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Changing behaviors

Behavior modification

Learning theory, operant conditioning, and classical Pavlovian conditioning are mature sciences and offer a wealth of information to veterinarians. The following concepts and definitions should help the health care team incorporate basic learning theory and behavior modification into clinical practice and to recognize and make recommendations against inappropriate, unkind, and dangerous behavior correction practices often recommended by nonprofessionals. Avoidance and safety are the cornerstones of behavioral treatment. Comprehensive behavior treatment plans include medication, behavior modification/training, and environmental change/management. Commonly accepted principles of behavior treatment and modification are as follows: 29

  • When behaviors are rewarded they are repeated and increase in frequency.
  • New behaviors are learned best if they are rewarded each time they occur.
  • After a behavior has been acquired, it is best maintained if it is rewarded randomly and intermittently, which is more often than "seldom.’’
  • Dogs and cats will repeat a learned behavior if it is rewarded and will exhibit behaviors their owners desire if those behaviors are rewarded.

Behavior modification is often described using the following terminology:

  • Positive: something is given to the animal (e.g., a reward is positive reinforcement given for desired behavior).
  • Negative: something is taken away from the animal (e.g., attention is withheld from a dog as negative reinforcement for an undesirable behavior, not petting a jumping dog).
  • Reinforcement: a consequence that increases the likelihood of the behavior in the future.
  • Punishment: a consequence that decreases the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

The term ‘‘behavior modification’’ refers to techniques that either increase or decrease the frequency and expression of behaviors. The basic techniques discussed here are part of an integrated approach to treating problem behaviors:

  • Desensitization: the process by which a stimulus associated with an undesirable behavior is presented to the individual at a level below that which elicits the response followed by a gradual increase in the stimulus level. If desensitization is properly done, individuals do not become aroused following exposure to the stimulus.
  • Counterconditioning: a process in which an animal that is reactive, fearful, or aggressive to a specific stimulus (e.g., the doorbell, an approaching dog) learns to become happy and accepting of that stimulus. This is accomplished by pairing the stimulus with something that the dog or cat likes and wants. Counterconditioning and desensitization are often combined so that rewards are given when a dog or cat does not react to a stimulus to which they previously reacted, even when the stimulus gradually increases. For example, if a dog is fearful of a vacuum cleaner, gradual exposure to the vacuum cleaner is paired with something the animal likes and on which the dog can focus (e.g., highly desirable food), enabling the dog to associate the vacuum cleaner with something good. This technique is not the same as flooding, which should be avoided.
  • Flooding: prolonged exposure to the worrisome stimulus at a level that causes the anxious, aggressive, or fearful response in the hope that simply by presenting the stimulus continuously, the undesirable behavior will stop. Unlike desensitization (where the goal is to expose the dog or cat to a worrisome stimulus at a level below that which will trigger the response), flooding exposes the animal to the stimulus at a level that triggers the response. In the case of distressed patients, flooding actually sensitizes the patient to the stimulus and worsens it by causing shutdown or collapse of a patient. Dogs and cats repeatedly exposed to inescapable unpleasant or painful stimuli may develop learned helplessness, that is, they cease offering any behaviors because they learn they have no control over outcomes. Flooding is never recommended.
  • Training an alternate behavior: a process in which an appropriate behavior that is incompatible with the problem behavior is taught as an alternate response using positive reinforcement. For example, if a cat habitually chases a person’s feet, the cat is taught to go to a high perch for a treat in response to a cue, in this case the appearance of a human being. The cue indicates that a treat will be given if the cat goes to the perch when someone enters the room.
  • Distraction and redirection: a process in which food or another reward is used to lure the individual’s attention away from a stimulus to preempt a response, decreasing fear or aggression. For example, a cat that habitually chases a person’s feet is distracted (redirected) when a toy is waved in its face so the cat plays with the toy instead of focusing on the person’s feet. 
  • Environmental enrichment: the addition of one or more external factors in order to reduce the frequency of abnormal or unwanted behaviors while increasing the frequency of normal, desired behaviors. For example, if a dog that paces when left alone is provided with a food toy, the dog will work with the toy rather than pace. Many dogs with behavioral problems are too distressed for simple environmental enrichment alone to have an effect.
  • Avoidance: the act of preventing an individual from engaging in unwanted behaviors. This technique protects distressed dogs and cats from exposure to adverse behavioral stimuli that will make them worse. Protection is the first treatment step. For example, a dog barks at people seen outside the window. Closing the blinds or sequestering the dog at the back of the house avoids the stimulus that triggers the barking response.


Aversive techniques

This Task Force opposes training methods that use aversive techniques. Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problemsolving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. 29–32 It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals. 33 Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous. 34–36

Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior. Nonaversive techniques rely on the identification and reward of desirable behaviors and on the appropriate use of head collars, harnesses, toys, remote treat devices, wraps, and other force-free methods of restraint. This Task Force strongly endorses techniques that focus on rewarding correct behaviors and removing rewards for unwanted behaviors. 33–35,37