#79 - If It Can Have an Effect, It Can Have a Side Effect

[00:00:00] Allie: Animals who are inexperienced, or perhaps in a state of learned helplessness, or we might label them as shy, fearful, those kiddos that are just hunkered down in a corner, when they start feeling more comfortable, it’s like they come out of their shell, and they start feeling safe enough to behave in doggy ways – and because they haven’t behaved in doggy ways before, at least in this particular environment, probably – then they have no skills for what to do with all of that. And so, we now have this, like, little nuisance monster that’s happening, and it’s like, “I’m so proud of you! And you need skills now.” So, so, we’ve seen that so, so much with, like, hoarding kiddos, and abuse kiddos, and, and just animals who are profoundly fearful, shy, anxious, whatever you want to call it, that when they start feeling comfortable, they’re like, “Oh, and now I’m a terror.” And it’s like, cool, thank you for showing your true colors. We have more work to do now. We have different work to do now.

 Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:25] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:26] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week, we heard from Kim Rose and one of the topics we discussed was what behavior consulting can learn from nutrition. This week, we’re going to dive further into: if it can have an effect, it can have a side effect, and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about: 

*relay racing choosing violence
* when you do too good of a job
* how my dog is a weirdo who creeps people out
* a floofy fence fighter named Timothée
* and an extinction burst for the ages.

So, in last week’s episode, Kim and Emily talked about how if it can have an effect, it can have a side effect. And obviously you, I, I don’t know why I’m talking about you in the third person, you’re right here. Um, you both were approaching that statement from a natural medicine standpoint, but that statement is also true for behavior modification, and I literally just had this conversation with a client. And so, I’m really excited to talk about this in the podcast.

[00:02:47] Emily: Yeah, when you said that, it, it blew my mind and I, I was just like, “Yeah, oh my god yes, it also applies to behavior.” Of course, I just, I’m having a hard time thinking of very many things about nutrition that don’t also apply to behavior, so I feel like this is a welcome to Tuesday situation.

[00:03:07] Allie: Yeah, and I think one of the reasons that it’s really important for people to know this– I mean, so many reasons, and that’s going to vary based off of, like, what aspect we’re talking about. And we’re going to get into all of that in just a minute. But I think one of the things that’s really important to know is when you’re working on a behavior modification plan, you’re working towards your goal, you’re trying to like quote unquote fix something. We know that fix is not the right word, but I’m just going to use that because it’s the easiest word to use in that sentence.

You’re working to fix something and then it’s like something else breaks and it can feel really discouraging and it feels like it was all for naught. And it just, there’s a lot of feelings that come with that, and so I think when you know that that’s just par for the course, that’s what happens when you change one thing, it affects something else, then it’s not as discouraging.

[00:04:02] Emily: Yeah, I, I definitely agree with that. It’s happened many times with my clients where they did a thing, it made the anticipated changes and also unanticipated changes, and then they felt frustrated and demoralized like, “Oh, this, this doesn’t work. Like I can’t, we can’t do this. This is not a viable strategy because see this other thing that happened over here.” And so, yeah, having to navigate those conversations with clients sometimes can be difficult if you’re not proactive about it, because it’s harder to pull people back from the discouragement ledge than it is to just warn them, like, “There’s a discouragement ledge over there, so like, maybe don’t walk in that direction,” right?

[00:04:43] Allie: And not just with clients too, but I think for ourselves as professionals, when we can anticipate that it’s going to have potentially a side effect and one warning our clients about that, but two, just knowing that coming into a session like, it’s not all going to be sunshine and there’s good and bad and we’re going to have to figure things out and troubleshoot. I know for you and me, Emily, like, that’s one of the fun things is doing all that troubleshooting, but we know from PETPro that that troubleshooting can be anxiety inducing for a lot of professionals.

