I always enjoy the arrival of October as it brings with it not only cooler weather, but the fantastical celebration of Halloween. This is a special time of year when many of us indulge in extra treats and spooky decorations. I find it interesting how things often associated with fear, such as ghosts, witches, and spiders, become entertaining and fun this time. While fear is something people may choose to play with around the time of Halloween, for our pets, fear is anything but enjoyable. While one should take care to ensure that Halloween revelry does not frighten household pets, we should also consider the role fear can play in the treatment of behavior problems.

One could argue that all behavior occurs because an organism is avoiding punishment or acquiring reinforcement. Therefore, when we attempt to modify an animal’s behavior, we must choose to use punishment, reinforcement, or some combination of the two. For example, when teaching a dog not to pull on a leash, it can learn to enjoy walking on a loose lead by receiving reinforcement such as play or treats at its owner’s side. The dog can also learn to avoid and potentially fear pulling ahead if it receives pain or discomfort through the punishing use of a prong, choke, or shock collar when the leash gets tight. Hmmm, the words prong, choke, & shock sound like something from a Halloween horror movie, don’t they? Why would anyone choose the latter? Some people think it’s faster, I suppose. Imagine if we installed shock-delivering seats that would shock drivers whenever they sped in their vehicles. People might speed less, but we also might see an increase in driver anxiety and road rage. Luckily, we are not so cruel to ourselves. But shouldn’t we also protect our animals from cruelty?

The answer is absolutely. I meet many people who have experienced a worsening of their pet’s aggression or anxiety after trying punishment-based techniques such as physical force, shock collars, intimidation, yelling, hitting, etc. Fortunately, there are much more humane methods. A favorable paradigm begins with making sure the animal is healthy. Then, we adjust the environment so that the animal is more likely to make the desired choice. Next, we use positive reinforcement to motivate the animal further while beginning to change its emotional response for the better. Simultaneously, we reinforce a behavior incompatible with the undesired one. The use of aversive interventions is considered only after the depletion of more humane methods. See Dr. Susan Friedman’s web-site for a graphical illustration of this concept.

Many organizations have taken a formal stance on minimizing fear and avoiding the use of punishment as much as possible. The groups include but are not limited to: The American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior, The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Fear Free Pets, The American Animal Hospital Association, The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Karen Pryor Academy, Peaceable Paws, and The Academy for Dog Trainers.

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