Skip to main content

A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and Terms

Say NO to coercion and say YES to rewards. Learn effective modern based dog behavior modification techniques.

Say NO to coercion and say YES to rewards. Learn effective modern based dog behavior modification techniques.

What Is Dog Behavior Modification?

As the words imply, behavior modification entails modifying a dog's behavior for the purposes of increasing or decreasing wanted and unwanted behaviors. Behavior modification programs are employed by dog behavior specialists and range from dog trainers who are well-versed in dog behavior to certified applied animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists. As with any field, the techniques used for dog modification programs vary from one trainer/behavior specialist to another, and not all programs are necessarily the best to use.

For instance, many dog trainers and behavior specialists agree that the indiscriminate use of aversives may be deleterious and may actually contribute to further behavior problems on top of the ones already being displayed. With the resurgence of the "dominance alpha wolf theory" fueled by Cesar Millans' National Geographic show, Dog Whisperer, the number of dog bites is on the rise. Indeed, according to veterinarian and animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, dog behavior experts agree that dog owners who mimic what they see on television are one of the contributing factors for the 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is concerned about the re-emergence of dominance-based theories where dogs are forced into submission because of the belief of them attempting to attain "higher rank." Indeed, countless dog owners believe and continue to believe that behavior problems stem from a dog's desire to "rule the home."

Understanding Your Dog

However, a better understanding of how dogs learn clearly demonstrates that behaviors such as failure to obey a command, excessive barking, or pulling on the leash occur mainly because these behaviors have been inadvertently reinforced, and alternatively, more appropriate behaviors have not been implemented.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers does not support the belief that dogs are attempting to "dominate" humans and believes that the use of physical and psychological intimidation will only contribute to creating an adversarial relationship characterized by miscommunication and misunderstanding, something that only leads to anxiety, stress and fear, and that ultimately ruins the dog/owner relationship.

Dogs Need an Encouraging Environment

Dogs ultimately thrive in an environment where they are provided with clear structure and communication. Desirable behaviors are rewarded, whereas undesirable behaviors are discouraged by implementing clear rules and avoiding any forms of psychological and physical intimidation. Modern, scientifically based dog training and modern dog behavior modification focuses on teamwork, and ultimately, the creation of a harmonious relationship between dogs and owners.

"Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety"

— (AVSAB 2007).

Test Your Knowledge of Operant vs. Classical Conditioning:

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. A dog hears you open a bag of dog food and starts salivating
    • Classical conditioning
    • Operant conditioning
  2. Your dog is learning to fetch because every time he brings the ball, you reward him by tossing it again
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  3. At the first sight of lightening, your dog starts shaking in fear of an approaching thunderstorm
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  4. Your dog is learning to stop jumping on you because you turn your back away every time he jumps
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  5. Your dog instinctively learns to stay away from cigarettes because he got burnt once
    • Operant conditioning
    • Classical conditioning

Answer Key

  1. Classical conditioning
  2. Operant Conditioning
  3. Classical Conditioning
  4. Operant Conditioning
  5. Classical conditioning

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: What is Pavlov? Sounds like a brand of whiskey!

If you got between 2 and 3 correct answers: You are still an apprentice. Try reading the difference between classical and operant another time.

If you got 4 correct answers: You are getting there!

If you got 5 correct answers: Are you a dog behavior expert or what? Congrats!

Skinner vs. Pavlov: A Guide to Operant and Classical Conditioning

There are many ways dogs learn, but if you are training your dog to respond to a cue or if your goal is to change his emotional response to a trigger, you will very likely use the basics of operant and classical conditioning. The word conditioning simply means "learning." You do not have to have a degree in behavioral science to understand the meaning of these two; we will take a look at each using some common examples in your daily interactions with your dog.

Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, your dog learns to "operate" in his environment because his behavior is maintained by consequences being either reinforcement or punishment.

