The Eight-Legged Monster

As soon as I spot it, my heart skips a beat. I see it, the eight-legged monster, the spider on the wall, my true mortal enemy. Every time I see a spider in my house, my immediate inclination is to kill it. As soon as it is smashed and flushed down the toilet, I'm a little relieved, but still on the lookout for one of his spider buddies. Have I ever been attacked by a spider? No. Have I ever been bitten by a spider? No. Has a spider ever walked on me making me jump out of my skin? Yes, but that was pretty much it. A spider has never really done anything to me, other than scare the living daylights out of me. The reason I am scared of it is really not important. The only thing important to consider is that when I spot one, the death of this creature is the only thing on my mind. 

 

Now imagine a different scenario. Imagine if every time I see a spider, $10 magically falls from the sky right into my hand the second I see it. Every second you see that spider for 10 seconds straight, $10 keep falling right into your hand. And after that 10 seconds, the spider literally disappears into thin air. Yes, you might be dumbfounded the first time this happens to you, because money doesn't just fall from the sky and spiders don't evaporate into thin air. Now, imagine that every time you see a spider, this is what happens. Pretty soon, other than the fact you now have lots of money, every time you see a spider, you know that a payday is coming. Even better, the closer the spider is to you, the bigger the bills get. If the spider is 5 feet away, you get $20 every second. If the spider is 2 feet away, you get $50 every second. If the spider touches you, you get $100 every second. Yes, the more you deal with the spider, the more you get paid. Especially if you getting paid this amount is contingent on you not killing the spider. Eventually, from certain distances, you may see a spider and no longer feel fear from it, but also now associate seeing a spider with automatically getting some money. You may not be ok with that jump from 10 feet away to on you, but eventually, spiders won't be such a big deal. Especially if as you get more comfortable, you only get paid when they are 5 feet or closer. 

 

Now imagine a scenario from the other spectrum. When you see spiders nothing happens until you try to kill the spider. When you try to kill the spider, suddenly you can't breathe. The first time it happens, you may not make that association right away, but as this continues to happen randomly on different days, you see the spider and don't kill it, but you certainly aren't comfortable around the spider. And the reflex of trying to kill it is harder each time it gets closer and closer to you until you finally snap and then you not only can't breathe, but you suddenly fall to the ground too. Your fear of spiders becomes worse and now you also choose to avoid areas of your house where you typically see them. You still may sit in your living room at night to enjoy your show, but you still can't help but feel anxious at the possibility that there may be a spider at any minute and there is nothing you can do about it because if you do anything, all that will happen is something bad to you.

 

Obviously, money does not fall from the sky and healthy people don't suddenly lose their breath and are shoved to the ground. But believe it or not, this is a very basic example of how a lot of people try to desensitize and counter-condition dogs that have behavior problems. One method works very well under the guidance of a trained professional and taken slowly; the other just creates more behavior problems that not only do not fix the problem, but also create a dog that can be a ticking time-bomb that may develop other more serious behavior problems you now have to fix. Typically, this is seen with dogs that growl, lunge or bite at strangers and other dogs. Most people don't realize that dogs that they label as "aggressive" because they growl, lunge, bite, bark, etc are not truly aggressive, but are dogs that are actually anxious or fearful. And these fears and anxieties can stem from a variety of reasons, and while sometimes knowing the reason can help when you later create training scenarios, a lot of the time we may never know. The dog certainly can't tell us and just like my fear of spiders, I don't really know why either. A dog reacting this way towards strangers, dogs, men, etc just sees a big scary monster. So, how you choose to treat these behavior issues can either turn this monster into a big treat-dispensing ATM that also doesn't look like a monster anymore or a monster that is much bigger, scarier, has more arms, and can cause you harm without even touching you. 

 

When dealing with behavior issues, when they stem from an emotion such as fear or anxiety, you are using classical conditioning rather than operant conditioning in the beginning. That is, you are focusing on what the animal associates with that particular object, stimuli, and how the animal feels about it, rather than the behavior they are performing. As the animal creates more positive associations with that stimulus, then you can focus on the dog's behaviors. Just like the 2 scenarios, one focused more on the classical side and one focused more on the operant side. In scenario 1, the focus was more on the classical side and helping me to associate spiders with money. What I did didn't really matter because no matter what I did, if the spider was present, money fell from the sky. And due to the timing, money every second, I also didn't really have time to take a second to swat and kill the spider either and as more money was raining from the sky, I would have preferred to stand there and keep getting paid anyway. In scenario 2, the focus was more on the operant side, my behavior affected what happened to me. Every time I tried to kill the spider, that resulted in me losing breath. Over time, yes my behavior of trying to kill the spider stopped, however, classical conditioning is happening all the time whether we realize it or not. As living creatures, we are always making associations between things because that is how animals learn and survive. While my behavior stopped, I was still being classically conditioned to associate spiders with bad things happening to me. So guess what, I definitely hate spiders now and even worse than before. Now I am more anxious at even the prospect of being near a spider. Now I am just more anxious in general. 

 

Unfortunately in dog training, we see a lot of scenario 2 happening. Owners unawares of classical and operant conditioning, as well as basic learning theory, ethology, etc, focus on the behavior of the dog's rather than how the dog actually feels and why they are doing it. When their dog growls at the vet, they pop the leash choking the dog for a second. When the dog lunges and barks at another dog on a walk, the owner yanks on the collar and yells at the dog. If the punishment is doled out effectively, yes, it may stop the behavior. However, what have you classically conditioned into the dog? Most likely, the dog is not thinking that they stopped lunging at other dogs or people because they now like them. By the time a trainer is called, it is usually due to the behavior getting worse, a dog that has bitten for "no apparent reason", there are other behavior problems that have started to stem up, or the behavior has escalated to a dangerous situation where the dog may be put to sleep if it is not fixed. Fixing a true behavior problem like this is not a quick fix. Your dog will not love strangers after a 1 hour session of treats. However, a carefully planned, managed, and executed behavior modification plan focusing in the beginning similar to how scenario 1 plays out, has more potential to result in a dog making a new, positive association with whatever they are scared of. Eventually, treats are taken away and behavior can become a focus after the association has changed, but the first step is counter-conditioning. 

 

Again, when dealing with these issues, scenario 1 and 2 are both small tidbits of what can happen in actual behavior modification. Behavior modification is something that should be handled under the guidance of a trained professional. Do not attempt to counter-condition on your own because there is a lot more that goes into it than just paying your dog, aka feeding treats. There is a science behind it and someone professionally trained in this area is who you should be working under. This is also not the time to choose anyone who calls themself a "trainer" and charges the cheapest amount. Because dog training is an unregulated industry, unfortunately you could end up working with the wrong "trainer" who doesn't understand these principles and will make your behavior problems significantly worse. When searching for a trainer, anyone who suggests a prong collar, choke collar, or shock collar to "correct" this problem does not truly understand the science behind behavior modification. Or if you really press them on it, are they aware of the potential for side effects and the studies associated with the associations dogs are classically conditioned to make when using these devices? Avoid "trainers" who promise to fix this in just a matter of days or weeks. Actual behavior modification when done correctly and depending on the specific animal could take months to correct and lots of time, effort, and patience. 

 

If your dog behaves this way, seek out a professional for help. And rather than getting upset or frustrated at their behavior, focus not on the specific behavior, but the why. If your dog is scared or anxious, how can you help them rather than trying to just make them stop? What can you do to build up their confidence and comfort in these scenarios?

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