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Title: Modification of instinctive herding dog behavior using reinforcement and punishment
Author: Eve D. Marschark ; Ronald Baenninger

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This article was downloaded by: [University of Otago]
On: 12 July 2015, At: 09:08
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: 5 Howick Place,
London, SW1P 1WG

Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the
interactions of people and animals
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rfan20

Modification of instinctive herding dog behavior using
reinforcement and punishment
a

Eve D. Marschark & Ronald Baenninger

a

a

Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
Published online: 28 Apr 2015.

To cite this article: Eve D. Marschark & Ronald Baenninger (2002) Modification of instinctive herding dog behavior using
reinforcement and punishment, Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, 15:1, 51-68
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/089279302786992685

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Modification of instinctive herding dog
behavior using reinforcement
and punishment
Eve D. Marschark and Ronald Baenninger
Department of Psychology,Temple University, Philadelphia, USA

Downloaded by [University of Otago] at 09:08 12 July 2015

Abstract
“Instinctive” behavior may be modified using operant techniques. We
report here on a field study of training herding dogs in which reinforcers
and punishers were used by owners, who were themselves being trained to
control their dogs. Access to sheep was assumed to be a primary reinforcer
for herding dogs. while blocking their access was aversive to them. Over
several months, the number of blocking and access actions by the human
were scored during the training of seven naïve herding dogs. We found that
rates of punishment by blocking the dog’s access to sheep or by stopping
the dog occurred at higher levels than positive reinforcement from access
or verbal praise. While positive reinforcement can be used exclusively for
the training of certain behaviors, it is suggested that in the context of
instinctive motor patterns, negative reinforcement and punishment may be
desirable and necessary additions to positive reinforcement techniques.
© 2002 International Society for Anthrozoology

