When it comes to modifying a pet’s behavior, my focus is always on the most positive least intrusive solution. I look at what is happening in the environment to set that specific behavior into motion in the first place, what the consequences are to that specific behavior that are maintaining or even strengthening it, and what can be changed both in the environment and in terms of skills that can be taught to set that animal up for success.
In scientific terms, I use applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a bird biting or a dog barking) and the related environmental context that signals and reinforces it. We ask, “What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling?“ And, “What happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?“
But for the purposes of this specific post, I want to focus on the problem behavior prevention piece – or antecedent arrangement. This is very important because practice with any behavior builds confidence and fluidity.
When I look at modifying an unwanted behavior with a pet in the most positive way, I look at what function that behavior served to the animal and what skills that animal needs to learn to solve the problem. While teaching a pet those skills (replacement behavior) that can give the pet equal to or more reinforcing value than the unwanted behavior, managing the environment so as to not give the pet opportunities for reinforcement of the unwanted behavior is going to help both of us succeed and succeed much quicker.
And, when I talk about changing behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way, there are many times where careful management of the environment so as to not set that behavior into motion in the first place is all that is needed.
For example, if I know that my using a hair dryer is an antecedent for my bird’s screaming, then I can give him something to occupy his attention before turning on my hair dryer, or I can simply use my hair dryer in another part of my house. If I know that my dog is going to be over the top with excitement when company comes over, I can take my dog for a long walk first to lessen the value of over the top behaviors.
My challenge to you is this – when you think about your pet’s annoying behaviors, think about what is occurring in the environment to set those behaviors into motion. Are there simple changes you can make to prevent that chain from occurring?
Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!
(This is one of my past Hyde Park Living columns)
My whole fascination for the study of behavior science was founded over 12 years ago on an international list started by Dr. Susan Friedman (a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Analysis with companion animals). Having that knowledge and support helped me to transform my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby, from an incessant screamer into a bird who talks human to me all day. And it has so changed my relationship with all of my pets.
Now I am paying it forward by helping other animal caregivers to have that same success . One way I am doing that is by returning to that same list. This time around, however, I am training to be a list leader teaching others about Applied Behavior Analysis and its relevance in setting themselves and their pets up for success (and continuing to learn by the awesome mentors on the team).
Our very first lesson of the series is about constructs or labels vs actual behavior. It is a very important distinction when it comes to solving behavior issues in the most positive, least intrusive way.
Have you ever described your pet as stubborn, dominant, spoiled, or jealous? Those words are referred to in behavior science as constructs or labels. They describe what people ‘think’ their pet IS but here is the problem – as a trainer, I have absolutely no idea what it is your pet is ‘doing’ to cause you to see him as stubborn, dominant, spoiled or jealous. What set of behaviors I may picture in my mind may be very different from what set of behaviors that animal is actually ‘doing’. I can help you strategize positive ways of solving a problem of your dog jumping on guests or a bird destroying furniture but I can’t help you strategize solutions for a jealous pet.
Dr. Risë VanFleet (internationally renowned for her work in the fields of play therapy, Filial therapy, and animal assisted play therapy) described some additional problems with labeling (VanFleet, R., Jan/Feb 2012, “That Lazy Owner! That Lazy Dog! The Pitfalls of Labeling our Clients”. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog.)
“When an owner comes in and says, ‘My dog is being dominant. He is deliberately trying to rule me,’ that person is using labeling as well as another cognitive distortion (mind reading) not to mention the application of inaccurate pack theory. These cognitive distortions lead to exaggerated frustration and anger,” she wrote.
Why is labeling a cognitive distortion? She gave three reasons:
1. People – and pets – behave differently in different situations. Risë gave as an example a dentist who might call some patients ‘noncompliant’ because they don’t floss their teeth but does that mean that the patients are always noncompliant? Most people do brush their teeth.
