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Behavior Modification: How We Change Behavior?

By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB | Mar 01, 2022

Does your dog go crazy every time someone comes to the door? Or UPS delivers a package? What about when you are out walking, and you pass another dog on leash? Are your dogs fighting over attention or maybe food? What happens when you leave the house to go the grocery store? Is your dog destructive or barking the entire time you are gone? How do you change these behaviors? Are these training issues, or does my dog need more help?

When it comes to changing behavior, training alone is often not the answer. If your goal is to change behavior long term, your pet will need behavior modification instead. Training focuses on specific behaviors like how to come when called, picking items up that fall, pushing the elevator button, or apprehending the bad guys; behavior modification involves changing how an animal feels and behaves in a specific environment or towards a particular trigger.

Five Steps of Behavior Modification:

1. Identify your dog’s triggers and avoid them. The initial stage of any behavior modification plan is to avoid all of your dog’s trigger as much as possible. This may mean going for a walk during off times of the day or remote locations or placing your dog in a safe haven before visitors arrive or separating household dogs that might be fighting. Our goal is to keep your dog feeling safe while learning new coping skills and behaviors that can be used when the triggers are reintroduced.

2. Open the lines of communication between you and your dog. Learn your dog’s body language, so you are able to understand how your dog is feeling. Stop using corrections or punishment- this strategy probably isn’t working anyway. Instead of “no” or yelling at your dog, reinforce the behaviors you would rather see from your dog instead.

3. Teach focus behaviors such as eye contact and targeting (nose to hand or nose to target stick). These behaviors encourage your dog to “check-in” more with you when needed. Targeting can help your dog feel safe by using another task to focus on or to build new relationships with.

4. A foundation behavior, conditioning relaxation on a mat, is often used during the behavior modification process. The goal is to provide your dog with a new set of coping skills and keep its anxiety in check. When conditioning relaxation, start with a non-slip, portable mat and gradually shape the behavior as the relax on that mat. Start with your dog sitting on the mat, then lying on the mat, followed by shifting of its hind legs to the side, head resting on the mat, and then taking deep breaths. Practice these new behaviors and relaxation techniques in non-distracting environments before taking them on the road.

5. Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning (DS/CC) are the main techniques used to change behavior long term. Triggers including sounds, people, other dogs, objects, environments, etc., … are reintroduced to your dogs on a gradient (intensity and distance) while pairing their existence with good things (food and play). These techniques should result in a positive response from your dog when done correctly. The goal is to replace an unwanted emotional reaction such as hiding, hyperarousal, and aggression, with a more relaxed and comfortable response such as eye contact.

As you work though the steps above, it is important to remember that behavior modification can be a slow process and there are no quick fixes. If you have questions about your dog’s behavior, always contact your veterinarian.