This last weekend (February 21-23) I had the very real privilege of attending a 3-day seminar in Auckland run by Learning About Dogs Ltd. The seminar featured Dr Susan Friedman, a research professor with the Department of Psychology at Utah State University, presenting the short version of her 8-week online professional course.
The online course, Living and Learning with Animals, is usually booked out long before its commencement in September each year. I experienced a taste of it during Friedman’s presentation at ClickerExpo in San Francisco and enrolled in this year's course. When I heard about this seminar in Auckland I found I couldn't wait until September to learn more about the science of what it is we do.
The 3-day seminar presented the fundamentals of this behavioural science in a compact and easy to digest format. Attending were professionals from all animal engagement disciplines including veterinarians, search and rescue handlers, police and security officials, kennel operators and dog trainers from as far south as Wanaka and as far afield as Perth.
Dr. Friedman is a practitioner with 40 years’ experience in the field of behaviour analysis and modification techniques. She explained the science behind this work and the reasons why the use of positive reinforcement as an agent for change is the intervention of choice. She presented compelling evidence in support of positive reinforcement.Explaining why it is so much more effective in increasing desired behaviours than traditional methods that typically use coercion or force to achieve similar results.
Over the three days, Friedman presented all four of the possible motivating factors as well as the distinction between Pavlovian (respondent learning) and Skinnerian (operant learning) theory. She likened the relationship between the two theories to a Just Married car dragging a pile of cans attached to the rear bumper – Skinner being the car, Pavlov the cans coming along for the ride.
It was satisfying to have our work practices validated by science but more than that was the inspiration to examine what we currently do and take it that much further. I learned the importance of regarding those who take a different approach as “the same as me without the information". I learned how many of us (myself included in numerous circumstances) function in a state of cultural fog. And I learned about the power of “a study of one”.
In the first instance, I was reminded that my function is essentially that of an educator and as such I have to expect people I come in contact with to have very different viewpoints to my own. The art for me now is to accept that for what it is: folk doing the best they can with the information they have. My function comes into action when these people want to learn more, then and only then can my knowledge and experience be of value to them. I realised that I am not an evangelist, needing to “spread the word” so to speak, and therefore I can only really serve my clientèle when they themselves identify the need to try something different.
In the second instance, I was reminded how easy it is for our society to perpetuate misinformation under the guise of cultural norms. Too often we take things on blind faith believing what we are told as being the truth of the matter. I've known this for a while in the field of education especially regarding the methods used to teach children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Rather than change the method to suit the needs of the child, many times I have seen the child blamed for “being stubborn” and “not getting it”. All that was needed was to cut through the fog and consider for a moment that perhaps it was the approach that was not working.
Friedman drew our attention to the range of culturally accepted practices, once considered to be valid or “proven” and adhered to by many, that were now known to be damaging to the well-being of those involved. Examples are everywhere. Corporal punishment in schools, once thought to be character-building, is now known to be damaging to one’s self-esteem. Remember when margarine was touted as a healthier alternative to butter? Now it is widespread knowledge that those trans-fats can kill you. And what of the very popular belief in the early 20th Century that “sun-bathing” was a health therapy for almost anything. We all readily accept the converse to be true today.
Working through the cultural fog can be time consuming but Friedman gave us several great techniques for doing so – the study of one and learning our ABC’s.
While not discounting medical or ethological considerations, the study of one is about analysing the behaviour of a specific individual in a range of circumstances and describing the behaviour in terms of what you can see. Common-sense when you think about it, so why do we so often rely on stereo-types and labels to determine how we respond to an individual? Friedman challenged us all to “unlabel” our subjects and determine instead exactly what the behaviour looks like. “What does it look like?” became one of our mantras for the weekend. Once you know the behaviour you want to modify, applying the ABC model of look beyond the behaviour to identify the circumstance or signal that triggered the behaviour (the antecedent) and then observe the results or the consequences that followed the behaviour. Before long we were making valid predictions as to the likely impact of a particular consequence on a behaviour – was it reinforcing or punishing? Did it increase or decrease future occurrences of the behaviour?
By the end of the three days I had come to realise that every observable behaviour can be described in this way and that the model works just as well when planning training interventions as it does for describing what is. It was said more than once during the weekend that this information was life changing and when you consider the implications of what we had learned I had to agree.
When I look at my own behaviour, I can’t help doing so without analysing it in the way Friedman so deftly taught us:
- What does the behaviour look like?
- What happened in the environment that set the scene or signalled this behaviour?
- What was the consequence?
- As a result am I more or less likely to repeat this behaviour in the future?
I know one thing for sure, as a result of attending this seminar and learning what I now know, I can unreservedly confirm that I am more likely to use this model in my personal and professional life because the very success of it is so reinforcing to me.
There you go, behaviour works!