For instance, in the case of reinforcement, if you tell your dog to "sit" and upon sitting down, you deliver a cookie, your dog learned that compliance in "operating" results in a pleasant consequence; the cookie. If you reward the behavior often enough, especially during your dog's initial stages of learning, you will see an increase in the sitting behavior. This abides by Thorndike's law of effect “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation." A behavior is, therefore, said to be reinforced when it occurs with a greater frequency.

B. F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, in his Skinner box experiment, delivered food to rats that engaged in a target behavior which was pressing a lever. After careful observations, he came to the conclusion that "behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated and strengthen, whereas behaviors that are not reinforced tend to extinguish and weaken."

In the case of punishment, if your dog is wandering in the woods and gets sprayed by a skunk one day, he may be shocked enough to avoid going near the black and white animal once and for all. He may, therefore, decide to "operate" in his environment by running the other way upon spotting one. In this case, according to Thorndike's law of effect, "responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation. A behavior is, therefore, said to be punished when it occurs with less frequency.

*Note: Punishment is not determined by using "hostile" or aversive methods but rather by its effect on the rate of the behavior. In behavior science, punishment, therefore, does not mean hostile, but rather, means that it causes a behavior to occur with less frequency.

Therefore, to sum things up, the environment around dogs may lead to behavioral changes because of consequences. From a dog's perspective, there are three possibilities taking place when faced with stimuli.

  1. Neutral operants: the environment neither increases nor decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. To a dog, the color of the sky is pretty irrelevant and has no effect whatsoever on his behavior.
  2. Reinforcers: the environment increases the probability of a behavior being repeated. A dog may, therefore, increase its jumping behavior because he is given attention when he does this (positive reinforcement), or a dog may increase the behavior of hiding behind a couch because when he does so, the owner stops chasing him (negative reinforcement)
  3. Punishers: the environment decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens and extinguishes behavior. A dog may stop pestering a cat after the cat has scratched him (positive punishment), or a dog may stop jumping on the owner because the owner leaves the room every time he engages in such behavior (negative punishment).

Note: We will see this in more detail in the four quadrants of operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, a stimulus signals the occurrence of a second stimulus. The father of this form of learning is Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. In a study on digestive processes, Ivan Pavlov was evaluating the role of salivary glands. He employed several dogs for his experiments, and as good droolers, the dogs were salivating abundantly at the sight of food. This is a normal, natural response known as an "unconditioned response." The dogs, indeed, did not have to learn to drool at the sight of food because this is innate.

However, as time went by, he noticed that the dogs started salivating even when no food was in sight. Indeed, they were drooling at the simple sight of any person wearing a lab coat! How did this happen? The dogs simply learned to associate the people working there with food. To further prove these associations, Ivan Pavlov started ringing a bell before feeding food, and with time, the noise of the bell alone had dogs drooling.

The bell, which was a neutral stimulus (meaning it initially meant nothing to the dog), became a conditioned stimulus (the dog learned to associate the bell with food), causing a conditioned response (the drooling). There are several conditioned stimuli surrounding dogs each day. Following are examples of conditioned reinforcers:

  • The sight of the leash. To dogs, a leash initially means nothing (neutral stimulus), but with time, they start associating it with walks (conditioned stimulus) and get excited at its sight (conditioned response).
  • The doorbell. To a dog, the noise of a doorbell means nothing at first (neutral stimulus), but with time, he starts associating it with people coming inside the home (conditioned stimulus) and starts getting excited/nervous/anxious (conditioned response).
  • A clicker. To a dog, the clicking noise of a clicker means nothing initially (neutral stimulus), but after charging it by pairing it with treats, the clicker is associated with threats (conditioned stimulus), and the dog is all happy as soon as you take the clicker out of your pocket (conditioned response).

Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning

Confused about classical and operant conditioning? The two are different yet similar in some ways. Here are some tips on how to tell them apart.

Operant Conditioning

  • B.F. Skinner is considered the father of operant conditioning.
  • The behavior the dog engages in is voluntary (the dog willfully sits upon request).
  • The dog rationally associates a voluntary behavior with a consequence (the dog learns the equation "if I sit, I get a treat").
  • The dog is an active member, which entails making choices based on consequences.

