The Constructional Approach

Everyone who spends more than a split second with anyone else sometimes wants their behavior to change. When we want someone to knock it off, we typically resort to coercion. Often, even if you have a degree or two or three in behavior or psychology and you know better, you resort to punishment of some sort because it gets a faster result. If I yell at my husband for stealing food from my plate, for example, he typically draws back a nub. When my son wanted me to stop talking about him on Facebook he texted me something like, “Mom, knock it off!” (Actually, my son is really nice. He said, “Would you mind not doing that?” The fact is, yelling at my husband for stealing food worked. He hasn’t done that in years. And my son’s request worked, too. I want to think I quit doing it because I love my son so much, but honestly, my behavior changed because of the punishment. (Although I really, really love my son.)

So, we punish because it works, right? (Yes, my dear positive animal trainer friends. Punishment works. I am not condoning its use as a training tool.) All of us punish or coerce sometimes. (That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go. Just take it at face value.) Even if you understand that coercion comes with what Murray Sidman called fallout in his book, Coercion and Its Fallout, you do it. (It’s an excellent and important work. Read it.)

But here’s the deal. What about when it doesn’t work? A failure of punishment procedures is common. Shoving your dog away when she jumps on your guests doesn’t make her stop, does it? Lecturing your son about teasing his brother doesn’t work, does it? (No, trust me.) Me putting my cat, Kevin, on the floor again and again and again doesn’t keep him from not being invisible in front of my face while I’m trying to read or work, does it? (No, it does not.)

We tend to think of behavior problems as innate. Like, my cat jumps up because he wants to be up high because he’s a cat and that’s how cats are. Okay, that’s fair to a point. So, the easy-out logic goes that I should spray him with water or put a scat mat on the desk to keep him down. But, you guys, why would I insult my cat that way if he jumps up because he is a cat and cats jump? It makes no sense.

The constructional approach to behavior change involves creating situations in which a learner (human or non-human) can get what it needs and wants in exchange for doing behaviors that work better for them and their families than what they’re doing now. In other words, we’re going to do the old switcheroo. The learner is still going to get what it is getting now, but he’s going to get it for behavior that works better. It’s safe, it fits in better with the society we live in, whatever.

For example, say a dog named Gregory Tolkien is walking with his owner, Theresa, and sees a dog walking with its owner up ahead. Holy Toledo, thinks Gregory Tolkien! That dude is scary! And without even meaning to he starts growling and that builds into barking and lunging. And, what do you know? The other dog and its owner turn and go the other way. Whoa, what about that? Well, that worked pretty dandy didn’t it? If I want the strange dog and his person to go away, all I have to do is growl, bark, and lunge. I’ll do that again next time!

So, now Greg Tolkien barks at every other dog he sees on leash in his neighborhood. His owner has tried giving him treats for looking at her. She has tried a prong collar. She has tried a shock collar, and damn it, he is worse than ever. It’s almost as if he’s been practicing this! (Oh, yeah.)

So, Gregory’s owner thinks about what is going on with her dog. It’s plain as day he is doing this to get the other dogs to go away, and he’s not doing it to be bad. He’s just freaked out when he sees other dogs. So, when she sees a dog way in the distance, and her dog sees the dog way in the distance and tries to go a different way, she goes, cool. He’s asking to go this way, so let’s do it. Sometimes he just looks up at her, and she goes, cool, we see a dog, let’s go a different way. Sometimes he sees another dog and starts sniffing the ground. Okie doke! Let’s go a different way.

So, now Gregory is looking for all these perfectly acceptable alternatives to aggression because THEY WORK to get his person to go in a path that leads him away from the strange dog.

That’s the constructional approach. It’s called Constructional Aggression Treatment. Stay tuned to learn more and more about it, or buy the book, Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly.

And maybe Martina Schnauzer is in the shelter and she jumps up on people like a maniac and no one wants to handle her. But there is this one crazy animal keeper that keeps saying she just wants attention. He starts giving her a lot of attention, but only when her feet are on the floor. So she starts keeping her feet on the floor more of the time. She even sits, lays down, and rolls onto her back, because when she does those things HE PETS HER! He was right! She wants attention, and if you give it to her for good behavior, she’ll be a good dog.

That’s the constructional approach. It’s called Constructional Affection. (Check out the link to learn more.)

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