[00:05:21] Emily: Yeah. We, we hear that all the time, right? Like, a lot of the people in PETPro share with us that when a client comes back and goes, “I broke it!” they just immediately feel so bad and, and really internalize that as a failure when really it’s just a natural part of the trial and eval process of behavior change, because behavior is so complex and we can’t control all the outcomes, and so trial and eval is just a part of the deal, right?

So let’s talk about, I think, the three most common ways that there can be side effects to our intended effects, but I want to also say, of course, these are just the three kind of most common categories that we experience.

I’m sure there are other ways that these, like, weird little behavioral side effects happen. But, the three most common ones that we experience start with, there can still be harmful side effects with positive reinforcement. Sorry, y’all. I like to say– I like to, I like to choose violence. So, so you can still, even when you are using procedures that are in fact resulting in positive reinforcement as the consequence for those procedures you can still end up with unintended side effects.

And one of the ways in which this can, can be true is when an animal learns a behavior really, really, really well, and has such a strong reinforcement history for that behavior that it compromises their behavioral diversity.

A really good example of this is a dog that I worked with a few years ago named Wilson. He was a big boy. He was like 60 something pounds. And he was a, a lot of herding breed mixes with who knows some other big galoo type of, of breeds. So, he’s, he’s a big boy and he had been through training classes and his parents had been working really hard to help him with some issues that he was struggling with.

And one of their kind of coping strategies that they had worked on with previous trainers had been going to his crate for– as, as a, as a way of avoiding that all the things in his life that he didn’t really care for. So, that’s great, and it was, in fact, reducing some of the ways that he was acting out in stress, but the problem with that is that he just went to his crate all the time and he would just be like, “I’m in my crate now, so treats, right? Crate. Crate.” And they would try to get him to come out of the crate and do other things, and he was like, “No, the crate is where I get food, so I’ll stay here, thank you.”

And so, it was just a really interesting case to, to be brought in on because it wasn’t a fear issue, like when I watched his body language, it definitely wasn’t he was hiding in his crate and he was scared to come out. He was like, “I go crate, I get treats. This is what I do,” and I was like, all right, bud, well, that’s great. But let me show you all the other ways that you can get so many different types of reinforcers in life beyond just like hanging out in your crate, my good buddy. So it was, it was very sweet, it’s a sweet problem to have, it’s a sweet side effect because, you know, I think we’re so used to seeing animals that are anxious, or fearful, or guarding, protective, whatever, whatever labels you want to use.

But it was, it was sweet to be called in on, on a case where it was like, well, our, our, strategy has worked a little too well, and now we can’t get him to do anything other than go to his crate. So, that’s an example of one of those harmful side effects of positive reinforcement based training, like just because it’s typically how we want to choose our, our procedures doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be completely free of side effects.

[00:09:24] Allie: That was a really sweet example, and I’m just gonna come in and pick up your violence because you dropped it, so to run with that violence, one of the other harmful side effects that we can see is I, I’m going to say, I’m going to say this strongly: using food inappropriately. And that is stronger than I tend to like saying things, but I’ve seen enough harm happen from this that I, I’m going to choose the violence here.

And one of the ways that we’ve seen this happen is luring dogs who are uncomfortable with people closer to said people using food. And there are obviously other situations in which you can do this and, or use food inappropriately, but this is the one that I’ve seen have the most fallout. And so this is the one that I’m going to choose.

And this was a lesson that I learned pretty early on in my behavior consulting career. it was with a dog that, Emily, you might remember Winter. She was this gorgeous, lithe, black dog, and she had learned for years that she should approach people for food, and then the food would be gone, and then she would bite them in the face. And eventually, she would just approach anybody, and bite them in the face because she was uncomfortable with them. And so, I think a lot of times we assume that food equals comfort and it’s like, well, no, there’s a lot of things that some kiddos will do for food, even if they are uncomfortable. And she was the poster child of that of, she was like, I’m not comfortable with you. I don’t want to be near you, but I’ll come for the food. But when the food’s gone, I’m going to tell you to go away from me, even though I was the one that came closer to you because I have a learning history of, of doing that. So that is one that, oh, I still have, obviously, feelings about, because you get bitten by those kids.