Keywords: border collies, herding, sheepdog, training

S

hepherds have been using dogs to help them tend flocks for centuries.
Herding dogs can be taught to slow down, move in closer to a flock,
separate an individual for the shepherd or stop all motion of the dog
and/or flock. While the basic techniques of stockdog training are documented in the training literature, little is known about the relations between
techniques used, their rates of application and possible implications for
explaining how these techniques might work. The focus of this study is to
look at how often blocking and access techniques are used in herding training of naïve dogs, and to see how consistent these patterns are even with
naïve owners who are learning how to train their own dogs. As target behaviors are achieved, at what point do they become reliable? What generalizations, if any, can be made to the training of pet dogs or other animals?
Address for correspondence and requests for reprints: Dr Ronald Baenninger, Department of
Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia PA 19122, USA. Ph: (215) 204 7314; fax: (215) 204
5539; e-mail: Ronald.Baenninger@temple.edu
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The motor patterns that define “herding” behavior are typically spoken
of in the vernacular as “instinctive” behaviors. What is “instinctive” behavior and how plastic is it? The traditional description is 1) present in all
members of the species, 2) performed in response to a limited set of stimuli, and, 3) performed reliably to those stimuli without specific practice
(Lehrman 1953). For Coppinger (2001) these include “chase and stalk”
sequences which will be the subject of focus here. The study of canine
motor patterns offers a viable arena for exploring modifications of such
genetically influenced behaviors by environmental influences on individuals. Hunting, guard and herding breeds of dogs all exhibit behaviors that
fulfill the above definition for an “instinctive” behavior.
Certain breeds of dogs reliably perform herding behaviors that have
been artificially selected as breeding criteria. For example, corgis and blue
heelers nip at the hind legs, or heels, facilitating movement of cattle and
other livestock. German shepherds, bearded collies and Old English sheepdogs show a pronounced bounce to their physical movement, and bark
while they work, which disturbs livestock and causes them to move away
from the dog. Border collies do not reliably display any of these breedspecific motor patterns, instead, they show “eye” and “balance” which are
effective in eliciting responses from individual members in a flock. “Eye”
is described as:
A crouching, snakelike movement with an intense stare used to
hypnotize livestock. Using eye is so instinctive in border collies
that even eight-week-old puppies have tried to eye and herd small
animals. Young pups can be seen eyeing cats, chipmunks, and
even blowing leaves! (Larson 1999, p.5).
A strong-eyed dog exhibits an intense stare at a prey animal and remains
immobilized as he stares, often crouching low to the ground and appearing
unresponsive to commands to get up and approach the sheep. A loose-eyed
dog tends to work on its feet and does not appear to focus on the livestock.
“Balance” is the ability of a dog to position itself relative to the sheep
so as to move them in a group toward the handler. Balance can be
described as a compromise between staying close enough to be effective
and far enough away from sheep so as not to elicit fear responses from
them (Jones and Collins 1987, p. 42–43). It is this delicacy of position and
movement that training develops to its fullest extent for both dog and handler. Some dogs are able to move to the correct position relative to the
sheep without training, while others must acquire this ability. Sheep can
provide the continual feedback as to what is too close, what is too far and
which is the correct position at a particular moment. If the dog is too close
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to them, a group of sheep will split up and run in different directions. A
border collie showing “balance” will readjust his position so as to allow the
sheep to regroup.
Bred for centuries for their herding abilities, these “collies” [The old
Gaelic rural term for anything useful is “collie” and for anything black is
“coly” (Combe 1978, p. 26)] exhibit sensitivity to environmental stimuli like
livestock movements and social cues provided by the shepherd. But their natural, instinctive herding abilities can usually be perfected through training.
Complex interactions between dog and sheep, dog and handler, and handler
and sheep provide a natural paradigm to explore behavioral consequences of
rewards and punishments. The consequences of reward and punishment are
often studied using food and electric shock in the laboratory. In herding
training of border collies, the traditional techniques used to modify their
behavior (Holmes 1960; Jones 1987; Fogt 1996; Larson 1999; personal
observation of first author) can be defined in terms of positive reinforcement
(rewards), mild punishment, and negative reinforcement techniques. In the
data we report here, all of these behavior modification techniques appear to
be important in modifying instinctive herding behaviors.
Breeding and training techniques
The herding behaviors exhibited by the border collie result from a history
of breeding for certain working characteristics. Shepherds have bred
individuals that possess a delicate sensitivity to anticipated movements of
livestock (Jones and Collins 1987; Holland 1994; Fogt 1996).
Temperament characteristics such as wariness of strangers, noise phobias,
and fear/aggression are also associated with this sensitivity, but coat type,
