The Value Of Empowerment To Our Pets

A quote I remember hearing from a long time mentor resounds in my head. Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychologist and professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of applied behavior analysis worldwide, refers to power this way.

Susan Friedman, Ph.D., quote on empowering dogs and other animals

 “The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.”

 What exactly does Susan mean here?

Well, let’s take a deeper look at the function of behavior. What is behavior, really? Simply put, it is an observable, measurable tool that animals use to get a consequence. And when that tool helps an animal achieve an outcome that is of value to it, confidence and quality of life naturally grow.

I have seen that time and again when I teach an animal to do a behavior, not by force but simply by ensuring a high value consequence for the animal making the choice I want him to make. Often it doesn’t take long before that ‘learned and wanted behavior’ is the one that is offered quickly and reliably.

Choice is the key word here. It is something that brings out the best in all of us. Think about it. Do you perform better for a boss who tells you how you have to do your job or one who encourages you to find your own solutions?

And what about when it comes to issues of fear or anxiety? Again, having the freedom to escape and the power to choose and say no are huge. When you take those defenses away, there are so many possible negative ramifications. Among them – apathy, aggression, heightened fear, and learned helplessness.

You can force your bird to step up by pushing your hand into him or you can give him the power to choose to walk toward you (for a valued reinforcer like a seed). You can hold your struggling dog down to clip his toe nails or you can teach him through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to associate positive things with nail clippings. (See below for a description.)

Recently one of my clients told me she thought car rides were stressful for her dog because she was noticing little Bear’s fur was very wet upon arrival at their destination. Bear rides in car safety seat that used to be placed on a back seat in their SUV.  Jackie used to have to pick Bear up to put the little girl into her seat as it was pretty high off the ground.

What did I do? I devoted one of our lessons to counterconditioning that response through empowerment. counter conditioning fear response in dogs with empowerment

I taught Bear how to get into her seat on her own and then made the choice of sitting in her seat a valuable one by giving Bear cheese only when she was in her seat. It was wonderful to see how quickly Bear learned being in her seat was a pretty nice place to hang out. I practiced moving the seat with her in it. I first worked with her on this in their kitchen, then outside on the ground near the car door. And finally put the car seat on the floor of the back seats (it actually wedged in securely between the seats and we put something in front of it). Bear jumped into it on her own several times. When she showed no sign of stress, we practiced driving around the neighborhood while I sat in the seat next to Bear and occasionally gave her a piece of cheese, decreasing the time between treats as we went and as Bear showed me through relaxed body muscles that she was comfortable. We rode around for awhile with Bear showing no sign of stress.

What a difference it made to work with Bear from a standpoint of empowerment.

My take-a-way question for you: Think about you and your own pet. What are some ways in which you empower him/her? I’d love to hear about it.


About Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Systematic desensitization is a 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 empowerment builds confidence.

Please click here to read how I used desensitization and counter conditioning after our dog became afraid to go outside at dusk following July 4.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Why Labeling Your Pet Does Not Solve Problems

(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.

quote from Rise Van FleetDr. 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?”

The answer will help us determine clearly defined behavior change targets, antecedent predictors that set the behavior in motion, and quote on labeling behavior by Lisa Desatnikconsequences that maintain or strengthen the behavior.

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!










The Art & Science Of Training Animals: Responsibility

Below is an excerpt from a paper presented at the ABMA Conference, 2004 on the art and science of behavior and training from Steve Martin, president of Orlando-based Natural Encounters, Inc., from his decades of pursuing the art of training.  Below Steve’s comment is one from Dr. Susan Friedman (my first teacher and mentor in learning about behavior science), a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis training quote from Steve Martin, Natural Encounters, Inc.(ABA) to captive and companion animals.

On Taking Responsibility For Behavior

Steve: “I have learned that the best trainers are usually the ones who accept responsibility for both the good and the undesirable behavior their animals perform. Undesirable behavior in an animal is just as reflective of a trainer’s skills as the desirable behavior.

Accepting responsibility for the undesirable behavior provides personal incentive for a trainer to affect change in the behavior. Excuses like the animal is ‘messing with your mind’ or ‘is jealous’ or ‘is mischievous’ does not relieve a trainer of responsibility for the animal’s behavior. Assigning blame to an animal for its poor behavior only serves to stifle a person’s growth as a trainer.”

Susan: “The animal is never wrong – you get what you reinforce. All behavior has function, including undesirable behavior. The question is not, ‘Why is the animal behaving this way?, but rather, ‘What’s reinforcing this behavior?'”


Pet Dominance: Myth or Fact?

(This one of my past Hyde Park Living columns.)

Many unwanted behaviors like pulling on a leash, growling, barking, or biting are blamed on dominance. “They’ve got that alpha dog thing going on.”