[00:11:28] Emily: think part of the reason I have so many feels about those situations is because they have such a tendency to make people think like, see, positive reinforcement doesn’t work, some animals need punishment, or need discipline, or need whatever. And it kind of breaks my heart because it’s like, no, that’s not what’s happening here. I, but I, I totally understand why that’s your perception, but that’s, that’s not it. That ain’t it. That’s not what’s going on here. Please learn more so that you can see what’s actually happening.

My third example, I’m just gonna, what, what are those races where you like pass the baton? Relay! We’re just going to relay race the violence. And my, my third point is that micromanaging through positive reinforcement is still micromanaging. And my favorite example of this is with a colleague that I met a few years ago and, we were talking about training, this person had come to one of the workshops that I was teaching for something. I don’t even remember which workshop it was because let’s be real, I’ve done a bajillion of them, but this person came to the workshop. And afterwards we were talking, and she was like, “I, I love the idea of, of enrichment and I make my dogs do food puzzles for all their meals, but they just don’t, there’s something that they just don’t seem, like, happy. And I don’t understand why enrichment isn’t making them happy.”

And I was like, okay, interesting. Like, I’m interested to hear more about the situation. So she starts rattling off her routine. And it, let me tell you, this person has way more dedication and discipline than I do. Like I was stunned by the amount of care, and effort, and labor that she has put into her dogs.

And, but she was like, I always have my clicker. I always have my treat pouch. I never mis-click. Like we do everything and like a super structured schedule. And, and, and I realized as she was talking that the reason that she was perceiving that her dogs weren’t happy is because she had their entire schedule of the day, every day dictated to them down to the minute, and so they didn’t have a lot of agency in their life. They didn’t have a lot of choice and control. They weren’t, there were no times during their day when they were just allowed to be dogs and do doggy things. And, and so, I was just asking her questions to make sure that I was understanding correctly, because I, I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt and make sure that I’m not just, mishearing what they’re saying.

And so I just asked her, like, “When in the, their day do they get to just go out and do whatever they want and just be dogs?”

And she got a really confused look on her face. And she was like, “What does, what does that mean? Just being dogs?”

And I was like, “Oh, okay, you know, like, where they can just do whatever they want. You know how dogs like they’ll run around the yard and sniff or they’ll like, bark at squirrels or, play with each other, scratch themselves or bask in the sun. Like whatever it is that they, they do, they just go out and do doggy things.”

And she was like, “Oh, they don’t really do that.” And I was like, “Okay, well try that, try that. And let, let, let me know what happens.”

It was such a novel concept for her that she had to go out and intentionally find a way to, to loosen up her schedule enough for them to have free time. And I heard from her later that it had just made a huge difference for her dogs and they were just much more relaxed and loose and they grinned more.

And I just thought that was a really potent reminder that, yes, yes, most of the time, if we’re using appetitive methods, the consequences are in fact positive reinforcement, but that doesn’t, that’s not the end all be all. That doesn’t mean that there’s no risk for a harmful side effect happening as a result of how we’re using positive reinforcement.

[00:15:37] Allie: The next way that we see effects having side effects is when you do something too well. And Emily, this is similar to your story about Wilson, except it’s a situation in which it doesn’t compromise behavioral diversity, but you do something so well that you now have the opposite problem.

So, let me give you some examples of what this looks like. And I’ll start off with my own kiddo, Oso. So when I adopted Oso, he was a stranger danger case, and we spent a lot of time working on people are not scary, they are awesome, treats are part of meeting people, but you don’t have to come closer, in fact, you get to go away and eat your treats when you’re meeting people.

