Why don’t they get it??!!

Why isn’t the knowledge gained from decades of behavioural science used in everyday life?

Wendy Nicholson in hospital

When my friend and fellow dog trainer, Wendy Nicholson, a pioneer in the use of positive reinforcement and the use of both operant and classical conditioning, was in hospital, not long before her death, I went to visit her. Wendy found it endlessly frustrating and mystifying that despite decades of behavioural science and the knowledge we have of what works, most dog trainers were wedded to dogmas that didn’t work, and other areas of life were just as bad. She had been trying to condition herself to relax by association with the word “relax” to help her to get through painful procedures. She couldn’t understand why these methods weren’t used throughout the hospital.

As if to illustrate her point on cue, two nurses appeared and said, in an attempt at humour that backfired, “we’re going to attack your veins”. Wendy’s veins were collapsing at this stage, and taking blood was difficult and painful. Wendy hit the roof: “Why do you say that? Why the **** don’t you understand that when you say “we’re going to attack your veins” it makes me feel tense, and it makes it all the more painful?” She went on like that, yelling and swearing and getting more stressed, while the nurses just stood there, taken aback.

I stepped in and took Wendy’s hand, saying “let’s do some relaxation.” I used a technique that my psychiatrist Dr John Munro had taught me: breathe in, 2, 3 – (slowly) o-u-t. So I said “breathe in, 2, 3 – r-e-l-a-x.” Wendy started to do the breathing with me, and her mother, Joyce, and sister, Hilary, who were also visiting, joined in saying “r-e-l-a-x”. After a while the nurses crept forward and did the procedure. I said “Is it all over, are you done?” and they said “yes”. I had a clicker on me and clicked. Wendy laughed. Wendy said “See, Kaye gets it. Why the **** doesn’t anyone else get it?”

K. aged 3, with a bead up his nose

When he was three years old, my friend’s son K. got a bead stuck up his nose. My friend took him to hospital, where a doctor looked at him briefly, and decided that he could quickly whip the bead out without sedation. He grabbed K. who panicked and resisted. The doctor went to the door and called out “I need two strong men here”. This was in front of an already frightened boy.

They came in and started to hold K. down while the doctor tried to stick an instrument up his nose. Of course the boy was by that time in a frantic state and even the strong men could not keep him still. His mother intervened and said it was an assault and she didn’t want them to go ahead. The doctor said he would have to be taken to the Eye and Ear Hospital to have the bead removed under anaesthetic.

All this was totally unnecessary and incompetent. If the doctor had had any idea about behavioural psychology, he would have known to approach K. quietly and slowly, getting his confidence and proceeding gradually, inducing calmness, creating pleasant associations and rewarding the child for small steps of co-operation. Instead, he was traumatised and for many years was afraid of physical examinations, and avoided going to the dentist and having other procedures.

Steal at the vet clinic

My friend had taken her male German Shepherd, Steal, to the vet, who had had trouble examining him. She asked me to take him back there, hoping that I would be able to handle the dog better, and also tell whether the dog really had a problem or not.

I went into the consult room, and before I could do or say anything, the vet, a big, strongly built man with a beard, and an intimidating “old-style” manner, grabbed Steal by the scruff of the neck and slammed him up against the wall in the corner of the room, so only his back feet were on the ground and tried to examine him. Steal totally freaked, and all hope of doing any procedure was lost.

I went back and told my friend that there was nothing wrong with Steal or with her handling of him. It was all the vet’s fault – except that by this stage Steal had been traumatised. I recommended taking him to another vet. We went to Cameron Wood at West Brunswick, who came out and quietly sat on the floor of the waiting room, while Steal rolled over on his back to have his tummy rubbed. Cameron could then take out the stitches where Steal had been de-sexed.

For an account of a good approach to handling a dog, see Jesse has a visit from the vet, under the heading ANIMALS.

K. aged 7, seeing a paediatrician

My friend’s son K. had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. His new paediatrician apparently disagreed. He said “there’s nothing wrong with this boy except low self-esteem.”

He then gave the boy a physical examination and said to his mother (as if the boy wasn’t even present) “he has an undescended testicle; it’ll probably be small” and proceeded to poke K. in the abdomen to see if he could bring the testicle down. Then he said “there’s no testicle there, but it doesn’t matter, when he gets older he can have an artificial one put in.” All of which was no doubt doing wonders for the boy’s self-esteem problem. As it turned out, there was a testicle there, and it descended in its own time. By that time K. was too old for his mother to check him to see whether it was the right size.

Just as well he didn’t have an artificial testicle put in. In the dog show ring, a male has to have “two apparently normal descended testicles” or else he will be disqualified. One competitor, whose dog had an undescended testicle, wanted to show him nevertheless, so she had an artificial testicle put in. Unfortunately, the real testicle descended spontaneously and the dog was found, when “grabbed” by the judge, to have three testicles.

Anyway, I think that the paediatrician who examined K. on that occasion did not have the foggiest clue about how to behave towards a child, talking about him rather than to him and potentially doing untold damage to his self-esteem.

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