The trouble with putting it out there!

It can be tough blogging, you leave yourself open to all sorts of criticisms from all sorts of people. You know, the most common criticism is when I make a spelling error. Oh my, people act like there’s a prize for finding it and shouting the loudest on whatever social media the blog’s shared on. They can’t just pm you and let you know because then they don’t get the prize, apparently. I even once disclosed to the shouter that I’m dyslexic and was then accused of playing the dyslexia card! I didn’t even know there was a card, it was something I’d hidden for the first 45 years of my life. I did get cross with those people and used some words which I should not have used because, ultimately, they are the ones with the bigger problem; so insecure that they must highlight the smallest flaw of others. Well, at least they will have a busy life because we are all flawed in some respect. I have a whole collection. Some have told me straight out that if I misspell a word then I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about. Like you can’t possibly have anything to contribute unless you’re perfect! In fairness, there are a few lovely people who have contacted me privately about spelling errors.

On another occasion, I entitled a blog ‘Dogs should know their place‘ and got hate mail from people who hadn’t even read it. They just went from the title and decided I must be evil. In fact, the blog was about NOT abusing dogs in the name of training. Then there are those who just want to argue to the death about the meaning of a word. There are a lot of nuances in our language so it’s easy to do if that’s how you want to live your life. Then there are those who strongly believe that canine enrichment (a particular passion of mine) is cruel because I’m making dogs work for their food (I blogged about it here) and think its okay to pm their anger to me.

More recently I blogged about behaviour extinction vs negative punishment. This blog received a lot of attention and was heavily criticised by a few individuals.  There are of course some reasonable arguments against my thinking in the blog because extinction is a real thing demonstrated in laboratory conditions, however, its application in the real world in training animals is where it becomes difficult to separate from negative punishment.

One individual contacted me and said they were concerned about the blog as it was wrong and inaccurate and dangerous. I offered to link to any objective counter-argument they would like to make. Did they take me up on the offer? No, they instead chose to berate me on social media, never mentioning the offer, instead portraying me as uneducated, only interested in my own view and claiming special insight over those with a PhD. They also took the opportunity to educate me on my obvious lack of knowledge about innate behaviour. The same innate behaviour I’m currently writing about for my second degree in behaviour (I’ll probably let my lecturers decide that one). Then the usual thing happens of people patting them on the back for righting the wrongs of the universe.

You know, bloggers are real people, usually real people with a passion for something or another. I left school without a single qualification and spent most of my life convinced that I lacked average intelligence. At 46 I somehow managed to get a place at Bishop Burton College studying canine behaviour. I don’t really know why I did that because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get past the first assignment but by this stage in my life I had a collection of midlife crisis to my name; I guess it was just another. I actually did quite well, graduating the foundation degree with distinction and deciding to continue studying, now in my 5th year. Not a single assignment ever came easy, each began with a feeling of absolute certainty that I couldn’t do it, but such is my obsessive nature (and perhaps some hidden desperation to prove myself) I kept going, even achieving a 100% grade in the advanced dog training module. I’m not really allowed to mention that because of course, that’s then showing off! I’ve even sarcastically been referred to as the ‘special one’ for daring to be proud of that achievement.

Even writing this now, I can hear the detractors, “well if he can’t take a bit of criticism he shouldn’t write blogs” Why shouldn’t I? are only the emotionally hard and the toughest of the tough allowed to have a passion or an opinion and anyone else is fair game to receive hurtful comments? It’s not just me, I see it all the time. Some really well-known trainers and promoters of positive reinforcement, as soon as they are not perfect, BASH BASH PROD PROD BASH.

We don’t need to be cruel or harsh, it’s not a race to the bottom, we can raise counter-arguments without being personal or joining witch-hunts. At the other side of every Blog, Tweet or Facebook post is an individual with flaws and feelings and insecurities. You don’t need to shout about a few spelling errors, be thankful you can see them. You don’t need to be personal, being wrong doesn’t make someone a shitty person. You don’t need to agree with me, I have friends who are passionate about homeopathy, I couldn’t disagree with them more but we are still friends. I love being wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn something new. What I don’t love so much and find difficult is the constant personal digs which come with raising your head above the parapet. I really wish we could all just comment with goodwill or move on.

Will I be giving up any time soon? No

Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice (Steve Jobs)

Extinction, really? is it?

I tend to struggle with the concept of behavioural extinction. Despite its place in many textbooks and journals, it doesn’t sit well in my mind.  

A note for the non training theory geeks: In this context, punishment simply means to reduce the likelihood of something reoccurring, negative means to take something away, and environment refers to anything outside of the individual.

The textbooks I’ve read agree that extinction occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour no longer elicits reinforcement, thereby decreasing the likelihood of the behaviour (apart from extinction bursts) until it is eventually extinct.

The textbooks also agree that negative punishment is the process of removing a stimulus which results in the behaviour being less likely to occur in future.

What’s the difference?  The two things people are quick to point out on hearing my difficulties are;

  • The literature on extinction usually infers that it’s about previously reinforced behaviour. Negative punishment literature doesn’t emphasise this point.  However, I don’t see a difference here because the whole function of operant behaviour is to seek appetitives and avoid aversives, thereby, exercising some degree of control over the environment. The behaviour in both contingencies has been previously reinforced either intentionally or unintentionally. If it’s not been previously reinforced then how do we explain it occurring at all?
  • Negative punishment is contingent on something being removed, whereas the extinction contingency is based on nothing of significance changing in the environment. How can you have no significant change in the environment? The behaviour has been previously reinforced and now when it occurs, NOTHINGNESS!  Isn’t that in itself a change in the environment? Isn’t the passing of time a significant change in the environment? If there is nothing of significance happening, then how can we say it effects change?  Something significant must be happening! Extinction is to remove or block the previously reinforcing stimuli.  To my mind it is clearly negative punishment. Lets assume that  you can have no significant change in the environment, we’re still left with removing something the animal wanted versus not giving something they expected, is there any real difference?

Furthermore, has the behaviour really undergone extinction or merely been punished and therefore less likely to occur in future?  Spontaneous recovery of the behaviour may occur through processes such as disinhibition, reinstatement, reacquisition or renewal, so it’s not really extinct is it?  We don’t see Spontaneous recovery of the Dodo. Now that’s extinction! To my mind, extinction is simply negative punishment in a different hat. 

By its very nature extinction will evoke stress (evident by extinction bursts), when there are stress free and kinder methods available to us. Let’s not dress it up as something it isn’t.


I believe the nearest thing to behavioural extinction is through the natural process of change whereby a particular behaviour stops being appetitive and therefore loses its reinforcing ability. For example, 50 year olds don’t enjoy sitting on there mother’s knee as they did during early childhood, but the change was almost certainly gradual.