Ethology and veterinary practice: Tricky treat dilemmas
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
A fairly common event in my behavioral practice involves clients who handle their animals' timid or fear-based aggressive displays by having the person the animal perceives as a threat feed the animal treats. When asked to think about how this human response could affect the animal's long-term behavior, some experience a light bulb moment and exclaim, "I'm asking those people to reward the behavior! No wonder Zippy still acts that way!"
However, others say it makes the animal "really like" the treat-dispensing-person who previously elicited a fear response. Consequently, if they need to use treats to elicit this behavior for the rest of the animal's life, it's worth it to them.
Welcome to the complex world of food rewards. Not only are clients with problem dogs asking potential human targets to feed their aggressive animals, but they're also doing this themselves.
But where did this approach originate? Based on client input, the approach inadvertently is taught and reinforced by those the clients perceive as animal behavior authorities. One group of these consists of trainers. Most trainers schooled in the science of behaviorism know to phase out treats in 2-3 weeks at most.
However, most people take their dogs to classes or engage in private sessions that weekly introduce new commands to the lineup over a 6-8-week or longer period. So even though the treat may be phased out in a timely manner for a particular command, owners have been conditioned to give treats and animals have been conditioned to learn for food during the entire period.
The unintended consequences of this routinely show up in my patients and clients who often have concurrent bond problems. Many of the dogs I see exhibit a behavior called "learned laziness."
Their owners perceive the training sequence as "give command, dog obeys, reward dog with treat." Sort of like a simple reflex arc. But dogs are capable of sequential thinking. Consequently, from the dog's perspective the sequence may become "If I want the reward, I obey the command. If not, I ignore it."
This leads to a frustrating dilemma for the owners of these animals. On the one hand, their dogs obey commands the majority and even the great majority of the time, sometimes including in the show or obedience ring. However, the small percentage of the times when they don't obey are often when it's most important that they do.
For example, Olivia has a 100 percent response to the "come," "wait" and "sit" commands when she and her owner are alone in the living room. But Olivia's response plummets to 0-5 percent when the doorbell rings or she spies the neighbor's cat in the yard.
Initially, those with such animals may convince themselves the problem isn't the method; it's the treats. They must not be tasty enough. So they invest in premium treats or even roast and debone whole chickens to elicit the proper response. Sometimes it works. But usually by the time I see them it no longer does.
What's going on here in terms of ethology?
Recall that establishing and protecting the territory ranks as the No. 1 priority, taking precedence over food, water, sex, raising young and play. Relative to the animal gut and bladder, fear initially may trigger hyper-motility, which results in defecation and anal gland expression, plus urination. Then, hyper-motility gives way by hypo-motility.
From a survival perspective, the two-step sequence makes sense. With luck, the message communicated in the pheromones secreted and excreted during the hyper-motile phase will convince the perceived threat to back off. If not, the hypo-motile phase suppresses digestion and urine production, which frees up energy to support a more active fear response.
Interestingly, the chronically stressed animals I see often display hyper- or hypo-motility instead of the two-step progression.
Owners of hyper-motile animals more commonly describe their dogs as highly food-motivated, counter-surfers, trash-raiders, and apt to steal, chew and swallow a wide range of nonfood objects — most of which carry the owner's scent. In stressful situations where any commands given are in conflict with the dog's relationship to the person, the dog literally may snatch treats out of that person's hand, but may or may not obey any commands associated with them.
Physiologically, it's conceivable they seek to soothe a churning gut irritated by increased digestive enzyme secretion. Or perhaps their increased appetite represents a side effect of those steroid stress hormones.
Conversely, animals who take the hypo-motile route show no interest in eating. When kenneled, some may shred their bedding and pile it on their food dishes, an adaptation of wild animal caching behavior. If really frightened, they may mark the food with urine or stool.
These animals value the food enough to try to hide or protect it. However, they don't feel secure enough in that environment to eat it. Because the hypo-motile animals I see with fear-based behavioral problems almost invariably assume a protective role relative to their owners and their homes, the cost of not fulfilling that responsibility exceeds any benefit associated with the food or treats.
Unlike the emotional/comfort eaters who tend to carry at least a few extra pounds and eat to soothe themselves, these dogs maintain their optimum weight. Not surprisingly, many of their owners consider them too thin. Meanwhile, trainers may find their lack of food motivation maddening.
But regardless whether these animals display evidence of hyper- or hypo-motility, more often than not they fear for their own safety and survival as well as that of their owners in their particular environment.
Unfortunately, some people overlook the key role a stable physical and mental/emotional territory and an equally stable human-animal bond plays in animal behavior. Instead, they automatically assume animals perceive them as protectors even though those people may be communicating exactly the opposite message. (Recall the previous discussion of the tend/befriend fear response that some people may use, mistakenly thinking this will relax and comfort animals.)
The second group of authority figures that inadvertently may reward problematic behaviors with treats are veterinarians and their staffs. When clients see those people feeding treats to their growling or frightened animal, some may assume they should do the same thing.
They don't realize the veterinary team may use this approach to expedite the veterinary process, to make this relatively short encounter as efficient and stress-free as possible for the staff, client and animal. They don't realize those professionals don't want them to reward similar fear-based behaviors on a daily basis at home.
But even though this difference may be obvious to the veterinary staff, it may not be so obvious to all clients. And because the long-term consequences of this practice may undermine animal health and behavior, it makes sense to educate owners whose animals display fear-based behaviors regarding this difference.
There's no question that using treats can produce remarkable results in some animals. Just be cautious about taking a one-size-fits-all approach in frightened animals that may create problems for them and their owners later.
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