Fast! Fix it! How the tortoise and the hare relate to behavior change.

Real learning takes time. It doesn’t matter who you are, whatever your species. How long would it take you to learn to play a new instrument or speak a new language? We expect our fellow human beings to receive plenty of education and practice to be competent and to be exceptional at many tasks. Add to that the change in emotional behavior and it can take a lifetime. This is something we need to talk about a lot with our customers. This is because we live in a world increasingly of instant gratification and it is very human to want a quick solution to our problems. Obstacles to the behavior or training of the animals we share our lives with are no exception. Especially when they are a source of frustration or stress. This can be a tough sell when there are so many tools and techniques on the market touting speed and ease of use. WHO doesn’t you want fast results!?

So I think it’s important that we talk about why we’re asking to avoid what seem like magic wands in the form of collars, spray bottles, and corrections. And take the slow route..

First of all, everyone has probably heard of the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare, still so confident in his inevitable and guaranteed victory of the race, relaxes, takes a nap and ends up losing the race to the tortoise. He underestimated the turtle because it moved terribly slowly and the answer to the question of who would win a race seemed so obvious. We choose to work steadily at the learner’s pace, no matter how slow, because just like the hare, these quick fix tools and methods take a metaphorical nap. This nap can risk sending you on a detour that could cost you dearly to achieve your goal. Most of the time, they don’t compete in the same race, which makes comparison difficult.

Stability, consistency and patience are the best ways to reach the finish line.

Some examples of these tools that we consider a “quick fix” include shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, bark collars, squirt bottles, obsolete alpha rollers, leash corrections , corporal punishment, etc. As strengthless coaches, we don’t avoid or discourage them just because we think they’re mean, even if they are This is probably not a very friendly way of learning (imagine learning to do your job using these methods). We don’t work with them because they don’t change their behavior, they repress he. And removal is not the same as tackling the problem at the root.

Here’s why we know these tools work on the deletion principle. Is your dog barking? This anti-bark collar punishes barkers, so they are afraid to bark for fear of the consequences that the collar brings. The collar does not clarify why your dog barked in the first place, nor does it change the emotional state that is motivating it. Does your dog pull on a leash? The prong collar inflicts pain and discomfort strong enough to prevent them from pulling. This isn’t about telling them what you want them to do instead, or explaining why your dog felt it was necessary to pull. Is your dog growling? An alpha throw or physical punishment adds stress to an already frightened dog to frighten it and prevent it from growling again. This doesn’t explain why your dog was so stressed that he wanted to growl. All I teach is that grunting means more conflict, not a de-escalation as the animal wanted. Suppression, just like in humans, can be downright dangerous.

I guarantee that if these tools or methods prevent your companion from engaging in unwanted behavior, it is because they are aversive. If they weren’t scary or painful enough, the animal would not seek to avoid it in the first place and it would be rendered ineffective against the behavior you are trying to stop. If a prong collar isn’t uncomfortable enough, the dog will have no reason to stop pulling. It just wouldn’t work.

So why, if they are so terrible, are they so popular?

It’s because they do it somehow work. Well, from a lay human perspective, they work. The animal immediately stops engaging in this behavior, so the instant gratification leaves us with a feeling of hope or crazy pleasure. The reward center of our brain probably does a little dance when we see this as a frustrated owner. But that’s because most people who use these tools don’t understand the potential delayed consequences. Although not all animals exhibit notable behavioral complications, many do. I equate this to drunk driving. Not everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated will suffer negative consequences. However, we can all agree that the risk, if things go wrong, can be devastating.

More importantly, they are popular because people are frustrated, need help, and don’t understand the extent of the potential risk. It is heartbreaking for homeowners when this happens because creating bigger problems is not what they plan to do. Every client I met wanted nothing more than to live a happy, consistent life with their friend. They love them and do the best they can with what they know at the time. Perhaps they had another animal that they used the same tools on and since they didn’t have an obvious problem with them, the owner was reinforced for its use previously.

Many of my clients started with these tools. They came to me because the tool eventually failed, and either the behavior returned with a vengeance, or they have a whole new, much more troubling set of problems stemming from its use. This is called behavioral spillover. Basically this means that suppressing the behavior worked for a while, then took a toll on the pet’s stress levels and the problem returned and got worse. Sometimes it’s because new behaviors such as reactivity, fear, anxiety or aggression subsequently surface.

No therapist would recommend that someone suppress their emotions, as this would lead to a possible deterioration in their client’s mental health and would most likely trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms or behaviors. Repression can lead to a buildup of negative emotions with nowhere to go, and it can lead to explosive behavior.

Not only can this unhealthy repression manifest itself in serious stress regulation problems, but sometimes we teach them the wrong thing in the process. Animals do not always make the connection with the consequences of these tools and their own behavior. I know many who actually learned that the stimuli they were barking at or pulling at were causing them pain or stress, not their own barking or pulling. Likewise, cats who get sprayed and jump on the counter aren’t wrong to notice that this doesn’t happen after their owners leave… so what, or more. WHOis the common denominator of scary water bottle attacks?

An animal learns by making associations, and patterns and emotions can strongly influence this. These tools can create bad associations and we now find ourselves on a behavioral detour. We now have a companion who wants the scary or painful thing to go away and does so by barking, lunging, growling, biting, hissing or scratching. This is always unfortunate, as it is often strangers, other animals or their own humans who become the trigger.

We therefore advocate for the long game. Real behavior change at the root. It’s not flashy or dramatic, and it takes patience and practice. This sometimes makes it difficult for the human side of the experience. We truly show our companions, who live emotionally rich lives, the compassion they deserve when we recognize that learning takes time. And we are much more likely to come away from this experience with deeper understanding, stronger connections, and much more success, which means a much better long-term outcome for everyone involved.

When it comes to behavior change: progress is a directionnot a speed.

If you would like more information on research around these topics, check out AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) position statements on their website: avsab.org


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