Chronicles of Athena – Twelve Weeks

I don’t know how to say this in a not-bragging way, but I think I got one of the clever ones. It’s not necessarily a good thing (unless, like me, you place an unreasonable amount of value in cleverness). At three months old Athena is very proud to have invented several different games such as the ‘I bring you this toy, you throw it over there so I can hunt it, then I’ll bring it back to you to throw it again’ (she’s working on the name). She’s figured out that my phone is a touch screen and will do stuff when she plays with it, but the laptop needs to be pawed at to do stuff (and she’s also figured out that she’s not allowed to paw at the laptop and there are specific places she can walk where I will tolerate her).

These last two I rationalise as there being limited interactivity on a phone (the only thing you can touch is the touch screen after all), and the laptop keyboard as being more tactile and pleasing to play with than the laptop screen. I’m not sure how she invented fetch.

The flip side is how easily she gets bored. I have to regularly rotate her toys to keep her interested in them, otherwise she turns to playing with the loose threads in the carpets and the curtains. She’s also extremely quick to pick up on routines which means she knows what I do when I’m about to leave the house. Thankfully she’s also developing more of an independent streak and so when I leave she doesn’t spend the day curled up in her safe place. The whole flat is now her safe place and even when the evil monster Vacooooom comes out she’s more likely to go sit at the window than hide under the telly.

This week has been a real joy – even though I was plagued with migraines, Athena has been so happy and affectionate. While I was lying on the sofa, trying to keep the light from my eyes, she was playing games underneath the blanket, bringing me Mr Ducky in the hope it might tempt me to play, and generally trying to figure out why I wasn’t behaving like she expected me to. It’s been lovely to see her exploring how to interact with me, and other humans, what she expects from us.

I was baking a cake earlier and she was genuinely irritated that I wasn’t paying attention to her. Little things like this we need to work on.

But that being said, she does purr so loudly when she’s cuddled.

There's nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle - excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch

There’s nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle – excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch

Punishment is Good

Before we start, I’d like to remind you that the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues.

With that out of the way – I think punishment gets a bad rap. Wait, wait, it’s not what you think! We’re not going into that kind of territory on this blog . . .

 

 

Skinner, of Skinner-Box fame, has framed a lot of our thinking about how we train animals. Skinner used the term ‘operant conditioning’ because he believed that the internal motivations weren’t the only things that shaped behaviour – that we learned from our environment, specifically that our behaviours influence the environment and generate consequences, and that we learn from this.

Now, admittedly, Skinner gives internal motivations short thrift. It’s worth pointing out I’ve made a career of measuring the outcome of internal x external motivations and the influence this has on the probability of behaviour. Internal motivations are important, but that’s probably a post for another day. Let’s talk about Skinner and his box first.

A rat in a box. Two levers. One lever, when pressed, gives food. The other lever, when pressed, shocks the rat. Understandably, the rat learns to press lever one and avoid lever two. The environment ‘trains’ the animal to perform certain behaviours.

At this point I’m going to take a short diversion. One of the reasons I’m doing this blog post is to try and get my head around how to teach this in a more effective way, since it always causes student confusion.

Let’s forget about Skinner for a moment and just focus on two things.

The first is ‘reinforcement‘. Whenever you ‘reinforce’ a behaviour, you’re increasing the likelihood of the animal performing the behaviour again. The second is ‘punishment‘. Whenever you ‘punish’ a behaviour, you’re decreasing the likelihood of the animal performing the behaviour.

Going back to the rat in the box. It’s showing two behaviours: it’s pressing lever one a lot, so that behaviour must be being reinforced. It’s not pressing lever two at all, so that behaviour must be being punished.

The question now is how are these behaviours being either reinforced or punished?

We use the words positive and negative to talk about this, but not in a qualitative good/bad way. Instead I think students would find it easier to think of it as ‘additive’ and ‘subtractive’, the only problem with this being that then they wouldn’t be using the same terminology as the rest of the world.

