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Behavioral Therapy



My Abnormal Psychology teacher pooh poohed the idea of long term psychotherapy as something only rich people could indulge in. He saw cognitive behavioral therapy as the answer, because of its short duration and ease of insurance coverage. Often, a course of behavioral therapy will last only six to eight weeks, and focus on a single problem, without taking the time to delve into the history and long term problems of the client.

I disagree with him. I think that, for some issues, long term psychotherapy is the only real solution. But within that construct, or for people who don’t need long term help, I’d rather use a version of role modeling, rather than cognitive behavioral therapy, because there are some skills you can’t learn by talking or reading instructions. Dancing, for example. It’s a thousand times easier to stand behind another person doing a dance step and follow their lead than to try to learn the steps through words. And I think this applies to a lot of the behaviors we want to change; if they really are behavioral deficits, rather than deeper conflicts.

The learning becomes so much easier when someone stands in front of you and slowly shows you each step of how it’s done. The “slowly” part is important, because just watching someone zoom easily through a task does not make me feel like I can follow along and do the same.

There are so many skills that would be easier to learn this way, especially social skills, and hands on skills. I remember trying to make sense of a list of instructions in the biology lab in college and having no idea what to do, but if I could watch someone else do each task first, it made sense and my anxiety receded.

I saw a TV show once, where an older dog taught a younger dog that it was safe to step into the lake, by stepping into the lake himself. That moment resonated deeply with me, because just telling the dog, or me, to do something frightening doesn’t make it possible, but seeing a friend do it in front of me, or, better yet, having a friend do it with me, makes all the difference.

Too often behavioral therapy is not done this way. It’s more like the clicker training we suffered through with Cricket. Here I had this wriggly little puppy who wanted to explore and play and chew things, and the best guidance I could offer her was to sit on command. It made me feel like an ogre. What I really wanted was a better way to communicate with her. I wanted a class in sign language for dogs that would start to close the gap between the language she spoke with her brothers and sisters and the language she was hearing from me.

"I think I will jump out of this bathtub and run around the apoartmetn and roll on all of the clean laundry. Yeah, that's what's next."

“I think I will jump out of this bathtub and run around the apartment and roll on all of the clean laundry. Okay?”

"You don't mind if I chew on this lovely snack, right?"

“You don’t mind if I chew on this lovely snack, right?”

"Why doesn't Mommy understand me?"

“Why doesn’t Mommy understand me?”

It didn’t help that I hated the sound of the clicker, and resented the over use injury to my thumb from having to press the damned thing over and over again. I didn’t mind giving her the treats, though, that part I could understand.

When Butterfly came home from the shelter, we didn’t use clicker training, or commands, to show her where to poop or how to climb the stairs, we gave her Cricket as a role model, and we gave her our love and attention. Cricket taught Butterfly all kinds of behaviors by doing them in front of her. She showed her that the food bowls weren’t filled with poison, by eating from them. She showed her that dogs pee outside instead of in the kitchen. Cricket taught Butterfly how to beg for food, and demand outings, and be a nuisance until she gets what she wants. Butterfly has tried to pick up other behaviors, like jumping up on Grandma, but her legs aren’t long enough or strong enough to do that.

"Cricket? Can I jump too?"

“Cricket? Can I jump too?”

Cricket? Are you upstairs?"

Cricket? I’ll be right there!”

"Cricket? Where are you hiding?"

“Cricket? Where did you go?”

And Butterfly has been doing her own version of long term therapy, showing me the things that scare her – like packing tape being ripped, or thunderstorms, or street noises – and she comes to me, and I hold her, and smooth her hair, and let her know it’s all right. It’s alright that she’s scared, and it’s alright that there are things she cannot do. It’s alright that she needs attention and comfort. It is all alright.

Butterfly in the wind!

” I am a butterfly!”

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

80 responses »

  1. It’s amazing that Kyla, Kenzie, Kaci and Kali turned out as they did with those peeps as examples.

    • How did you manage to grab control of the blog from Kali and Kaci? You and Kyla must have been in quiet cahoots for quite a while! I think Kyla may have been doing some role modeling around your house.

