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I’m going to say something that is going to sound strange. Making your pet sit is probably not helping their anxiety-related behaviors. Making them hand target, look at you, or anything like that is also probably not directly helping their anxiety-related behaviors. What will help is going to feel weird, because it’s going to feel like they’re getting treats for nothing.
Learning can take different forms. Two that we talk most frequently about are:
- Cause and effect (operant conditioning)
- Associative (classical conditioning)
Cause and effect (operant) learning looks like:
- This cat has a history of getting treats for sitting, so they’re more likely to sit in the future.
- This person has a history of getting hurt if they put their hand on the hot stove, so they’re less likely to put their hand on the hot stove in the future.
- This dog has a history of being petted (something they don’t enjoy) when they sit on the chair, so they are less likely to sit on the chair in the future.
Past consequences dictate future responses in similar situations. It’s most of what the average person thinks “dog training” looks like.
Cause and effect learning is great for teaching particular behaviors or skills. But it’s not as great at changing an emotional state. For that, we should look at associative learning.
Associative (classical) learning looks like:
- The ice cream truck song plays and you are immediately happy because it signals ice cream is coming (or at least that’s true for me)
- The cat who comes running when they hear the can opener
- The dog who gets excited when you pull out their leash
- The pit in your stomach when you see an email from the IRS and don’t know what it says
Notice how all of the above are emotions. And when it comes to anxiety-related behaviors, including fear and aggression, we want to teach an emotion because realistically the problem is an emotion (like fear). Now, it’s true that cause and effect learning and associative learning aren’t truly separate; they’re happening together. But, we can still rely more heavily on one than another in a particular situation. And that’s why sit, touch, and watch me- while helpful for a lot of things and great relationship-builders- are probably not helping directly with anxiety-related behavior.
Alright. I took an INCREDIBLY simplified approach to an INCREDIBLY complicated subject. A subject that people get Ph.D.s in. I do not have a Ph.D., and even if I did there’s no way to distill everything about how individuals learn into a blog post meant for the average pet parent (or any blog post, for that matter). So, the disclaimer is that it’s way more complicated than what I’ve just laid out using layman terms instead of accurate terminology.
But, can basic cues help?
Yes… Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum and a lot is dependent on what the problem behavior is. I see quite a number of clients who have dogs who bite them (the owners) in various situations. For those folks, I often start them off with sit, attention, and hand targeting. It’s a great way to build relationships, build positive associations, and establish yourself as the “super fun treat person”. And that can help with some of those problem behaviors because of the role the relationship plays in them. It doesn’t address the trigger directly per se but can help with other factors that are involved.
Because both types of learning are happening together, we do get some good feelings by working on basic cues, too. For that reason, I’ll often incorporate basic manners training into situations in which there’s not necessarily a discrete trigger at the root of the anxiety (after thorough investigation to make sure that that’s actually true). This can happen quite a bit for kiddos who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety by a vet or Veterinary Behaviorist. Going through a well-known, fast-paced basic manners repertoire can help build confidence in some of those situations where it doesn’t make as much sense to use other techniques.
And, finally, basic cues build skills and we can incorporate those skills into our behavior modification plan. So, all in all, yes, basic manners and even tricks can help. However, notice that everything above was talking about helping indirectly. At no point did I say that it would address the actual trigger causing the behavior. So while they do help, basic cues alone are likely not going to get you where you want to be as efficiently or effectively.
We have a hard time being okay with giving our pets treats for nothing. It’s so ingrained in our culture that “rewards” should only happen for doing something. But, we also have a hard time recognizing behaviors that we like when we see them. So if you’re having a hard time being okay with the thought of giving your pet treats for nothing, let’s redefine nothing.
Behavior is always happening. Always! Even when they’re sleeping, the behavior is just that: sleeping. The problem we run into is that we often think of behavior as something quite active, like jumping or barking. But sitting quietly on their bed is just as much of a behavior as the others and one that we tend to like a lot more.
Instead of saying that they’re doing nothing, look at what they are doing. Perhaps they’re quiet. Or sitting politely. Or calmly lying down. Are those behaviors not worthy of a reward? If you want those behaviors to happen more often, then your answer should be a resounding yes!
Tying it all together
Okay. So we have different types of learning and we have a different way of seeing the behaviors we like. How does this all tie together?
Associative learning often looks like “treats for nothing”. In reality, it’s a nuanced and slightly complex method with the treats happening at just the right moment to change those underlying emotions so we can actually address the trigger. And if we do it correctly, it’s going to look like treats for nothing. It’s going to look very boring. And it’s going to be more effective than having them sit or hand target or look at you.
Not only does associative learning sometimes look like treats for nothing, but sometimes cause and effect learning does, too. This often happens when we’re working on duration. Let’s say that we’re working on duration in the crate for a dog or cat. When I’m working through this skill with folks, I start by prompting them when to treat. And that often is just when their pet is looking up at them from the crate, waiting for more treats. Sometimes I’m met with the question, but they’re not doing anything; why am I treating now? My response? They’re staying in the crate– and that’s the behavior we want!
- How good are you at noticing when your pet is performing behaviors that you like? This could be being quiet, sitting politely, calmly lying down, or anything of the sort. Be honest: do you notice your pet when they’re doing things you like or mostly just when they’re doing things you don’t like?
- If you struggle with noticing your pet’s desirable behaviors (and we’ve all been there!), make a point to notice your pet throughout the day. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. The first step is to just notice what they’re doing.
- Treat your pet for behaviors you like throughout the day, like sitting, being quiet, and lying down.
- Ask your behavior consultant how you can build positive associations with triggers for your pet. We only recommend doing this with a professional, because the devil’s in the details here, and doing this the wrong way can lead to undesirable consequences.