For example:

Positive Reinforcement gives the animal something to encourage the animal to perform the behaviour again. For example, when a dog sits on command it receives a treat. The behaviour being reinforced is the ‘sit’, the treat is the positive addition.

Negative Reinforcement takes something away from the animal to encourage it to perform a behaviour again. The something that we subtract has to be unpleasant for the animal so that they are rewarded by its removal (hence encouraged to do the behaviour again). A common animal example of negative reinforcement is pushing a dog’s bottom to encourage it to sit. When the animal sits (the behaviour we want to reinforce), the aversive stimulus (pushing) is subtracted.

Positive Punishment gives the animal something to discourage the animal from performing the behaviour again. Similar to the above example, in order to discourage the animal the stimulus we are adding should be unpleasant. A common animal example would be jerking the leash of a dog that’s pulling. The pulling is the behaviour we want to punish (decrease), and the leash jerk is the aversive stimulus we add.

Negative Punishment takes away something from the animal to discourage the animal from performing the behaviour again. If you’ve been following along you’ve probably guessed we have to take away something that the animal would want or desire. A common animal example would be a dog that barks when it greets its owner. The owner ignores it (removes the desired attention) and the behaviour decreases.

To further confuse matters however, sometimes these are classed into ‘aversive training‘ which would include negative reinforcement and positive punishment (because the stimulus we talk about in both these cases are aversive, or unpleasant), and ‘reward-based training‘ which includes positive reinforcement and negative punishment (because the stimulus in both these cases is rewarding, or pleasant).

 

Where it gets really complicated, in my opinion, is where people start to believe that one type of conditioning, or one kind of training, is by far superior to the others. ‘Reward-based’ training is usually the one that most animal welfare people are keen on (for obvious reasons, I should hope!) They cite papers such as Herron et al (2008) which show that confrontational training in dogs increases aggression. This has resulted in something odd where trainers will start saying things like “aggression should never be punished”. In training terms, this means you would never reduce the incidence of aggression being shown!

Positive punishment is the ‘worst’ of the aversive training methods by this thinking – but let me give you an example I’ve been using with Athena. When she arrived she had a terrible habit of chewing electrical cables. It was very worrying. I would scold her with an unpleasant voice (positive punishment!) and I would distract her with toys, but still she would do it. I ended up slathering chilli powder and vaseline over the most attractive cables so when she would start to mouth at the cables, she would receive an immediate aversive stimuli. This is positive punishment, an aversive stimuli used to decrease the occurrence of an undesirable behaviour.

So there is definitely a place for positive punishment – where it’s applied correctly. The chilli powder example works because the aversive stimuli is encountered the moment the undesirable behaviour begins, and stopping the behaviour quickly stops the stimuli presenting itself.

I also use negative punishment with Athena. Sometimes when we’re playing she will want to bite and scratch my hand. When this happens I let my hand go limp and stop playing with her. No matter how hard she bites, I don’t resume play. Play in this case is the reward, and my attention/play is removed when she starts displaying the undesirable behaviour. With this one, something else happens too. When she calms down and behaves gently again, play resumes. The good behaviour is reinforced by adding the desired stimulus (my attention/play) when it is performed. The combination of negative punishment and positive reinforcement here means that even though she’s getting bigger, her playing remains gentle and fun for both of us.

It’s impossible for any animal (humans included) to learn without encountering all four of these aspects. Aversive training is by definition unpleasant, but it can be appropriate to use. Take my positive punishment example. The consequences of Athena continuing the cable chewing behaviour were dire. The aversive stimulus added was relatively mild (and came with warning – I think she only actually chewed a chilli cable once, for the most part the smell was enough to make her decide otherwise), and she had a huge amount of choice about the situation: there were plenty of other things to play with (and she would be rewarded for playing with those other things), the aversive stimulus was well defined (on the actual cable – no real way of accidentally getting the aversive stimulus). Importantly, the punishment wasn’t perceived as coming from me and so our bond and her trust in me was also protected. Finally I only needed to apply the paste once. Now that the behaviour has reduced, we can use an even milder positive punisher (me saying ‘no’ in a loud, stern voice), if she tries to attempt it again.

