To Change Your Pet’s Behavior, Try Changing The Environment

One of the greatest gifts that behavior science has given me is the incredible ability to modify behaviors in the least intrusive, most positive way. Often times I can set myself and my pets up for success simply by rearranging the Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, explains how arranging the environment can help to solve many dog and bird pet behavior problems.environment to make the wanted behavior easier than the unwanted behavior.

Sound confusing? It is really not.

 The ABC’s

I write a lot about the ABCs of behavior. It is the foundation from which I analyze what my pet is doing and what in the environment is influencing his learning.

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 dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? 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)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

I’m going to focus on the A (antecedent) in this article. It’s important to note that antecedents do not cause behavior. However, they do serve as a sign to the animal that when A is there, that if the animal does a certain behavior, then there will be a consequence.

The implications of understanding this are huge. Here are some ways I can use antecedent arrangement as an effective, non-intrusive and positive way of setting my pets up for success:

parrot enrichmentKnowing that my bird, Chester (he passed away), was an incessant chewer who could easily destroy furniture (and did a long time ago), I changed the setting of his environment and provided him parrot enrichment activities. I made play stations on the floor to keep him mentally and physically stimulated if he got on the floor. I also weakened his motivation for coming off his cage by giving him lots to chew on inside and outside his cage.

To eliminate any possibility of my bird, Barnaby, from chewing on the window shade near his play cage, I moved the cage away a couple additional inches.

To prevent a puppy from grabbing onto my sweater, I can avoid wearing loose sweaters around that puppy or I can have a toy in my hand and make the toy very exciting or I can avoid sitting or laying on the ground near the puppy.

To prevent our dog, Sam, from barking at neighbors’ dogs, I can avoid leaving him outside by himself and unattended for long periods of time. (and also give him enrichment toys and more exercise…but that is another article)

Next time your pet is doing something you do not like, ask yourself, “Can I rearrange the environment somehow to prevent that behavior from occurring in the first place?”

Your answer may be the difference between your calling your pet ‘brilliant’ and calling him ‘stubborn.’ And I’d prefer brilliance any day.







Who Is Training Whom?

My dad loves to share stories of Sam’s brilliance…and keen sense of hearing. The two buddies often travel together to the store. My dad says he can’t leave without Sam because Sam knows right away when dad is getting ready to leave and comes running to go with him, waggling his tail and holding a toy.

Who is training whom?Hmm. I thought it’d be fun to take a closer look at this. Remember, living beings learn by the consequences of a behavior and it is those consequences that predict the future rate of the behavior. For any behavior to continue and even strengthen, something in the environment is reinforcing it.

Let’s put our Applied Behavior Analysis hats on for a minute and do a functional assessment of the environment from each perspective. A functional assessment involves looking at the specific measurable
behavior within the context of its environment including the Antecedent (setting event for the behavior), the Behavior, and the Consequence of the behavior. In doing an assessment, always begin by writing down the Behavior we are analyzing, then fill in the A and C.

1. Focusing on my dad

A:         My dad announces he is going to the store

B:         Sam exhibits ‘wanna go’ behaviors (immediately perks up, runs to grab one of his toys     and then comes back to my dad with his whole body waggling

C:        Dad gets Sam’s leash and takes him to the car (there actually could be a second ABC here if I tightened this up)

Prediction:  When my dad announces that he is going to the store, Sam will exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors more frequently to produce the outcome of getting to go to the car.

2.  Focusing on Sam

A:         Sam is laying on floor in the kitchen

B:         Dad announces his excursion

C:        Sam exhibits his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

Prediction: When Sam is laying on the kitchen floor, my dad will announce his excursion more to get Sam to exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

It looks to me like both Sam and my dad are doing a fabulous job of reinforcing the behavior of the other. They are great teachers. I taught them well.


Can I be of help to you and your pet? Please contact me

My Thoughts On Training Aggressive Dogs

I was reading some advice offered online about how to train ‘aggressive’ dogs.

 Among other things, the advice said: “If they (dogs) do not look at the owner as the pack leader, they will take it upon themselves to become the pack leader. This is why many dogs will accept commands from the man in the house but not the wife… He needs to be moved to the bottom of the list in terms of pack order.”

Oh my, where do I even begin on this one?

1.       I guess the first place to start is with the label ‘aggressive’ because your definition and my definition of an aggressive dog may be completely different. Are we talking about a dog who growls at you when you try to take a valued bone from him, a dog who barks at strangers when on a leash while backing up to move away from them, a dog who has biten someone once but not inflicted harm, or a dog who has a history of biting with enough force to cause someone quote about dog training by Lisa Desatnikto need stitches?

