and seeking eye contact.

 

In the pdf summary above, you find the number of times I reinforced specific behaviors or the number of times specific things happened. Here’s what this means.

 

Table “Wanted behavior”:

 

Date, Time: refers to the date and exact time the session started.

 

Duration: refers to the duration of the respective session.

 

FI: refers to the schedule of reinforcement used during the session. FI stands for fixed interval and the time stated defines how many seconds or minutes have to pass until reinforcement becomes available. For example, FI 15min means that reinforcement becomes available after 15 minutes. When my timer rings after 15 minutes and Hadley happens to be showing one of the alternative behaviors I have defined, he will be reinforced.

The alternative behaviors I am reinforcing on a FI schedule are: “being awake and doing things by himself” – e.g. lying on the floor/couch/rug/dog bed/crate, walking around, playing with a toy by himself, chewing a chew toy, drinking water.

The reinforcement used for this is eye contact and talking to Hadley in a calm voice for at least 5 seconds.

 

The DRA column refers to the number of times I reinforced alternative behavior in the respective session. This number does not always equal the duration divided by the interval because I did not reinforce when Hadley was asleep or playing with one of the other dogs.

 

The DRI column refers to the number of times I reinforced behaviors incompatible with the unwanted behavior in the respective session. We defined two incompatible behaviors: sitting and standing in front of me and seeking eye contact. These behaviors were reinforced with eye contact, cheerful talking and petting for at least 5 seconds.

 

The DRL column (DRL = differential reinforcement of lower-intensity or lower-rate behavior) refers to the number of times I reinforced the unwanted behavior occurring at lower intensity. In our case, lower intensity was defined as stretching and/or rolling on the ground/couch. The videos in the first observation phase (see Part 1) had shown that these behaviors often preceded the unwanted behavior of digging/biting the floor. So in phase 2, whenever I caught Hadley stretching and/or rolling on the couch/ground, I reinforced him by means of calmly walking over, talking to him in a calm voice and petting.

 

Let us take a closer look at DRL, since reinforcing part of a problematic behavior – even though at a lower right – might seem counterintuitive at first sight. What’s its purpose? DRL procedures are useful for behaviors that are generally acceptable, but occur too often or in an exaggerated form. In Hadley’s case, rolling on the ground and stretching are perfectly acceptable dog behaviors. However, what they tend to turn into in Hadley’s case (floor digging/biting) is an unwanted behavior. By means of reinforcing lower rates or intensities of an unwanted behavior, we avoid the need for punishment: when I pet Hadley, who is rolling on his back, he half-closes his eyes and his muscles relax in response to my belly rubs. If I did not walk over and reinforce this lower-intensity behavior, he might start floor digging/biting, which would result in me leaving the room, i.e. negative punishment. DRL procedures, then, are an effective means of working with certain kinds of unwanted behaviors and an alternative for punishment. (1)

 

The P- column (P- = negative punishment) refers to the number of times I left the room as a consequence to Hadley’s floor digging/biting in the respective interval. Since we had established that the unwanted behavior was being maintained by attention, leaving the room turned out to be an effective means of negative punishment. My videos show that Hadley immediately stopped floor digging/biting whenever I left the room.

 

Check out the video above for an example.

 

Table “Unwanted Behavior”:

 

Whenever the unwanted behavior (floor digging/biting) occurred during the observation period, I also made a note in this table. As you can see from the left column, it occurred a total of 7 times in the 3-day period.

 

The Date, Time column specifies the exact date and time the unwanted behavior occurred.

 

Die “P- successful?” column shows if my leaving the room interrupted the unwanted behavior. In all 6 cases I recorded, the unwanted behavior stopped immediately. Instance #2 has a question mark because the camera crashed and I could not review the video.

