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Does My Dog Need “Behavior Modification?”

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As more and more dog owners come into contact with the world of professional animal trainers, they begin to hear bits and pieces of the industry jargon. And, like most things, depending on who you ask you may get slightly different answers. But it’s important to try and understand the types of training that are out there and what exactly a trainer is doing with your dog (especially if you are sending them away to a board and train situation).

Behavior Modification is one of those “big fancy terms” that makes dog trainers sound important, “I do behavior medication” and dog’s sound evil “my dog needs behavior modification STAT!” But beyond the way it sounds, do you really know what it means for you and your dog and what your trainer is doing?

Carolyn Wilki has been a professional dog trainer for over 30 years, specializing in herding and private instruction for difficult and/or aggressive dogs. She uses her psychology background as the basis for her training methods, working with how your dog’s mind works rather than using force.

We interviewed her to shed some light on this interesting subject and to help dog owners make more informed choices on their dog’s training.

What is Behavior Modification?

Behavior Modification training is about more than just training your dog to listen - it's about understanding how your dog thinks
Behavior Modification training is about more than just training your dog to listen – it’s about understanding how your dog thinks

Although the terms and concepts might be new to you, Behavior Modification has been extensively studied in psychology laboratories all over the world for the past 100 years, and a significant, solid body of scientific research lies behind its techniques.  Technically speaking, Behavior Modification is the systematic application of operant conditioning and associative conditioning principles to train or change observable behaviors.  Some of the better known scientific names to have contributed to our knowledge of Behavior Modification include Pavlov, Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, Wolpe, Sidman, and Seligman.

Applications of behavior modification include behavioral therapy for PTSD victims, anxiety sufferers, out-of-control children or teenagers, treatments for autistic, ADHD, and mentally challenged children, and animal training techniques used by enlightened trainers of domestic pets such as dogs, cats, and birds, for zoo animals, and for Sea World performance animals.

In Behavior Modification, physical cues, environment, and consequences (also known as reinforcements) are presented and changed in order to change an animal’s observable behavior.  Behavior Modification offers a green, non-toxic, non-shocking way of changing a pet dog’s behavior for the better.

Rewards and Correction

While dog owners commonly equate behavior modification with correction training, the two are not synonymous.

Wilki explains that there are four types of “reinforcers,” when it comes to behavior modification, which can cause some confusion to the layman. There are two types of “positive reinforcers” and two types of “negative reinforcers.” The positive and negative here means add or subtract, not good or bad! This can confuse a dog owner and may even result in a surprise if you were expecting “positive” training in the laymen’s sense.

  • Positive reinforcer – something added (such as food, praise, toys, petting, attention) as a consequence of behavior that increases that behavior’s likelihood of recurring in the future.  A positive reinforcer strengthens a behavior response.
  • Negative reinforcer is something taken away (such as pain removal) as a consequence of behavior (jerking away from painful toe nail cutting) that increases that behavior’s likelihood of recurring in the future.  A negative reinforcer strengthens a behavior response.
  • Positive punishment – something aversive added in as a consequence of behavior (a hit, a mean look, a tug on the leash, a No!, a shock, a warning sound meaning a shock could come– all can function as positive punishers) to reduce the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future.
  • Negative punishment – an aversive event which involves something subtracted from the environment– for example, you take away a sock in your dog’s mouth, you deprive your dog of freedom or your attention for disobeying you– which results in an aversive situation and is intended to reduce the likelihood of that behavior (for examples, eating your sock/disobeying you) occurring in the future.

This is also where the dog training world gets split – between those that use punishment and those who do not.

Wilki is a proponent of positive reinforcement training due to the scientific research that has been done on the subject.

“Animals who are punished predictably escape, avoid, or aggress, and not necessarily in the same context as the punishment.  Even when punishment seems to make gains in the short term, punishment causes unwanted physiological and behavioral side effects that are avoidable only if you avoid the use of punishment,” Wilki explains.

How Is It Different From Regular Training?

Behavior Modification is often resorted to after a dog explodes with undesirable aggressive, fearful, helplessness, anxiety, or OCD behaviors.  However, if its principles are adhered to in “regular” pet training, all sorts of problems can be stopped before they start.  Nobody has no problems, and the problems that are encountered when training a dog in a completely 100% Behavior Modification training environment are generally easily solvable.

In regular dog training, there is an emphasis on merely “getting the behavior” while disregarding the dog’s emotional reaction to the environment and the training technique employed.  In regular dog training, dog trainers either use a combination of rewards/reinforcements and punishments/”corrections” or alternatively, strict punishments, but no rewards when the dog is correct (this is actually negative reinforcement).

Animal trainers who are expert in behavioral modification will focus on positive reinforcement training techniques and avoid using punishment to avoid creating undesirable aggressive and fear toxic side effects in the animals.

How Do You Know If Your Dog Needs It? 

If the trainer you are going to says your dog is:

  • “too hard”
  • “too soft”
  • Lacks confidence
  • Stubborn

If you think your dog is:

  • Too intelligent
  • Too stupid

If your dog has any behavior issues such as:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Trouble riding in the car
  • Trouble dealing with people
  • Trouble with other dogs
  • Trouble with other animals

Frankly, if you have a puppy, your puppy from the get-go can benefit from well thought out behavior modification training to turn your cute, little, home-wrecking MONSTER (which all puppies are at the get-go– good thing they are cute!) into the sweet dog of your dreams!

What should you ask the trainer you are thinking about going to for Behavior Modification?

The trick is to identify a trainer who is really skilled and believes in using real behavior modification techniques.

Lots of trainers are out there claiming that they use positive reinforcement and behavior modification– but they do not. Yes, they might use food and praise as rewards, but they are equally as apt to issue a correction– leash pop, a spank, a “NO!”, etc. or put your 20 pound dog on a prong collar and yank or hang it.

To tell if the trainer is a real-deal behavior modification, positive reinforcement trainer, ask:

  • What he/she does if the dog disobeys a command, for example, a lie down command.
  • Does he/she uses the same approach for more advanced dogs? There should be no physical force or correction/pop involved in the answer. The answer should include something about ignoring the incorrect response and trying again and perhaps changing performance criteria to clarify to the dog what is wanted.
  • How the trainer deals with barking dogs.  If squirt bottles, penny shake cans, or hands holding the dog muzzle closed and “No!s are suggested, this is not a behavior modification trainer.
  • How the trainer deals with potential dog aggression issues– if yelling or prong collars, collar pops, or repeated exposures and collar and verbal corrections when the dog is already upset are suggested– this is not a behavior modification trainer.

About the Author

Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

Written by Kristina Lotz
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