Should we train a child to hug?

I just read a fascinating article on ABA (applied behaviour analysis) methods for treating autism — in The Atlantic — and was shocked at the idea of “training” a child to hug someone: a child who did not want to, previously. It seems manipulative. Doesn’t hugging — or any show of affection — get its meaning from spontaneity? How genuine is a learned hug?

Is it ethical — or even just a good idea — to force “normal”?

Yet I plan (hope) to train my dog to like being touched by people. ABA is nothing if not manipulative: using our brains to get a desired effect/affect.

Here is my justification:

  1. Vets are part of a healthy life for dogs. The vet must touch her.
  2. I can’t guarantee that no one else will touch her; I want to limit causes for fear.
  3. If she is afraid of being touched, she is likelier to bite someone — which may injure and/or traumatize the person and shorten Lyra’s life expectancy.
  4. (Secretly) I want people to like her. People struggle to like aloof beings (dog or person). The more aloof she is, the more isolated I feel.

The last point is the dodgiest, ethically; however, I feel able to stand by the first three. It remains a deep question, though: how do we justify efforts to change someone’s (or dog’s) temperament?

Dog training — like child raising — is a quagmire of theories. I wonder how many people sift through them all and make a deliberate choice of approach. E.g., I veer away from the “Nothing in Life is Free” school of dog training because it feels wrong to me. It lacks the idea of grace (in the theological sense, and I am not religious, so don’t ask me why this matters so much). I’m even torn about the four quadrants — however useful they are — because I cling to the idea of mystery. Are we simply the sum of our behaviour? If you give a dog the optimal number of treats at an optimal rate, will she always choose to walk at your side?

So I feel like I’m pillaging from operant conditioning, without embracing it wholeheartedly. I want the effect — for Lyra to feel better about certain things, i.e., to suffer less — but I see the four quadrants as tools rather than four quarters of a whole. “Lyra” is partly a social construct. So is “Megan” for that matter. Our behaviour follows laws. However, it does not follow that all applications of those laws are ethical, or even desirable for the whole of society.

Perhaps that is where the humanity comes in: in the deliberate choice of how to apply science, and the awareness that we are making a choice. ABA can make someone choose to hug another person — just as I can train Lyra to wrap her paws around another dog. It can make someone feel good while they hug, and it can effect a good outcome. These reasons may well justify a trained hug (more so with children than dogs!) but ABA can’t make the subjective experience of hugging the same for everybody. It’s like we’re asking the child / dog to go through the motions in the belief that an appearance of “normal” will help them thrive, or even survive. We hope that the child / dog feels good about it, but it’s hard to know for certain.

To get back to the original dilemma… I want to change Lyra’s response to touch — not because I want to make her become a “normal” dog (whatever that means) but simply to avoid trauma. So, while I shun the goal of making any kid/dog “normal”, I accept the goal of trying to increase the odds of survival. The “humane” approach, in my opinion, is a kind of minimalist behaviour modification — based on the essentials of survival in human society.

My own take on ethics is imbued with the value of (bio-/socio-) diversity so will likely never be perfect in human society (or, economy) — which often seems antithetical to diversity — so I fall back on “try to ease pain”, which is admittedly crude.

As a final aside: I tried to “set Lyra free” today. No, really, I had a moment of aching frustration — a build-up of backward steps — when I dropped her leash and said, “fine, just go”, in a gesture of heartbreak. (I made sure there were no streets/people/coyotes nearby.) But of course she came straight back and looked at me — I carry the treats — so here we are again 🙂

2 thoughts on “Should we train a child to hug?”

  1. Love this post. Working with fearful dogs is an ongoing challenge that many people can’t appreciate. Miller is very touch sensitive, so I appreciate the difficulty.

    1. Thank you! You’re right; it’s hard to convey the complexity of the issue to people who are used to “normal” dogs. Also, the reality of it being long-term — maybe even unfixable. We have to juggle the acceptance of our dogs — for who they are — with the hope that we can alleviate their stress, at least a little bit.

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