Quick! Fix it! How the tortoise and the hare relates to changing behavior.
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
True learning takes time. No matter who you are, no matter what species you are. How long would it take you to learn to play a new instrument, or speak a new language? We expect fellow humans to get plenty of education and practice at things to be proficient and years to be exceptional at many tasks. Throw in tackling the change of an emotionally driven behavior and it may take a lifetime. This is something that we have to talk about a lot with our clients. That’s because we live in an increasingly more instant gratification world and it’s very human to want a quick fix to our problems. Behavior or training hurdles with the animals we share our lives with are no exception. Especially when they are a source of frustration or stress. It can be a hard sell when there are so many tools and techniques on the market that tout speediness and ease of use. Who doesn’t want quick results!?
So I think it’s important we talk about why we’re asking to avoid what appears like magic wands in the shape of collars, spray bottles and corrections. And take the slow road..
First of all, everyone’s likely heard of the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare, ever-so-confident in his inevitable and guaranteed win of the race, gets lax, takes a nap and ultimately ends up losing the race to the tortoise. He underestimated the tortoise because the tortoise moved painfully slow and the answer to who would win a race seemed so obvious. We choose to work steadily at the pace of the learner, no matter how slowly that may be because much like the hare, those quick fix tools and methods are taking a metaphorical nap. That nap may risk sending you on a detour that could be costly in getting you to your goal. Most of the time, they’re not even running the same race, which makes comparing the two challenging.
Steadiness, consistency and patience are how best to get to the finish line.
Some examples of these tools that we consider quick "fix" include shock collars, prong collars, choke chains, bark collars, squirt bottles, outdated alpha rolls, leash corrections, physical punishment and the like. As force-free trainers, we don’t just avoid and advise against these because we think they’re mean, although they are arguably not a very kind mode of learning (imagine learning how to do your job by way of these methods). We don’t work with them because they don’t change behavior, they suppress it. And suppression is not the same thing as addressing the issue at the root.
Here’s why we know these tools work on principle of suppression. Your dog barks? This bark collar punishes the barking so they are afraid to bark for fear of consequences that the collar delivers. The collar does not address why your dog was barking in the first place, nor does it change the emotional state driving it. Your dog pulls on leash? The prong collar inflicts pain and discomfort strong enough to make them stop pulling. It’s not telling them what you want them to do instead, or addressing why your dog felt pulling was necessary. Your dog growls? An alpha roll or physical punishment adds stress to an already scared dog to scare them into not growling again. It does not address why your dog was so stressed it felt it needed to growl. All it’s teaching is that growling means more conflict, not de-escalation as the animal was intending. Suppression, just like in humans, can be downright dangerous.
I guarantee you that if these tools or methods are stopping your companion from engaging in an undesirable behavior, it’s because they’re aversive. If they weren’t scary or painful enough, the animal would not seek to avoid it in the first place and it would be rendered ineffective against the behavior you’re trying to stop. If a prong collar isn’t uncomfortable enough, the dog would have no reason to stop pulling. It simply wouldn’t work.
So why, if they’re so terrible, are they so popular?
That’s because they do sorta work. Well, from the laymen human perspective, they work. The animal stops engaging in the behavior immediately, so that instant gratification leaves us feeling wildly hopeful or pleased. The reward center in our brain probably does a little dance when we see this as a frustrated owner. But that’s because most people using these tools don’t understand the potential delayed consequences. While not all animals have noticeable behavior complications due to them, many do. I equate it to drunk driving. Not everyone that gets behind the wheel of a car intoxicated will experience negative impacts from doing so. However, we can all agree the riskiness, if things go wrong, can be devastating.
More importantly, they’re popular because people are frustrated, need help and don’t understand the extent of potential risk. This is heartbreaking for the owners when it happens, as creating bigger problems is not what they set out to do. Every client I have encountered has wanted nothing but to live a happy, cohesive life with their friend. They love them and do the best with what they know at the time. Maybe they had another animal who they used the same tools on and since they didn’t have any obvious issue with them, the owner has been reinforced for it's use previously.
A very large number of my clients started out with these tools. They came to me because the tool eventually failed them, and either the behavior came back with a vengeance or they have a whole new host of much more troubling issues that stemmed from its use. This is called behavior fallout. Basically what it means is that suppressing the behavior worked for a time, then took its toll on the animal’s stress level and the issue came back worsened. Sometimes it’s that new behaviors such as reactivity, fear, anxiety or aggression surfaced after.
No therapist would recommend someone suppressing their emotions, as that would lead to eventual deterioration of their client’s mental health, and very likely spark unhealthy coping mechanisms or behaviors. Suppression can lead to a negative emotional build up with nowhere for it to go, and it can lead to explosive behavior.
Not only can this unhealthy suppression manifest into some serious problems with stress regulation, but sometimes we teach them the wrong thing in the process. Animals don’t always make the connection with the consequence of these tools and their own behavior. I know many who in actuality learned that the stimuli they were barking at or pulling towards caused them pain or stress, not their own barking or pulling. Similarly, cats who get sprayed with a spray bottle for jumping on the counter are not wrong for noticing that this doesn’t happen with the owners gone…so what, or more so who, is the common denominator in the scary water bottle attacks?
An animal learns by building associations, and patterns and emotion can influence this heavily. These tools can build the wrong association and now we find ourselves on a behavior detour. Now we have a companion that wants the scary or pain-inducing thing to go away and does so by barking, lunging, growling, biting, hissing or scratching. That’s always unfortunate because so often it’s strangers, other animals or their own humans that become the trigger.
So we advocate for the long game. Genuine behavior change at the root. It’s not flashy, it’s not dramatic, and it takes patience and practice. That makes it challenging sometimes for the human-side of the experience. We truly show our companions, who live rich emotional lives, the compassion they deserve when we acknowledge that learning takes time. And we’re much more likely to walk away from the experience with a deeper understanding, stronger bond and many more successes, which means a much better outcome in the long run for everyone involved.
In regards to behavior change: progress is a direction, not a speed.
If you want more information on the research surrounding these topics, check out the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) position statements on their website: avsab.org