A label really does not help to solve a behavior issue and in fact may stop you from digging further to get to the root of the problem. Labels can also create stereotypes in our minds that impact the way we feel about the animal, and ultimately how we choose to treat the animal.

The only way to work to modify a behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way is to look at the specific observable/measurable behavior in the context of its environment. Using Applied Behavior Analysis, we would look at the Antecedent that sets the stage for the behavior to occur and at the Consequence that is produced from the behavior. If a behavior continues to happen and even strengthens, it is because something is reinforcing it.

There are so many different reasons why a dog would exhibit behaviors such as growling, showing his teeth, hunkering down over a prized possession, or biting.

2.       On the issue of dominance, I’ll refer back to a past post. Please click here to read it.

3.       Do I want my animals to see me as a leader? Absolutely! But not as a power hungry monarch. My goal is for my pets and other pets I train to see me as a leader who is truthful and trustworthy, provides clear and open communication, listens to and values their feedback, focuses on their strengths, and inspires them to want to be better.

I know that I learn and perform at the peak of my ability when I am coached by a leader like that. And I have seen first hand the brilliance in animals who are taught from that leadership perspective.


4.       Instead of thinking about any dog as the bottom of the list, I want to empower my pet while doing everything I can to give him a reason to feel safe. I pay attention to his body language and give him the ability to communicate his need for space without having to escalate to a growl. I teach him appropriate behaviors by making those behavior choices valuable to him. I want him to believe good things happen when he does behaviors I ask of him.




Solving A Parrot Biting Problem Positively

Solving parrot biting behavior with applied behavior analysisThe other night I was watching television with my birds (Barnaby on his play gym and Dreyfuss on her window perch) and it was that time. Yep, the clock said 9:00 p.m. and that meant they needed to go back to their cages for the night. Really this wasn’t much different than many nights in our household.

The difference here was that when I walked to Dreyfuss and moved my arm toward her, I noticed her feathers puff out, she lowered her body and held her wings slightly out, and her muscles were tight. I know this body language. This is the non-aggressive body language of a bird who, in the moment, does not want a human’s arm near. It is the language that occurs to tell me, “please back up. I do not want to hurt you, but if you come closer, it may be my only option to get you to leave me alone.”

What was going on? I easily could have shrugged it off to Dreyfuss being an aggressive or dominant parrot. I could have armed myself with a stick and forced her to step onto it. Or I could have murmured under my breath and walked off in a tizzy thinking “that bird is just plain bad.”

But I know better than that. I know that all behavior occurs for a reason and that reason is to get a consequence – to either move an animal toward something positive or away from something negative. Labeling her as dominant, aggressive or stubborn would by no means help me in figuring out why the behavior was occurring and what I could do to change it. Actually by labeling her in that way, it would tend to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy where I’d probably just accept those inaccurate perceptions that would shift my focus in the wrong direction – toward using a punitive teaching strategy with many negative side effects.

What did I do instead? I put by applied behavior analysis thinking cap on. If you know me, you know I talk about ABA. It 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 screaming) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? 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)? It is how I have been trained to look at behavior, and how I teach others to look at behavior.

So, what was going on in the environment? I know that Dreyfuss does not show that group of behaviors all of the time when I offer my arm. In fact, she is one who, on most days, would be perfectly happy staying on my arm for hours on end if I’d let her.

Let’s look at what was going on in the tv room at that time. There are all kinds of things I considered – how long was Dreyfuss on her perch, what was Barnaby doing, what was I doing, what time of day was it, etc. The ultimate question was – in the past, at that specific time of day given the same situation, what was the consequence of her behavior of stepping onto my arm from her window perch?

AH, the answer unlocked the door!

In the past, at that specific time of day, when I would offer Dreyfuss from my arm to step up from her window perch, I either immediately or almost immediately (after walking to the kitchen to get something) walked her into her room, put her in her cage, turned off the light and closed the door.

Actually, it was pretty clear to me. I know that the future rate of any behavior is a reflection of the consequence of that behavior in the past. All things being equal, Dreyfuss could not reliably predict that at that particular time of day, good things would happen if she stepped up.

Let’s look at an ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) for this to make it clearer.

This is how things looked before a behavior modification plan:

Background:  It is night time and Barnaby, Dreyfuss and I are in the tv room with Barnaby on his play stand and Dreyfuss on her window perch. When the sky becomes dark, that is usually a signal for me to put the birds back into their room. It is 9:00 pm.

