B is for Behavior

Okay!  So in my last blog, we talked about antecedents.  Now it’s time to discuss the B in ABC — behavior. In the article referenced throughout this series, Dr. Susan Friedman says the following: “Behavior is defined as what an animal does in certain conditions, which can be measured. Hypothetical, psychological constructs (e.g., intelligence, dominance, motivation) and vague, diagnostic labels (aggression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) are not behaviors — they are concepts and concepts cannot cause behavior.”

Behavior is what the animal is doing.  Observable and quantifiable.  Behavior is information.  It will help you adjust your training plan, or show you where you need to create one. You have to identify the behavior so you can see if it changes after you start the training plan or other behavioral intervention. Behavior is not moral, it is not perpetrated against you as the trainer, it is not what you think the dog is thinking, or why you think it’s doing the behavior (motivation).  It is simply what the dog is doing.

Let’s look at the first of our three training scenarios, the hand target. The behavior is dog puts nose on hand when hand is presented. That’s it. They do or don’t do this thing.  It is seeable and measurable.  If you change your expectations, like adding more distance to get to the target, then however far the distance the dog has to move to the hand is now a part of the behavior and it is also quantifiable. Say you want your dog to jump up to the target; then the behavior is dog puts nose on hand when hand is presented above the nose.  You can add layers of difficulty to the behavior, but the behavior is always measurable and seeable. If you present your target and the dog does not touch their nose to it, then it was a missed trial.  Your job as a trainer is to make note of this and possibly make adjustments to your training plan — not to get mad at your dog because he “should” know it.

Our second scenario is chewing.  This lack of labels becomes even more apparent when we look at a behavior like chewing.  Your dog is not morally corrupt or out to get you if he chews your $700 cell phone.  He probably did it for a variety of reasons.  But the motivation is not what we are talking about;  the behavior in question is chewing.  It’s also chewing when he goes to town on a marrow bone. To a dog chewing is chewing.  Both the cell phone and the marrow bone are just objects that he has chewed.  You will need to look at antecedents and consequences to resolve this problem, but getting mad about the chewing is not the thing to do.  It is, after all, at least with respect to your cell phone, just a misapplication of a normal dog behavior.

In our third running example, we are looking at door greeting behavior.  Most of my clients say, “He jumps all over people!” or “He barks at guests.”  These are accurate statements, but I often hear the anger and frustration in their voices.  We must remember that, again,  jumping and barking are normal dog behaviors and our embarrassment or frustration at the situation should not be taken out on the dog who is just doing what comes naturally.  Your dog is not trying to upset you or embarrass you.  As a trainer, you must identify what behavior you want less of and what behavior you want more of and then tip the scales in the favor of the ones you want more of.  If you get stressed and embarrassed about what your dog is doing, take a series of deep breaths and remember this: all behavior can be modified. The other day I was listening to a podcast by Hannah Branigan and she said that when she is frustrated by her dog’s choices, she reminds herself that “this is just behavior and all behavior can be modified.”

The real take-home of this “B is for behavior” blog is that we need to stop placing our own morals and judgments on what our dogs are doing.  Behavior is just information.  I chewed your cell phone… maybe I needed to chew and it was what was available, or I was stressed and it smelled like you (antecedent issues). Maybe I am jumping on people because I am height seeking for comfort (internal antecedent issue).  Maybe I am jumping because I don’t know what else to do (consequence issue).

Whatever the A and C might have to do with it, the B is neutral — it is just information. Use the information your dog is giving you to make a training plan or to change the environment in a way that tips the scales in the direction of choices you would rather he or she make.

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2 Comments on B is for behavior

  1. Hey there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

  2. Very good written article. It will be helpful to anyone who usess it, as well as yours truly :). Keep up the good work – can’r wait to read more posts.

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