  2. Lily showed Murphy how to bury a treat by pushing at the earth with her nose. I sometimes look at Lily looking at me and hope she has not completely given up! I do get it (mostly), eventually.

  3. I am still a kid in that I scroll down to look at the pictures first because I love your captions. Always! My dogs were just like yours. Muffin followed Daisy’s lead until she decided, “I got this, big girl” and took over. I am just like you–‘show me, don’t tell me.’ My husband is just the opposite. Yeah, it’s a real laugh riot at my house….

    • I think it was when I was ten years old and I wanted to learn how to use the computer: my brother was an expert already and I went to him for help. He handed me an 800 page book and said, you can come back if you have any questions. Oy.

  4. I think the world would be an infinitely more productive, creative, healing place if more people could be told “It’s all right” (to be afraid or not good at accounting or that they enjoy jobs that don’t pay well) instead of being a target for a collective angry sort of questioning. Wonderful post, as always, and lots of love to your two fur babies.

  5. Being a licensed counselor I find more is achieved through a trusting relationship than methodologies!

  6. Midnight showed BabyGirl how to open the doors. That was a big thing for Babygirl because she was afraid of a door and wouldn’t go threw it if it was not open all the way. Now she doesn’t have a problem. I see them teaching each other different things some good and some not so good lol They both taught the bird to participate in their bark fest. Yes the bird now barks.

  7. A truly enjoyable post with some great lessons. Thanks!

  8. Another great, contemplative post, Rachel. I really like the way in which you start out talking about something in general, like therapy, and then circle round it as you bring the dogs (and those dogs are so adorable!) into the discussion. Just so wonderful. Hope you and yours have a Happy New Year! ☺️

  9. Another thought-provoking post with delightful photos!
    I’ve tweeted it and the previous two.:)
    Happy New Year!

  10. have a good years change…dear Rachel 😉

  11. I agree so much with everything you say. Years ago, my GSD showed the new collie puppy the ropes, house training, food, the works. Not bad for a bitch that didn’t like other dogs but then we conned her into believing the pup was hers by wrapping him in her blanket first before introduction.
    Dogs are the best therapy, better than any pills, and better for the soul.
    Love the photos Rachel. 🙂

    • What a great idea! Dogs manage so much of their lives through smell. When Cricket first came home, we had a blanket and a toy from that smelled of her brothers and that seemed to help her, as long as they were never washed!

  12. Beautifully written and so true, almost made me cry. Often our relationship with our beloved dog is a mirror of relationship that we need to build with inner child. Dogs are very good at waking it up. 🙂

  13. Momwithoutpaws always shows me how first and then corrects gently while placing me in position. Then hugging and treating when I do it right all by myself.

  14. Mumsy's Little Chancy Man

    Oh, sweet Rachel what a great post. I would be in deep trouble without someone to show me the way. Chancy has taught me as I taught him he likes treats and hugs but treats are his favorite and he will do about anything for one. Those pictures are adorable, Butterfly and Cricket both are just sooooooo cute! Thanks for stopping by Chancy’s blog. Hugs and nose kisses

  15. Rachel, such a beautiful post! I had the opportunity to go away on an Adventure Camp with the Muscular Dystrophy Association for its more mobile members like me. I had been quite ill just prior to going and even going away in itself was such a stretch. However, while away I did things that even surprised myself. Quad bike riding,parasailing,camel riding and probably the hardest thing …going down a steep waterslide without my glasses on. I am very short sighted…legally blind but these activities boosted my confidence in a way that talking or counselling never could. I went on to ski and learn the violin despite my disability. I still see a psychologist sometimes. Often I just need to download about stuff and near a sympathetic ear. At the same time, CBT does help. I also appreciate the mechanics of that and building and also reducing neuropathways. That is exciting science….as long as your thoughts are not making things worse!!! xx Rowena

    • I always think the best therapy is whatever works for each individual person, and the best therapists are the ones who keep looking and trying until they find what that is.

