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Using Functional Analysis for Dog Behavior Problems

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Functional analysis can help you learn a lot about dog behavior.

Functional analysis can help you learn a lot about dog behavior.

What Is Functional Analysis for Dog Behavior?

If you are trying to learn more about functional analysis for dog behavior, most likely you are a behavioral professional who is looking more into learning how to apply it. Or maybe you're a dog behavior nerd curious about why dogs do the many curious things they do. If so, you may find a functional analysis for dog behavior very helpful. But what exactly is functional analysis, and what's its correct usage? How can it benefit you?

Functional analysis is a process that helps you identify the function of a dog's behavior. Its main purpose is to help you highlight the relationship between stimuli and responses so you can develop the most precise and effective treatment plan.

To get to the core of the function of a behavior, you will need to first carry out what's known as functional behavior assessment. In a functional behavior assessment, you'll need to identify motivating factors, the antecedent, the behavior and the consequence that maintains the problem behavior. Collecting data, the dog's history and actively observing the dog's behaviors offers further insights into the pieces of the puzzle.

Once you have developed a hypothesis of the maintaining variables, you can then formulate a strategic plan that can grant reliable results.

In the next paragraph, we will take a look at the steps that are required to perform a functional analysis in dogs.

Steps for Performing a Functional Behavior Assessment

When it comes to behavior, there are several variables that have to come together to cause the behavior to unfold. By firstly conducting a functional behavior assessment, you can get to the root of a behavior so to tackle it correctly.

If you want to systematically collect data for a functional analysis, it should be done in a methodical, systematic matter. This will help you collect data in an organized manner so you can better analyze your findings and come up with the most appropriate behavior-modification plan.

Following are some steps on how to perform a functional behavior assessment.

  1. Collect the dog's history along with important details such as the dog's medical history, health and nutrition.
  2. Identify exactly which triggers and situations cause the behavior to take place and in what occasions the behavior doesn't take place. In what context does the unwanted behavior take place? What are the stimuli that evoke the behavior? Would the behavior take place if such stimuli were not present? What is function of the behavior? What consequence maintains it? Would the consequence take place if the behavior was not present?
  3. What's the role of the dog's temperament and breed? Does the dog appear to be genetically predisposed to behave in a certain way? Is the breed predisposed to certain behaviors?
  4. Compile a list of antecedents (what happens prior to the problem behavior) and consequences (what happens after the behavior? What keeps it alive?).
  5. How often does the behavior take place? What's its magnitude?
  6. If feasible, directly assess the dog's behavior in person or watch videos the owner has made.
  7. Discuss with the owner what has been done in the past to address the behavior, the results and effects.
  8. Develop hypothesis about antecedents and consequences.
  9. Develop a behavior modification plan based on hypothesis.
  10. Assess the effects the plan has in altering the behavior.

Conducting a Functional Analysis

The purpose of a Functional Analysis is to “test” different behavioral hypotheses, so to confidently identify the underlying motivations. It is therefore a possible step or possible component of the assessment.

For example, to test whether a dog is chasing his tail for social attention or automatic reinforcement (self-reinforcement), one can observe what happens when a dog chasing his tail is given attention, versus what happens when the dog is left alone.

If the dog is truly tail-chasing for social attention, the rates of jumping are expected to be higher when the dog is around humans, when compared to the rates when the dog is left alone. This is all done by using a graph that measures the behavior and depicts the results of the analysis.

Not always though it is appropriate to conduct a functional analysis. In some cases, deliberately testing may lead to safety concerns such as the dog injuring himself or another person. It is therefore important considering safety.

According to O’Neill et al (1997) one would have to carefully evaluate the risks and decide whether taking those risks are ultimately justified by the potential outcomes.

Strategies would need to be employed to protect the individual carrying out the analysis before any testing is carried out.

A Note on the Controversy of Identifying Motivation

Identifying the dog's motivation for engaging in aggressive behavior appears to be a rather controversial subject. On one hand, there are behavior professionals who think that digging deep to identify the dog's motives is a waste of time. The school of thought is that, as humans, we will never really be able to get into a dog's head and identify the dog's thoughts. Because of this, labeling a dog's motives can be misleading and distracting.

On the other hand, some behavior professionals think it's worthy to understand a dog's motive and that by digging deeper there are chances a more accurate behavior-modification program can be employed. For instance, should a dog bite a jogger, the first school of thought would think that determining the cause for the bite is irrelevant and that the management and generic treatment plan should remain the same regardless. The treatment plan might involve proofing a dog to heel and sit in the presence of joggers.

The second school of thought would instead find it important to determine if the bite was triggered by fear or predatory drive. They would design a treatment plan, therefore, based on the presumed motivation. If fear-based, the treatment plan may involve desensitization and counter-conditioning. If predatory-based, predatory-outlet activities may be suggested.

Truth is, there are cases where the underlying motive may never be clear. It is sometimes best to identify the function of the behavior, rather than its motive. What is the dog looking for? Is he behaving aggressively for attaining distance? Is the behavior a distance increasing signal? Why is the dog trying to attain distance?

"The difference between identifying a function and a motivation is presumptuousness" claims James O' Heare in the Canine Aggression Handbook. He further adds that "actual dog behavior doesn't always fit neatly into any category system that I have seen" and that owners shouldn't attempt to "jam square pegs into round holes."

Classification systems defining causes of dog aggressive behaviors are there mostly for illustration purposes and to allow behavior professionals the opportunity to "design more motivational directed treatments" he adds.

Note: This article is not a substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dog is exhibiting behavioral problems, please consult with a qualified dog behavior professional.

Actual dog behavior doesn't always fit neatly into any category system that I have seen.. Owners shouldn't attempt to "jam square pegs into round holes."

— James O' Heare

Functional Assessment for Behavioral Problems in People

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 16, 2013:

Yes, you never end learning about dogs and the great thing is that there are so many things that still need to be discovered. Have a great rest of the week-end too~!

Eiddwen from Wales on June 15, 2013:

I love anything to do with animals but dogs are my favourite. there was much to learn n here and you created a very well presented and interesting article. Voted up and have a great weekend.


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 13, 2013:

Ladydeonne, indeed, many approaches used on dogs were inspired by those used in humans. Learning theory among dogs and humans has many similarities. I'm sure with your background you would make a good dog psychologist!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 13, 2013:

Tilsontitan, thanks for stopping by. There are two different views on this, one school of thought is to dig deep to find a motive, the other is to treat the problem regardless the cause using a generalized approach. I personally, am for the dig deeper approach if if feasible, but have gone the other route too when there were too many variables. Thanks for the votes up!

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on June 13, 2013:

As a Mental Health Therapist, I have facilitated and developed many behavioral treatment plans for humans. I find it interesting that behavioral treatment plans for dogs and humans are almost identical. I think I'll look into becoming a dog psychologist. I love dogs, have two of my own and have had dogs as a part of my household for all of my adult life. Loved your article and learned much from it.

Mary Craig from New York on June 13, 2013:

I found this interesting. Seems we are always trying to find out why a dog behaves a certain way so that we can modify their behavior safely.

Voted up and useful.

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