Classical Conditioning

  • Ivan Pavlov is considered the father of classical conditioning.
  • The behavior the dog engages in is involuntary (physiologic or emotional responses are automatic reflexes).
  • The dog develops an involuntary response to a conditioned stimulus (the dog drools at the sight of the food bowl because it has learned to associate it with food).
  • The dog is passive and learns without performing any voluntary actions.
Dog behavior modification

Dog behavior modification

The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

There are various methods dog trainers and dog behavior experts resort to in order to make a dog operant.

Note: It is important to point out that in behavior terms, the words positive and negative are not used to mean good or bad, but rather, positive means addition and negative means subtraction. Also, as mentioned earlier, the term reinforcement denotes a behavior that increases in frequency, whereas, the term punishment is not used to entail anything hostile but simply denotes a behavior that decreases in frequency.

  1. Positive reinforcement: In this case, positive means adding something so to make a behavior increase (reinforcement). Example: You start giving (add) attention when your dog jumps. With time, the behavior of jumping increases.
  2. Negative reinforcement: In this case, negative means removing something so to make a behavior increase (reinforcement): Example: You stop staring (subtract) at your dog in a threatening way the moment he looks away. With time, the behavior of looking away increases.
  3. Positive punishment: In this case, positive means adding something so to make a behavior decrease. Example: In this case, you start giving (add) a squirt of water in the face the moment your dog barks. With time, the behavior of barking decreases.
  4. Negative punishment: In this case, negative means removing something so to make a behavior decrease. Example: You stop giving (subtract) attention when your dog jumps. With time, the behavior of jumping decreases.

Common Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and Terms

Following are some common and not-so-common behavior modification terms used when dealing with dog behavior.

Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)

Coined by Grisha Steward, this is a behavior modification program where the dog is allowed to move away from a trigger (and is also given treats) when it performs an appropriate behavior under threshold. The appropriate behavior is marked with a clicker, and the dog is rewarded with two primary reinforcers: the act of moving away from the trigger and food.

LAT (Look at That)

Coined by Leslie McDevitt, this form of behavior modification teaches the dog that it's rewarding to look at the trigger rather than frightening. It's based on counterconditioning, as it changes the dog's emotional response.


The process during which the dog's emotional response is changed. If a dog has been conditioned to react fearfully to a certain stimulus, in counterconditioning, we are undoing this association by creating new associations which ultimately change the emotional response.

So if bikes create fear, with counterconditioning, the dog would learn to associate bikes with something pleasant. If a dog were offered a treat every time he sees a bike, with time, he would start looking forward to seeing bikes. Counterconditioning works best if done with systematic desensitization.


This means to make a dog less sensitive to a trigger known to cause reactivity. It takes several small steps in carefully planned increments for it to work. To grant success, the trigger known for causing reactivity needs to be presented in such a way as to be less threatening. This entails working from a farther distance, making the trigger less noisy, keeping it still rather than moving, etc.

After repeated exposure done under threshold levels, the dog should demonstrate a diminished emotional response to the trigger. When the desensitization process is performed incorrectly, and the dog is exposed to the trigger at a high level of intensity, the opposite may take place, which is sensitization. On the other hand, the effects of systematic desensitization can be amplified when accompanied by 'the cherry on the sundae", which is counterconditioning.

Bar Is Open, Bar Is Closed

This behavior modification method focuses on desensitization and counterconditioning in a well-structured way, demonstrating how the feared stimulus is clearly what brings positive happenings.


The process during which a behavior stops from occurring. When a behavior that had a history of being reinforced is no longer fed with reinforcement, it eventually extinguishes; however, extinction bursts are not uncommon. According to dog trainer Terry Ryan, extinction bursts are signs that the training/ behavior modification program is working.