2. If we apply labels to people or dogs, we stop learning about them. “We have, in essence, fooled ourselves into thinking that we have figured them out,” she said, ”The dog who is labeled ‘aggressive’ begins to be seen through that particular lens, and the anxiety or medical problem beneath the behavior might go undetected.” This is HUGE. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information we need to understand what is going on with the animal and in the environment that is affecting the actual behavior.
3. Labeling brings with it a problem of interpretation. How one person interprets ‘anxious’ may be very different from how someone else would. Risë also pointed out that labels have a way of becoming more rigid with time.
So, what is a better option than using labels to explain behavior?
Well, begin by asking yourself, “What does that label ‘look like in terms of actual, observable behavior? Under what conditions does the behavior occur? What is the immediate outcome the behavior produces for the animal?”
Maybe your bird chews on furniture when your bird is activity deprived and has access to the furniture. Or maybe your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting on the couch watching tv and ignoring him. Okay…now we can work on a behavior modification plan!
(NOTE: This is one of my Hyde Park Living columns.)
Have you ever tried to stop an unwanted pet behavior by simply ignoring it? If it is a behavior that is really difficult to ignore, like a bird’s scream or a dog’s whining, you very well may be among the statistic who complains of that problem not going away, but instead intensifying.
Why? What happened?
Well, here is the thing. Screaming and whining are both behaviors that our pets do more of because they have learned that those behaviors cause a positive consequence – human attention. This is called operant learning.
When you then withhold the consequence that reinforces a behavior, the immediate effect is often an abrupt increase in the behavior. Scientifically this is an ‘extinction burst’ and it gives the impression that the behavior problem has worsened. *If* you can effectively continue to withhold that positive consequence, then you would see a steady and fairly rapid decline in the behavior.
However, that is pretty challenging to do when your pet’s behavior is one that is just plain difficult to ignore. And, when you give in and offer attention for the heightened intensity, guess what you have just taught your pet to do *if* he sees your attention as valuable?
Or, you may give in *sometimes*. Sometimes being the key word. An intermittent reinforcement schedule, as it is scientifically referred, causes very strong behaviors because that unpredictability causes resilience. Think about why humans get so addicted to slot machines.
So, what is a better approach? To effectively modify pet behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way, it’s good to use a combination approach.
- Ignore the unwanted behavior. Period. If your dog is pushing your knee or whining to get your attention, it is best to get up without any eye contact and simply turn away or leave the room.
- Differential reinforcement. While you are ignoring the unwanted behavior, reinforce either an alternative behavior (one that takes the place of the unwanted behavior) or an incompatible behavior ( one that cannot be physically done at the same time as an unwanted behavior – laying on a mat is incompatible with bumping your knee)
- Thoughtfully arrange the environment. If you do not want your dog to bump you when you sit on the couch when you watch tv, some solutions can be putting him in another room or tiring him out with exercise prior to your favorite show so that resting is his more valuable choice.
The best part about solving your problem in this way? You are making learning fun. You are strengthening your relationships with your pet. You are setting yourself and your pet up for success.
Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!
This is an inside look at how I used behavior analysis and systematic desensitization to work through a very serious behavior issue in my house – solving parrot aggression. NOTE: this article was written for Hyde Park Living over a year ago.
It all began about six weeks ago. Until then, my birds always had free access to their environment with their cage doors open whenever I’ve been at home. For the most part they’ve stayed on their own cages either napping or keeping busy with things I’ve given them; or Barnaby would fly onto his play cage in the other room.
And that is why, when I came upstairs to hear ‘Mommy here!’ coming from down the hall I initially thought it was just another day…until I saw Dreyfuss atop Barnaby’s cage. Dreyfuss chased Barnaby off his cage and that one bad decision set everything in motion.
Just the sight of Dreyfuss transformed Barnaby, my gentle teddy bear, into pure rage. (aggression not to me, only directed toward Dreyfuss) Barnaby flew at her like a hawk would fly after prey. I’ve never seen him behave like that. That day I kept both birds separated, and then ‘I’ made a bad decision. Barnaby really wanted back into his room and I thought I could allow him open cage time if Dreyfuss was in her cage with the door closed. Sadly, in a split second, Dreyfuss climbed the bars of her cage and Barnaby dove in, tearing Dreyfuss’s toe open.
