Teaching a Young Dog New Tricks

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

This past week, my husband and I welcomed a new member into our family: Rocky. He is a sweet, smart, and handsome rescue dog that stole the hearts of many as he was transported from Arkansas to Colorado to Wyoming and eventually into our home. And, while we were prepared for the challenges of adopting a rescue, I never imagined how quickly I would be thrown back into Psychology 101. Our first walk with Rocky quickly reminded me of the principles of classical and operant conditioning.

(In case these behavioral psychology basics slipped your mind: Classical conditioning is most often associated with Ivan Pavlov and salivating dogs. Operant conditioning is linked to B.F. Skinner and principles of reinforcement and punishment to elicit behavior modification.)

As we walked Rocky, every step was met by commands whether they were “Leave it,” “Wait,” a halt with the leash, or “Sit.” Of course, positive reinforcement such as “Good boy” and treats were also woven in. Rocky quickly advanced to running on the leash, which proved to be easier as running seems to match his natural pace; however, those basic commands continue to dictate the success of each outing we take.

While running with Rocky, I reflected on how much time and energy I expend to train him and facilitate the development of appropriate leash behavior. Literally, every step of our outings are met with some type of command or reinforcement. As I thought about this, my mind wandered to individuals attempting to modify or change a behavior. I do not want to simplify the human mind; however, working with Rocky reminded me just how difficult behavioral modification can be.

Certainly, I empathize with my clients and understand their struggles. However, being in the thick of changing behavior, reflecting on the impact of my rational mind on Rocky’s performance, reminded about the true struggle of change. Rocky is wired to hunt and, being a stray, hunting was a key to his survival for a period of life. Here we are trying to unwire his brain for hunting and teach him to let the food go, promising that there will be plenty to eat when he gets home. Principles of conditioning and neuroplasticity at their best.

Thinking about the struggle and energy required for Rocky’s training, my mind wandered to the amount of energy others put into behavioral change. Not only is it taxing but it can be scary and, often times, not all that rewarding to begin with. Not to mention, many individuals do not have somebody every step of the way praising progress and supporting difficult moments. Most would find that condescending or frustrating. Interestingly, it is a key aspect of Rocky’s work.

What would change be like if you were able to meet your efforts with the same compassion, empathy, and patience as you share with others? How would your process change if you were able to identify positive sources of reinforcement? What types of messages would you repeat to yourself not only to stay on track but also to reward progress?

Day by day, Rocky continues to improve and behaves himself more appropriately on the leash with each outing. Step by step, we continue to provide commands and reinforcement to support Rocky’s progress. We understand and accept that behavioral change takes time and we intentionally set out to create opportunities for success, knowing that each positive outing will eventually support Rocky’s ability to self-regulate and behave appropriately on his own.

How do you set yourself up for success?

Thrive into the Weekend (4.4.14)

[Thrive into the Weekend: A blog series designed to empower athletes to thrive in life and sport by encouraging intentional action]

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

Alfred Adler’s famous quote “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another” is a wonderful description of empathy. Look in the dictionary and you will find a much more complex definition; however, empathy is (simply put) standing in another person’s shoes for a moment in time.  It is the idea of stepping outside of your own being to honor somebody else’s experience.

To practice empathy:

Listen to the other person’s words. What is s/he saying? Are you hearing the actual words or jumping to conclusions about how to solve the problem, identifying a situation that is worse, or recalling a memory that is similar? Stop. Listen to the individual’s words…what is that person saying? What is the tone of his/her voice? Is the person speaking so softly that you can barely hear?

Watch the person’s body language. Does the individual look tense, rigid, or scared? Is s/he on the verge of tears? How does your body language reflect what you are seeing and hearing?

Wonder what it would be like to be in that person’s shoes, with his/her story, holding those emotions. Open your heart to authentically experiencing the individual’s feelings. Allow yourself to feel the pain or joy without letting your own story paint the experience another color. Accept the person’s emotions in the moment-Just let them be without trying to make them other than they already are.

Thrive into the Weekend by practicing empathy. Hold and honor the experience knowing that you are both giving and receiving the gift of authenticity.

Image courtesy of www.thequotefactory.com

Image courtesy of www.thequotefactory.com

Priceless: The Empathetic Response

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

More often than not, people react to each other’s problems with well-intentioned but poorly-timed responses. From sympathy (“Oh, you poor thing”) to problem-solving (“You should try…”), people often miss a critical aspect of human connection: Empathy. In a society that values fast-paced and solution-focused lives, it is common to forget to slow down and listen, let alone feel. Sometimes, individuals’ own insecurities make empathetic responses intolerable. Brene Brown’s video on empathy provides a wonderful glimpse into the powerful human skill.

Think about the last time you shared a problem with a trusted individual. How did that person respond? Was the response congruent with your needs at the time? It is important to remember that you can share your preferences to help guide a support person. Starting with “I just need someone to listen” or “I really need some help figuring this out” will clue your confidant into your needs in that moment. Likewise, next time somebody reaches out to you for support, ask how you can help versus jump to your natural response. While uncomfortable and vulnerable at first, learning to share and receive empathy is an invaluable experience that every human is worthy of.