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.







A Different View On Dog Behavior

Someone shared with me the other day of her frustration she was having with her dog. It seems her dog has a favorite pillow in her bedroom she keeps on the ground and as soon as she goes in there with her dog, Fido lays on it.  She keeps yelling at her dog when Fido goes to his spot, and he does come off willingly but his behavior hasn’t stopped. It’s very frustrating for her.

tips for solving dog behavior problemsI thought I’d share some of what I shared with her, as it is pretty relatable if you change ‘pillow’ to any other object.

So, why doesn’t this women’s dog get the fact that she does not want him on her pillow? Why does he continue to choose to go there every time they go into the bedroom together despite the fact that he gets yelled at when he goes there?

My background is in learning to solve pet issues in the most positive, least intrusive ways by looking at it objectively, visibly, and measurably through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a systematic approach to modifying behavior 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)?

So, to begin with this situation, we need to stop and look at things from her dog’s perspective. We know that behavior is simply a tool to get an animal a consequence of value to that animal, so, instead of becoming frustrated with Fido for just doing what works to get him something he wants, let’s think about what those consequences could be that are maintaining and strengthening the behavior of laying on the pillow (scientifically speaking, he is receiving positive reinforcement for this).

A few possible consequences could be sensory stimulation (the feeling of softness) or attention from Fido’s owner (when he lays on the pillow, she calls him to come off and sometimes may do something else with him that she thinks will divert his attention away from the pillow).

We also know that the antecedent to Fido’s getting on the pillow is his walking into his owner’s bedroom with her when the pillow is on the floor. But also, some other contributing factors (we call these distant antecedents) may be: Fido generally does not receive much attention during the day, the home has all hard floors with no other soft options on the floor. And additionally, we know that Fido does not go into that bedroom by himself.

The ABC analysis for this situation would be:

A (antecedent):  Proximity to pillow when owner is present
B (behavior):  Fido gets on pillow
C (consequence):  Owner’s attention, sensory stimulation

Prediction:  When the owner is present, Fido will get on the pillow more to get his owner’s attention and sensory stimulation.

When you break it down like this, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet’s ‘bad’ behavior.

Looking at that situation then, there are choices to make. Altering the consequence so that the learner is not getting reinforcement for the unwanted behavior is very important, but doing that alone does not help to teach the animal what it can do instead to get reinforcement.

Actually in this case, because it would be difficult to prevent reinforcement for the behavior once it is set into motion, a better solution would be to focus on the antecedents so as to prevent practice of that behavior (because practice with positive outcomes builds strong behavior).

Brainstorming, some possible ideas for solutions (using the most positive, least intrusive strategies) include:

1. Moving the pillow to a higher surface
2. Getting a plushy dog bed or other soft area and building great value for Fido to go there instead
3. Have high value puzzle toys or other activity available in the bedroom that Fido will want to engage in
4. Teach Fido to do other behaviors than laying on the pillow, when in the bedroom

To build value for the last three ideas, I’d remove or move the pillow while teaching and building huge value for the wanted habits so that over time, those behaviors are the ones Fido will choose to do.

When you modify behavior in this way, you are also enriching your dog’s life and strengthening your relationship with it. Those are two great reasons to see things differently.

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Who Is Training Whom?

Just for fun, kind of/sort of, do you live with a skilled human trainer? I remember once hearing Susan Garrett say that anytime two animals are living together, one is always training the other.

Do you want to stop your dog from doing problem behaviors? Here is another way of looking at the solution.What exactly does this mean? Well, we all are learning from consequences. It is never all one sided.

Let’s look at this scenario. If your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting in your couch watching tv, and you respond by talking to your dog, petting it, or getting it a treat, THEN one way of looking at it is that you have just provided your dog with positive reinforcement for bumping your leg. In other words, the immediate consequence of your pet’s behavior is something your dog values and something that has a high likelihood of strengthening the future rate of that behavior.

Applied Behavior is a systematic approach to looking at (and solving) behavior problems in terms of the environment that surrounds it. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog bumping a leg) 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.

In the above case, this could be a simplified functional assessment.

Antecedent:      Human sits on couch
Behavior:           Dog bumps human’s leg
Consequence:    Human gives dog attention, a scratch, or a treat

Looking at it this way, it is easy to see that there is a very good reason your dog has for bumping your let.

