In this blog, I want to look at this idea some more and give a few more examples.
Another way of looking at “lumping” the environment is, again, trying on different phrases.
For example in the horse world, we talk about the horse needing “more mileage”. By “mileage”, most people mean that the horse needs more experience, needs to go to more shows, travel more, experience more, show more, get ridden more. And this is all true, but is there a way that mileage can accrue in a gentler way than just flooding or habituation?
Flooding is just as it sounds – pouring on the stimuli until the organism (the animal) just quits responding. This is the path to the animal “shutting down”, giving up, or becoming “dead broke”. As in “dead”. Truly dead. To everything – outside stimuli as well as cues. Have you ever heard of horses being “dead in the mouth” or “dead in the sides”? This is part of the reason. There is so much stimuli coming at him that he can’t respond to anything unless the stimulus the trainer is giving is quite harsh.
When you hear “flooding”, think drowning.
One example given for flooding is imagine being afraid of spiders. Someone has offered to cure you of your fear spiders by putting you in a room full of spiders of all sizes and they are everywhere and the door is locked. You cannot get out. Imagine what that would be like. That’s flooding.
Unfortunately, flooding is what we do to our horses most of the time in the name of putting on “more mileage”. We toss them on a trailer, haul to a recognized show, and expect them to perform perfectly in all aspects. Atticus had that experience by going to Dressage at Devon as a four-year-old for his very first show. There was a plan to attend a schooling show first, but it got rained out. The final result was not optimum for him even though he did come home with a ribbon.
Several years ago, on the other hand, a friend of mine and I had plans to attend Dressage at Devon with our young fillies. First we practiced with them at home. Then we hauled to a quiet arena and practiced there. Then we hauled to a show facility when there was no show going on. Then we hauled to a schooling show and just walked around. Then we actually entered a schooling show and showed HC, or hors concours, which means you aren’t actually being judged. You’re just there for the experience – the “miles”. Then we actually hauled to Dressage at Devon and showed our young horses ourselves. (These days you can’t actually do that anymore because the competition is so tough you need to hire professionals to do the job for you.)
My point is, my friend, who doesn’t know a thing about learning science, knew how to thin slice the environment.
If I were to do that again today, I’d add in positive reinforcement training and slice the environment even thinner. How would you slice it thinner?
A great dog example is one by Eileen Anderson and her formerly feral dog, Clara. You can read about how she changed Clara’s ideas about people, cars, and stores on her blog, Eileenanddogs. Clara was a feral pup and Eileen has done a fabulous job (with the help of her trainer) to “recondition” Clara’s reactions to the environment.