Dear Goddamned Beagle,
I spend an inordinate amount of time on video conferences and on the phone. You might not know this, because all of that involves staring at this computer as I always seem to do. Wait, who am I kidding? You totally know the difference. That’s how you know when to howl.
I will work all day and night, as I often do, focusing on the monitor, and you’ll sleep beside me peacefully. Yet within a few minutes of starting a video meeting or a phone call, I can feel your stare. You sit without blinking, looking at me, focusing with the kind of bug-eyed intensity that convinces me I’ll someday know the slap of an inadvertently ejected eyeball bouncing off my face.
You’ll give a few huffs, and maybe a few small scratches on the rug, like a twenty-pound, trust-fund bull baby impatient with a slow nanny. You’ll give a small warning howl, then a second, this time a little more insistently. One of your ears will flip back. This is never a good sign.
The first howl will be short. More like a warning shot across the bow than an all-out declaration of war. I’ll ignore you, Beagle, because I’m not as big a fool as some might think.
Extinction, Psychology: the reduction or loss of a conditioned response as a result of the absence or withdrawal of reinforcement. Extinction is observed in both operantly conditioned and classically conditioned behavior. When operant behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences, the behavior gradually stops occurring.
B.F. Skinner never had a beagle.
You’ll count to three. I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re doing. Then the howling will start, direct, frontal, annoyed. You’ll stop. You’ll look at me, both ears back indicating your displeasure and readiness to rumble. I’ll ignore you. You’ll howl again. Each training howl will get longer, louder and often you’ll inch up closer, in case the problem is my faulty hearing and not just my indolence.
Apparently, my staying on the call, muted for the sake of my fellow participants, is reinforcing. For a while I’d prepare by giving you a frozen, stuffed Kong and hiding some kibble around the first floor, setting you up for success. And for a while it worked. You’d eat your Kongs, find the scattered kibble, and come sleep next to me.
It stopped working. Eventually you’d finish your Kong, find your kibble, and then wander by with something random, perhaps a dispenser of multi-colored Post It flags from the file cabinet. Drastic actions were required. So I began ignoring you. Again, it worked for a while, about a month. Then you decided this was not going to do, and the howling started in earnest.
Though I don’t like to resort to such things, I decided to employ negative punishment.
Negative punishment includes taking away a certain reinforcing item after the undesired behavior happens in order to decrease future responses.
If my remaining on the call was somehow fun for you, I’d solve that by leaving when you howled. For the better part of a week, my video conferencees accompanied me into the bathroom, where we’d stay until your howling stopped. I’d then open the door to find you standing there, walk back to the living room or office, and if you started to howl again, the computer, my guests and I would return to the bathroom. The howling stopped.
Until early last week, when you decided you’d had enough.
Each Monday I hold all my staff and committee meetings. They start at 9:00 am and end around 7:00 pm. There are breaks between, but not many. We always go for a walk in the afternoon break. By 11:30 that morning you saw another Monday unfolding and started to howl. The parade to the bathroom went on for half an hour: me, my computer, my attendees, and you following behind.
This all changed at 12:05. You howled, I walked, computer in hand, to the bathroom. When you’d been quiet for a minute or so, I opened the door, and in front of it was my wallet. The one that had been in my bag on the dining room table. I picked it up, put it back where it belonged, moved the bag to a shelf in the pantry, and returned to work. I sat down. You howled. I got up, this time warning my co-workers that I’d be turning off the video so they didn’t throw up from all the moving around of my webcam. Muted and camera off I waited, listening to the meeting, until you’d been quiet for a bit.
This time when I opened the door I found you with my stapler. The one from my desk. Being muted and video off, I did what any normal person would do. I took a picture. Then I walked back to the couch.
The meeting finally ended, but the howling did not. Each time I sat to work, even to write an apology for the ridiculous meeting, you looked at me and howled, now clearly pissed off about the current circumstances. Each time I’d get up, taking my computer with me for fear of losing an expensive machine to your ire. Each time I’d open the door to a new forbidden object.
And then, like an underwear-clad coed backing into a dark basement in a horror movie, reality came up from behind.
I was now reinforcing the snatching of contraband.
Positive reinforcement the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes the behavior more likely to occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.
Each time you brought something you weren’t supposed to have, I’d open the bathroom door. This was what you wanted. Grabbing forbidden items was totally working.
In retrospect, taking that computer into the bathroom with me was my only smart move. There’s no way you’d have skipped bringing and dropping it in front of the door, tooth-marked and soggy. Imagine how quickly I’d have come out when I heard that!
You may have won this round, but this isn’t over. I know people. Brilliant people. People a lot smarter than me, and almost as smart as you. They’ve written books. They’ve trained lions, giraffes, butterflies, parrots and rhinos. If they all work together, they might even be able to train you and me.
Anything’s possible, Beagle.