This New Years, I made a resolution. I am leaving a number of Facebook groups. It was triggered by a couple interesting exchanges, one that left me sobbing. I can’t say that I was sad or hurt. I have to respect someone in order to be hurt by them. I can’t say that was the case.
In hindsight, I suspect it was stress release. When you keep trying to not rock the boat, there comes a point where a straw breaks the camel’s back. Low-grade, long-term stress sucks. The relief of making up my mind and leaving just opened the floodgates.
Leaving the first group was difficult. It felt like I was shunning people.
Each subsequent group became easier. I needed less of a reason to go. I didn’t even need to feel personally threatened or offended. Seeing others bicker was enough.
You know something, it feels GOOD. Damn good. Click! You are gone. Click! No more Facebook baiting. Click! No more trolls. Click! You are banished from my little world.
Click … I have the power to leave.
It gave me an epiphany. Everyday social situations can be extremely aversive.
Some people will chime up that we should have the choice to leave abusive situations. Absolutely: Leave and stay away. This blog is not about the right to leave abuse. Although I do find it interesting that people go back to abuse. That just goes to show that returning to something does not mean it was pleasant.
Dogs should live a life free from abuse too. Let’s be really clear. This blog is not about leaving abuse. Nor is it about accidental situations where a dog becomes scared. Chalk that up to a mistake and don’t let it happen again.
This blog is about using aversives intentionally in training.
When you leave an aversive situation, you get a sense of relief. In social situations, it boils down to, “I feel good knowing that I can escape or avoid you.” That is negative reinforcement. All negative reinforcement involves aversives. That is what negative reinforcement means – the cessation of an unpleasant stimulus, increasing a particular behaviour.
There are two special forms of negative reinforcement.
Leaving an unpleasant situation is escape. With practice, you can hit the abort button soon enough, before things become unpleasant. That is avoidance. If you’re at all clever, you’ll learn how to avoid unpleasant situations entirely if you’ve had to escape them.
Tears notwithstanding, I am grateful that I felt the joy of leaving that first group. You don’t need shock collars, prong collars, choke collars or other tools to make something aversive.
I also realized just how good escape feels. Click…you are shunned. Woo hoo! Holy sh!t it feels good. I don’t have to face this anymore.
That creates quite a conundrum. Escape and avoidance legitimately feels good. If you feel good, you LOOK HAPPY once you have figured out the process. Looking happy as you leave does not mean that you didn’t feel lousy at some point in the past. The same goes for the dog.
If the dog is escaping, it could have felt lousy a few seconds ago.
If the dog has learned to avoid (escape before they feel lousy), then they might have felt lousy in the past. The “happy” dog you see is possibly avoiding an aversive that happened days, months or years ago.
Negative reinforcement is powerful. It is extremely resistant to extinction. You have to face what you fear in order to realize that you’re not actually in any actual danger. That fear, of facing what we fear, keeps us avoiding again and again and again.
Negative reinforcement is deceptive that way. If I I can avoid discomfort, I look happy, not because I have overcome a fear, but because I have become a master at avoiding fear. The embarrassing blowups might stop, but that does not mean the fear has disappeared. The fear of fear lingers and supports the avoidance.
The quadrant police, whoever they are, have it right. If you cannot trust your eyes, then trust the science. Blurring the lines of the quadrants obfuscates and hides the aversive control.
I care why my dog looks happy. In negative reinforcement your dog can look happy AND be under the control of aversives. They are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps I might not ever know for sure, but if I know which quadrant I’m using, I can make a reasonable assumption. If I can identify the behaviour, I can try to answer whether my dog is happy to approach or happy to leave.
As tempting as it might be to curl up and avoid social situations, I have decided that I dislike avoiding life as much as I dislike seeing dogs practice avoidance as a method of choice. I don’t feel truly happy escaping and avoiding a small handful of jerks because it deprives me of the smart, interesting, good, quirky people out there. So, I’ll continue reaching out.
It would break my heart to suspect that my dogs look happy because they are successfully avoiding the people and animals in it. I certainly don’t want to worry and watch for signs that my dog is recoiling from the people who love them.
Perhaps the idea that a dog can look happy and be under aversive control is a tough pill to swallow. I would rather face that uncomfortable idea. If my dog is a master of avoiding, I need to micromanage my dog, making sure no one assumes that looking happy means that the dog wants social contact. The implications of that would frankly scare me.