And so, we, we did that for a long time, and then after that, we had the opposite problem of people are now very exciting. And so, we come in and, and all 90 pounds of us jumps on them and, and is excited even though we’re a senior, and that’s not what seniors are supposed to do, but he didn’t get that memo. We then like the pendulum swung too far, and then we had to say like, okay, people are still good and still exciting, but maybe not as exciting as all of that.

And so, that’s an example where like, yeah, we did solve the initial problem. He no longer feels uncomfortable with the majority of strangers, but then we had a new problem of strangers are now exciting, and we like them a little bit too much sometimes, more than they would enjoy being liked, I should say, because my dog is weird, y’all, and he does– Okay. He does this thing where he has to sniff your head, Emily, this should come as no surprise, based on the time that, when he was our office dog.

[00:17:34] Emily: I have had my head sniffed by Oso many, many times, not just when he was our office dog, but when I have come to visit you in Chicago and I’ve been staying at your house. He’s, he’s a very thorough full head sniffer.

[00:17:46] Allie: Very, very, and so like you have this 90 pound dog right next to your face that you, because I tell people he has a bite history, like, well, like, please be careful, you know, all of that, right? And, and he’s like pressing his nose into your scalp.

[00:18:03] Emily: I love it, but I can understand how people who don’t know Oso as well as I do, or who don’t know dog body language as well as I do would be terrified by the Oso head inspection.

[00:18:16] Allie: And sometimes he puts his paws on your shoulders to get to the top of your head, if you’re tall, especially. Like, it’s, yes, if you’re, if you don’t know him, it is very creepy, and I think it’s hilarious. Everybody who knows him and, and knows that that’s what he does, like, like, it’s so cute.

People come into my house, and like do the thing that you’re not supposed to do with dogs, but, but it works better with him. Where you like just bend over and so he can like sniff your head instead of jumping up. Like that actually works better for him. I got completely sidetracked by talking about how much of a weirdo my dog is.

It’s just, he’s so funny. He’s so funny. But yeah, so, so we had to, to then be like, okay, but like manners, please, sir. Like let’s maybe not immediately sniff somebody’s head because the human is now uncomfortable with you instead of you being comfortable with the human, so that’s one example.

And then one of my favorite examples of this too, where it’s not a failure, it’s a calibration. Like we solved one, and now we have to swing that pendulum back a little bit. This kiddo, his name was Porter. He was also a Brindle. He, he reminded me quite a bit of Oso. And Porter, the kind version is he, he was a hot mess when I first met him, when I first started working with him and his family.

And he, he had many behavior issues that we wanted to work through. And one of the, one of the last ones that we worked through in our kind of like original bout of sessions, original grouping or bundle of sessions was he was afraid of going outside. So they did not have a fenced in yard, they had to take him out on leash, and he was afraid of leaving the house, of being outside, of walking, of all of the things related to this particular activity.

And so, we worked very hard on Porter feeling comfortable being at least in the backyard, the front yard, the area around the house, and like a little bit down the street. And we got to the point where he could even go to, like, a nearby field. He was doing awesome. And we were like, yay, okay, Porter, awesome, we are graduating to As Needed Sessions. I was so proud of that. Like they did so much work with this dog.

About two years later, they contacted me and they were like, okay we would like to work with you again because we’re having this problem where Porter won’t come inside. And I remember emailing them, and I was like, “Can you, can you verify this was the dog that we spent months working on him feeling comfortable outside and he is not coming inside?”

And they were like, “Yes, that is what is happening.”

And so again, similar to Oso, we spent so much time working on Porter feeling comfortable being outside, enjoying being outside, loving being outside. That it just, we took it a little too far, and then he was like, outside is the best place in the entire world.

And we were like, oh, okay, but also inside is still good, too. So, there are definitely situations like that where we do too good of a job, and now we need to swing that pendulum back a little bit.