If, for instance, a dog was used to pawing at the owner to be pet and the owner complied most of the time, once the owner stops petting, the dog may reduce the behavior of asking to be pet, but at some point, the pawing may increase considerably. This is an extinction burst which is the dog's way of saying, "Hey, I am here, don't you see me? I guess I must increase my pawing and nudging behavior since it is no longer working."

How to deal with an extinction burst? By continuing to ignore the behavior and avoiding to reward. Rewarding at this point would prove deleterious.


This is exposing a dog to the trigger the dog reacts to in full intensity, in hopes the dog gets used to it with time. For instance, should a dog be scared of water, this would translate into throwing the dog into the water, or in the case of a dog fearful of gunshots, this would lead to tying him up right next to a shooting range.

While this method works at times, it has risks of leading to sensitization, which is the opposite of desensitization; therefore, it is not highly recommended. This is one of the preferred training methods of Cesar Millan, and sadly, the dogs exposed to his cocktail of frightening stimuli appear in the eyes of dog experts quite, stressed, fearful and very uncomfortable.


This phenomena takes place when the dog stops responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. A new dog living next to a busy highway may startle at first but may generally habituate to the noise over time.


When a behavior problem takes place, it is important to reduce the frequency of the behavior. The more a dog engages in an unwanted behavior, the more it reinforces. For instance, if your dog raids the trash can at night when left unsupervised, it is easier to simply install baby gates, invest in a trash bin with an irremovable lid, or close the kitchen door to prevent access to the trash can.

Management may sound obvious, but countless dog owners allow their dogs to be set up for failure by not engaging in what are simple, almost obvious behaviors. Some more examples of how to manage unwanted behaviors:

  • Crating a dog to prevent him from tearing apart the couch when unsupervised
  • Installing a pen to prevent a dog from escaping
  • Keeping shoes away from dogs that chew them
  • Avoiding exposure to other dogs when a dog is clearly aggressive towards other dogs
  • Investing in a no-pull harness for a dog that pulls

It is important to recognize that when feasible, management should be a temporary solution to a problem. The goal should be to use management for some time while working on dealing with the underlying problem. This means that if your dog chews your shoes, you should keep them out of reach when you are away, but you must also train your dog that they are not appropriate chew items by training your dog the leave it/drop it command and by praising your dog when chewing the appropriate items (chew toys).


This is an imaginary line drawn between relaxing and being out of control. Over the threshold means working at levels where the dog panics and is out of control. Often, this occurs the closer the dog gets to a trigger known for causing reactivity. Sub-threshold means when a dog's level of stress is low enough so that the dog's cognitive functions are able to work. Often working sub-threshold entails working at a distance from a trigger known for causing reactivity.

These are only a few of the many dog behavior modification techniques employed by dog behavior experts. Each trainer/behavior expert has his/her preferred.

For Further Reading

Questions & Answers

Question: My 10-month old German Shepherd chases, chews and snaps at her tail. The vet wants to treat for seizure activity. I am not willing to do that. Do you have any advice?

Answer: There can be several causes for tail chasing and finding the underlying cause can sometimes be difficult. Your vet likely is thinking to do a trial of antiseizure drugs and see whether it helps. Perhaps consulting with a veterinary behaviorist may be insightful. Here are some possible causes of tail biting in dogs:

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2020:

Hi GB,

I suspect that rather than expressing anger, your dog is expressing anxiety, more specifically separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety tend to eliminate when left alone. For proper diagnosis and treatment, it would be best to record his behavior when left alone and have a professional take a look.

GB on April 04, 2020:


I have a very smart and sensitive pit bull who was rescued at age 2. My problem right now, is that he expresses anger by peeing and pooping inside. For example, if I take my other 2 house-trained elderly dogs for a shorter walk before his 3 mile bike run, I inevitably return to an indoor accident. He will still go again on his run.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 27, 2018:

Provide a fenced area where your dog can dig to his heart's content. Bury toys there and praise for using this area. Dogs have a natural instinct to dig and allowing them to do so in an area, can really make them happy. Many dog owners use sand and build a digging area just for that.

