Behavior Modification



Reinforcing a behavior increases the chance the behavior will be repeated. Reinforcement is most often described as positive, but it can also be negative. Positive reinforcement is the offering of a reward, aka consequence (good thing). It increases the likelihood of a desired behavior. Negative reinforcement increases behavior with the removal of something (time-out). Both are techniques used in behavior modification.


Habituation is the decrease in response after repeated exposure. For example, dogs experience repeated exposure to loud sounds become accustomed to loud sounds.


Conditioning is the association between stimuli and behavior. The dog drools (behavior) at the sight of food (stimulus). Each time the dog sees food a bell rings (second stimulus). Once paired the food and  bell cause the dog to drool at the sound of the bell without any food in sight. This is conditioning. 


Shaping is based on gradual approximations for behaviors similar to the desired behavior. For example, while teaching a puppy to shake a paw, any lifting is reinforced. Paw lifting increases. The behavior is then rewarded only when the puppy performs the desired behavior.


Extinction is when a response ends after a reward has been removed. If when your dog jumps up for greetings, you respond with happy talk, the behavior increases. If ignored, jumping up will end because the reward is no longer available. Introducing an alternative behavior or DRI is a better solution for jumping up.


Counterconditioning changes a dog’s emotional response. It reduces unwanted behavior by replacing it with a more favorable behavior. For example, a dog that lunges when a stranger passes by is exhibiting an emotional response. Counterconditioning is the pairing of the stranger walking by with something delicious or otherwise, to change your dog’s emotional state.


Spontaneous recovery happens when there is an extended period of time between an event which has been habituated in the past, and re-exposure to a similar event. After habituation, the dog no longer reacts. Upon re-exposure, the dog reacts once again.


Desensitization is used to develop tolerance. If a puppy gets overexcited at the sound of the doorbell, playing a recording of a doorbell will reduce this behavior. At first play sound very softly and gradually increase the volume as long as the puppy remains calm. Never push the puppy over a comfortable threshold.


*The difference between habituation and desensitization is that habituation is less gradual. Habituation is preventative, while desensitization helps to reduce a pre-existing behavioral issue. Flooding is the opposite of desensitization. It can be very stressful and should only be used as a last resort.


For severe behavorial issues, your veterinarian may prescribe medication, which is most helpful when used in combination with behavioral modification.