 

Table “Alone Condition”:

 

On each of the three days, I also tested Hadley’s behavior in an alone condition of about an hour (30.11. – morning, 1.12. – night, 2.12. – noon). I filmed Hadley while I and the other dogs were out. Never did floor digging/biting occur in the alone condition, which further confirms the hypothesis that the unwanted behavior is reinforced by attention.

 

Nicole made a graph from the data I collected:

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 16.14.43

 

What’s next?

 

On December 3rd, I had another phone consult with Nicole to look at what had happened during the last days, and see where we should go from here. We agreed that our hypothesis had been confirmed and that I should keep doing what I had been doing in the last three days, with some minor modifications:

 

DRA: I will keep up my DRA routine, but start not only reinforcing with eye contact and a calm voice, but also petting in slow, long strokes. For the time being, I’ve set my timer to 15-minute intervals, which I am planning on keeping up for the next weeks.

 

DRI: I will keep continuously reinforcing the incompatible behaviors of sitting or standing in front of me, making eye contact, with a cheerful voice and petting. For the time being, I will keep up a continuous schedule, but in about 3 weeks, I might start intermediately reinforcing instead. Once these incompatible are well established, they will be further strengthened and made resistant to extinction by means of an intermittent schedule.

 

DRL: I will keep reinforcing lower intensity behavior, i.e. Hadley’s stretching/rolling on the ground/couch with petting and calmly talking to him. For the time being, I will keep reinforcing continuously; in about three weeks, I might introduce an intermittent schedule of reinforcement for this behavior.

 

P-: Whenever Hadley bites/digs the floor, I will keep doing what I’ve been doing and leave the room for 10 seconds.

 

I will keep taking notes and see what happens. Stay tuned for Part 3 of the potentially obsessive floor digging riddle!

 

Further ponderings: Holy shit! Have we been looking at stereotypic behaviors/OCD all wrong?

 

These last weeks have been most intriguing for me. In the beginning, I was worried – a lot. I did not want Tom’s puppy to develop OCD and need to be on medication for all his life, and to be constantly on the lookout for interrupting, and to … argh!!! What would his life be like? Would he be unhappy and ruled by obsessions, chasing shadows, for the rest of his life rather than living the blissfully careless life a puppy should have?

 

Well, then, with Nicole’s help, I made a plan and started looking at the behavior from a applied behavior analysis point of view. Things started making sense, albeit in an unexpected way: it wasn’t interrupting (i.e. attending to Hadley) that was the solution, but the very opposite: leaving the room (i.e. withdrawal of attention)!

 

This realization, together with the results of the study by Hall et al. (2) and the fact that a number of knowledgeable, experienced trainers recommended me to redirect (i.e. give attention) as soon as Hadley engaged in the unwanted behavior made me wonder: is there a big number of dogs out there who are on meds these days, and still suffer from occasional compulsive outbursts, simply because their well-meaning human families unknowingly reinforced their stereotypies by means of redirecting (i.e. giving them attention?), making the behavior not better, but worse and worse over time? It wouldn’t be very surprising if this was the case: my first intuition had also been to interrupt what worried me! It seemed like the obvious thing to do! Apart from that, most of us are predisposed to look for problems inside the animal rather than looking at environmental consequences. I’m not saying that the problem will never be inside the animal – of course, this is also possible. However, how often is “the problem inside the animal” really the case, and not simply a convenient interpretation? We can only profit of developing the habit to take a good look at the antecedents and consequences of an unwanted behavior and making sure we’re not strengthening a problem behavior with a seemingly commonsensical approach.

 

The good thing: I’ve learned a lot in the last weeks, and my wish to study behavior has once more been strengthened. I’d really like to learn more about applied behavior analysis and its implications for dog training! Well, I guess I’ll just have to keep saving up for the program of my choice. 🙂

 

 

 

 

Sources:

(1) See Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Fifth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 2003. S. 211f and 356f.

 

(2) Hall, N.J., Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C.D.L. (2015). The role of environmental and owner-provided consequences in canine stereotypy and compulsive behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10, pp. 24-35.

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