How to avoid problems with negative reinforcement.
If we use R- there are certain things we can do to negate possible negative side effects.
1. Use very low level aversive stimulus to form a behaviour. DO NOT trigger a flight response or use escalating aversive stimuli. Horses can habituate to the stimuli and then more is needed for the required reaction.
2. Remove the aversive stimulus as soon as the animal starts the behaviour, DO NOT wait until the behaviour is finished.
3. Use shaping – so reinforce small approximations of the final behaviour
4. Put the behaviour on a command so the animal can avoid the aversive stimulus when they respond. Either verbal or visual, be consistent and predictable.
5. Don’t use the same command for different behaviours.
6. Use a combination of R- and R+ e.g form the behaviour using an aversive stimulus and remove the stimulus and give a appetitive reinforcer at the same time -.e.g food or scratches.
This may counter-condition the aversive stimulus rather than cause poisoned cues.
An interesting phenomenon is Punishment Callus
“Animals habituate to aversives – this is referred to as the punishment callus. So, escalation is typically not the best solution.” Karolina Westlund Friman
When the animal habituates to an aversive stimulus and stops responding. So people escalate the aversive stimulus but the animal may habituate to that too. What have you got left for an emergency situation?
We don’t want animals to habituate – aversives need to be kept for emergency (life and death situations) use only.
If we use mild negative reinforcement e.g a light touch until the animal moves and there is no emotional reaction to the stimulus, it is still aversive but not enough to cause flight or avoidance reactions. Just enough for the animal to want it to stop, it then may do no harm and used in combination with a positive reinforcer may counter condition rather than poison the cue or result in punishment callous. The aversive stimulus must be extremely low level and not escalate.
This is why the LIMA principles and the Humane Hierarchy make more sense than starting with mild aversives and escalating as the animal habituates. It is like the old riding school ponies who had been kicked so much they habituated and switched off.
PS I still prefer to use positive reinforcement but it is good to know that the odd time we use negative reinforcement like this we do very little harm to our relationship.
More on poisoned cues – see previous post too