[00:21:42] Emily: My favorite thing about situations like that is how proud the animals look of themselves and you’re like, I’m proud of you too, buddy. But we still gotta, we gotta refine here, my friend, like you’re doing great. Look at you being so brave and also–

[00:22:00] Allie: They’re like, “Look, I’m doing the thing that you wanted me to do!” And it’s like, “You are, you are.”

[00:22:10] Emily: It’s so sweet, it’s delightful. Yeah, the third category of ways in which our behavior modification plans can have an effect, as well as a side effect, is that sometimes something will look like it’s getting worse while it’s getting better. And that can cause people to panic, cause they’re like, “Oh, it’s even worse now! Like, what’s happening? I’m sorry that I did this!”

And there are a few ways that this can express itself. One of the ways that we see a lot, or no, let me rephrase that. One of the ways that we used to see a lot more when we worked at a sanctuary and now we don’t see as often, but we still have– see it somewhat is when dogs, or parrots, or other species had a history of being punished for any communication at all, so they would just stop communicating and just skip to biting.

And so, we would see a lot of these kind of “bite out of nowhere” cases that when we would dig a little deeper, always came along with a history of punishment for any of their warning signs.

So, as we’re teaching these dogs, “You can communicate. It is safe to do so. Good things will happen when you tell us how you’re feeling,” sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – we would see that dogs would start growling or air snapping, when maybe that wasn’t necessary, that was, that was a little bit of an, of an overreaction, but it was still a whole lot better than what they used to do, which was biting.

And people would be like, “Well, now my dog is growling at me all the time,” and it’s like, yeah, let’s celebrate that because we obviously don’t want your dog to be growling at you. We want your dog to be happy to be around you and feel safe with you, and also let’s celebrate the fact that your dog feels safe enough to tell you how he’s feeling instead of just biting you like he used to, right?

So that is an example that, man, we used to see that all the time. That was like an almost daily occurrence for us when– at the place where we met, but we fortunately don’t see those cases as often as we used to.

[00:24:21] Allie: Yeah, and similar to that, but expressed in a very different way, is animals who are inexperienced, or perhaps in a state of learned helplessness, or we might label them as shy, fearful, those kiddos that are just hunkered down in a corner, when they start feeling more comfortable, it’s like they come out of their shell, and they start feeling safe enough to behave in doggy ways, and because they haven’t behaved in doggy ways before – at least in this particular environment, probably – then they have no skills for what to do with all of that. And so, we now have this, like, little nuisance monster that’s happening, and you’re, and just like with what we were talking about with, like, Oso and Porter’s example, it’s like, I’m so proud of you, and you need skills now. So, so we’ve seen that so, so much with, like hoarding kiddos, and abuse kiddos, and, and just animals who are profoundly fearful, shy, anxious, whatever you want to call it, that one, they start feeling comfortable. They’re like, “Oh, and now I’m a terror.” And it’s like, “Cool, thank you for showing your true colors. We have more work to do now. We have different work to do now.”

[00:25:38] Emily: Copper was actually one of those dogs. I’d forgotten about it because it was such a long time ago, but he was a pretty fearful little dude when we first, when Chuck and I first met. And I was helping Chuck to help Copper work through some of the stuff that he was afraid of. And I got this text from Chuck one day that was like, “Copper just got into the trash for the first time. He’s never gotten into the trash. Like, what are you doing? Like, your training’s not working.”

And I was like, “Hear me out. It is, it is working, but I know that we’re new to each other, and I know that you’re new to behavior. So like, I get it. But we got to talk about why this is a good thing. And also put your trash can in your pantry, it’s not that hard.”

[00:26:21] Allie: But also I could imagine Copper with his little face just like getting into the trash and being like, “I’m doing it!”

[00:26:28] Emily: Well, and now his favorite thing to do is to go to his recycle bin and like sift through everything in the recycle bin and pick out which piece of cardboard he wants to tear up. So like, now getting into the trash is his favorite activity. We just have a more appropriate way for him to do that.