ear shape, size and other physical characteristics have remained relatively
unimportant in breeding choices (Larson 1999).
All modern border collies trace back to Old Hemp, born in
Northumberland, England, in 1893. The working Border collie is
still bred today on the basis of the following prized working characteristics: “eye” of control, creeping or stalking approach to
stock, natural wide outrun, trainability, willingness to listen yet
disobey or use initiative while working, speed, and stamina. It is
interesting to note that well-bred border collies work livestock
with a “dead” tail; that is, a tail held tightly in a “J” almost
between the legs. This appears to be tied to prey drive and hunting/herding instinct. Scottish shepherds detest a dog that works
with a “cocky” tail, because it is usually accompanied by barking
and play behavior (Larson 1999, p. 4).
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Various organizations such as the United States Border Collie
Handlers Association (USBCHA) stage competitions as testing grounds
for herding ability.
Registries around the world monitor the integrity of breeding history
through keeping accurate records of bloodlines (Halsall 1980; Grew 1993;
Goutte 1995). While no systematic, longitudinal evaluation of specific herding behaviors has been performed, breeders insist that certain behavioral
characteristics follow in particular bloodlines despite any training they are
given, and are reliably demonstrated in the offspring of those bloodlines.
This belief has guided the efforts of breeders for over three hundred years.
Belyaev & Trut’s “fox-farm” studies showed that foxes selectively bred
with the sole criterion of showing “domestic behavior” eventually produced
offspring that were tamer (had a shorter flight distance) than their wild
counterparts (Trut 1999). Laboratory studies of rats have shown that selective breeding can modify the frequency of behaviors like aggressiveness
(Karli 1956; Lagerspetz 1964), maze performance (Tryon 1940), and even
yawning (Urba-Holmgren et al. 1990).
Learning to perform a task is not based solely on behavioral
plasticity, such that any breed can perform if the correct instrumental reinforcement is provided. Border collies must show eye
before they can be trained to herd sheep. Livestock guarding
dogs cannot perform if they do show eye. Furthermore, there is
no known conditioning that can produce this motor pattern, and
it is difficult to get rid of once it appears (Coppinger and
Schneider 1995, p. 44).
A basic premise for herding behavior is that the herding dog and livestock exist in a predator–prey relationship. Herbivores such as deer, wild
sheep, and elk are prey species for wolves, the ancestors of domestic dogs
over 10,000 years ago. Some component motor patterns displayed in dogs
can be observed in wolves (Coppinger 2000). Larson (1999) described the
approach of border collies to stock as homologous to the wolf pack’s techniques when approaching their prey animal.
[The faster, lighter members head off the prey and drive…] them back
to the heavier wolves to be killed. These fast, lightly built wolves use a style
very similar to that of the working border collie. The wolves circle widely
around the prey so that it cannot escape. They then pause, consider the best
angle of approach, and creep up to the animal with a fixed stare (eye), forcing the animal back into the jaws of the waiting, more aggressive pack
members” (Larson 1999, p. 5).
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Mech (1970) described hunting by wolves, including cooperative
maneuvers made possible when they hunt as a pack. On Isle Royale in
Lake Superior, Mech observed that…
Wolves sometimes appear to herd their prey. Since the wolves
often separate, a hunted animal may unwittingly come close to
one wolf while avoiding another. This pattern of pursuing herd
animals is used in the domestic herding dogs, but the sheep or
stock dog is not allowed to actually attack. The herd dog must be
aggressive enough to chase sheep but timid enough to be inhibited from attacking them by a distant shout or gesture from the
herder (Scott and Fuller 1965/1997, p.75–76).
Herding behavior includes: 1) stalking toward the prey, 2) waiting
or rushing in response to the prey animal’s movements, 3) flanking
from one side to another to stop or otherwise control the responses of
the prey animal, 4) remaining focused on the prey animal in order to
better discriminate any change in its behavior, and 5) biting the prey to
complete the appetitive approach behavior and engage in the consummatory “kill response” (personal observation, first author). The kill
response has been bred out of the border collie, but gripping (biting) is
still present, and useful, in moderation, for controlling sheep and cattle
(Coppinger 2000).
Auditory communication
Training of herding dogs may be enhanced by their biological
preparedness for auditory communications between human and dog,
within a social context. Vocalizations used by humans while they herd
livestock with dogs may be similar to dog growls and high-pitched
whimpers. Border collies respond to these growl calls and whistles of
the human herder, perhaps because of their similarity to canine vocal
communication, including that used by wolves. Sounds made by wolves
include whimpering, which is a submissive or friendly greeting sound,
and growling, which conveys threatening, unfriendly aggressiveness
(Mech 1970, p. 96). McConnell and Baylis (1985) proposed that whistle commands by handlers may resemble acoustic signals naturally used
in social interchange between collies, and among nonhuman primates
and even birds. “The appropriate use of these acoustic structures
increases the probability of the desired response from the canid
receivers” (p. 302).

