The Value Of Empowerment To Our Pets

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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!

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