A:         Standing close to Dreyfuss, Lisa raises her arm.

B:         Dreyfuss would step up

C:         Lisa puts Dreyfuss in her cage for the night

Can you see how Dreyfuss has come to predict that by stepping up onto my arm at that time of day her being out time with me will come to an end?

This is an ABC for what began to happen:

A:         Standing close to Dreyfuss, Lisa raises her arm.

B:         Dreyfuss would puff her feathers, lower her body, hold her wings  slightly out, have tight body muscles

C:         Lisa puts arm down and walks away.

Prediction:  Dreyfuss will show her ‘don’t bother me’ body language more to get me to move away at that time of day.

However, if I was someone who did not pay attention to my bird’s body language and did not heed her warning, this is what that same scenario could possibly look like:

A:         Dreyfuss would puff her feathers, lower her body, hold her wings slightly out, have tight body muscles

B:         Lisa forces arm into Dreyfuss’s chest to get her to step up

C:         Dreyfuss bites Lisa

(followed by)

A:         Dreyfuss bites Lisa

B:         Lisa walks away

C:         Dreyfuss stays on perch

Prediction:      When Lisa puts her arm up to Dreyfuss while on her perch at that time of day, Dreyfuss will bite Lisa more often to get Lisa to lower her arm and walk away and to stay on the perch.

Can you see here how we, as our pet caregivers, actually can teach our pet to behave in aggressive or flight response actions – whether we are talking about a bird, a dog or another animal?

So, back to the modification plan….I always try to find a solution that is the most positive and least intrusive for the animal. There are usually a number of ways to go about it. What they all have in common is that they all are about changing the environment to make the wanted choice for the animal the most valuable, easiest choice to make.

Another one of my goals in creating a plan is prevention of practice of the unwanted behavior. To do that, I brainstorm what can be done in the environment so as to not set that behavior in motion to begin with and get Dreyfuss to step on to my arm without incidence. This is called Antecedent arrangement.

Here are some ideas for this case:

  • Before walking to Dreyfuss, I can pick Barnaby up because she always wants to come along when I have Barnaby with me.
  • I could take her off of her window perch before that bewitching time.
  • I can approach her with her very favorite safflower seeds in my hand.

Once she has made the decision to not show those behaviors and to step up, I can modify the consequences to make that choice more valuable. These are some of the things I can do.

I can practice during the night asking for a step up from the perch with different outcomes such as – putting her right back onto her perch, giving her a seed, walking her to my couch, walking to the kitchen. With each of these practices, the final outcome is her being able to back into the tv room.

I can practice asking for a step up, walking her back into her room and walking right back out to the tv room.

I can practice asking her for a step up, and then offering prolonged head rubs. (She often solicits head rubs at night time.)

I can practice asking for a step up, putting her in her cage and giving her a seed, and then opening her cage door and bringing her right back out. I can practice this for longer durations of her being in her cage with her door closed without seeing any sign of stress from her before opening it. And I can practice putting her in to her cage, turning out the light, and then bringing her back out.

I will mix it up so that sometimes I will put her back into her cage and leave her there.

I am actually in the process of working through all of the above. Already, she is readily stepping up when I walk over to her now at night time. Moving forward, I know it will be a good idea to continue to practice a variety of positive outcomes with her so that she will want to choose to step up.

If “I” become lax again and go back to always putting her back into her cage at this time, I have to expect that she may revert back to her ‘don’t bother me language.’

Her behavior after all is simply a tool to get her a consequence.

The Art & Science Of Training Animals: Responsibility

Below is an excerpt from a paper presented at the ABMA Conference, 2004 on the art and science of behavior and training from Steve Martin, president of Orlando-based Natural Encounters, Inc., from his decades of pursuing the art of training.  Below Steve’s comment is one from Dr. Susan Friedman (my first teacher and mentor in learning about behavior science), a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis training quote from Steve Martin, Natural Encounters, Inc.(ABA) to captive and companion animals.

On Taking Responsibility For Behavior

Steve: “I have learned that the best trainers are usually the ones who accept responsibility for both the good and the undesirable behavior their animals perform. Undesirable behavior in an animal is just as reflective of a trainer’s skills as the desirable behavior.

Accepting responsibility for the undesirable behavior provides personal incentive for a trainer to affect change in the behavior. Excuses like the animal is ‘messing with your mind’ or ‘is jealous’ or ‘is mischievous’ does not relieve a trainer of responsibility for the animal’s behavior. Assigning blame to an animal for its poor behavior only serves to stifle a person’s growth as a trainer.”

