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. | Source

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, therefore, are employed by dog behavior specialists, ranging from dog trainers well versed in dog behavior, up to certified applied animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists. Of course, 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. It is not casual, indeed that with the resurgence of the "dominance alpha wolf theory" fueled by Cesar Millans' National Geographic show the "Dog Whisperer" the number of dog bites are one 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 is 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". 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 alternate, 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 adversial relationship characterized by miscommunication and misunderstadining, something that only leads to anxiety, stress and fear,and that ultimately ruins the dog/owner relationship.

If you have been training using coercion and are considering switching to more positive training methods read: The Cross-over Trainer Guide: Switching from Compulsion to Reward-Based Training.

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 on operant versus classical conditioning

Skinner versus 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 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 to 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 gets excited at its sight(conditioned response)
  • The doorbell. To a dog the noise of a door bell 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 versus 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 | Source

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, 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 2 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.

Counterconditioning: 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 would be 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.

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.

Extinction: 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 sign 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.

Flooding: 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.

Habituation: 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.

Management: 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 thrash 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 on 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 (to learn this read, how to train the leave it drop it command) and by praising your dog when chewing the appropriate items (chew toys).

Threshold: 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.

© Alexadry all rights reserved.

Cesar Millan Working on a Dog Over the Threshold (see all signs of stress)

Would you hire a dog behavior specialist to treat your dog's behavioral problems?

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  • No, but I would try them on my own
  • No, I think my dog can cope with his behavioral problems, what a waste of money!
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Comments 12 comments

jaswinder64 profile image

jaswinder64 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada.

Good article and nice pictures.

alexadry profile image

alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

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

Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

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.

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alexadry 4 years ago from USA Author

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

Brenda 2 years ago

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

alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

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?

Larisa 2 years ago

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

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alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

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!

Heldi 3 months ago

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.

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alexadry 3 months ago from USA Author

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.

pipinita21 profile image

pipinita21 7 weeks ago

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!

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alexadry 6 weeks ago from USA Author

pipinita, sorry this comes a bit late,

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    Adrienne Janet Farricelli (alexadry)1,687 Followers
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    Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of dog books.

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