Halyomorpha halys, or otherwise known as The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug is an alien species to the North East, USA. They appeared and took over in swarms. So massive are these creeping and crawling, stinking, biting, buzzing swarms that they’ve been known to destroy a whole season’s worth of crops, and to cover the entire southern side of buildings.
These guys aren’t tiny either. They’re about the size of a penny. They have thick shells that will cut skin. When alarmed, they spray a sulfurous stinking deterrent. They’ve also been known to bite.
Outside isn’t safe from them… But neither is inside your home. They always get in. You can find them in bed with you, in the clothes you’ve just put on, landing in your soup, jumping into your bathtub while you’re still in it.
People, they may not be a threat to my well being or even my life, but I have a primal, irrational, visceral fear of them. And unfortunately, they’re here to stay.
I apologize ahead of time for sharing too much info with you, but here I was in a bubble bath when I hear the telltale “buzz” of just such a spawn of Satan in the bathroom with me. Foreboding sets in. Fear engulfs me. It’s there, throwing it’s disgusting self into the vanity mirror under the lights, over and over and over again.
I’m at a distance, but I can’t leave the scene, my towel is too close to it! I’m trapped with it for thirty whole minutes. Time enough for desensitization to set in. But it didn’t.
Each time it ventures a little nearer, I grab my Kindle and shield myself instead of screaming, until it goes back to the mirror. I can avoid it! My fear of it should subside, right? Nope. I’m just as afraid as ever.
Finally I’m done, I just can’t take it anymore! The once nice bath has run cold and I’m miserable and terrified.
I make a break for the towel and run screaming and dripping wet from the bathroom to get someone else to take care of it.
It’s just a bug. Yes, I’m aware. And it wasn’t hurting me. I get that too. But I was much more willing to put up with being freezing cold, and stubbing my toe painfully on the way out, than face my fear of this disgusting, loathsome creature. Even with my human logic and reasoning, I didn’t stop to consider that my very survival wasn’t in the balance. I was scared, and sticking around to face it, even with distance and a safety behavior (remember my Kindle shield) didn’t work.
This is a true story. But what does it have to do with animal training though? There are certain protocols making the rounds, based on exposing the animal in small, graduated but still stressful doses to what they fear, and then rewarding the animal with distance from their fear, for doing a behavior alternate to freaking out. Different, non-freak out behaviors are being reinforced, these behaviors are called stress signals. The animal doesn’t do stress signals unless they’re stressed! Just like I wouldn’t feel the need to use my Kindle as a shield unless I was scared and stressed.
This is purposely exposing the animal to what they fear, over and over again, in measured, graduated doses. At a stressful level of exposure, instead of at a neutral level of exposure. And keeping them there until they’ve performed a desired behavior, and then they get to escape.
The desired behavior (the alternate to a freak out behavior) isn’t going to be reinforced unless the animal finds escape to be a reward. For escape to be a reward, they have to be at a stressful level of exposure, where they don’t feel safe and feel the need to escape.
Just like I could have simply gotten used to the stink bug, perhaps if I only had a minor degree of fear, dogs can simply get used to what they fear too. But this is “baseline”. Neutrality. They may not fear it anymore, but they don’t exactly look forward to it either. This makes sliding back into fear a very probable occurrence. Particularly if it’s something that’s inherently unpleasant. This is called return of fear (ROF).
But if that doesn’t happen, if they don’t just get used to it, the fear doesn’t dissipate and the animal is pressured into behaving in a subdued manner, not free of fear. The fear is still there.
So? So what? My point is, we have other methods; more tried and tested, and far less stressful to absolve fear. Methods that, when correctly executed, teach that what was once an unpleasant thing is now perceived as a predictor to a fabulous outcome. Even if the thing is inherently unpleasant, it becomes something worth enduring to get the pay off. That’s where that extra oomph, instead of just baseline neutrality, really comes in handy.
Anyways, even though my stink bug situation is now over, I sit here writing this, in a cold sweat and feeling somewhat sick from the experience. Fear sure doesn’t feel great.
Pictures sourced in order of appearance: