Monday, October 23, 2017
MENSA to publish my story
Samuel Orrin Sewell:
When I was a youngster I spent a good deal of my summer vacations on my grandparents’ farm. The summer after completing my undergraduate work, I was eager to visit the country homestead once again. When I arrived, I discovered that there was a family crisis in progress.
Grandpa’s dog and hunting partner, Shep, had taken on a bad habit in his old age. Shep had begun breaking into the chicken coop and eating eggs. Back then the label “egg-sucking dog” was one of the worst things that could be said of someone in northern Iowa. To our ears it was a profanity vulgar enough to make women gasp and could easily start a fight if hurled at another person in anger. Iowa farmers knew there was only one thing to be done with an egg-sucking dog; You had to shoot it and the sooner the better.
But Shep and Grandpa were old friends. I had been with them many times as we flushed up pheasants from Grandpa’s cornfields after the harvest. Grandpa sure didn’t want to shoot Shep, but he knew it needed to be done. Once dogs start raiding a chicken coop there is no way to cure them. No matter how many times you beat the dog and no matter how many times you patched the latest hole they dug under the wall into the chicken coop, they doggedly (forgive the pun) keep sticking their noses under hens and stealing eggs. The “egg money” was Grandma’s private income, so you can imagine how she felt about the problem.
With the inexperienced confidence of youth and a brand new “expertise” in the behavioral sciences, I told Grandpa I thought I could “cure” an egg-sucking dog. After all, I had read all about B.F. Skinner’s work with dogs and operant conditioning. I wanted to at least have a chance to save Shep’s life and save Grandpa the seemingly inevitable heartbreaking chore.
The theory is simple. One observes the subject animal, in this case Shep, doing something the correct way and then reinforces the desired behavior. The reinforcement cycle starts with some action on the part of the trainee, Shep (in Skinner's language, the operant). Operant conditioning is therefore always dependent upon behavior. So, we have:
1. Dog does something favorable (operant behavior.)
2. Dog gets food (positive reinforcement.)
I knew that these farmers almost always applied negative stimulus after the behavior had become a habit, thus reinforcing the very behavior they were attempting to eliminate. Applying negative stimulus to an already established negative pattern of behavior reinforces behavior you don’t want. So maybe a different method might work.
There was considerable pressure to accomplish what I had told Grandpa I could do. That pressure amplified when Grandpa and I went into town, and Grandpa told the farmers who gathered at the coffee shop across from the hardware store, “My grandson, the psychologist, is going to cure Shep so I don’t need to shoot him.” You can imagine the skeptical attitude of Iowa farmers being told that there was a cure for egg-sucking dogs. By this time it was too late to tell Grandpa that I had never actually tested this theory, and that I wasn’t sure it would really work.
When I had confidently and foolishly announced to Grandpa that I could cure Shep, I didn’t even have a plan ready. So I began to think: How could I get Shep to not go into the chicken coop so that I could then reinforce the behavior I wanted?
The next morning I broke open two fresh eggs and put them in Shep’s bowl right at the door to the chicken coop. Sometimes in order to begin changing behavior, you need to do something good for the bad dog. Shep came along and noticed the eggs. I can imagine his dog brain doing this self-talk: “Eggs. Right here. I don’t even need to eat the shells. And I don’t have to put up with those hens pecking at the top of my head. This is a good thing.” He quickly lapped up the eggs and sauntered off for his nap.
The following morning I did the same thing. I put the eggs a few feet away from the chicken coop toward the back porch of the farmhouse where Grandma usually fed Shep. The next day I again moved the bowl closer to the house and added some dog food to the eggs. Every day I moved the bowl closer to the porch, mixing more dog food and fewer eggs. By the time the bowl reached the porch, it was all dog food and no eggs. Shep had again become accustomed to looking for his food at the back porch of the house, and never again went into the chicken coop. This process is called incremental desensitization.
Please remember this: If you reinforce behavior that moves you toward a desired goal, and ignore the old behavior, you will change. Looking backward will keep you backward. Looking forward will move you forward.
Posted by Sam and Bunny Sewell at 1:24 AM