Operant modalities: alternatives to psychotropic drugs (Proceedings)


Operant modalities: alternatives to psychotropic drugs (Proceedings)

Nov 01, 2010

One aspect of veterinary behavioral therapy is the use of psychotropic drugs to control behavior. To set the context for my comments, I am not a veterinarian. I do not claim any direct working knowledge of these drugs - but I routinely work with animals that do. Specifically, this presentation is not about abandoning or curtailing the use of chemical therapy for treating behavior problems. Diagnosis and treatment with psychotropic drugs is often the key to a dog's sustained mental health. The goal of this presentation is to offer a different perspective and potential solutions that dovetail standard medical diagnosis and treatment.

General Psychotropic Drug Treatment:

Several drugs are currently being used to control unacceptable behavior. Some of these drugs influence maladies that are the result of neurological dysfunction. However, some dogs are given psychotropic drugs without a clear indication that a brain malfunction is the cause of the problem or that the specific chemicals contained in the drug have a connection to that brain function. For instance, giving a dog Prozac or Valium as a first solution to excessive barking at the door is a questionable practice. Barking uncontrollably at the doorbell is a normally occurring behavior in the vast majority of indoor dogs. It is also easily controlled through operant and respondent conditioning protocols.

Operant Alternatives:

Loosely defined, an operant is a behavior that is determined by its consequences. If a dog attempts to bite someone giving an intravenous injection and is accidentally jabbed in the mouth by the needle, it may stop future attempts at "hand-biting" behavior. I observed this first hand as the target of the bite. This is an operant response because the consequence of the behavior was the presentation of an unpleasant event – the jab of the needle. This acted as a positive punishment to the behavior of hand-biting. Likewise, if a dog hovers around the dinner table waiting for food scraps to drop on the floor, the behavior becomes strong based on the consequences of hanging around the table – falling food scraps that are palatable to the dog.

While veterinary medicine has made great strides in the application of medicines to treat behavior, the world of psychology has not kept pace. If you wish to study the influences of psychotropic drugs on animals, you can attend any number of fine colleges of veterinary medicine. If you wish to study how to directly influence the behavior of animals you have very limited options. Practical courses in operant conditioning are rare at the university level. Moorpark College, an accredited four year school in California, does provide a course of study that includes operant conditioning. However, this training is limited to one side of the behavioral spectrum. Moorpark does not include practical instruction in how to apply positive punishment. Their focus is understandable – that great majority of their students are training to work with exotic animals in zoos and marine parks. They are not likely to work with companion animals gone wild. Some schools, such as the University of West Virginia use the perspective of behavior analysis to guide graduate students toward expertise in companion animal behavioral therapy. An analysis of their perspective yields the common bias in favor of positive reinforcement and against punishment protocols.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to study operant conditioning at a university level in order to use it effectively. To discover if an operant conditioning protocol may be the correct starting point for a dog's treatment, here are several simple diagnostic tests...

     1. Make a conditioned association with a food reward:

          a. Pick a word, any word that is not the dog's name or a word you might use in normal conversation.

          b. Place the dog in a quiet room

          c. Make sure the dog has not eaten for several hours, up to an overnight fast.

          d. Say the word you have selected. EG: "Blue" Say it in a normal tone of voice. Do not wait for the dog to look at you and do not say the dog's name.

          e. Present the dog with a treat. The first few times you do this you may have to orient the treat to the dog's mouth and shove it in.

          f. Repeat about 20-30 times.

          g. Say the word. Don't offer a treat.

          h. If the dog suddenly orients toward the sound of the word and is obviously expecting a treat, the dog is capable of making a normal association between an initially neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus – food. This is the foundation of all learning and the dog is probably trainable without drugs.

     2. Reaction to an aversive stimulus.

          a. Get a small, soft throw pillow that has no piping, buttons, exposed zippers or rough surfaces. (If you choose not to use a throw pillow, try a squirt gun or other appropriate stimulus)

          b. At an arbitrary moment, for no reason at all, say the word "Stop" and clobber the dog over the head with the pillow or spritz him/her in the face with a spray bottle of water of water pistol.

          c. Wait a couple of minutes.

          d. Say the word "Stop" and throw the pillow/spritz the dog.

          e. Wait about 5 minutes

          f. Say the word "Stop" and do not throw the pillow or spritz the dog.

          g. If the dog visually startles flinches or attempts to escape the pillow, you are dealing with a dog who can change its behavior in response to aversive stimuli. This dog is probably capable of inhibiting specific behaviors without the need of psychotropic drugs.

These tests are not meant to be a comprehensive behavioral evaluation prior to prescribing psychotropic drugs. They are meant to illustrate that without some kind of basic tests to discern a dog's ability to respond to the environment, it is difficult if not impossible to know if a purely behavioral solution is possible. As behavioral protocols become more uniform and effective, the creation of a specific series of tests may become the norm. In the mean time, marrying psychotropic drugs with behavior protocols will be a diverse but necessary step in the future of veterinary behavioral medicine.

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