Behavior Concepts — from The Avengers!

Avengers movie posterIf there’s anything I’m particularly known for, it might be the integration of nerdy geekdom and behavior analysis. So in the spirit of “you got chocolate in my peanut butter!“, here’s some of what of I was thinking during the Avengers opening night six-movie marathon.

No, really, I was. Along with the, “Awesome!” and all that.

While there are no plot spoilers, be aware that this post references a few scenes from the movies. It will still be here if you need to read it later. 🙂

Bruce Banner could really use some matwork.

For much of The Incredible Hulk, I wondered why no one had bothered to use a conditioned relaxation protocol with poor Bruce. I mean, here’s the poor guy unable to interact in his society or spend quality time with his loved ones because he has a bit of a reactivity problem.

Sounds like a lot of the dogs we work with, actually.

So while it was good that he wore a heart monitor to know when he was going over threshold, he really could have benefited from some basic skills to keep him from reacting in the first place (you know, knowing what to do instead of merely knowing what was going wrong). I’d probably start him on some basic matwork and a relaxation protocol.

I got really excited when Dr. Smartbabble (okay, okay, Dr. Sterns) started talking about the rage reaction beginning in the amygdala and then progressing, and I was disappointed when it was interrupted. I told the friend beside me that I’d wanted to hear the rest, and he grumped some remark about going to the theater with behaviorists. What?

Redirected aggression happens. Be prepared.

(Minor spoiler — not plot relevant.) One of the crowd’s favorite moments in the new Avengers film occurred when the Hulk and Thor cleared an area of enemy combatants and were momentarily left with nothing to fight. They paused briefly, and then Hulk punched Thor out of the frame.

Lacking that relaxation protocol, the Hulk’s arousal has to go somewhere, and it found the nearest target. This happens in the real world, too, and is often behind the fabled “bite out of nowhere.” When a dog can’t reach its real trigger, or when it knows the real trigger is too dangerous, it will find an alternate target for its arousal.

This is the same thing we do when we snap at our spouses after a day of difficult bosses or slam the door at the end of a frustrating phone call. It can occur on a larger scale, too, if we’re more upset or frightened. I have heard pet owners explain the phenomenon in interesting ways — “she barks at the dogs and people outside, but she thinks she’s alpha and she won’t let him bark at them, and so if he comes to the window to bark, too, she attacks him” — but it’s redirected aggression.

Loki is afraid of thunderstorms.

I almost wish this scene had been left more subtle in the film, because I loved the first change of expression alone before the dialogue began. It doesn’t take much to condition a fearful response to a stimulus.

Storm phobia is very common, but your pet doesn’t have to suffer with it. Use counter-conditioning and other techniques to make him more comfortable. And of course, it helps if you keep any furious gods of thunder from strengthening that association as well.

This isn’t their world.

Captain America struggles to catch up with a wThe Avengers Movieorld which has moved 70 years forward without him, failing to understand even commonplace references which others take for granted. Likewise, our pets live in an artificial society of our making, based on our ridiculous habits (greeting face to face instead of nose to tail) and rules (what do you mean, food which fell on the floor or held at my nose level isn’t mine?).

While we may instantly recognize that Stephen Hawking is slang for a really smart person or that a greeting hug is supposed to be friendly, our dogs don’t naturally understand English and may perceived a hug as a facial attack or a stranglehold which hasn’t completed tightening. They may react defensively. It is our job to educate both them and other humans, to avoid the appearance of threat and to prevent injury.

Behavior patterns start early — but they can be changed.

Black Widow began learning her skills as a little girl and used them aggressively, to the point where she was headed for euthanasia (though I’m sure it wouldn’t have been quite so detached or clinical  in the Marvel-verse). But with Hawkeye’s help, she turned around.

I’ve had a lot of questions this month about whether a dog was too old to be trained. I always tell clients, “When they stop breathing, they’re too old to learn something new. Until then, we can work with them.”

Black Widow still has her skills — still uses them — but to a different end. Learned behavior never disappears, but you can change the subject’s focus and goals.

Data helps.

Tony Stark may be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, but he doesn’t have any traditional superpowers. He does have science (even if it’s the rather generous science of the Marvel universe) and he leverages it to his full advantage. Hardly a scene goes by where he’s not crunching some sort of numbers.

You can’t tell what you have to work on, or if you’re making progress, unless you have data. Track what you’re working on and quantify your results. (I’m obviously a big fan of ClickStats, but use whatever works for you, even if it’s a second hand on your watch and tick marks on a notepad.)

Don’t shoot the dog.

(Close to, but not quite, a spoiler.) Even when things are going really bad, and it seems the nuclear option is the only option remaining to you, review your data and your resources. There may still be hope. All the best success stories involve snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Brief to avoid spoilers!)

Nick Fury has his eye on you.

This doesn’t actually have a direct behavioral correlation, but it’s good to keep in mind.

What’d I miss? Anyone else got some great behavior lessons from the Avengers?

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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  1. Fun! And accurate. (Drat… now I may have to see the movie again with all this in mind….) 😉

  2. Great post! Amusing and educational at the same time. 🙂

  3. Wonderful post. I’m actually going to listen to The Avengers and Captain America today while I’m finishing up a painting in my studio. I’ll keep my ears open for other behavior lessons!

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