But, how then can I say that your dog is training YOU? Let’s reverse this. Remember that behaviors that are followed immediately with something of value TO THE LEARNER, are behaviors you will see more of in the future. What are some potential consequences in this scenario that are of value to you (being the ‘human’), that are maintaining the strength of ‘your’ behaviors?  I can venture to guess it could possibly be your dog wags its tail or another behavior that gives you a positive feeling, or it could be that your dog will stop bumping you (temporarily). This is the way that functional assessment would look.

Antecedent:      Dog bumps human’s leg
Behavior:          Human gives attention to dog or a treat
Consequence:   Dog wags its tail or leaves human alone to go eat treat

So, you see, no matter how you look at it, you are both training each other. The key is to understand this learning process and then brainstorm strategies for changing this up so that the behavior you DO NOT like is not being practiced and not being reinforced, while another behavior that is acceptable is taught and reinforced heavily. (Think: instead of bumping your leg when you sit down to watch tv, what you would like for your dog to do instead…then go teach it!)

How To Train A Stubborn Dog

Have you ever wanted to train your pet to be REALLY stubborn, meaning he will NOT do a behavior you ask him to do unless you show him the money or force him to do it?

I have seen many people who are actually very good at teaching this brilliance in their pet without realizing they are doing it. This is how it is typically done…

training a stubborn dogThe dog’s (I am using a dog in this example, but it can be any animal) handler simply needs to ask him to do something with a cue that has not sufficiently been taught with fluency, and then, if he does not do the wanted behavior, the handler repeats the cue and repeats it, or takes out a piece of food and begins luring him to do the behavior, or forces him to do what is asked.

Very quickly, that cued behavior breaks down as the learner stops (or never did) doing the wanted behavior when asked and does anything BUT the cued behavior with greater and greater frequency. And more often than not, it is the pet that gets blamed for being obstinate, bull headed, or dumb. But is that the case? Let’s delve into it a little.

I know I repeat this a lot because we all need reminders. It is consequences, not cues, that drive the future strength and rate of behavior. Behavior after all is simply an animal’s tool to get a consequence; and if that behavior serves to get something of value for the animal, then it is being reinforced and will continue. (Please see my posts on the four quadrants of consequences and classical conditioning.)  The cue for a behavior is simply a signal for the learner that some sort of consequence is ahead, positive or negative depending on how it is taught.

In the case of the ‘stubborn’ dog, continuing to stand when asked to sit, or continuing to smell the flowers when called to come are actually what have taught him that the actual meaning of ‘sit’ or ‘come’ means stay standing or sniff the flowers UNTIL his trainer pulls out the good stuff (or a punisher).

Let’s pull out the behavior analysis hat to take a look at the situation here. 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.

A (Antecedent) – Owner asks Fido to sit

B (Behavior) – Fido stands and looks at owner

C (Consequence) – Owner asks and asks for a sit

Second ABC that follows this one. The consequence of the first ABC becomes the antecedent for the next behavior.

A (Antecedent) – Owner continues asking for a sit

B (Behavior) – Fido stands and looks at owner

C (Consequence) – Owner pulls out a piece of meat and lures Fido into a sit

Third ABC

A (Antecedent) – Owner lures the sit

B (Behavior) – Fido sits

C (Consequence) – Owner gives Fido piece of meat

If you look at behavior systematically in this way, you can see how his dog really is not so stubborn after all. He was actually taught to wait until his owner pulls out the meat and lures him until he does the behavior.

If a learner does not do a behavior that is cued, the better approach is to pause or walk away for a few seconds. That pause is important instead of reinforcing the wrong behavior. If you continue to not have success, then you may need to go back and work on teaching that behavior with more fluency in a variety of environments before adding back in the cue. If the cue has become so weakened, it may even be best to begin using a new cue that is taught with great consistency.

This is a great example of why teaching the behavior first with great positive reinforcing consequences builds strong behaviors. And, if you are having problems teaching a behavior there are so many factors that go into why your learner is having difficulty. Please click here to read some examples.

Always, it is important to remember, there is a reason why behavior happens.

Training People Is Like Training Dogs

Did you know you can train people just like you can train dogs and parrots?

What is so awesome about learning how to train non-human animals with scientifically sounds positive reinforcement based strategies is that this kind of teaching applies to ALL living beings…including people. I loved this segment on The Meredith Vieira Show this morning where psychologist Wendy Walsh talks about using Applied Behavior Analysis to train husbands.

