A Trio of Studies with Human-Companion Animal Bond Implications
Reports of two studies involving kids and one involving dogs so reminded me of what I see clinically that it caused me to ponder yet again the role teaching methods may play in problem behavior. And because at least some kids get dogs when they grow up, do they wind up creating pets with behavioral issues, too? In the case of these particular human studies and their results, I suspect that this is a possibility.
The First Study
Years ago, a teaching method that championed the companion animal version of all-positive training had parents and teachers gushing effusively over their children’s or students’ even most insignificant deeds in the belief that this would increase the child’s self-esteem. Although I recall a few articles and one study questioning the validity of the approach, these tended to generate a shoot-the-messenger response. After all, what could possibly be wrong with something that was so positive?
Lately, though, self-esteem as it relates to narcissism has become a hot study topic. This could be because enough children raised in the effusive praise tradition are now old enough to be in college, the workforce, and/or have children of their own to cause researchers to wonder if their priorities might be different from those raised with other orientations. To test this, researchers at the University of Michigan asked student volunteers to choose their favorites from among a collection of pleasurable alternatives: eating their favorite foods, sex, a good grade, receiving a paycheck, getting a complement. The majority were interested in something they interpreted as praise from others, i.e. a good grade or a complement. This and other parts of the survey indicated that not only were they more interested in other-bestowed recognition, some even craved it irrationally to the point that one of the researchers equated it to the compulsion displayed by addicts.
Aside from the amount of extra energy teachers, employers, and others must expend feeding the complement-guzzlers’ habit, they must also cope with a group who has a difficult time admitting mistakes and accepting criticism. Considering how much more we often learn from our mistakes and failures than our successes, this puts these folks at a distinct disadvantage in the real world. It also puts the aforementioned teachers, employers, and others in a bind. Which approach gives the best return on investment: lavishing excessive compliments and reinforcing the desire for more? Or pointing out a mistake and dealing with the negative fall-out of that? Considering that at least one study concluded that adolescent praise-junkies could become violent when thwarted, this isn’t as simple a choice as it may seem.
But how might a craving for praise play out in human-companion animal relationships? Logic—or maybe just my logic—suggests that, if Susie expects praise for everything she does, she’ll be more likely to assume her dog Sparky would, too. The Golden Rule gone to the dogs, so to speak. If Sparky responds in what she considers a positive way then all is well. But if he doesn’t or, worse, if he keeps demanding more attention to the point Susie must spend all of her time focused on him, or if he growls and snaps when she says “No!” when he misbehaves, then he becomes a walking advertisement for her failure.
The findings of this study also might help explain why some folks who are the most passionately attached to the effusive praise/reward approach can switch to an equally passionate use of punishment so quickly. Because Susie’s training approach was an extension of her need for praise, the less-than-perfect Sparky serves as constant proof that she chose the wrong method for that particular dog. In other words, she made a mistake. And because these folks don’t take criticism well, that could make for a lousy human-canine relationship.
If the praise-junkie is in an authoritative position, such as teaching a training class, the effect on students will be mixed. Some will share the instructor’s orientation. Others will question it, but go along with it as long as it works. Still others will think it’s a crock and drop out. Similarly, responses from the dogs in the class will be mixed, depending on the dog’s temperament and relationship with the owner.
The Second Study
I read the report of the second study a week after the first one which I suspect increased its effect on me. In this study, researchers in New Zealand who wanted to know what role self-control played tracked more than 1,000 people from toddlerhood to their early thirties. They discovered that those who had more self-control as kids grew up to be adults who were happier, healthier, and wealthier than those who lacked it.
But how did the researchers gauge something like self-control? They interviewed their subjects and the adults closest to them every 2 years during the study interval to determine how they dealt with frustration. Did they act impulsively or could they stick with a project until they completed it? The example given involved a 3-year-old’s ability to complete a puzzle. Kids who would stick with the puzzle until they completed it got higher scores for self-control than those who were easily distracted or who became frustrated, cried, or lashed out at others when they couldn’t finish the task as quickly as they wanted. By the time those with poor self-control reached their 30s, they were more likely to be overweight, drug-dependent, and have credit-problems.
That’s certainly depressing, but the researchers’ conclusions are not. The good news is that unlike some other factors over which parents may have little or no control, self-control is a skill that any committed parents can teach their children.
Now what in the world does that have to do with dogs? Well it turns out that good canine parents also teach self-control to their offspring because they want them to succeed. They do this by calmly ignoring pushy or attention-seeking behaviors that could create problems when the pups mature. More mature litter- or playmates will do the same thing. Soon the attention-seeker learns to control himself.
Going along with self-control is patience, a virtue philosophers tell us is desired by many but possessed by few. Those who learn self-control learn patience, two qualities that could mean the difference between life and death for a wild or domestic animal living in an environment where instant gratification isn’t always a prudent response.
Additionally, when adult animals are busy with activities that don’t involve the young, the young learn to amuse themselves. Finding safe ways to do this may occur by trial-and-error, but also involves the adults creating an environment for their youngsters where doing so is safe. In such a way, we can add a third skill—self-reinforcement—that will help ensure the puppies’ success as adults.
But whether we’re talking kids or dogs, that’s only true if the parents or owners/caregivers are willing to teach self-control. It’s difficult to teach self-control, patience, and self-reinforcement if we lack those skills ourselves and have no desire to gain them. Previously I mentioned that this study was done in New Zealand. I couldn’t help wondering how many in this country might find it easier to use food or drugs instead of teaching their kids or animals self-control.
The Third Study
A third study, discussed in an article in Scientific American entitled What Mutts Can Teach Us About Self-Control by Wray Herbert, makes two addition points of value to this discussion. Dogs a) can learn self- control and b) like humans, they also benefit from this.
Putting it altogether
Admittedly, the natural way to teach self-control described above is used by the most successful canine parents. No doubt there are those who lack these skills. And whether their offspring survive depends on whether they wind up in an environment that can compensate for this deficiency. For example, in an environment with unlimited resources, no competitors or predators, and someone willing to fulfill those animals’ every need instantly, a lack of self-control, patience, and self-reinforcement wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance as it would be if resources were limited and/or others wanted their share of them.
In the case of companion dogs and whether we like it or not, the responsibility for teaching the lessons of self-control, patience, and self-reinforcement may fall on us unless we have another dog with those skills who is willing to assume that responsibility for us. If we don’t and we also need constant reinforcement ourselves (i.e. we, too, lack self-control, patience, and self-reinforcement), well, no matter how I cut it, someone has to change. In that case, the obvious question is “Who?”
From the narcissist’s point of view that’s a no-brainer. Of course the dog has to change because the dog has the problem. The owner is perfect.
But getting the dog or any animal to buy into that might not be so easy.
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