How To Modify A Pet’s Behavior, Part One

When it comes to modifying animal behavior, one can turn to behavior specific guides for answers, but the best solution lies in understanding principles behind behavior modification. In both the text and the lectures for her Low-Stress Handling certification course, Dr. Yin discusses four of them: habituation, flooding, desensitization, and counter-conditioning. In this part one of two series, I’ll define and give examples of each principle. I’ll also explain why Yin (and other experts) advises against flooding, and instead recommends a combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Habituation is a repeated exposure to a stimulus with no negative effects. When my husband and I first introduce foster kittens to our foster room, there are things that they have already been exposed to or that they quickly get used to such as dishes, litter boxes, scratching posts, and bedding. With these objects of daily use, habituation is almost instantaneous. There are other things that might be more novel to our fosters, but they just as easily acclimate to aand even derive pleasure from such as toys or towers. In the case of our own adult cats, agility equipment was initially novel to them but through exposure the equipment become part of their daily routine. And so, even with these objects, habituation doesn’t take that long to happen. Then there are things that cause a great deal of curiosity or hesitation such as a camera or dust buster. In instances like these, habituation will take time but should eventually happen after repeated exposure to the stimuli in the absence of any aversive or pleasurable experience.

A useful form of habituation is desensitization. With desensitization, the stimulus is initially situated far away from the animal or somehow made less intense. When the pet gets used to the low-level stimulus, the stimulus is moved closer or the strength of it is gradually increased. Our fosters return to The Cat House being comfortable with a hand-held vacuum, not due to habituation but rather to desensitization.

Because a hand-held vacuum is noisy and therefore scary, we initially just place it in the room with our fosters in the off position. Then we allow them to explore it on their own terms. Sometimes they do everything but interact with it for the first few days. Other times they crawl over the hand-held vacuum with such intensity that I worry they might accidentally turn it on! Once our fosters become nonchalant towards a noiseless hand-held vacuum, we then turn it on for a few seconds, and monitor their reaction. Sometimes our fosters scatter; other times they cautiously approach. As they become braver and bolder, we turn the hand-held vacuum on for longer and longer periods of time. Eventually, we’re able to clean the room without their paying attention to the hand-held vacuum.

A less useful form of habituation is flooding. With flooding, a stimulus is introduced with full force. Ideally, according to Yin, flooding would cause an animal to get used to a stimulus. Unfortunately, problems can occur, especially with animals that are naturally timid. They could become sensitized to the stimulus and develop an even greater fear of it, which is why it’s important to pay attention to an animal’s body language. For example, the rule of thumb is that cats should be socialized from an early age with lots of handling by lots of different people. However, if a cat’s already fearful, forced handling may result in a cat becoming even less socialized. Even if an animal doesn’t become sensitized through flooding, they may not improve either. In other words, while forced handling might not increase a timid cat’s aversion to touch, it also won’t decrease it, and so no help has been given.

Yin recommends combining desensitization with counter-conditioning for best results. The latter involves training an animal to have a new emotional state by pairing a negative stimulus with a positive stimulus. You might recall that I defined habituation as repeated exposure to a stimulus with no negative effect. When my husband and I first fetch our fosters from The Cat House, they travel with us in a carrier and so they start out their lives with us having been habituated to a carrier.  In the case of our most recent fosters, we had to take them to the vet three times. Because we never used the carrier for any reason other than those trips, which are as scary to cats as doctor visits are to us, we inadvertently trained them to dislike the carrier.

To retrain them to see the carrier as a positive, we placed the carrier in the room with our fosters and then we upped the ante. We placed bedding with their scent into the carrier, along with some toys. This way, they would not only become habituated to the carrier, but they would also learn to see the carrier as a desirable place. To further increase the carrier’s appeal, we placed food near it, and also praised the kittens anytime they went near the carrier. In this way, we taught them that we wanted them to use the carrier. Finally, we taught them that being transported in the carrier didn’t mean a trip to the vet. We did this by occasionally moving them and the carrier to a different part of the room or house. In doing this, we helped them see the carrier as a safe place. Although we ran out of time to thoroughly retrain them, the last step would have been to take them on car rides just for the fun of getting out. No cat owner can avoid using a carrier to transport their cat to the vet, but every cat owner can make the carrier an overall positive experience.

Understanding the principles behind behavior modification has changed how I view behavior specific guides. I now know how to adapt and apply them to my own unique situation. I also know how to come up with my own checklists for scenarios that are perhaps less common. My hope with this article is that you too will begin to have the same skills. If you would like one-on-one guidance, please contact me at Allison Helps Cats for coaching sessions and/or behavior consults.

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