20 November 2009

On framing and classical conditioning

I wrote a few days ago about our diabetic dog. He has to have his insulin shot twice a day, and he objects, understandably.

So what has learning theory got to say about this? It seems to be the province of behaviourism, since the subject is a dog, but even so it is a nice exercise to work back from experience via theory to strategy for the future.
  • After an initial couple of days when I crept up on him as he was eating and managed to jab him without him noticing, he noticed. In particular he felt the initial pinch and wriggled out of the way, which led to some mis-jabs which had to be repeated to unload the full dose--not a happy experience for either of us.

  • That meant eventually that I had to get a muzzle for him. I did so with regret, of course, and wondering whether this would simply lead to fear/aggression displacement so that the muzzle would become associated with the discomfort to follow. Strangely enough it hasn't. Yet.

  • I'm the one who wields the needle. (At the moment only, I hope...) Theory suggests that my presence will be associated with pain/discomfort and Rupert (yes, I know he ought to be a bear, but we haven't enough room for one--and indeed the prospect of pumping a bear full of insulin twice a day...) will go off me. On the other hand, we've been together for almost thirteen years, so there is positive prior learning to overcome.

  • And I have built one treat (a specific kind of savoury dog candy) into his daily food budget, so that he gets a small portion of that after each jab.

  • In the past couple of weeks we have settled into something of a routine. He accepts the muzzle. He growls and wriggles as I pinch him (to find a pocket into which to inject) and then--two times out of three--does not bother as I inject. On the third occasion he may squeal (no association with a particular site noted; all the sites are around the neck area where his skin is loosest) or wriggle hard, to the extent occasionally of bending the needle or requiring a second attempt.

  • Immediately afterwards I remove the muzzle and give him his treat, at which point his tail is wagging and he goes off to eat the treat.
What is he learning? It's a superficially simple situation but nevertheless very complex. So just two thoughts...
  • Apart from the practical aspect of muzzling him, just what message is he getting from the framing of the event with the muzzle and the treat? If he were a child, I'd be hoping he would construct it as a transitory ritual, which may be momentarily uncomfortable but always ends well--"A spoonful of sugar* helps the medicine go down.."

  • The actual act of injecting him takes less than five seconds, so the "creep-up while distracted" technique might well work again. But would that lead to him learning to be aware of a threat at all times, particularly perhaps when eating?
(*  Sugar is of course problematic in this case!)

As I wrote this, it was time to do it again. No problem with the muzzle; a second's delay after the pinch, and then a growl and wriggle with the jab to the extent of bending the needle and pulling it out... For the first time it took three tries to inject the prescribed dose.


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