Saturday 11 January 2014

Risk Aversion 3 - Training for persistence, resilience, confidence and optimism

This is the third in a series of posts about risk aversion, or pessimism, in dogs. The first instalment looks at general tendencies of risk averse dogs, and the second looks at how risk averse dogs behave in day-to-day life, whether we can treat risk aversion, and if we should. In this instalment I will talk about how to make risk averse dogs less risk averse. This is pretty experimental, but is based on literature. I can at least say that I did it with my risk averse dog and had phenomenal results. 

If we have decided that it is in our dog's (and our) best interests to reduce their risk aversion, we would do well to break risk aversion down into smaller pieces and treat each one. However, we will have trouble picking and choosing which pieces we want to work on and which we don't because they are all kind of related. Working on one will probably benefit others to a lesser extent as well.


As discussed in the first post, risk averse dogs lack persistence. Training persistence is simple, but not necessarily easy (to use a saying from Bob Bailey, godfather of modern animal training). Literature on persistence training reports on partial reinforcement procedures, in other words, instead of a reward after every time a dog performs a behaviour, you would reward after only some of the times. You might choose to do this randomly, or predictably. I suggest predictably, because it's easier! For example, count a set number of responses. Research shows that partial reinforcement leads to animals that persist longer in learning situations than animals that get continuous reinforcement (reward every time). However, starting with continuous reinforcement and then later moving to partial reinforcement is even better!

Another aspect of persistence is called "generalised industriousness". What this means is that you can teach a dog to put in more effort, to work harder, and for fewer rewards. It can be done with a variation on the persistence training outlined above. The dog needs to put in a little more effort each time before they get a reward. But don't just hold out for them to work harder. With a risk averse dog you will need to make sure whatever you ask them to do is easily achievable. Start very easy, then gradually make it harder either by counting a few seconds more before you reward, or ask for an extra behaviour or two before you reward, or make a well understood task slightly harder the next time. Our favourite industriousness game we call "up-up". We find an obstacle in the environment that is low and safe for our dogs to jump onto, point to it, and say "up-up". Dog jumps onto obstacle and gets a treat. Think of this like a video game. The dog just finished level 1. Level 2 might be a little higher, or the surface might be uneven, or smaller. Level 3 might have one very simple obstacle to jump on in order to get to the next obstacle where we are pointing. When we train a dog to be industrious, we are pairing the feeling of working hard whether that be physical or mental with rewards, improving self-control and contributing to teaching dogs that if they just try that little bit harder it will pay off. 

Persistent dogs tend to get more rewards. Image source.

More variety in training tasks also leads to increased effort. Get your dog learning a variety of skills. Pay them for trying, even if they are nowhere near the behaviour you want, or they make a mess of it. All you want them to do is give it a go, so make giving it a go rewarding. As they grow more confident, you may decide to hold off and wait for a 'better' try with more effort or conviction from your dog. Reward handsomely when they deliver, again, even if all they do is put in a little extra effort. 


I am not going to detail how to train this here because it is a little bit controversial and probably deserves its own dedicated discussion. Think of it this way: if you have a dog that starts to fall apart if faced with minor problems they don't know how to solve, what do we need to teach them? Why are they easily distressed and what would make them better able to cope with stressful situations? By my reckoning, we need to teach them how to problem solve on their own without needing much help from us. There is a body of literature on "mastery" and "resilience" or "inoculation", which refers to an individual's ability to learn to control something stressful and the positive effects of this in later stressful situations. See here for a nice review. Resilience may be trained using very careful exposure to low level stress that the dog can resolve on their own. This is something to be cautious about as a little too much stress or the wrong kind of stress is likely to backfire and make things worse. More about this in a later post.


This one really depends on the ways in which a dog is lacking confidence. My risk averse dog was quite clumsy and found things like balancing or moving his back feet with precision very challenging. I felt that this was probably holding him back, because when you fall or feel unbalanced a lot, it seems risky to try things with your body that you haven't done before. I did a lot of balance and body awareness training with him. I used logs at our local dog park to train him to balance better, and to move his back feet independently of his front feet. This is known as rear end awareness and is popular training for dogs in dog sports because it helps them be more agile and move with more precision and efficiency. Here is a video of Erik demonstrating 'log games' for rear end awareness and balance. 

Learning what he could do physically and making him feel more balanced and agile had a huge positive effect on his confidence. He went from standing in front of something the height of his chin and staring helplessly at it while we spent an age trying to coax him to jump over it or onto it, to going out of his way to find things to climb on. This opened up a whole new world for him where he could seek rewards. See him in the video below giving me heart palpitations negotiating rocks at some height on a rock platform at the beach. 

Body awareness and balance exercises are a good place to start for general confidence building, but it is worthwhile trying to identify where a dog lacks confidence the most and applying similar principles. Start small, keep it easy. For example, little Erik has a lot of confidence in general, but lacks confidence around water. We let him take it at his own pace but encourage him to challenge himself. He is much more confident about creek crossings, now, but still doesn't want to swim. That's okay. 


Optimism is basically the expectation that good things are going to happen. So when you are optimistic, you tend to feel pretty good, because at any moment probably something terrific will happen to you. This is associated with mental wellbeing, better outcomes in serious illness, and better physical health in humans. Learning to be optimistic is relatively simple for an otherwise healthy dog. If a dog has a lot of good things happen to them, they will expect more good things to happen to them. Training a dog to be optimistic doesn't just mean you throw a lot of rewards at them, though. It's important to note that in some situations, non-contingent reinforcement (reinforcement a dog can't control) can also interfere with learning in much the same way as learned helplessness. This is usually called "learned irrelevance". So for best results, offer opportunities for reinforcement in a large variety of situations. Make it easy to earn rewards often. Set them up sometimes to find their own way to success rather than have you show them or tell them what to do. This can take some skill. You want to make the path to success obvious enough that they won't have to try very hard, but just hard enough that they will have to think their way through it. The video of Kivi in the rocks is not a bad example. I move, so it is obvious to him he should follow me, but he has to find his own way through the rocks. The goal is getting access to rewards, whatever your dog loves. The game is for them to figure out how to get it. Again, think of video game levels. Getting them to use their nose and search for things is great. 

Final Word

These are all fairly general tips light on details. Treating risk aversion should be considered a broad thing with many components, because risk aversion itself is quite broad with a variety of components. It is quite easy to make things too hard for a risk averse dog. If you have a dog like this, above all remember to be patient and do one or two steps at a time and then just leave it for another day. Otherwise you risk making things worse by overdoing it. If they don't get success easily they will likely become stressed and give up. Let them find their own way as much as possible and set their own pace. You are there to encourage and guide (and provide lots of rewards). If you have a seriously risk averse dog that may have other fear related problems as well, get professional help from a behaviourist. Treating risk aversion doesn't treat specific fears or behaviour problems. 

Further reading

Nation, Jack R.; Cooney, John B.; Gartrell, Karen E., 1979. Durability and generalizability of persistence training. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 88(2), 121-136

Eisenberger, Robert; Masterson, Fred A.; McDermitt, Maureen 1982. Effects of task variety on generalized effort. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 74(4),

Nation, J. R., & Boyajian, L. G. (1980). Continuous before partial reinforcement: Effect on persistence training and resistance to extinction in humansThe American Journal of Psychology, 697-710.

Martin E. P. SeligmanJane E. Gillham, 2000. The Science of Optimism and HopeResearch Essays in Honor of Martin E.P. SeligmanTempleton Foundation Press.

Job, R. F. S. 1988. Interference and facilitation produced by noncontingent reinforcement in the appetitive situationAnimal Learning & Behavior16(4), 451-460.

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