OK, there was no more room for bad decisions. I had to come up with a game plan fast. Knowing that ‘positive practice makes perfect’ when it comes to any behavior, my short- term goal had to be preventing any situations that would create opportunities for Barnaby’s flying at Dreyfuss behavior. Every moment of every day that passes without Barnaby flying at Dreyfuss is a practice-free victory.
Remember those ABCs of behavior I’ve been talking about? Well, in this case the antecedents that predict Barnaby’s flying behavior included Dreyfuss being within close proximity of less than six feet apart in their room, mostly outside of her cage but also if she is on the inside, on the cage bars closest to his cage – whether sitting on her door, on top of her cage, or on my hand. Actually, when I analyzed it closely, there is a chain of ABCs. Those antecedents predicted Barnaby’s feathers to stand erect, his body to become taught, and his eyes to be pinned while being transfixed on Dreyfuss.
The ABC formula for this would be: (background scenario is that the birds are within six or seven feet from each other and usually in their own room) 1. Antecedent – Dreyfuss is outside her cage (or on the cage wires closest to Barnaby’s cage); Behavior – Barnaby’s feathers stand erect, his body becomes taught, and his eyes pin while being transfixed on Dreyfuss; Consequence – Dreyfuss stays where she is at. 2.) Antecedent – Dreyfuss stays where she is at; Behavior – Barnaby flies at her; Consequence – Dreyfuss gets knocked to the ground, injured or fights back.
As you can see, Barnaby clearly exhibited non aggressive body language that did not achieve a desired consequence, which escalated things to the aggressive flying behavior. By looking at the behavior in the context of its environment, the key to success here was to interrupt that chain. I had to work to 1) reduce or prevent circumstances as much as possible that would cause Barnaby to exhibit that body language to begin with and 2) if Barnaby did show any of that body language, I needed to empower him by allowing him to have a positive consequence from that nonaggressive behavior BEFORE it escalated.
In the beginning when tension was at the extreme (when just the sight of Dreyfuss would set things in motion), I kept the two birds either in their cages or as far apart as they needed to be in order for Barnaby to be relaxed. And I never missed an opportunity to reinforce calm behavior with attention and/or food. (If they were out of their cages, one was in the tv room.)
Slowly I was able to carry Barnaby closer to Dreyfuss all the while going only at a pace that Barnaby’s body language told me he was comfortable with. As I walked with him on my arm, I continued to divert his attention with a lot of my attention. The second that I saw any sign of tensing up in his body, that was my cue to back up and start again. Scientifically this is called systematic desensitization, when you gradually expose an animal to a feared stimulus in small, incremental steps, never crossing the threshold into tense body language.
After some days when Barnaby was showing calm body language (not fixating on Dreyfuss, feathers down) while in the same room as Dreyfuss – in another area of the house – it was time to start working with them in their own room where the flying behavior is most likely to occur. Always in prevention mode, I let Barnaby out of his cage first and then gave him a few seeds before taking a step toward Dreyfuss’ door. I never took my eyes off Barnaby. If I noticed even one of those precursor behaviors just starting, I backed away from Dreyfuss’ cage. Again, slowly we got to where I opened her door and got her out. Then, as soon as she was out, I held her at arm’s length while giving Barnaby more attention for showing calm body language. Next, when we got to where Barnaby would step up on my other arm while I was holding Dreyfuss, I ignored her while talking to Barnaby.
Over time and positive repetitions, because I used only positive reinforcement while allowing Barnaby the power to make his own decisions, he no longer pins his eyes or gets taught when I let Dreyfuss out of her cage or pick her up and I can walk out of their room for short periods of time, while still in range.
I’m not sure if there will ever come a day when I can leave their cage doors open for hours at a time again (Barnaby does still need his exercise flying laps after all), but it sure is nice having peace again in our house.