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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A Reminder About Behavior

I’m sharing one of my periodic reminders…whether you call it training or not, your pet is constantly taking in feedback from its environment (including you). Behaviors that “work” to get your pet something “it” values, will be repeated. It is that simple and that complex. If your pet continues to do something you do not like, think about what is setting that behavior into motion and what is reinforcing the behavior. Looking dog (or parrot of other pet) behavior problems from this perspective is the first step toward seeking the most positive, least intrusive solution.

the first step to solving dog behavior problems


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

Tips For Getting Out Of Show-Me-The-Money Cycle

Are you among the many dog owners who have a pet those goes into ‘Show me the money’ mode before deciding whether to do anything you ask?  It is such a common problem.

Why does it happen? Well, for one, humans are pretty good at holding food in their hand held in plain view when teaching their dog behaviors (so the student is being lured); and humans are also pretty good at responding to attention seeking behaviors by doing something deemed valuable by a smart dog – such as giving attention, a piece of food, or beginning a game of fetch.

Will your dog only listen when you have food? Here are some dog training tips.Humans are also pretty good at inadvertently teaching different meaning to cues (such as giving a cue for ‘sit’ and when the dog walks away to find an awesome toy,  is called back and given a treat upon arrival which is a multiple reinforcer for walking away instead of ‘sitting’ after the cue). In general, humans are pretty good at breaking down cues by using them at times when the chances are low that there will be success (among many other ways). And dogs are pretty good at figuring out that when the clicker comes out or a bag of treats appears, that suddenly the predictability of reinforcement for certain behaviors goes way up. (Please see my post on discriminative stimulus.)

Ugh, so, how can you break this cycle?

One way is to build ‘training’ into your everyday life. In other words, always be on the lookout for what your dog values at that specific time such as going for a walk, going out the door, playing tug or fetch, or sniffing a fire hydrant; and have spontaneous teaching moments using those things as reinforcers for wanted behaviors.

Note here that those ‘wanted’ behaviors should be taught in advance in a real training session.

Here are some dog training tips:

Make going out the door contingent upon your dog sitting on a mat until released. (Click here to read how to teach this.)

Make a game of tug contingent upon your dog sitting and waiting until you give your dog a cue to grab the toy.  Or you can ask your dog to do any number of already learned behaviors prior to a cue for GAME ON.

Call your dog to come from another room with some kind of reinforcer – be unpredictable here. It could be that sometimes coming to you results in a game of chase or fetch. Other times you may run grab a cookie when he gets to you, or attach a leash (if he enjoys walks).

If your dog is behind a gate, you can teach your dog that his remaining seated while you walk up to and over the gate is what gets you to step over and pet him; while his getting up results in you walking away from the gate.

Do you see the pattern?

With all of these scenarios, the common elements are:

Consistency in cues/feedback to your dog
You are taking that dependence on food out of the equation
You are building value for listening to you and for doing behaviors you ask by teaching a positive                  association between you and positive consequences of behavior
You are decreasing that dependence on ‘Show me the money’

Here is a challenge for you. Can you name four or more things that your dog values? And can you brainstorm for ways in which your dog can use behaviors to GET those things of value?

Solving Parrot Behavior Problems

On Facebook last week, someone in my network asked me some questions about parrots. They were questions I have heard before. I thought I’d write a post so that others too can learn from my answers.



Watching a repeat NaturePBS about the difficulties of raising and keeping Parrots.  They seem to exhibit bad behaviors due to sexual maturity and seeing their people as mates.  Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

 My answer:

Hi Deneen,

Drat, I wish I had seen that. I love that you want to learn and have taken initiative to ask the questions.  I will see if I can give you some clarity (and hopefully be of help to others who may be having the very same questions).

Let’s look first to the question, what is behavior?  In its most simplest description, behavior is a tool that animals – including parrots – use to get a desired consequence from the environment.  How do you know if a behavior ‘worked’ to serve that purpose? Well, if the behavior continues or even strengthens, then we know the behavior got the animal something it valued. If the behavior did not get the animal something of value, the behavior would weaken. Consequences of behavior – including biting and screaming – determine the future rate of parrot and dog behaviorthat behavior.

What does this have to do with the ‘bad behaviors’ (biting, screeching and self-mutilation) associated with sexual maturity?

In captivity,  ‘we’ as our pet’s caretakers have a lot to do with the rate and strength of our pet’s behaviors since behavior is influenced by its environment.