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The nature of reinforcement
The idea that performing certain species-typical appetitive and consummatory behaviors may be intrinsically rewarding was proposed by Wallace
Craig in 1918, and by Konrad Lorenz (1937), and was rediscovered by
Glickman and Schiff (1967). Baenninger (1970) trained Siamese fighting
fish to perform a novel operant response by giving them the opportunity to
carry out an instinctive act. Swimming through a Lucite ring gave the fish
access to a mirror for 30 seconds during which they could perform
aggressive threat displays to their mirror image. Hoffman (1996) required
ducklings to move away from an object to which they were imprinted in
order to gain subsequent access to the object as a reward. In herding training, access to sheep may provide a natural reinforcer for various operant
responses by border collies, perhaps because of their instinctive predatory
responses to sheep.
The project to be reported here was a longitudinal study over
several months of seven naïve dogs and their inexperienced owners,
during weekly or bi-weekly training sessions. Tape recordings were
made of trainer vocalizations during each session. Each vocalization
accompanied the trainer’s blocking movements, or giving the dog
access to the sheep. These human movements, combined with vocalizations, facilitated communication between human and dog. Data
were also collected on improvements in the owner’s skill during the
course of training the dog.

Methods
Participants
Participants were six border collies and one Shetland sheepdog, the owners of which had signed up for instruction from the first author. Each owner
was from the Philadelphia area and agreed to participate in the study by
completing a consent form.
Each dog was naïve to herding livestock or had negligible exposure
to herding. Of the seven dogs that participated, two were male and five
were female; Nell (F), Race (M), Nina (F) (all three from the same 1-year
old litter); Dylan (M, 2 yr.); Gwyn (F, 2 yr.); McKensie (F, Sheltie, 2 yr.);
Sky (F, 1 yr.). One dog, a 2-year-old female, was removed from the study
by her owner due to the dog’s lack of motivation to herd sheep. She had
been rescued from an abusive home and responded to human interactions
with escape responses, although she showed a strong orientation
response to the sheep.
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Nell, Race and Nina grew up in different homes with different owners.
All three were sensitive to a loud voice (displaying moderate fear
responses and stress reactions) and responded best to quiet, deliberate body
movements and vocalizations. Nina was neither dominant nor submissive
and was highly anticipatory of her owner’s body cues. Race had a history
of a lot of activity and exhibited a significant amount of eye contact with
his owner and was highly anticipatory of her body movement. Gwyn was
neither submissive nor dominant and possessed a natural herding ability.
Dylan possessed a tendency to rush in and bite sheep and required a harsh
tone of voice in order to get his attention. Skye displayed similar sensitivity (to that of Nina, Nell and Race), but also possessed strong balance and
eye. Nell displayed concern for social interaction and would be deemed
submissive. McKensie was the only Shetland sheepdog (Sheltie) in the
study and had received obedience training for show competition. Most
Shelties do not display sustained interest in sheep, but rather play-chase for
five minutes and then quit. McKensie was able to not only sustain interest,
but participate fully in the training interchange.
Nineteen two-year-old Cheviot crossbred ewes were kept at the first
author’s farm in eastern Pennsylvania. They had been habituated to working border collies. A licensed veterinarian examined the flock, determining
all to be in optimum health and current on vaccinations. Current vaccination records and health certificates were issued for all dogs.
Operant contingencies
A basic assumption of the present study is that permitting access to
sheep is rewarding for border collies, while blocking their access is aversive to them. Vocalizations by human handlers are associated with access
or with blocking, and are natural components of the interactions between
human and dog. Whether a stimulus can be called a reinforcer or punisher
is defined by whether the preceding behavior increases or decreases in rate,
respectively. Positive punishment occurs when an aversive stimulus is
applied contingent on performing the “wrong” action or behavior. To a
child pulling the tail of a cat, a word of admonishment might be an appropriate positive punishment for his tail pulling. If the cat delivers a painful
scratch across the child’s hand, it should also decrease the likelihood of
future tail pulling. Chasing down the dog in a threatening manner is one
action defined as punishment during herding training, while physically
holding the dog and growling at him is another. Use of a shock collar is
another example of punishment, but this technique was not used in this
study, and is only rarely used in herding training.
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Negative punishment occurs when a pleasant or “rewarding” stimulus
is removed contingent on performing the “wrong” action. Negative punishment would occur when the sheep are suddenly removed from the
training pen if a young dog continues to rush full force at them. Blocking
access to the sheep by physically standing between the dog and sheep is a
milder example. Alternatively, the dog could be removed from the field,
and such a “time out” can also be a useful tool.
Positive reinforcement occurs when something “rewarding” is
presented for doing the “right” thing, which increases the likelihood of the
behavior recurring. An example of this is when the dog is on an outrun
toward the sheep and the handler is in a position to allow access to sheep.
When the dog approaches the sheep correctly, the handler lets the dog
bring sheep all the way to the handler, allowing the dog to maintain contact
with the sheep for the entire interaction. This gives positive reinforcement
for the correct and desired behavior of approaching the sheep at a
comfortable distance.
Negative reinforcement occurs when an aversive stimulus is removed
from the situation after the correct action is taken. It occurs, for example,
when a dog approaches the sheep too closely, while the trainer is in a blocking position. When the dog behaves correctly by moving to a more comfortable distance from the sheep, the handler steps out of the way, allowing
the dog full access to them. This negatively reinforces the desired behavior
of approaching from the correct distance by removing the blocking.
In herding training, the operant behavior that is positively reinforced
occurs when a dog runs in a path of larger radius around the sheep.
Moving directly toward the sheep, usually too fast, and biting them are
behaviors that are punished (by blocking the dog’s access to sheep). Food
reinforcement or electric shock are never used in herding training, and are
unnecessary. Through successive approximations, a dog’s ability to cause
sheep to move is systematically brought under control of the handler.
Using only access and blocking, a dog’s behavior is modified to include
precise modulation of its speed, and adjustments of its distance and position from the sheep, even when the dog is out of sight of the handler
(Holmes 1960; Jones and Collins 1987; Holland 1994; Fogt 1996). It is a
highly effective technique.
Materials and data coding
A microcassette recorder was used to record human vocalizations
throughout each training session. The following columns were listed on the
coding sheets and used to analyze the recordings:
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