Joyce Hirstj12 on December 26, 2018:

My 8 month old min pin frantically digs holes, ruining my yard. How can I work to deter this?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 19, 2018:

Yes, there is hope. Consult with a dog behavior professional well-versed in using positive, humane behavior modification. Th Pet Professional Guild has several members who take aggression cases.

rmpoust on November 15, 2018:

We adopted a Texas Heeler from the SPCA. We have strong suspicions that the dog was abused. He is definitely reacting out of fear, but he is showing aggressive behaviors that we can't tolerate. He is strong and has very sharp teeth that could do serious damage. He has bitten feet and broken the skin. He bit two of us in the hand, but that was early on and he hasn't done that since. I love this dog and want to keep him, but not at the risk of our other dog or visitors. Is there any hope for him?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 18, 2018:

Hello Lisa, You will find some tips for the issue you are facing in the link below, although I would recommend having a professional assist you considering that there are always risks associated with behavior modification:

lisajohnson1234 on July 28, 2018:

My dog is becoming aggressive when we try to move him from the bed, or couch, he snaps and growls

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 01, 2016:

pipinita, sorry this comes a bit late,

pipinita21 on August 25, 2016:

I would appreciate if you can recommend a book or article because my 14 month old yorkie has started pooping in the carpet. I was so proud because he seemed to be so well trailned and now I simply don't know how to correct this problem. He knows where is his box but he still does it in the carpet.... I am so frustrated!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 15, 2016:

Hello Heidi, sounds like you are doing a very good job! Kudos to you. I also am a big fan on clicker training and use it a whole lot. Thanks so much for following me and reading the articles on my website.

Heldi on July 13, 2016:

This video really makes me sad. In my country, Croatia, unfortunately, people still follow Cesar´s approach.

I work with my dog using clicker, for everything, simple cues such as sit/stay, walk on different surfaces, to more complex change of behaviour/emotion about something, impulse control when he sees cat/squirrel etc.

He is my first dog, (I was affraid of dogs and liked cats more), so I am really proud of how we are doing.

It took me time to find right source of information, to TEACH ME how to train him and I always return to your hubs, Alexadry. I think in these 2 years (my dog is 2 and a half years old now) I reread your hubs from word to word dosens of time.

I am really thankful for your time and effort to bring your knowledge to us!

I also read your articles on and recommend to do so to my friends/dog owners.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 30, 2014:

You can find many of my hubs on pinterest on a variety of subjects and they all offer a plethora of tips. If you go to my profile page follow me on pinterest where all my hubs are divided in different boards that may be helpful to you. Look up my board on dog aggression, in particular look for the hub on threshold levels, LAT and counterconditioning. Have a force-free trainer or behavior consultant walk you through these methods. Best of luck!

Larisa on May 29, 2014:

Great information, thank you so much! We are first time dog owners of a wonderful Samoyed, 1.5 yrs old. A number of factors (we're guessing) have contributed to a drastic change in behaviour lately: from the most playful, sociable dog, to an anxious, defensive and incessantly barking dog. Aside from hiring a professional we need have the abc of bringing our Zoë back to her happy self. Any tips would be hugely appreciated, clearly you know digs!! Regards

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 03, 2014:

Brenda, I am sorry I didn't understand your request. Is your dog wanting to be by himself, or is he clingy following you everywhere?

Brenda on May 03, 2014:

I would like some one on pup want stay by it self and follows from room to room

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 02, 2012:

Thank you, I am happy to hear you found my hub on dog behavior modification interesting, thank you for sharing.

Pamela Kinnaird W from Arizona. on May 01, 2012:

Really good information. I'm especially surprised how unrespected Cesar Millan's methods are. I'd only seen his show for 20 minutes. I've shared this hub with friends on Facebook and now Sharing it here. Great hub.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 30, 2012:

thank you, I really appreciate your feedback on my guide on dog behavior modification

jaswinder64 from Toronto, Canada. on April 30, 2012:

Good article and nice pictures.