Well, as Susan Friedman, Ph.D., has taught me, dominance is nothing more than a label for a behavior – a description of what we as humans ‘think’ explains the problem behaviors we have with our pet. The problem is, a label is simply nothing more than an intangible explanation that doesn’t even specify what the observable behavior is or the condition in which it is behaved.  Behavior plus conditions is the smallest meaningful unit of behavior analysis. And, unfortunately a label ultimately leads to a self fulfilling prophecy because how we react and how our animal responds to our actions leads to stronger behaviors. Giving behaviors labels stops us from our search for finding a positive solution for modifying that behavior.

How does the self-fulfilling prophecy come to play in talking about the alpha dog? Well, a couple months back I wrote about the dangers of using a technique called flooding (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 – labeled as dominance – in the animal).  One claim is that you should force your puppy onto its back, not letting him up until he stops resisting. Some may say that is teaching your dog to be submissive but behaviorists will say that is creating learned helplessness, and if you are looking to build a strong, positive relationship with your dog – that is not the way to do it.

I digressed. So, this ‘alpha dog’ concept – it stems from studies of wolf packs in the 1940s. Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers: 1) Those studies were short term and focused only on the most obvious facet of wolf life – mainly hunting. 2) Researchers observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them. 3) Researchers made some wild extrapolations from their data.

The fact is, dogs are to wolves what chimpanzees are to humans. They became a separate species well over 100,000 years ago. In that time there has been domestication, co-evolution with humans and selective breeding.

Behaviorists like my teacher and mentor Susan Friedman, Ph.D., and trainers who I’ve studied from such as Steve Martin, Barbara Heidenrich, and Susan Garrett instead focus on setting animals up for success. They look at the specific behavior to be modified or taught in terms of the purpose that behavior serves the animal in its environment. They reinforce behaviors they want to see. And they empower animals by putting the power of choice in the animal’s control and simply modifying the consequences (and/or the antecedents) to make the desired behavior the best choice.

So, let me recap. If you really want your dog to do what you want him to do, stop labeling him as dominant and stop using the excuse that he is a pack leader alpha dog. (Or that you have to be the alpha dog.) Instead, see yourself as a teacher and your dog as your student. Every unwanted behavior is an opportunity to teach a new skill.


Solving Problem Parrot Screaming

(a past Hyde Park Living column)

Screaming is one of those behaviors many bird owners complain about because they can’t seem to get the behavior to stop. And let’s face it…that noise isn’t exactly pleasant – at least to most of us.

Eleven years ago I was among the statistic of those who blamed Barnaby for making a noise I couldn’t live with. Just like so many other bird owners, I tried everything I had heard to try. I tried putting him in his cage, talking to him in quiet words, telling him “no”, ignoring him. All to no avail. I was at the end of my rope when I stumbled upon Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and her behavior teachings. Not only has my whole relationship with my pets changed as a result, she has sparked this passion in me to educate others about using positive, scientifically proven strategies for modifying behavior.

What Susan teaches is that we’ve got to stop looking for answers by labeling behaviors or birds, or species generalities. It serves no purpose in helping to get at the root of the problem. The bottom line is that ALL behavior has function. No matter what the behavior is – whether it’s biting, not stepping up, chewing on furniture, or screaming – something occurred immediately prior to the act (antecedent) that may serve to “lead to” it, and something occurred immediately after the act (consequence) that impacts whether or not the behavior will be repeated in the future.

 We, as teachers, can influence behaviors by changing the environment including antecedents and consequences.

All of my earlier attempts, I was taught, were actually reinforcing his screams – definitely why he had never stopped screaming. There’s a scientific word for what I had been doing. It’s called “intermittent reinforcement”, meaning, sometimes I gave him attention for screaming without even realizing it. Intermittent reinforcement make a behavior more resistant to change (think of the addiction of the slot machine in a casino).

My challenge as Barnaby’s teacher, was to provide him with a more stimulating and satisfying alternative to his screaming. In summary, it boiled down to three basic steps –

1)     Ignore all screaming. Period. No attention at all, if I’m in the room, I calmly walked out with the other birds. With this step, I had to be prepared for an “extinction burst” where he screamed even louder to try to get my attention. Under no circumstances could I give in and go to him during this, or his problem would only worsen. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn was, “When” I scream “Then” the room is evacuated.

2)     DRA or differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. Each and every time Barnaby would make a chosen sound (at first it was a whistle, then changed it to “mommy here”), I was immediately there with reinforcement. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn with this was “When” I make this sound “Then” mom gives me attention. Eventually I got to where I don’t come each time, sometimes I’ll tell him I’m busy.

3)     Thoughtful arrangement of the environment. I needed to make sure Barnaby had enough activities that HE was interested in to keep him busy. When I left his room, in the beginning, I would give him something to keep his mind occupied until I was out of sight. If he wasn’t interested in what I had given him, it meant that his gift wasn’t as stimulating to him as calling out to me, and so I had to find something else that was.

It has now been ten years since I first started learning about this. And I’ve got quite a little chatter box in my home. People ask me why Barnaby talks so much and I tell them it is because he gets attention when he talks. When he screams he gets no attention.

Of course there are still moments when the birds scream, they are, after all birds. But it is more the exception than the rule now.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!















Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...