Shaping Confidence, or How to Deal with Penguins

In Hadley’s book, quite a number of things are alarming. One of them: new objects in familiar spaces, like the neighbor’s trash bag that hasn’t been sitting out the day before, or a penguin wearing a hat, standing provocatively at a doorway where no one used to stand. (I totally get that. Penguins are not supposed to wear hats; now that’s just weird!)

My favorite way to deal with scary stuff is to make it part of a game. I’ve done this with Phoebe back in the day when she had a random-objects-are-scary phase in her adolescence, and now I’m using the same strategy for Hadley. By means of shaping, I want to give Hadley the experience that he controls the situation, and can turn scary stuff into cookie vending machines by means of choosing to engage with it.

Engaging with scary objects in return for a cookie is entirely his choice, not mine. I’m not luring him closer, and I’m not forcing him to engage with the scary object in any other way. Hadley decided whether he goes all the way up to an object, touches it, or just plays a little LAT from a distance. If he chooses to disengage after a little while, that’s okay, too.

Now that I’ve finally decluttered my camera phone, I got to film today’s encounter with a penguin wearing a hat. We met that weird bird on our way home from a walk in the neighborhood. We frequently walk past this house, and never before has there been a penguin standing in front of it. Obviously, Hadley was concerned. It looked quite devious in its green hat, pretending to be all innocent, just standing there provocatively. It might just have been planning to murder us all, and Hadley was right to point this out to me.

This is what our penguin session looked like:

Note that rather than using strategic points of reinforcement, I’m feeding away from the penguin, so the increase of distance acts as an additional reinforcer (R-). The whole thing took about 5 minutes, including a few breaks whenever either Hadley chose to disengage and do sth. else for a little bit, or when I went to reinforce Phoebe who I had put in a sit-stay. When Hadley offered looking at the penguin or approaching it again after a break, we were back in the game. At 0.30 in the video, you can see from Hadley’s body language that he’s getting too close. I should have clicked sooner, i.e. after fewer steps towards the penguin. He trusts me enough to keep playing, so for the next click, I lower criteria to just a few steps, something he can easily do. Then I gradually increase criteria again. At the end, you see his first bold touch. He’s not worried anymore and recognizes the penguin as the latest cookie-vending machine that has been placed here for his convenience! Engage with it, get a cookie from mum. Sweet!

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