In Concepts in Behavior (by S.G. Friedman, Ph.D.; Thomas Edling, D.V.M, M.S.p.V.M.; and Carl Cheney, Ph.D.),  authors point out that “knowledge of the behavior patterns of free-range parrots, as well as environmental conditions that elicit and shape them, greatly increases our ability to predict, interpret and manage many parrot behaviors in captivity. “

They add that perhaps the most important things caregivers can learn from their pet birds are the behaviors that serve a communication function.  Parrots subtle body language involves nearly every feather on their bodies to communicate their comfort or discomfort, or desires. Problems arise when humans misunderstand or miss seeing that body language their pet uses to indicate boundaries of personal space. “Most species of parrots use threatening stances rather than outright aggression to drive off perceived intruders in the wild, and many of these behaviors are seen in captivity as well,” the authors wrote.

What are some examples of that body language? The authors list – Warnings may include raised nape feathers with wings slightly lifted, a raised foot held open at chest level, directed hacking motions with an open beak, and growling.  (referencing Lantermann W: The New Parrot Handbook. New York, Barron’s, 1986, pp 91-94. 19. Lattal KA: Continge)

As an example, Dreyfuss, my pionus, will use the displacement behaviors of stretching her wings and legs if I put my arm out at a time when she does not want it there.  If I did not move my arm away, she would escalate that behavior to lunging at it. And if I still did not move my arm away, a bite is sure to ensue.

And, if she ultimately needed to bite me to get distance from my arm, guess what behavior she would do more of in the future? She is much more likely to go straight for the bite because her past history would have taught her that stretching her wings and legs did her absolutely no good to remove my arm from her space. You can actually read something I had written awhile back on my solving an issue with her biting my approaching arm in this post.

If she then began biting my arm every time it was in her cage, someone else could say that was due to her being hormonal or any number of other reasons; however, I would know that the real underlying reason for her behavior was because quite simply…biting works for her when other body language does not. By the way, Dreyfuss is a bird for whom I will always need to closely monitor her body language but because I do that and also teach her positive associations with me, it has been a very long time since I have been bitten.  When it occurred, I always go back to see what ‘I’ did wrong.

As for screaming, which is a natural form of vocalization for birds, if it is occurring in excess while in captivity, we need to remind ourselves again that behaviors that are repeated are serving a function for that animal.  Ongoing behaviors that are even strengthening are being reinforced by something in the environment (meaning there is some valuable consequence to the animal from doing that behavior).

Rather than delving extensively into that here, I’ll refer to one of my very first writings about how I solved a screaming issue with Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey.   Actually, it was learning how to successfully modify his behavior (with lots of help and encouragement from Dr. Friedman, for whom I so grateful) that sent me down this whole journey of wanting to learn more about behavior science.

With many behavior problems, changing the environment rather than changing the bird is a great way to set your pet up for success. Chester, my Alexandrine Ringneck who lived with me for 18  plus years, was an incessant chewer. He had destroyed a piece of furniture once before. How I solved that problem was by giving him many different opportunities to have his needs met in appropriate ways with rolled up phone books in his cage, wood blocks, and more plus play stations on the floor.

Now let’s circle back to your questions: Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

I think the answer really is to understand that all pet bird behaviors are occurring to serve that animal a function. When we understand that, the question is not really about whether we should have a parent/child relationship but rather how can we as our pet bird’s caretaker arrange our bird’s environment to set him/her AND me up for success?

Dog Training To Prevent Door Dashing

It was to be the second time I was helping a friend solve her dog’s door dashing problem. We were teaching her dog to lay down on a rug several feet from the door, and remain in that position, before we would open it. The ultimate goal: her dog would go to the rug on cue before opening the front door, and remain laying down until released.

The first time around, we ended training on a positive note when her dog remained laying down while I opened the door a small amount. Betty was to continue practicing in short sessions, always ending on a positive note (when her dog stayed down while the door opened a little) and wanting more learning. Betty (not her real name) told me and showed me that she understood how she was to teach before our next lesson.

However, when I got to her house that next time, the behavior had fallen apart. Betty was discouraged because she didn’t understand why.

We sat down for a few minutes as she proceeded to tell me in detail what had happened. “Most of the time’ her dog was able to remain in the down position near the door when it opened but “sometimes’ her dog got up and ran to the door, at which point Betty told her dog to go back to the mat and lay down. Then she gave her dog a treat for laying down.

That was really great feedback. I saw several things going on. Neither one had to do with a dog being dominant, bull headed, dumb or stubborn.

The first thing I saw was that all important phrase, ‘most of the time’ which tells me right away that her dog did not understand what it was she was supposed to do to earn reinforcement. If she did have a clear understanding, then she would have made the appropriate choice. With further questioning and watching Betty practice, I realized Betty was expecting too much from her dog too soon. She was taking too long to mark her dog’s choice of laying down which was not giving clear enough feedback for her dog.