Please click here to watch the segment.

Training people as you train dogs and parrots was the topic of the Meredith Vieira Show

Solving A Dog Chewing Problem With Positive Reinforcement

The other day, I was sitting in the home of a friend as she was telling me about one of the issues they are having with their dog. “He chews on things he shouldn’t be chewing on like furniture,” she said.

Her otherwise loveable joy of her life was sitting at my feet at the time raising his face as I scratched beneath it. But I stopped scratching and when I did, he began looking around. Before long he found his way to a table leg and proceeded to put his mouth around it.

I asked for some of his toys, and among them was a chew toy. Mary put the toy on the ground. His attention was immediately diverted and he spent the rest of our conversation laying down, completely engaged in his new activity. The leg of that table was of no more interest to him.

So what was the lesson here?

Well, it is important to understand the function of behavior and know that all behavior occurs for a reason – and that reason is to get a consequence. If the behavior is reoccurring and even strengthening, then we know that the consequence (what occurs immediately after the behavior) is of value to the animal (positive reinforcement). When given a choice, animals will chose to do what gets them the consequence of the greatest value.

And, in this situation, when Mary’s dog was without attention and activity options, he chose to chew on the table leg. A guess is that chewing on it gave him as a consequence of sensory stimulation and intermittent attention. (Please click here to read more about intermittent reinforcement.) My predication would be that if all things remain the same, that he will continue to choose to seek out that table leg or another household object when he is without sensory stimulation or training - solving a dog behavior problem with positive reinforcement

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.

So, after looking at the behavior in the context of its environment, how can you solve it in the most positive way?

Well, once you have an understanding of what is giving that behavior value to the animal (what is reinforcing that behavior), then you can devise a plan that

a) involves modifying the environment whenever possible so as to not set the occasion for that behavior to occur in the first place (because we know that practice builds fluency)
b) plan for modifying the consequences of that unwanted behavior so as to not give that behavior value in the happenstance that it should occur
c) teach the animal new, acceptable behaviors that will result in the animal getting the same amount or greater value consequence as the behavior you do not want to see.

What are some ideas for solving this particular behavior issue?

Overall, Mary can increase her dog’s environmental and behavioral enrichment through a combination of exercise, activity games and toys, and training. Mary can limit access to the ‘off limits’ furniture and/or paint it with Bitter Apple or a similar product, plan ahead to involve her dog in physical activity before having guests over or before sitting down to watch tv so as to temporarily reduce the value of chewing furniture, teach her dog an alternative behavior like settling (laying down) and ask her dog to do that behavior before visiting with guests or watching tv, provide her dog with activity and enrichment toys before times when her dog is most likely to chew.

Is your pet doing something you do not like? My challenge to you is this: Instead of punishing and blaming the animal, look at the behavior in terms of why that behavior is important to your pet. Then, teach him what he can do instead to get just as valuable a consequence.

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?'”


Preventing Dog Behavior Problems At Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is quickly coming upon us. Oh to taste the turkey…stuffing…sweet potatoes…and pumpkin pie. I can hardly wait! So can Sam….and I bet your favorite pooch too.

So, let’s plan ahead. Sharing your meal with your guests AND your dog doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the holiday. The time to work on teaching your dog new skills is now – not dinner time on November 22.

Let’s put our applied behavior analysis thinking caps on and brainstorm. Remember, ABA is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs.

We ask ourselves “What happened IMMEDIATELY prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the ball rolling for the behavior?” and “What happened IMMEDIATELY after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?”

I’m going to simplify it and use for the sake of this column that the antecedent is ‘guests sitting at the dinner table with unbelievably savory food on dishes in front of them.’ The behavior is your dog bumping or scratching guests in their seats. (We’ll call this ‘begging.’) The consequence is that eventually your dog may get either attention or turkey or jackpot – BOTH!

How can we change the environment to set your dog up for success? If you know in advance that this is highly predictable behavior, you can use antecedent strategies to give less value to the begging. Some ideas? Satiate your dog BEFORE you sit down by feeding him in advance, redirect his attention by giving him a tasty steak bone to chew on or a foraging toy that will keep his attention for awhile, take him for a long walk or run prior to the meal to increase the value of resting behavior.

Another idea would be to teach your dog – in advance – an alternative behavior that will reap him the same or more reinforcing value than what he would get if he begged while also removing all positive consequences of begging. Remember, as his teacher, his ability to learn is dependent on your reliability (and EVERYONE in your household) to quickly reinforce the behavior you want to see – and every time he does the behavior in the beginning.