I am sure no trainer would ever say that the ‘no in a loud, firm voice’ is inhumane, but it is a positive punishment. To say all punishment is bad is to further confuse the operant conditioning theory.

 

Your final exam, therefore, is to tell me – in the case of the rat with the two levers, how was it being trained? ;)

Edited to add – make sure you read Kathy’s comment below, very insightful!

Chronicles of Athena – Eleven Weeks

It’s been another busy week for our Athena. Well, firstly there was a slight suspicion she may have been a boy. When we went to the vets on Monday, after some considerable genital palpitation, we decided we’re 98% certain she’s definitely a girl. Other choice quotes from our lovely vet:

“Definitely a mummy’s girl, aren’t we?” While Athena was crawling into my arms to escape the stethoscope.

“Oh yes there’s a stool in there.” While shoving a thermometer up her bum.

“We’re clearly the runt of the litter, aren’t we.” After I explained her appetite isn’t the biggest.

“She seems pretty lively, do you want me to try her temperature again?” At the end of what was possibly the most genital-obsessed ten minutes of Athena’s life. Needless to say we didn’t bother.

Overall I’m really pleased she got the all clear from the vets after her little bout of worms and the fact she’s not the best eater in the world. Our second dose of worming does seem to have really helped her in the litter box which is great news.

One of the reasons I wanted to keep this chronicle was because I wanted a record of the relationship between us. This week she’s started to develop some of the behaviours I consider to be an integral part of the cat-human bond. She’s started weaving at my feet when I’m about to feed her, and she has a more unique ‘food’ miaow which is beginning to be distinct from her other vocalisations.

She also has her little routines, like coming to greet me at the door when I come home from work, where she’s impatient for me to put all my stuff down before picking her up for a cuddle. And then after she’s had enough cuddling she’s off to her food bowl for fresh food.

One thing she doesn’t do, which surprises me slightly, is knead. She seems to have no real drive to start making biscuits, even when she’s happy and purring and very cuddly. Strangely enough, I miss it quite a bit!

And lastly, she’s getting bigger. She’s just under a kilo now and has long, gangly legs and long, fluffy tail to go with her over-large ears. She’s now having to learn to regulate her play fighting so as not to hurt people (and this may be my imagination but I’m convinced she’s more gentle with other people than with me, which I think is a lovely sign of confidence actually).

On Monday she’ll be three months old, really no longer a baby and more of a child. While the kitten phase was very cute, this is a much more interesting part for me, where we start working out how we live together.

Athena in a bed

Feeling a little bit poorly after her vaccinations, she was quite content to sleep under a blanket.

Kill The Science

This week we’re taking a short break from the usual so I can talk about Doctor Who. Specifically, last week’s Doctor Who Episode ‘Kill The Moon’.

Before you animal lovers scurry away, let me give you a brief, spoilery synopsis. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now . . .

Continue reading

Chronicles of Athena – 10 Weeks

At ten weeks of age Athena took an upgrade in her cheekiness levels. She’s been pushing her newly established boundaries and because I’m a soft touch I expect she’s discovered that many of those boundaries are quite flexible. New habits include: scampering up my leg whenever she requires food or a cuddle, and playing the bitey game exceptionally hard when it’s time to wake up.

Incidentally, one of the courses I’m teaching on is currently discussing inadvertent training, and I had a great example in front of my eyes on Thursday night.

While we were waiting for Peaky Blinders to come back on the telly, Athena and I were having a good old play. As I’d been engaged in this for a number of hours, I decided to sit down on the sofa and relax. Athena had a good stretch on the rug, and undoubtedly realising that it felt somewhat like her scratching post, had a good scratch.

“Athena, no.”

She looked up at me with surprise, and then walked away, only to reach the edge of the rug and decide to try again.

“Athena, no. *Finger Click*”

Athena went all fluffy and scampered off to the far side of the room to play with a scrunched up bit of paper.

At this point, an idea must have formed in her head because after a moment of this, she ran back to the rug to give it an experimental claw. Predictably, I then gave her into trouble and she ran away, to run right back again. Athena had discovered a new game.

