Saturday, March 28, 2009


There are 2 forms of training used to desensitize animals to a negative situation.

The first technique is Habituation, or slowly introducing an animal to a non-desirable situation. When I was a teenager, I worked with horses. Every so often we would have a horse that would spook at a particular object, such as a stream. We would desensitize the animal to the stream by regularly walking the horse up to the stream. Then we would make the horse stand near the stream for awhile. Then the horse could drink from the stream. Then step one foot in the stream. Eventually, the horse would walk right across the stream.

I have been blessed with children who have very few fears. My eldest child has been to so many doctors and hospitals that she easily adapts to any situation. My younger one seems to follow her sister's lead and just "goes with the flow" most of the time.

I do remember when we tried to transition our one year old from the baby bath tub which she reclined in to the big bath tub where she can sit up in a few inches of water. Every time we put her in the big bath tub, she screamed and fussed. She forcefully and suddenly arched her back in anger, causing her to fall backward in the water and flail around - the situation was quite dangerous. We were terrified that she would unwittingly slam her head into the bathtub, causing a concussion.

The only thing we could think of to do was to have her sit in my lap on the floor of the bathroom and watch her older sister take a bath. After a few days of watching her sister bathe, we let her stand in the bathroom and lean over the tub and splash the water. After a few days of that, we were able to put her in the bath tub (with her sister in there too) without incident. Now (of course it has been at least six months), she loves baths.

The second technique used by animal trainers is Counterconditioning, or giving a positive reward to make a negative experience positive. In layman's terms, we usually call this technique Bribery. Again, we had to use this technique with horses. If we had a horse that did not want to go in the barn, we simply broke the skill down into smaller steps and rewarded the horse with carrots for succeeding at each step. When the horse stood at the entrance to the barn, he got a carrot. When the horse stepped inside the barn, he got another carrot. When the horse actually walked into the barn into a stall, he got another carrot. The horse got a positive reward to overcome a negative experience.

With children I try to avoid bribing them. So far my children are motivated by two things: (1) receiving praise and affection from me and (2) avoiding time out. I am so blessed that my one year old stops behavior I don't want as soon as we say "NO." My three year old sometimes responds to "NO" and sometimes needs the threat of time out (we count to three and rarely get past 1). About once every other week we actually have to use time out. Fortunately, we have not needed to use more complex techniques to motivate our children yet. But, I know someday we will.

This post was inspired by the book "What Shamu Taught me about Life, Love and Marriage" by Amy Sutherland.

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