So, begin by teaching the alternative behavior (like sitting or laying down) and get it reliably on cue. Once on cue start teaching him to hold that behavior for longer durations before delivering reinforcement. Then, you can cue him to do the behavior before you sit down to a meal and reinforce it. At the same time, if he begs, you can simply push your plate in to the center of the table and turn your back to him while sitting. Practice. Practice Practice.

Dogs are pretty smart. If ‘you’ teach him that begging only gets people to turn away and push food aside but sitting or laying down gets a nifty treat, guess which choice he’ll make?


If you have a dog who is competing with our Sam for the title, World Champion Counter-Surfer, remember, often times the feat is carried out when your back is turned. (We know this from experience.) The simplest solution is eliminating access to the reinforcement that maintains the behavior. In other words, always be cognizant of being sure that tasty food is kept far enough from the counter edge that your dog can not reach it.


Stopping Parrot Biting Without Force

Dreyfuss is a bird who – if I’d let her – would spend her entire day sitting next to me or on me, frequently with her head down for rubs. So how was it that this sweet girl (who actually may be a boy but I’ve never had her sexed) would lunge at my arm, and even bite it, when I’d put my arm in front of her body before asking for a ‘step up’ from her inside cage perch?

My education in behavior has taught me that biting doesn’t just ‘occur’ in a vacuum, and that before that aggressive behavior happens, a bird behaves with nonaggressive body language (such as dilated eyes, feathers fluffed) to let me know my arm is not wanted in its space. If I get bitten it is because I did not pull my arm away when the bird dilated its eyes or fluffed its feathers, causing the bird to need to escalate its behavior.

Yes, I know that. But I had been watching Dreyfuss’ body language and I just couldn’t see it. One second her body language was telling me she was eager to step up and the next split second she’d lunge.

My turning point came the moment I had written an email to a trainer I know.  In it, I told her Dreyfuss’ behavior was ‘unpredictable’. I hit send and then had a WOAH moment. Hold on here, Lisa. You know better than that. And you have the skills to solve this without the use of force and set both you and Dreyfuss up for success.

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) 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)?“

There you have it…the A (antecedent), B (behavior), and C (consequence)’s.

So, let’s look at the ABC’s of this situation.

A(antecedent):        Lisa puts hand on cage door
B (behavior):           Dreyfuss either rocks from foot to foot or with slight movement
C (consequence):      Lisa opens cage door

A:                          Lisa moves arm to Dreyfuss saying ‘step up’
B:                          Dreyfuss lunges or bites
C:                          Lisa removes hand

Prediction:              Dreyfuss will lunge or bite more to get Lisa to remove her hand

I know, this doesn’t make sense for a bird that, once is on me, could live there. But obviously there is something about my arm being put in front of her that she didn’t want to have happen. How do I know? Because her behavior of biting/lunging continued and got more frequent.

The thing about studying behavior is that I don’t need to know what Dreyfuss was thinking. I only need to know that the behavior had a function for her in her environment and I can then modify the environment to modify the behavior. I like to think about it as teaching new skills.

So, what did I do? Well, I DID NOT use punishment or any kind of force.

What I did do is create a plan that would set us both up for success.

I taught her the contingency that *when* I put my hand on her door, *if* she moves to the left side of the perch, *then* I will put my arm in front of the right side of the perch. And *if* she walks over to and steps up onto my arm, *then* she comes out for attention, seeds, and more.

The power of deciding whether to come toward my arm to come out – or not – was ALL up to HER. And guess what, given the choice, she not only decided to come to my arm every single time – she runs to it and jumps on board.

How great is that!

So, here is the new ABC:

A:       Lisa puts hand on door
B:       Dreyfuss moves to other side of perch
C:       Lisa puts hand at opposite side of perch

2nd ABC:

A:       Lisa puts hand at opposite side of perch
B:       Dreyfuss moves to hand and steps up
C:       Lisa takes Dreyfuss out for attention, seed and more

Taking her out of her cage is that simple now. The beauty of it is that I never used force or punishment. My ‘unpredictable’ bird when it comes to getting her out of her cage, now reliably runs with her feathers relaxed to my arm and as a result we both have confidence in that situation.

To read my post on why parrots bite, please click this link.

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