The Magic of Behavior Therapy: True Stories


Although I’ve been practicing behaviorally oriented therapy for more than 20 years, I’m still amazed and delighted by its power and effectiveness. Here are four tales of behavior therapy, from both inside and outside my office, with children, adults, and even animals!

Playing with Spiders

I recently had a very satisfying experience in the clinical practice. A client of mine asked me if she could bring her grandchildren to a session, in order to work on their spider phobia.  I told her that if they were willing, I’d be happy to work with them. We would be able to make some progress by having the children look at pictures of spiders on my computer. The kids were 10 and 13, let’s call them David and Janet.

She surprised them (and me) by announcing at the beginning of the session that she had actually brought two live spiders in jars.  This changed my plans for the session. I told the kids that we would only work with the live spiders if they were comfortable doing so. (It’s not a good idea to spring surprises during desensitization sessions.)

So we started doing what is called desensitization.  This is a process where step-by-step, in a gradated way, the client is exposed to the fearful object.  We started off by looking at pictures of spiders on the web (pun not intended).  I picked less scary pictures at first, and I asked the children to rate their anxiety.  Then I asked them to see if they could lower their anxiety numbers.  We used a hundred point scale, and when they were able to lower their anxiety from 70 or 80 to 30 or below, we moved on to the next picture.

Eventually they were looking at pictures which were quite scary looking, even for me, and I like spiders!

Next we went on to work with the actual spiders.  There were two spiders.  One of them was a small daddy long-legs spider, and the other was a relatively small but scary looking spider.  I decided to work with the daddy long-legs spider, as it was slower moving, and less scary looking.

First I had them look at the spider in the jar.  Next I had them hold the jar.  They were able to do this fairly rapidly.  The next step was to open the jar, and look into the jar with the spider walking around inside the jar. David and Janet were able to do this without very much anxiety at all.

The next step was harder. It was to allow the spider to walk around on my office floor, and to have them touch the spider.  I made this a little bit easier by having them put on surgical gloves.  First I modeled the behavior for them.  I touched the spider, and then I allowed the spider to walk over my hand.

Now it was their turn.  First one, then the other, tentatively touched the spider.  At first their anxiety rating was quite high, 70 or 80.  Then I had them do this repeatedly, until they were able to do it with relatively low anxiety ratings of about 40.

One of the advantages of working with both of them simultaneously was that they were a bit competitive.  Janet was initially a little braver, but David quickly responded to this challenge, and matched her touch for touch.

Once they were comfortable touching the spider with gloves on, it was time to take the gloves off.  Once again I modeled for them touching the spider comfortably.  In a few minutes, they were able to allow the spider to walk over the back of their hand.  After a few minutes more, they were able to have the spider walk up their arm.

By the end of the session they were very comfortable playing with this small spider.  They were actually having fun playing with Mr. Daddy Long-Legs. And this was only a 60 minute session!

Once again, I was amazed at the power of simple behavioral tools.  Modeling — where the therapist demonstrates a behavior.  Gradated exposure — gradually exposing the person to increasingly fearful stimuli.  Reinforcement — where the therapist complements and praises the client for successful exposures.  Shaping — where the client is reinforced for behaviors that gradually approximate the target behavior.

In less than 60 minutes I was able to take these two brave children from being terrified of spiders to relative comfort with spiders.  Given that most people are not comfortable having a spider crawl up their arm, by the end of the session they had actually exceeded the comfort level of the average person.

(I recently got a follow-up report on the kids. According to grandma, David now can pick up dead spiders with his fingers, without using paper, which he could not do before. While his family was recently eating dinner, they noticed a large fly buzzing around. During their meal, the fly got caught in a spider web in the corner of nearby window. After the family had eaten dinner, they inspected the web and found the spider wrapping the fly. They left the web in place, deciding that it was beneficial, and David was comfortable with the arrangement. Janet reported that was able to put her hand on a picture of a big, multi-colored ugly black tarantula in her science textbook, with her mom watching. )

Bridging the Gap

Another opportunity for using the science of behavior therapy arose on a vacation. My partner and I were visiting Vancouver Canada, and one of the attractions there is the Capilano Suspension bridge (www.capbridge.com ). The bridge is a 6 foot wide suspension bridge which is 439 feet long, and 230 feet above a river gorge. It’s like the bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, swaying as you walk across it.