Now a number of things were happening here. My punishment for the rug, the angry voice, clicking fingers noise and occasionally me getting up to distract her were not considered aversive enough to really work for Athena, despite the fact they felt aversive to me (I don’t like giving my baby kitten into trouble). In fact I was inadvertently reinforcing the rug ripping by giving her attention every time she did it, and in this scenario, my attention was actually welcome (e.g.  the stimulus I was giving her was actually reinforcing the behaviour rather than punishing it).

As an owner, rather than a scientist, I’ve called this behaviour ‘cheeky’ and ‘gleeful’. And I’m quite happy to use those words for Athena, in the same way I’d use those words for a baby, but I don’t believe there’s any real malice or forethought in her actions. It was simply fun at the time.

But what’s interesting is that to stop the behaviour I had to give her negative punishment (i.e. withdraw my attention when she was ripping the rug) and then positively reinforce a different behaviour at the same time (i.e. I started playing with Mr Ducky on the sofa instead). And she gave it up. While we’ve been testing the rug game since then, she’s been much quicker to give it up when I tell her ‘no’.

 

Sponsored by Samsung, Naturally

Sponsored by Samsung, Naturally

 

All of this has got me thinking about blogging about training, particularly as I’ve seen how my students have been thinking about it on the course. I’ve never found it the most intuitive of subjects . . . but that’s for another time.

 

Another element of Athena’s development this week has been that she now has free range of the whole flat. I have noticed, coming home from work, suspiciously kitten shaped dents all over the duvet. The other day she was a little reluctant to leave her bed because it was chilly. These little glimpses of the cat she will become are very exciting, and much as I’m enjoying the kitten period, I keep seeing a sleek little cat who’s happy and confident and has never had anything to worry about in her life. I hadn’t always intended to get a kitten, but there’s something to be said for helping to shape the grown up she’ll become.

Oh – and we’re also weaning ourselves off of Royal Canin kitten food and onto Whiskas. The lamb flavour was a huge success with little growls coming from the miniature tiger hunched over her bowl.

 

The New Term

We’re halfway through Week Three of the new academic year.

Students, I love you. I really adore  you guys. I love helping you, I love seeing you puzzle out new ideas, I love when you challenge my thinking, I love when I can make you feel better about yourself.

But Jesus I wish you’d learn to read the course documents.

This year marks the sixth that I have been doing some form of university level teaching. In the past six years I’ve gone from the occasional lecture and lab to helping to coordinate an MSc program (admittedly that last bit has only been happening for two weeks, but it’s still pretty damned cool). I’ve come to the realisation that I really like the role of lecturer, particularly when I get to straddle the different scales from undergrad programs to masters and even helping out the odd PhD student. Which is a good thing because my wall planner looks like this now. Orange dots represent teaching days and I ran out of them so they start accounting for two towards the end of the year. Yellow stripes mean MOOC. Red stripes mean teaching at workshops:

The 2014 Wallplanner

But what really amazes me is that students, be they MOOC students, MSc students or just people who happen to catch me in the pub and receive a free lecture, never seem to read the course documents.

I’ve been writing some learning objectives for one of this year’s undergrad programs, and I was breaking the lecture up to indicate where the learning objective should have been achieved. I did this for a couple of reasons – I have a three hour lecture slot and that’s boring as hell. The learning objectives gave me a natural break. But I also did it because one of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “What should I know here?”

In some ways it makes me feel old. When I was at uni, we were only just developing this whole ‘communicating via email’ thing, and we received paper course books, which you had to look up to find a lecturer’s office. There was no way I was dragging myself into uni to ask them something I would more likely find myself in a book.

These days, however, I’m an email away from my students, and it’s easier for them to ask me where to find certain things. But it’s also easier for me to give them a reading list – I have lectures with lists of links to further reading if they want to, it really is information overload.

This is part of the learning process now, knowing what is valuable information and what is not. Part of that should be learning how to scan the course handbook, in my opinion, rather than outsourcing it to your lecturer’s knowledge, but that’s also part of the training. Students pick it up and within a few weeks it’ll all be sorted.

