Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Between Your ABCs

If you ever decide to research behavior or learning theory, you’ll stumble upon the ABC’s of behavioral modification rather quickly. First, there is the antecedent (A), sometimes called the stimulus or trigger, that causes the behavior (B). For our reactive dogs, the antecedent might be a strange person or dog, and the behavior might be barking or growling. What follows after the behavior is the consequence (C). The strange person might back away from the growling dog. If you want to change the behavior, you examine either A, what caused the behavior, or C, how the behavior was reinforcing or punishing for the dog. ABCs apply not only to dogs, but also to horses, beluga whales, goldfish, and grad students – if a creature is capable of learning, then the ABCs apply.

The antecedent/behavior/consequence paradigm is one of those lovely theories that seem almost like common sense when you finally hear about it. Of course there’s a reason for each behavior - we don’t do things for no reason! And of course there are consequences to those behaviors; people and dogs repeat the behaviors that are rewarding and eliminate the behaviors that are not worthwhile. How simple! How elegant! How sensible!

Like many simply, elegant, sensible theories, there are more than just the measurable ABCs at play here. There is a whole world between the A and the B that we can only guess at. What causes one dog to growl at a person while another runs to the same stranger for belly rubs and cookies? Are previously experienced consequences to blame? One dog gets yelled at by a stranger and fears new people for the rest of his life while another has never had a negative consequence applied to meeting a stranger and therefore believes strangers are harbinger of delight. It’s a simple idea. Almost elegant. Sensible.

My dog Maus, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a negative experience with a stranger. Of course, my definition of negative and his may be different. What I see as safe, he often sees as horrifying. He has never, to the best of my knowledge, ever been hurt or even left alone with a stranger. There is something between point A and point B that has gone wrong between his ears. As of this month, Maus has been on the behavioral medication clomipramine for one year. This subtle change in the chemicals in his brain have allowed him to move outside his fear. He continues to be a “Type A Personality:” a little anxious, a little neurotic, a little rigid, but he’s also much more comfortable in his skin. He’s happy now – consistently, instead of occasionally. 

Does that mean that the consequences to his behaviors don’t matter because a large portion of Maus’s troubles are contained in his own brain? I am exceedingly doubtful that our four years of behavior modification training was all for nothing. After all, at the end of that four years, Maus was able to act like a reasonably rational dog by the standards of most people (and dogs). But acting okay is not the same as being okay. He was miserable. Medications were able to help where training had met its limit.

The truth is that we are more than letters in a theory or numbers in an equation. There is a whole realm of complex emotions and undercurrents of personality that determine which behavior will be chosen and what consequence will be rewarding or punishing. We can generalize and label to our hearts’ content, but the individual will always be more than the theory applied. I’m not saying that these theories and training techniques aren’t useful or beneficial; I’m saying that it’s important not to loose sight of the individual. Our diagnosis is not our defining characteristic. I do not know the exact importance and combination of factors that influence Maus’s behaviors. I do know that my dog was not happy, and now he is. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me.

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