There was only one catch, my partner is very afraid of heights. She hates any situation involving them, and doesn’t even like walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.

But I thought that this might be an opportunity for her to overcome this fear, and offered to do in vivo desensitization with her if she was willing.

So we did. First I had her approach the edge of the bridge, and once again, I had her rate her anxiety using a 100 point scale. Ninety, she said. I then asked her to use breathing and relaxation to lower the anxiety. Before long she was able to stand at the very end of the bridge.

Next I had her advance out a few feet onto the bridge, stay there as long as she needed, and then retreat to solid land. She repeated this several times, until it was more comfortable.

Then I modeled walking partly across the bridge. I went slowly and hesitantly, modeling caution and slowness rather than speed and bravado. A coping model that shows the person overcoming fear is more effective than a perfectly confident model, I have found.

She then walked 10 or so feet across the bridge, and stood on the swaying bridge. Fear spiked and then subsided.

All along, I was giving her a lot of praise and encouragement. Next she managed 15 feet, and then retreated. Then she advanced 20 feet, then 30, then 40, and so on, until she was able to walk all the way across the bridge. Once she had accomplished that success, I had her repeat the process until her comfort level increased. I even invited her to jump up and down on the bridge, to demonstrate her lowered fear levels.

By the end of our visit there, not only was she able to traverse the bridge (which I admit was scary, even for me), but she was also able to traverse another attraction, a catwalk that was built between a number of Douglas Fir trees, which at points is 100 feet off the forest floor. This required more desensitization, but was successful in the end.

By the end of the day my brave partner had successfully overcome a lifelong fear of heights, and experienced some tourist attractions that she never would have enjoyed previously. When I showed her the video of her walking across the bridge, she was amazed at what she had been able to do.

Which is what I truly love about behavioral therapy; the ability to quickly and without lengthy therapy to overcome lifelong fears and expand one’s personal horizons!

Shaping Sandy to Swim

Another technique of behavior therapy is called shaping. What is shaping? Shaping is a technique where you reinforce gradual approximations of that behavior until you achieve the full behavior.

I had an opportunity to utilize shaping last summer when we spent some time at Lake Tahoe. We were renting a house on the beach, and our next-door neighbors had an adorable golden retriever named Sandy. Sandy loved to play on the beach, and her favorite game was fetch. But she wouldn’t go in the water past her ankles, and was afraid to swim. The owner said that she had never been willing to swim, even though they came up to Lake Tahoe regularly. The dog was about three years old.

I was challenged. Could I use behavior therapy to help Sandy overcome her fear of water and start swimming? I knew one thing; that dogs instinctively know how to swim, so it wasn’t a question of skill.

I decided to utilize the technique of shaping. First I made friends with Sandy by playing fetch on the beach. Pretty soon whenever I came out to the beach Sandy would run over with a stick to play.

Next I trained Sandy to follow me with the stick. She would follow me anywhere on the beach. Then I went into the water and encouraged her to follow me a few feet in order to grab the stick. She was willing to come into the water a little bit. I would praise her, and I would play some more with her on the beach.

Next I made it a little bit more difficult. In order to grab the stick she had to follow me into the water a few feet more.

I kept repeating this, each time requiring her to follow me further out into the water. Pretty soon she was following me five or 10 feet out into the water, but she still wasn’t swimming. Her feet were still on the bottom.

Next I used a slightly different technique. This time I had her come out into the water and grab the stick with her mouth. Instead of releasing it, I held on and moved out deeper into the water. Pretty soon her feet were off the bottom and she was swimming. I would then let go and she would swim back to shore, shake off, and play with me some more. The first time I did this she seemed a little perturbed, but quickly got into the game.

