It's no secret that I like dogs. It's also no secret that I'm not a huge fan of spiders. I know they have a purpose and I really appreciate that they eat other bugs, but I feel a little uneasy when a spider is skittering across the ceiling in my bedroom. My husband thinks this is hilarious. He likes to catch spiders and hold them up to my face, or worse, over my hair. Uggghh. I don't mind spiders outside- that's where they belong. My face is not any spider's natural environment and I do not like them there. He even went so far to yell "SPIDER!!" while we were swimming in the ocean one day. I won't lie to you- I did look around frantically and start swimming. After a few seconds, I realized how ridiculous it was and proceeded to laugh with him. In addition to the good belly laugh he gets out of it, my husband claims that he is trying to help me get over my spider aversion. The problem is that he is going about it all wrong. He is only making me trust him less, not feel any better about spiders.
My husband is attempting to habituate me to spiders- to get me used to them by exposure over time. His idea is that the more I see spiders, the less scary they will be. This could work, if he was using the correct method of habituation. With putting spiders close to me (or pretending to do so), he is using a technique called flooding- repeated exposure to a high intensity stimulus without any means of the subject escaping or changing the situation. This can work in some cases, where the stress level is relatively low and the animal is very resilient. What usually happens is that the animal becomes so stressed that it physiologically cannot respond any more and shuts down. To the untrained eye, it looks as though the animal is fine. What is really happening is that the animal is so terrified that it has accepted it's fate and stops responding, even though it still feels that anxiety/stress/fear. The other response of flooding is that the animal turns it's frustrations on someone or something else. The case of me hitting my husband repeatedly with a foam baseball bat is an example of the latter.
This actually happens in dog training all too often, especially by those on television who are looking for drama to increase ratings. That may make for good television, but it does not make for smart dog training. I have even seen trainers do this who are not on television, trying to pass it off as a legitimate training method. When flooding is used in training, the dog will sometimes respond well and no longer exhibit fearful behaviors. Most of the time, we get one of two results though: fighting/bullying of people or other dogs, or a complete shut down and cessation of responses across the board. Here is how you can tell the difference: a dog who is properly habituated will learn to perform simple commands in the presence of the scary stimulus; the will have relaxed body language and will happily take a treat (as long as they are a food-motivated dog). A dog who is flooded will still respond the same way to the stimulus- act out aggressively, try to get away, or shut down and not respond to anything- not the best treats or a simple cue. They are in "flight" mode but cannot flee; it's pretty heart-wrenching to watch. Those trainers who use floding along with tools like prong, pinch, or shock collars do so when a dog is already over threshold and over-reacting. The reason pain works is that this is one of the few things that any animal in this state can actually respond to, unfortunately. Trainers who use these methods in flooding are taking a stressed out dog and making it worse, which only reinforces the dog's fears about the situation.
So, what should we do instead? I'm SO glad you asked! Two of my most favorite words are coming up, are you ready?
Desensitization- presenting stimulus at a low stress level (at a great distance, or a less scary version), then gradaully increasing the intensity of the stressor over time
Counter Conditioning-pairing scary stimulus (at a low level) with something the dog loves
Think of it this way: habituation has two kids, flooding and desensitization. They are capable of all the same things, but flooding is kind of a jerk all the time- in your face and loud. Desensitization is more reserved and calm. If they are both means to the same end, why not hang out with the nicer one? When desensitization is used in training, the dog is exposed to a low level stimulus, so their reaction will not be so severe and they actually have the opportunity to learn that it's not scary. This is the technique that my cousin uses with spiders- she sends me pictures of spiders and fills my Facebook page with posts about spiders. I still don't like spiders too much, but I don't jump out of my chair when I see a picture of one and I would trust her not to toss a spider at my face, unlike my husband (ok, he probably wouldn't do that). With desensitization, the stress level is gradually increased over time and the dog remains under threshold so they can actually learn that the scary stimulus is not really a threat.
It is worth mentioning that habituation is something present in our dogs minds (as well as ours) for a very specific evolutionary reason- so they learn subtle differences in situations to properly asses threats in life. A small spider isn't as scary to me as a big one; a spider outside hanging out on it's web doesn't bother me like one skittering across the floor in my kitchen will. It's all part of the habituation process. Like so many learning processes, habituation can be really slow, as it should be. To learn all the possible different situations I may find myself in with a spider can take years. With training, we add in counter conditioning as a means to speed up this process a bit. Instead of nothing bad happening when I see a spider, what if I am offered a cookie whenever I see one? Since I am food motivated and enjoy cookies, I would begin to anticipate the cookie when I see a spider, then I would actually look forward to seeing spiders because it would mean more cookies. I would learn that not only are spiders harmless, but they also mean that good things happen when I see one. It's not that I am so happy about the cookie that I forget about the spider, but since the spider is small and far away, I don't feel threatened and can actually enjoy my cookie. Counter conditioning changes the emotional state of the subject, and changes the association they have with the stimulus. With dogs who bark out of fear or excitement, we work on getting them to sit and take treats and enjoy petting and praise from their people in the presence of that scary stimulus. As we change the way they think about the stimulus, we change their emotional state from a reactive one to a relaxed one. This change in behavior causes the external signals (barking, jumping, etc) to cease because they don't fit well with the relaxed body language. Since we are letting the dog decide on his own and set his own boundaries, they learn that they have control over their own life and are less likely to over-react in the future.
The very last piece of the training process is to use operant counter conditioning to train different but appropriate behaviors in response to the stimulus. My favorite example of this is teaching dogs who like to chase cars to sit every time they see a car. I bring this up because other trainers like to show off videos of dogs who are doing down-stay on sidewalks or parking lots with cars driving through. Many times, these dogs are laying down and not getting out of the stay, but they are terrified- there is tension all over their bodies and their eyes are darting all around in search of safety. Having a dog sit-stay or down-stay no matter what is certainly an important skill, I'm not debating that- the use of coercive techniques in these situations is what does. In my experience, a dog who is scared is more likely to react in an unpredictable way and that's not what you want next to a busy street. Generally, dogs chase cars because they are moving and it's fun to chase things. Some dogs don't like things that move in a way that doesn't make sense to them (cars can fall into that category), and other dogs don't like engine sounds, so they chase the car to 'get rid of it'. By training more relaxed body language (sit, down), the dog learns that it is more rewarding to relax when cars go by. By not forcing the dog to lay down and shocking them or jerking their collar when they get up, they actually are relaxed and not fearful. Again, we do this by starting with the cars far away and move closer over time- it takes longer and makes for really crummy television, but in the long run it makes for a healthier dog and better relationship.
Exce-Erated Learning by Pamela Ried, PhD
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor
What is your dog afraid of and how have you tried to change it?