(This is a past Hyde Park Living column.)
People I meet around town are always surprised when I have negative reaction to Caesar Millan. And, it is that surprise that is the very reason why I want to share another view…one on the power of positive reinforcement and the importance of understanding behavior.
One of Ceasar’s strategies for dealing with unwanted behaviors such as fear or aggression (or fear induced aggression) is a technique called flooding. Let me explain. Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But can you imagine the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process? It is either sink or swim basically.
Here is an example of how I have seen Caesar work with a dog that exhibits strong aggressive tendencies to children on the street (this would be described as showing his teeth, snarling, having a tense body, and even biting if given the opportunity). He brought the dog on a leash to the sidewalk and had children ride their scooter past the dog, holding it down while the dog struggled and struggled until finally the dog stopped tensing up.
Television viewers saw it as the dog who learned to be submissive and calm. I cringed. Animal behaviorists have another word for it…learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.
An example of learned helplessness that you may be able to relate to is Jaycee Dugard, who stopped trying to escape her kidnapper, abuser and father to her children after she realized it would do her no good to try. Yes, she learned how to be calm but what an extreme price to pay for it.
Think about yourself. If you were terrified of tarantulas and someone thought the best way to get you over your fear was to tie you down and cover you with the spiders until you finally quit squirming…how would that make you feel about overcoming fears? How would you feel about the person who wanted to do that to you? Do you think you would be more apt or less apt to be able to cope with other fear inducing situations in the future because of it? Speaking for myself, I can tell you I would probably never forget the feeling of total fear that that person subjected me to.
Systematic desensitization is a much more humane, more positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And I don’t know about you but I like knowing I have the power to control my situation.