You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Podcast 13 - You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

ABA technical concepts covered in this podcast: Discriminative Stimuli or Sd; Evocative MO’s; Ontogeny; neuroplasticity; pivotal behaviours; Maintenance; Intrinsic vs. extrinsic reinforcers; Unconditioned R+ and R-; Conditioned R+; Stimulus Control; Pairing; NCR; Topographies of behaviour; Stimulus class; Desensitization; Habit reversal; Flooding procedure; de-stimulation; Cusp behaviours; contextual cues; choosing target behaviour; social validity; dysregulation; behaviour shaping; Positive Behaviour Support; behaviour intensities

Presenters - Bobbi Hoadley and Cathy Knights

Cathy's dog Clara is the star of this discussion about desensitization. Teaching an old dog or an adolescent one doesn't have to be challenging if you know how!

We like to talk about behaviour, yours, mine, and the dogs. The theme: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and looking at why that’s a myth.

We have MO’s that are driven by our internal states. Hormones are one example. Cathy’s dog recently spayed, could be reacting to that internal state. Also the age, adolescence she is creating neuro connections all the time. As you become older, neuro connections become harder and harder to change. It’s just a little more work to change when you’re older. She will probably mature.

Bribing with treats doesn’t maintain behaviour unless it turns into an intrinsic reinforcer. Wanting to please the owner will be intrinsic. Can be the same with people. Use an external reinforcer to pair ourselves with it. But we need stimulus control for behaviour change. The best way is to have good rapport, then you have influence. Influence can become stimulus control.

Cathy’s dog appears to be aggressive toward other animals, including dogs. Without knowing the learning history, as she is a rescue dog, it is difficult to understand the behaviour fully. There was a time when people thought that removing the fear of water out of someone was best done by throwing them in the pool. There are still misconceptions around de-sensitization.

The first step is rapport. Very often we teach some foundational behaviours first, before a desensitization technique. Cathy’s dog Clara, it can be hard to de-stimulate her. People can actually be more reactive to the suggestion of the object of fear.

People who are afraid of dogs, can become very reactive to hearing the word dog or hearing the dog bark in the distance. Whereas they can look at a picture of a dog and say it’s cute. The anticipation can create more anxiety than the object itself. Not to say that an aggressive dog wouldn’t bring on a huge attack of fear. The suggestion of the dog on a more regular basis can create more reactivity.

You don’t want to mix up typical behaviour with the challenging behaviour that is so antisocial. You know what the stimulus is for Clara - it’s another dog. You’ve been building rapport with her and gaining some control. Provide non-contingent reinforcement meaning she doesn’t have to do anything in return. Caring, generosity, attention, eye contact, smiles, compliments, interest in who they are. The other one is pair yourself with primary reinforcers – food, warmth, all the good things in life. Anyone who cannot build rapport, cannot teach, and then you have no control over stimuli.

The next is to understand that labels or suggestions can activate the behaviour. If she is easily overstimulated, you need to get control over that first. Otherwise she can’t hear what you are trying to teach. Cathy is now pairing de-stimulation with a command. She is teaching Clara some regulation, but really they are tricks to perform. Without the intrinsic reinforce of how to self-soothe or calm. Tricks are different from habits. Feeling calm is a whole lot better than not feeling calm. Clara needs to learn a foundational behaviour of how to de-stimulate and regulate. It’s different for everyone, is it poor waiting behaviour, low frustration tolerance, poor self-monitoring, poor self-regulating – any one of these behaviours can cause a person to become reactive in an environment where they feel threatened. We teach a lot of self-soothing and resilience. Resilience is the ability to have a set-back and be able to bring yourself back from it. It’s tied to the self-soothing.

Cathy’s been reinforcing successive approximations of behaviour with Clara and the dishwasher. That’s what she will be doing with desensitization. Any organism is an investment in relationship. Rescue animals are a special commitment.