The other thing that was going on was that her dog was actually being reinforced for a chain of behaviors (getting up, running to the door, going to the mat and laying down) which was serving to do the opposite of what Betty had intended. She was actually building value for getting up and running to the door because that resulted in her asking her dog to go to the mat, lay down and get an awesome treat.

What was our solution? We needed to provide very clear, consistent and immediate feedback to her dog of exactly the behavior we were teaching. And we needed to do that BEFORE the chain of behaviors began. Below is an overview of what we did (not in full detail).

using clicker training to stop dog from running out the door

We set out for our second training with me being responsible for the door and my friend responsible for marking her dog’s behavior (well, I was also responsible for making sure she marked the precise moment). This time as I moved toward the door and her dog remained laying down, Betty clicked BEFORE there was movement by her dog to clearly tell her dog, ‘yes’ that is exactly what I want you to do. We did ten repetitions of this and then stopped for awhile and came back to it. Very quickly we got back to where I could first touch the door and she could click for her dog remaining laying down, proceeded to my opening the door a crack and her marking her dog for remaining laying down in a little but longer increments (before there was any movement from her dog).

Then, when we were having success, we worked on more duration in tiny increments. I opened the door and this time we counted to two before clicking, then four, then back to two, then ten before marking with a click, releasing her dog and beginning again. Stopping and taking a break after about 20 successful repetitions.

It really did not take long this time before I could open the door fully and her dog remained on the mat until released after 10 seconds. The difference was in the clarity of our lesson.

Now the foundation was laid to continuing building on this skill with both duration and distractions outside the door. And Betty had a much clearer vision of her role as teacher.

It is important to remember, as your pet’s teacher, if your pet is not doing what you want in a training session, to think through your lesson plan and see how you can make it easier for both your pet and you to succeed.

Using A Rug To Stop Your Dog From Dashing Out The Door

This is my most recent column from Hyde Park Living


On a visit to one of my clients, we worked on solving her dog’s door dashing habit. I thought I’d share the story as a lesson in how animals learn.

teach your dog to lay on a mat instead of dashing out the doorFirstly, it is important for all of us as teachers and caregivers to recognize that behavior is a tool animals use to achieve a consequence. It is not something that is done in spite or to be bad, it is just simply the animal doing what works. Every moment of every day our pets (and us) are learning. They are learning from the consequences of behavior. If the behavior gets them something of value, then that behavior will continue or even strengthen. Therefore, it is not enough to simply scold an animal for a behavior as that serves as no teaching function and has other negative ramifications. Instead, it is better to teach your pet what you would rather her do instead – something that can also achieve a valued consequence.

In the case of door dashing, the great value to Ginger was in getting the opportunity to experience everything wonderful outdoors. And she had learned that when the door opened, all she needed to do was quickly bolt through it and that opportunity was hers.

To begin solving this, I first asked what Ginger could do instead that would be acceptable to my client. We decided to teach Ginger to lay down on a small area rug next to the door. In order for Ginger to get that opportunity for experiencing everything wonderful outdoors, we wanted her to learn that she first needed to remain on the rug until released.

So I first taught Ginger that great things happen when she lays on the rug. In other words, when she lays on the rug awesome treats come her way. When she understood that, then I added in duration for her remaining on the rug with longer intervals between giving her treats. If she got up in the beginning I would ask her to lay down again, wait for her to stay for some seconds and then give her a treat (I did not reinforce her immediately for laying back down as that would have reinforced the behavior of getting up and going back down. Once I felt like she understood the lesson, then I began moving to the door in small increments. If she could remain on the rug when I touched the door, she got a treat. If she could remain on the rug when I opened it a crack, she got a treat. And so on. If at any time she got up, I would simply close the door and wait for her decision. Since I had spent so much time building value for her being on the mat, she would choose to go back there and we would start the process over with the door. (We took breaks in between short sessions.) And when I felt she was ready, I quickly opened the door released her and we ran out the door.

We ended that session on a positive note. With much more positive practice, Ginger’s behavior of laying on the mat to get the door to open will become fluent. Down the road, we could also work on this behavior with the added difficulty of guests coming through the door.

Remember, when your pet is doing a behavior you do not like it is because that behavior has a reinforcement history. My challenge to you is this: The next time you are frustrated with your pet, instead of blaming your pet, think about what is giving that behavior value – and then teach your pet that he/she can do something else to get that same or greater value. By doing that, everyone wins!

Giving Your Dog An Enrichment Toy Solves Behavior Problems

Something to keep in mind…If your dog is engaged with an activity enrichment or chew toy, these are some things your dog WILL NOT be engaged it:

Destroying furniture

Looking for a smelly shoe

Barking at passers-by

Pawing at you for attention

Digging in the yard

Begging at the table

dog enrichment toy




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