Over a couple of training sessions during the same day I continued this process. She got more and more confident, and was willing to swim out to grab the stick.

Finally I had her owner call to her while swimming in the deeper part of the beach. I threw a tennis ball out to the owner, and Sandy much to everyone’s surprise, swam out to the owner, grabbed the tennis ball, and swam back to the beach!

After that, Sandy seemed comfortable swimming in order to fetch a stick or a ball, even when it required her to swim in deeper water. Shaping had allowed her to learn gradually to overcome her fear and be able to swim with comfort.

The owners were amazed, as many times they had tried to coax her into the water. All I did was apply systematic methods of behavior therapy in order to allow Sandy to succeed. I shaped Sandy to swim, and she followed her destiny as a waterdog retriever.

Finding the Right Reinforcer

I want to tell one more story about behavior therapy, this time with dogs.

Although I’m a human therapist, I am very fond of dogs, and if I had an alternate career it would be as a dog trainer.

My friends Marli and Stu have two adorable dogs.  They are Papillons, which are small cute toy dogs, who look a little bit like the gremlin "Gizmo" in the movie Gremlins .  They have the same floppy ears and big eyes. (But they don’t turn into monsters if you feed them after midnight!)
In an effort to make their lives a bit more convenient, my friends had installed a dog door into their bedroom so that the dogs could go outside without needing help.

The problem was that neither Vinnie, the older dog, nor Bowie, the younger dog, was willing to use the dog door.  They were both afraid of it.  After weeks and weeks of hoping the dogs would figure out how to use the door, they still had not. Stu and Marli kept putting the dogs through the door, but the dogs never figured out how to use the door on their own.

Enter the confident behavior therapist, who offered to solve this problem.  I was very confident that I could use food treats to entice the dogs through the door.  Once having learned how to go through the dog door, I felt that they would continue to use it without treats.

I asked my friends not to feed the dogs the day I came over so that the dogs would be hungry and more motivated by food.

To make a long story short, I failed miserably.  I was able to coax the dogs through the dog door by physically picking them up and pushing them through the door, but no amount of food treats would entice them to go through the door.  They seemed uninterested in food treats. After several hours of trying everything I could think of, I gave up.

This bothered me greatly.  Had I lost my behavior therapist powers?  Had the technology failed?  That night, as I tried to fall asleep, I found myself obsessing a lot about the problem.  Just as I was about to fall asleep I realized the solution.

Can you guess what the solution was?  I will give you a hint that it had to do with what type of reinforcements I had selected.  Let me give you one more hint.  Both of these dogs are very attached to my friend Marli.  They like Stu, but they are crazy about Marli! They follow her everywhere. When she comes home from work they go nuts wanting to play with her.

The solution was to change the reinforcement.  Instead of putting food on the other side of the dog door, I needed to put Love!  What I did was to have a Marli call her husband Stu right before she came home.  Then he would put the dogs outside.  She would come inside the house, and call to the dogs through the dog door.  The first time she did this both dogs dove through the dog door as if it wasn’t even there!

The next time she came home she came through the yard, and called to the dogs from the outside.  Once again, motivated by love, they were very willing to use the dog door to get outside.

After a few days, they no longer had to use this procedure, as the dogs were happily using the dog door on their own.  Behavior therapy had triumphed once again, but it required a more careful behavioral analysis of what these particular dogs found reinforcing.  They were more motivated by love than by food.

And that’s a key secret…sometimes the best motivators are subtle, and never forget the power of love to motivate! If reinforcement isn’t working, it’s probably because you are not using the right reinforcement.


Copyright 2008 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D./The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

One thought on “The Magic of Behavior Therapy: True Stories

  1. I found your article darling.It gave me much insight to my own issues and I thank you for posting this for those of us that are as well battling punctuality issues. Thanks! T H

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