The thing is, I would never tell a student not to email me. I would really much rather say “As you’ll see in your handbook . . .” than have to say after an assessment “If you’d asked me I could have told you . . .” when a student’s done poorly.

Still, it’s student season right now. It’s the time when they’ll be grinding against one another in the cafeteria while you’re having a meeting with a guest. It’s the time when there will be emails at the weekend that expect to be answered. It’s the time where we gently remind them that Facebook is very nearly forever. It’s the time for tech problems, sudden financial difficulties, introductions and students second guessing themselves.

I love student season.

Chronicles of Athena – Nine Weeks

For the forseeable future, instead of Fluffy Fridays, we’ll be getting updates on Athena instead. As I’m counting her age based on weeks at the moment, these will probably be at the weekend, and we’ll be talking about the development that happened in the previous seven days.

At the age of nine weeks, coupled with the fact she moved houses, there were a LOT of little connections being made in the little lady’s tiny brain. This has been characterised by bouts of very enthusiastic play behaviour (interestingly, most of it focussed around people, I think because the change in her circumstances at the start of the week made her keen for reassurance. Her favourite way to play is sit on someone’s lap and bat at her toys, or play fight with a person’s hand) and then deep sleeps (which she also prefers to do on someone’s lap). All in all, for a lady who was mostly hand reared I have to say she’s extremely well adjusted, if a little clingy.

Between 8-10 weeks, kittens go through something called a socialisation period – the things they experience this week, particularly people, will set their expectations up for the rest of their life. So I’ve been having guests around and making sure to do things like laundry, hoovering, hair drying, changing the bed linens, etc. I live in a busy tenement flat so she’s been hearing all sorts of household noises (her first siren made her eyes go VERY wide indeed).

The physiology and behaviour is all very interesting, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to look at how a bond between a human and an animal develops. When will she do the things that are characteristics of my cats, when does she teach me the things she wants?

So in that vein, here are some of the more personal developments:

She’s a big cuddler, and really prefers to be close to your face. Today she’s discovered she can lie on the top of the sofa’s pillows and rest her head on my shoulder while gaming. This is the best place to be and she’ll purr very loudly.

She’s discovered the view outside the window, and was especially fascinated when the football crowds were walking past.

When she’s feeling insecure she hides in the bottom shelf of the TV stand, behind my basket of miscellaneous games controllers, DVDs and chargers. She has not quite figured out what her igloo bed is for.

She very quickly got into the habit of using her scratching tree and is only mildly confused by my rug which is of a similar material. Climbing the scratching tree to the top platform is how she shows off to guests.

Guests are awesome, they mean extra cuddles.

Bedtime is also awesome, because it opens up a whole new type of game to play (the crawl under the covers and tickle Jilly game – if one day I blog about the sad incident where I squashed the kitten, this will be the cause of it), but she’s beginning to think about sleeping in one of her beds as she becomes less reliant on me.

She’s not super amazing at cleaning herself and has a semi permanent gravy stain on her chin.

She thinks claw trimming is great fun.

 

Things I’d forgotten but quickly learned:

The dangerous way that kittens will feedback into the gaming loop where you can’t stop gaming because you’d move the kitten and that would be cruel.

The scratches all up and down your arm.

Being catted but also desperately hungry.

Welcome Athena

I’ve noticed a weird thing. No matter how much you may earn your rent telling people what animal welfare is, being flown half way across the world to teach this to professionals, and being generally young and successful at this whole ‘making a career of animals’ lark – when you make a big decision like “I’m going to get a cat”, you become racked with self doubt.

Maybe it’s just me.

I know, on an intellectual level, that I am more than capable of looking after a cat. I know that while I might not give her a perfect life (because no animal ever has a perfect life), it is life that will be pretty damn good. And yet I’m a compulsive worrier.