      • As one dog love to another dog lover, dogs are wonderful healers..even if they steal you special snacks. My border collie Bilbo and I have been through a lot together and there have been times when my husband has been asleep and I’ve been stressed that he’s been there and he doesn’t mind being woken up.
        At the same time, the crazy mutts have a definite need of therapy themselves at times. I call out Lady and Bilbo comes over and there’s no movement from Lady, except perhaps the whack whack whack of her tail on the floor. Hmm…she’s getting lazy! Still believe Bilbo also needs therapy for his postman aggression. The list goes on…Ro

  16. The Red Man has been a behavioral therapist for Tennis Ball Obsessed Chelsea and Squirrel Chaser Spike, too – unfortunately, the behaviors he taught weren’t the “good dog” ones. Sigh. 🙂

  17. As an educator, your blog resonates with the need for modeling. Your writing on this subject is excellent! Catie

  18. Another lovely post from you! I totally agree with you, and I often wish I could just show my dogs what I want them to do, as I know it would make things progress so much more quickly. I have used clicker training extensively, both for competitive sports (obedience and agility) and for basic manners. I do love the way that the clicker makes things more precise, as we are asked to click at the exact moment the dog does the right thing. It also forces us to become better trainers….better at observing, better at being consistent and better at timing. However, I never liked that it creates frustration on the dog’s part, during the time when he is trying to figure out what we want. Yawning and lip licking….sigh. It would be great if we could combine a bit of both….showing and then being consistent, immediate, and aware during the reward phase. You’ve certainly inspired me to move towards that model of doing things.

    • I remember a golden retriever in Cricket’s class who was always coming up with spontaneous behaviors that the teacher wanted her people to give a click for. This dog just automatically did everything the people wanted without being taught, and without knowing what she was doing. She was a natural! And, never stressed out. her favorite pose, in class!!!!!, was to roll on her back and go limp.

      • That definitely sounds like a Golden!!! I guess that is another benefit of the clicker, it can produce a very creative dog, once the dog learns the nature of the game :-)!

  19. Very useful reflections. Many respectable people in the field would agree with your thoughts on the utility of longer approaches in certain situations. Your thoughts on modeling call to mind the work of Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky and also Albert Bandura’s concepts of reciprocal determinism and observational learning.

  20. Great post! I agree with you that many current issues can be traced to our past childhood experiences. Digging into my past has helped me to understand myself. As the saying goes, it’s good to look at your past, as long as you don’t stare. I have learned so much by watching my dog. He tends to be a bit phobic, and I’m sure it stems from a rough puppyhood that I will never know the details of. (He is also afraid of the sound of packing tape). What I have learned the most from all animals is how to live in the present.

    • That’s the most amazing thing! Butterfly has these bad moments, and then she goes outside and runs like the wind and smiles and devours a chewy and all is well. I am going to study her very carefully to see if I can figure out how she’s doing this.

  21. Came up with the dynamic duo of Zush and Kasia, having given Zush a miserable life at 8 by giving her a baby sister…that was bad enough….I didn’t have to go to the clicker….lol

  22. Pingback: Behavioral Therapy | Bobbi's Blog

  23. My Maci does naughty things when she is mad that I am not home. I can’t punish her for them because I understand. It sure doesn’t make clean-up any more fun though.

  24. Love this post! Have a very Healthy and Happy New Year, Rachel!

  25. Excellent post. The way our minds learn things is so fascinating. I learned to play a number of tunes on clawhammer banjo by reading tabs. Tabs, unlike standard music notation can express not just notes but also how they are played – pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides and so on. With practice I became pretty good at sight-reading the tabs, especially if I also listened to various performances of the tune. The difficulty I had was remembering the tunes. It was as if my mind decided I didn’t need to remember the tune because I could refer to the tabs. More recently I discovered some videos in which a teacher played tunes very slowly, adding in explanations, and then performed the same tune up to speed so I could hear how the performance should sound. She did not provide any tabs for the tunes, simply saying she doesn’t like to do that. Instead when she teaches a tune to her students she also makes a teaching video of the tune for that student to use as a reference. The interesting thing is that I found it very easy to learn the tunes by watching and listening, and in the absence of tabs, my brain simply memorized the music without me fretting over it. Learning from tabs was more comfortable (like a security blanket). Learning from the video, I had to really pay attention to what her fingers were doing, and I had to watch some parts of it numerous times, but the learning was beyond a doubt way more effective. I was able to memorize the tunes quickly and as well, I was able to imitate the particular intonation and percussive effects the teacher was achieving without her having to comment on those things.

