(This is one of my past Hyde Park Living columns)
My whole fascination for the study of behavior science was founded over 12 years ago on an international list started by Dr. Susan Friedman (a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Analysis with companion animals). Having that knowledge and support helped me to transform my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby, from an incessant screamer into a bird who talks human to me all day. And it has so changed my relationship with all of my pets.
Now I am paying it forward by helping other animal caregivers to have that same success . One way I am doing that is by returning to that same list. This time around, however, I am training to be a list leader teaching others about Applied Behavior Analysis and its relevance in setting themselves and their pets up for success (and continuing to learn by the awesome mentors on the team).
Our very first lesson of the series is about constructs or labels vs actual behavior. It is a very important distinction when it comes to solving behavior issues in the most positive, least intrusive way.
Have you ever described your pet as stubborn, dominant, spoiled, or jealous? Those words are referred to in behavior science as constructs or labels. They describe what people ‘think’ their pet IS but here is the problem – as a trainer, I have absolutely no idea what it is your pet is ‘doing’ to cause you to see him as stubborn, dominant, spoiled or jealous. What set of behaviors I may picture in my mind may be very different from what set of behaviors that animal is actually ‘doing’. I can help you strategize positive ways of solving a problem of your dog jumping on guests or a bird destroying furniture but I can’t help you strategize solutions for a jealous pet.
Dr. Risë VanFleet (internationally renowned for her work in the fields of play therapy, Filial therapy, and animal assisted play therapy) described some additional problems with labeling (VanFleet, R., Jan/Feb 2012, “That Lazy Owner! That Lazy Dog! The Pitfalls of Labeling our Clients”. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog.)
“When an owner comes in and says, ‘My dog is being dominant. He is deliberately trying to rule me,’ that person is using labeling as well as another cognitive distortion (mind reading) not to mention the application of inaccurate pack theory. These cognitive distortions lead to exaggerated frustration and anger,” she wrote.
Why is labeling a cognitive distortion? She gave three reasons:
1. People – and pets – behave differently in different situations. Risë gave as an example a dentist who might call some patients ‘noncompliant’ because they don’t floss their teeth but does that mean that the patients are always noncompliant? Most people do brush their teeth.
2. If we apply labels to people or dogs, we stop learning about them. “We have, in essence, fooled ourselves into thinking that we have figured them out,” she said, ”The dog who is labeled ‘aggressive’ begins to be seen through that particular lens, and the anxiety or medical problem beneath the behavior might go undetected.” This is HUGE. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information we need to understand what is going on with the animal and in the environment that is affecting the actual behavior.
3. Labeling brings with it a problem of interpretation. How one person interprets ‘anxious’ may be very different from how someone else would. Risë also pointed out that labels have a way of becoming more rigid with time.
So, what is a better option than using labels to explain behavior?
Well, begin by asking yourself, “What does that label ‘look like in terms of actual, observable behavior? Under what conditions does the behavior occur? What is the immediate outcome the behavior produces for the animal?”
Maybe your bird chews on furniture when your bird is activity deprived and has access to the furniture. Or maybe your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting on the couch watching tv and ignoring him. Okay…now we can work on a behavior modification plan!