On Monday I picked up Athena from my friend Leigh’s house. She has been fostering kittens for Arthurshiel Rescue Centre, and Athena is one of a litter from 8 month old Star, who couldn’t cope with her babies. After a little brush with tapeworm that had made her feel a bit ill, she was finally ready to come home with me at the age of 9 weeks exactly, with all of her siblings already rehomed.

It was a long car journey, with a very grumpy little lady complaining most of the way. When I caught her eye at traffic lights the complaining would start again.

When we finally got home, I sat back and opened her carrier, trying to ignore the hammering of my heart – would she be terrified? Would she find some unknown hole in the wall and get stuck in the Kingdom of the Mice (never mind that I still haven’t figured out how the mice were emigrating from the Kingdom of the Mice in the first place)? Well she immediately started exploring, finding the darkest, sneakiest corner of the room (turns out not to be gateway to Kingdom of the Mice so we’re all good), and then she came to see me. With a quick head rub and a purr she was emboldened enough to run to the other side of the room.

Purring within ten minutes of coming into her new home. You’d think I’d have relaxed about this point, right?

So there was plenty of exploring, although she steadfastly refused to enter her perfectly pleasant igloo bed, or her tree nest. After a little bout of play she fell asleep on my lap for a while, and only woke up to play a little bit longer.

When I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer I decided to leave the door to the bedroom open, to see if she would follow. After a few minutes of calling, she decided she’d come and see what this whole other world was about. She explored briefly, but in coming to see me for some reassurance, she discovered something quite wonderful, quite mighty . . . the memory foam mattress.

My friends, you haven’t seen true mystified delight until you’ve seen a kitten discover memory foam. She played for a little while before curling up under my arm and falling fast asleep.

I’d love to say I slept like a log and that all my worries faded away. I stayed awake all night and fretted about her habit of chewing on electrical wires.

In the morning Athena was confident enough to explore under the bed for a little while, and then headed to the living room. Knowing I’d no chance of sleep, I followed, and we played and cuddled and bonded all day. Was I feeling relaxed yet? Ask me about the moment I lost sight of her and somehow convinced myself she was stuck behind a kitchen cupboard (she wasn’t, she was relaxing in her hidey place behind the tv stand). When I left her for an hour and a half on Tuesday, I came back convinced she would somehow have broken herself, she had been in her hidey hole and came to see me immediately for cuddles.

For the next few months, Fluffy Fridays will be devoted to Athena’s development, but for now, I’m just trying to relax into the idea that I can look after this little lady, and give her the best possible home, while teaching her that computer charger are not for teething.

But in the mean time I have to pop off as we’ve discovered that our tail is fun for chewing . . .

What do looks matter anyway?

Fluffy Friday – Fluffy Gets Fluffier

I wasn’t sure when to post about this, but I’m much too excited to wait.

The Fluffy Sciences family is growing by one this month, as I prepare to adopt this little lady.

The Fluffy Sciences family grows

The Fluffy Sciences family grows

I will post more about her in the coming weeks, but suffice to say this is a decision I’ve been thinking about for a very long time now, and while I’m (overly) nervous about the responsibility (am I really ready to be a grown up?) I’m hugely excited.

She’s currently being fostered with her siblings by a friend of mine and I expect to pick her up round about the 21st. Currently she’s named Cleo, but I’m leaning towards ‘Athena’ as a more geeky handle that will fit the Fluffy Sciences world better. So stay tuned . . .

Manchester Dogs Home

You may have seen in the news that last night, Manchester Dogs Home suffered an enormous fire.

 

The Guardian reports that a 15 year old boy has been arrested on suspicion of arson. So far, 53 dogs have died and 150 rescued.

If you want to help Manchester Dogs Home you can donate (the centre is completely destroyed), or if you live in the area, the North Manchester Police office is accepting donations of blankets and food.

I’ve seen a few comments calling for this boy to be treated very poorly by the law. I would caution against this as best I can. Acting out like this is undoubtedly an indication of a very unhappy life. If this kid is guilty, he needs help. After all, animals can be an important part of our social development, and animal abuse is an indicator of future antisocial behaviour.

 

Not so fluffy this Friday.