    • That sounds wonderful! Maybe I should try to learn guitar again. I worked so hard at it and never got very far on my own. But that could be because I’m such a whiner. My poor fingers hurt!

  26. I remember the one time I brought a pup home to keep the other pup company and ended up with two destructive pooches! Wonder where I went wrong on that one? The cable company wondered the same thing. 🙂

    Those clickers are worse than annoying; the sound is as grating as fingernails down a chalkboard and they totally mess up your thumb! Modeling is much better unless you end up with two naughty pups like I did getting into all sorts of trouble! Once we started vigorous exercise, they were like fur-angels.

    • Cricket would LOVE three or four hours of walking a day (by which I mean running and sniffing with only a little bit of actual walking towards the end.). I tried to get her used to the treadmill, but she thought I was trying to kill her. Do you think I could find a bike her size?

  27. Tweeted this and two other recent posts. Keep up the great content!

  28. There are so many skills that would be easier to learn this way, especially social skills, and hands on skills. I remember trying to make sense of a list of instructions in the biology lab in college and having no idea what to do, but if I could watch someone else do each task first, it made sense and my anxiety receded. – that’s how I learn best! I am hoping our rat terrier Spot will teach our baby Link how to be well -behaved like her AND may be how to sing in our chorus 🙂

  29. I did at least five years of therapy and my therapist broke up with me soon after I started blogging, writing made therapy redundant. Our older dogs did very good jobs training our puppies; Marshall trained Rex and Rex trained Jack. 🙂

    • I’ve never had a therapist tell me I’m fine and don’t need to be in therapy anymore. Hmm. Clearly Butterfly has not been training me well enough.

      • Maybe my therapist was bored with me.

      • You are too kind. Psychotherapy has to be subjective because it involves people, emotions and the psyche in general so who is to say what is what. I am happy with writing on my blog, fighting my despair however I can and loving Jack and of course my family. Feeling out of sorts most of the time is weird, irksome and tedious but after being told by so many doctors that they don’t know why so it must be chronic fatigue has left me with nothing but my routine. I guess that it is better than nothing.

      • First step: eat chocolate. Second step: more time with puppies. Third step: yell at doctors for being assholes. (I don’t have a favorite step. They are all very satisfying!)

      • I like all of your steps, I will follow them because I am sure that I will feel pretty darn good after a few tries. 😀 Thanks Doctor Rachel!

  30. laugh out loud moments reading about you and your dogs!

  31. Nice post and thank you for stopping by my blog, too. You are right that cbt isn’t always the answer although it did help my daughter with anxiety. Sometimes though I think therapists exploit people with the long-term therapy because they don’t want to let the client go. I think modeling works well with social skills, eg children with autism. I don’t know about dogs bc mine are distressed rescues and no time to solve their behavioral issues…

    • Counter-transference is definitely an issue with long term therapy, but worth working through if the need is deep enough. My hope is that everyone can get the kind of help that they really need.

      • I hadn’t heard of that–thought the psychs were just desperate for the cash in some cases. This happened to me once. The therapist was not helping me and even trying to prevent my engagement so I let her go and she was very resistant and I think due to lack of clients.

      • Yuck! Best to stay clear of a therapist like that. There’s a reason why she’s hard up for clients. Clearly.

  32. I know Coco loves me; and this is why she just wants to please me. In conversation and communication she has learned what to do… and I have an understanding of what her signals mean. It’s a new language but brings us closer together… very distant from the idea of training a puppy by being the Alpha Dog.
    BTW – these photos are so sweet…

  33. Lovely post…and great photos!


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