Common behavior modifications and their applications (Proceedings)


Common behavior modifications and their applications (Proceedings)

Apr 01, 2015

Pets that exhibit problematic behaviors risk losing their homes or even their lives. What is a behavior problem? Basically, a behavior problem is any behavior that a pet owner considers to be undesirable. Behavior problems typically fall into one or more of the following categories:

  1. Normal undesirable behavior
  2. Learned
  3. Secondary to physical illness
  4. Primary behavioral disorder

Normal behavior

Many problematic behaviors are normal species typical behaviors. For example, a healthy but untrained dog may eliminate indoors. Normal species typical behaviors often appear as pets mature. Mounting people and pets, or barking at passersby both reflect normal development.

Jumping up on people is a common normal behavior that usually starts when puppies are young and adorable. Owners become intolerant when their now 80-pound German shepherd dog continues to jump on them.


Normal behaviors that have been ongoing have almost certainly been strengthened through reinforcement. In most cases, reinforcement has been unintentionally and inconsistently delivered. Intermittent reinforcement assures that the behaviors will be performed at maximum frequency and intensity.

Physical illness

A behavior problem may reflect an underlying medical condition. Before treating a pet exhibiting an apparently normal but undesirable behavior, it is important to collect a brief behavioral history. A physical examination and laboratory testing may be indicated in certain cases. If the owner suggests that the behavior was sudden in onset, and there was no obvious change in the routine, then be very careful to rule out a medical condition.

Behavioral disorder

The behaviors that pets exhibit are clinical signs. Let’s consider the presenting complaint, or clinical sign, of barking. There are many possible causes or diagnoses for barking. As already mentioned, barking may be normal. The underlying motivation for normal barking may be attention seeking, food seeking, excitement, or territorial behavior. In most cases, there is a reinforcement related component that has maintained the behavior.

But barking may also be a sign of underlying separation anxiety, noise phobia, territorial aggression, or compulsive disorder. That is why is it so important to collect a behavioral history before offering advice on treatment even if the behavioral complaint appears straightforward.

Technician role

A. Education

Helping owners understand normal behavior is the responsibility of the entire veterinary team. Well care visits can be an opportunity to teach owners about species typical behaviors. Early identification will reduce the risk of accidental reinforcement. Technicians can help owners reduce or eliminate the behaviors they don’t like and can demonstrate methods for teaching desirable responses. Education can be provided in your own hospital. Group or individual sessions can be arranged for puppies, kittens, and adolescent dogs and cats. Another option is to create a list of trainers in your area that you trust will use the most humane and state of the art training methods to help your clients.

B. Treatment of behavior problems

A behavioral treatment plan usually involves both environmental and behavioral modification. For pets with behavioral abnormalities, pharmacological intervention may be used to reduce anxiety and facilitate learning.

1. Environmental modification

It is important to modify the environment to reduce the risk of inadvertent reinforcement and to assure safety. Environmental modification can include the use of a gate or leash to prevent a dog’s jumping on the door. Another example would be the separation of two cats that are fighting to prevent the damaging chase / flee cycle. For pets that are exhibiting normal destructive behavior, environmental modification may include enrichment through additional toys or appropriate scratching posts.

2. Behavior modification

Foundation skills

Technicians can be involved in teaching the skills that will be the foundation for all levels of a behavior modification program. Reward based training is a source of enrichment for pets. Communication between owner and pet is improved, and nuisance behaviors such as jumping up and attention seeking can be reduced or eliminated. Most comprehensive behavioral treatment plans include the development of foundation skills. Once desired behaviors have been mastered in a neutral environment, they can be incorporated into a more advanced behavior modification strategy.

Response substitution is a behavior modification technique that involves teaching a pet to engage in a new behavior in place of an undesired response to a particular stimulus. A dog that usually responds to the doorbell by rushing to the door and barking can be taught to “go to place” when the doorbell rings. A cat that chases his owner down the hallway can be taught to “find a mouse”. To clarify, the skills are first trained in the absence of known triggers.

Clicker training can be used to shape foundation behaviors. There are many applications for clicker training including rewarding relaxed postures. Through clicker training, pets can easily be taught to hop into carriers, stand still on tables, and even offer limbs for venipuncture. All veterinary team members appreciate calm, cooperative patients. Owners do not enjoy watching their pets tremble and struggle, and often elect to forego basic care to avoid an uncomfortable veterinary visit.

Another important foundation behavior is “relax on cue”. In some cases a clicker may be used to mark postures that reflect progression towards the goal of “calm”. When the clicker is too stimulating, quiet verbal reinforcement will be used instead. Two relaxation exercises are Sit Stay Calm and Settle on Mat. 

Advanced skills

In practice, most behavior modification protocols are designed to reduce anxiety, aggression and / or arousal. For pets with a very low level fear of a particular trigger, classical conditioning may suffice. In this technique, the trigger for mild fear is paired with a desired reward so that the trigger quickly predicts that something pleasant is about to occur. The reinforcer must be selected based on the individual pet’s preference.

Systematic desensitization is probably the most commonly used behavior modification technique in veterinary practice. It is usually paired with counterconditioning or countercommand and is abbreviated as DSCC.

Systematic desensitization involves exposing the patient to a trigger at such a low level that there is no distress. The patient should be aware of the trigger yet must not exhibit any sign of anxiety or aggression.

Counterconditioning is done by conditioning a relaxed emotional response to a cue. Here is where you can apply the “settle on a mat” or “sit stay calm”. A countercommand involves using a cued response (response substitution) in conjunction with the presentation of the modified trigger.

To effectively apply DSCC, it is important to identify all of the triggers that contribute to the undesired response. Owners will need to be taught to recognize the subtle postural shifts that can be used to predict a stress related response as well as the equally subtle signs of a shift towards relaxation. 

Before beginning a session, try to establish which reinforcers are sufficient for rewarding behaviors in the absence of stress, which are moderately high value, and which are top of the line.

Finally, a gradient can be established. At the starting point, there will be the smallest reaction to the smallest trigger. Begin the relaxation exercise practiced in the foundation training, and then, while the patient is calm, introduce the appropriate low level stimulus.

Try to have 15 – 20 minute sessions at least twice weekly, and always end with a calm pet. Little by little, with each successful session, distance and intensity of triggers can be adjusted.

Common applications for DSCC include fear of noises, fear of strangers, aggression towards other animals, and fear or aggressive behavior at the veterinary office.


A toolbox for a behavior modification session would typically include several reinforcers valuable for the individual patient. This can mean an assortment of tiny treats ranging in value from low to high. For some pets, it will mean a choice of toys. A clicker, a mat and 2 types of targets may come in handy.

Since technicians may be asked to work with animals that have exhibited aggressive behavior, additional equipment may be needed to assure safety of all concerned. In fact, some dogs may need to learn to tolerate muzzles or head collars, and cats may need to accept leash or towel restraint, before any behavior modification can be initiated.


Modifying behavior requires patience. There is simply no way to rush behavior therapy. At the end of the process though, a relationship will have been mended and a life spared.