Susan: “The animal is never wrong – you get what you reinforce. All behavior has function, including undesirable behavior. The question is not, ‘Why is the animal behaving this way?, but rather, ‘What’s reinforcing this behavior?'”


Solving Parrot Chewing On Shirt Problem

Those who know me know that we had an ordeal here several months ago when Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey, cut his foot open.  After wearing a large wrap on his foot for over 10 weeks, I’m happy to report he is doing great. He is now missing two back toes on one foot but has learned how to adapt to his new way of getting around.

In the early days when he was less stable, he reverted back to an old habit (actually I’m not even sure if he ever did it) of biting holes in my sweatshirt when wearing him on my shoulder.

solving parrot biting shirt problemI’m not sure if he initially began this time as a displacement behavior because I’d redirect him every time I’d see him move his head toward my shoulder. But I do know that in the beginning, I was helping to cause his behavior to continue by reinforcing it with a yell. (It’s hard to ignore your bird when he is putting a hole in your shirt.)

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 screaming) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? 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)? It is how I have been trained to look at behavior.

With my behavior analysis hat on, this is what I saw:

A:         Sweatshirt is easily accessible to Barnaby’s beak as he is on my shoulder
B:         Barnaby begins orienting to the sweatshirt
C:         Closer proximity to my sweatshirt
A2:       Closer proximity to my sweatshirt
B:         Barnaby chews on sweatshirt
C:         Sensory reinforcement and possibly attention from me

Prediction:  Barnaby will continue to orient to the sweatshirt and then chew on my sweatshirt to receive social and sensory reinforcement.

Hmm, it really becomes clear once I look at it this way.  I wanted to act quickly so his sweatshirt biting didn’t cause too many additional holes in clothes I valued. I also didn’t want to use an aversive that could result in his loosing trust with me or his becoming fearful of my shoulder.

So, what did I do?

By analyzing the impact of the environment on Barnaby’s behavior, I then came up with a plan to modify the environment to set him and me up for success.  My goal was to interrupt that behavior change so as to not set that behavior of chewing on my sweatshirt in motion to begin with.

I took out my handy clicker. (He already knows to associate treats with a clicker.) I brought him out with me when I knew he was hungry and would be highly motivated by safflower seeds. I also wore a sweatshirt that I didn’t mind having a little more damaged.

As we stood in the kitchen with him on my shoulder, I watched him. The instant I saw his focus start to go down toward my shirt, I redirected him with a noise and the instant he turned his head to me or just up, I clicked and gave him a seed. We did this about 20 times. I wanted to teach him that *if* he looked at me or had his head up (which is an incompatible behavior to chewing on a shirt), *then* he’d get attention and seeds.

The ABC for this is:

A:         Barnaby orients to sweatshirt
B:         Lisa makes noise
C:         Barnaby looks briefly at Lisa or just up
A2:       Barnaby looks briefly at Lisa or just up
B:         Lisa clicks and then gives Barnaby a seed
C:         Barnaby receives social and sensory reinforcement

I would also just click and give him a treat when he was on my shoulder and not focused on my sweatshirt. I wanted to teach him that when he was on my shoulder, the value was in his keeping his head up and/or looking at me.

Prediction: Barnaby would keep his head up and/or look at me more often when on my sweatshirt to elicit social and sensory reinforcement.

It was working!

Then I wanted to test him so the next time he started focusing downward, I didn’t redirect BUT when his beak touched my sweatshirt, I turned my head away which removed at least any reinforcement he was getting from me. (This is where it was important that I had high value treats because just having the sweatshirt in his beak can provide a lot of sensory reinforcement.)

Scientifically speaking, I was using negative punishment meaning I was removing my attention to cause a decrease in his behavior of touching his beak to my sweatshirt.

Sure enough, he chose to NOT bite into my sweatshirt and instead turned his head toward me. Then I clicked, gave him my attention (LOTS of attention), and safflower seeds. In short – over the top positive reinforcement.

In just a few short minute sessions, I taught Barnaby that biting my sweatshirt doesn’t get him much value BUT looking at me gets him both attention and great food. Guess which decision he has been choosing to make these past few weeks?

Now that he has learned this behavior skill, I have put the reinforcement for head up and/or looking at me on intermittent reinforcement meaning I do not offer reinforcement EVERY time. Intermittent reinforcement builds strong behaviors. Well, okay, in this case the intermittent part doesn’t really always hold true. Barnaby and I like interacting with each other when he is on my shoulder. And that is okay too!


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

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