The last situation in which we can see that it looks like the behavior is getting worse when it’s actually getting better is when extinction happens. We see these extinction bursts. And I want to be clear, we’re not advocating for the use of extinction, there are certainly less forceful and less stressful ways to teach animals the skills that we want.

But sometimes extinction occurs naturally in the environment, independently of us. It had nothing to do with us, and, and so we can see that we’ve done some training, it’s going really well, and then suddenly the environment changes, and the dog has, or pet, whatever species has big feelings about those changes, and it looks like the behavior is deteriorating.

So, my favorite example of this is a dog named Timothy, who was like a cute little floofy Australian Shepherd, those beautiful like Merle with like white-blue eyes, like just really beautiful little Australian Shepherd. Timothy was his name. And he had been fence fighting with the neighbors like, yes, Allie, you cannot say his name in any way other than Timothy. It’s, it’s necessary.

[00:28:04] Allie: You do with the, that little like British accent lilt at the end of it.

[00:28:09] Emily: Timothy. Yeah. Yeah. With the, just the little bit of vocal fry right at the end. Yep. That’s, that’s how you pronounce his name. Get it right. So, so anyway Timothy would fence fight with the neighbor dogs. And so, that’s why they hired me to work with Timothy and his fence fighting. And so, we worked on it, and it got to where he actually just really loved the neighbor dog and so then they would play at the fence instead of fight at the fence.

Well, then the neighbors and their dog moved away, there was no dog over there anymore. And so, Timothy’s like well reinforced behavior of running over to the fence and running– wiggly body running back and forth with the neighbor dog suddenly stopped being reinforced. That reinforcer went away, the dog was no longer there.

And let’s just say that Timothy did not handle that well. And it looked like his fence fighting had just come back in full force because he was quite insistent, to put it kindly, that the fence bring his friend back, and he told the fence in no uncertain terms that it was incorrect that his friend was gone and it was, one of those situations that was like cute-sad-larious, like, “Oh my God, you’re adorable. I’m so sorry that you’re grieving, like the loss – not that the dog died, but the loss of your friend, you lost your friend – and also, this is hilarious, dude. Like, you can’t yelling at the fence is not going to make your friend come back.”

And so, the, the clients were really concerned that the training that we had done had taught Timothy to scream at the fence. And I was like, “No, your dog is, is bummed because his friend is gone.” So, what was cute is we, we worked on a few different things. And, and by the way, they were making great progress, but they decided that the ultimate solution was just to get Timothy a friend, and so they adopted a second dog, and then Timothy had a BFF, and he didn’t have to yell at the fence anymore.

So, that’s a good example of extinction that I wasn’t doing as a training strategy, but life just lifed really hard, and the result was an extinction burst for the ages. That, it, it looked like it was a result of our training, but actually it was the good, good news that Timothy felt that great about a dog. And if he can have one dog friend, then it’s possible for him to have other dog friends.

[00:30:37] Allie: I like that the solution is he just needs a friend. It’s so cute.

[00:30:42] Emily: Right, and it’s not something that I, I don’t tell clients, like, “Get another pet,” because obviously that’s fraught with a lot of risks and problems, but in this case, it was a decision that they made that I didn’t recommend, and they felt good about it. They liked the idea of having a second dog. They made sure to do nice dog intros to make sure that Timothy liked the other dog and the other dog liked Timothy. And so it was, it was a happy ending. For sure.

[00:31:09] Allie: I love it. All right. Well, today we talked about if it can have an effect, it can have a side effect, which is true from a natural medicine standpoint, and also from a behavior standpoint. And the different categories that we talked about, from that behavior standpoint include:
* there can still be harmful side effects with positive reinforcement
* it’s not failure, it’s calibration
* and sometimes something will look like it’s getting worse while it’s getting better.

Next week, we’ll be talking with Eileen Anderson about understanding sound sensitivities and phobias.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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