Teaching inhibitions: stopping unacceptable behavior now (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

It is the claim of animal behaviorists that behavior is the most common cause of death in companion animals. This is true, but does not automatically explain how to solve the problem. Almost always, it is what animals do that kills them. They jump on guests, eat shoes, bite children, fight with other dogs and tug unmercifully on leash. If you can stop them from doing these behaviors in a timely fashion for a reasonable price, they live. If you cannot stop the behavior they die. The single most important question in modern behavioral therapy is, "how do you stop a single behavior, now."

Roughly stated, an inhibition prevents a behavior from happening, even in the presence of all the factors that would normally cause it to occur. If a dog goes ballistic when the doorbell rings, the inhibition must block the behavior under all circumstances. It doesn't do any good if the animal only obeys when hungry and when it knows you have a treat. Meaning, your solution cannot include highly contrived, time consuming or rigorous methods. Additionally, the solution must be immediate. In many cases the owner does not inform their veterinarian of the problem until it is almost at the breaking point. Last, but not least, most owners have a finite expense account for behavioral solutions. Ultimately, if you suggest a cure that takes weeks or months you might as well prep the sodium pentobarbital or give the owner a list of shelters that can do the job.

The Fly in the Ointment – Academically Trained Behaviorists:

Before you can get started on your education about teaching inhibitions you must ironically ignore the people who caution you about the gravity of behavioral problems – animal behaviorists. They have created a mantra that positive reinforcement is the only tool for correcting unacceptable behavior. There are several critical problems with this belief. First, not all behaviors are controllable by "positive" means. EG: Pica is not caused by external influences and will not go away by attaching pleasant consequences to "not" eating inedible objects. It will also not go away by reinforcing other behaviors. The animal has a preternatural drive to ingest inedible objects. This must be stopped for the animal to survive. Positive consequences cannot stop behavior. If your methods are "positive" the animal dies.

Once you have accepted the common understanding that aversive consequences inhibit behavior and pleasant consequences cannot, you have another problem on your hands. Not only are academically trained behaviorists ideologically opposed to using "negative" solutions, their credentials do not qualify them to use such methods.

"Punishment should only be used when the above approach (positive reinforcement) has failed despite an adequate effort as part of a larger training or behavior modification program that incorporates reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and works to change the underlying cause of the problem behavior.

While admitting there are times when punishment would be appropriate they have no direct experience to describe the procedure or who would be qualified to do it. What school or veterinary college teaches the art of punishment for these serious, life-threatening behaviors? Murray Sidman, a much lauded colleague of Skinner's and proponent of "positive" methods specifically described who should not be consulted.

"...competence in the application of punishment is not the mark of a qualified behavior analyst. I know of no training program or degree, whether in psychology, psychiatry, education of behavior analysis that qualifies its recipient to use punishment."

That statement is as true today as it was when he wrote it. There is no academic course of instruction in the process of inhibiting behavior.

The above cited position statement goes on to add a caution for owners.

"If punishment is suggested as part of a complete behavior modification plan, owners should not begin using it until they have ensured that the person helping them is able to articulate the major adverse effects of punishment, judge when these effects are occurring over the short term and long term, and can explain how they will reverse the adverse effects if they occur."

There are two problems with this statement. First, who is this person suggesting punishment to the owner? As there are no classes available in the application of punishment for behaviorists, this person cannot be working from their body of knowledge. Second, though ignorant of the correct application of punishment, they feel confident in pointing out major adverse effects. Their focus is on potential side effects rather than indicating how to discern competence in performing the procedure correctly and the objective criteria that would lead to proper treatment.

Having criticized those who give cautions with no affirmative information, I will now tell you the rules for creating inhibitions.