Dog Behavior Assessment

A series of articles for professional dog trainers, those who want to become professional dog trainers, and those who want to become certified dog trainers.

Finally! We get into the nitty gritty of learning and behavior. Remember – learning is a change in behavior based on experience.

Three crucial pieces to the learning puzzle are: antecedents, behavior and consequences (the ABCs). These three pieces of the puzzle are integral to understanding learning and changing behavior, as behavior never exists in a vacuum. The ABCs are the smallest unit of analysis.

In this article we’re going to do a couple of simple functional assessments to illustrate the ABCs. I rely heavily on Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning with Animals (LLA) course which she has developed to teach professionals about learning and behavior.[i]

The ABCs

Antecedents are those stimuli, events or conditions that occur immediately before the behavior, which function to set the occasion for the animal to exhibit the behavior. (Friedman, S.G. (2007).  A framework for solving behavior problems: Functional Assessment and Intervention Planning. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine. 16,(1) 6-10.)

Antecedents are the signals for what behavior, if performed, will be reinforced. Friedman uses the example of traffic lights. When the light turns red it signals to the driver to step on the brake, which is reinforced by the car stopping.  The red light doesn’t cause the driver to step on the break. More precisely, it signals the behavior-consequence (B-C) contingency in play: if you do x, then y will occur. When analyzing behavior, identify the antecedents that set the occasion for the behavior you are assessing.

Sample Problem: Jane’s dog Rover gets into the garbage and strews it about the house.

Background: Jane uses plastic grocery bags for her garbage, and she hangs them off a cupboard door in the kitchen. Rover is a medium-sized dog whose nose is about level with the garbage bags. When Jane is not in the kitchen, Rover will get into the garbage.

The behavior is Rover getting into the garbage.
The antecedents are Jane leaving the kitchen where garbage is hanging.
The consequence is that Rover gets great stuff.

Identifying the antecedent immediately reveals one intervention strategy. As a consultant, probably 99% of us would advise Jane to manage her garbage better – using a closed container, putting it under the sink, or putting it in the garage would resolve this problem quickly and easily.

By changing the antecedent, we have changed the behavior.

Behavior is anything an animal does under certain conditions that can be measured. (Friedman, 2007).

In behavior assessment, our first task is to identify the behavior we intend to target. Although this seems obvious, we sometimes target a constellation of behaviors, rather than one specific behavior. Additionally, we sometimes tend to focus on labels instead of behavior – i.e., dominance or jealousy. By focusing on one behavior, we make our task much easier. It may be that to resolve a problem we have to target more than one behavior, but if we do each behavior that makes up the problem individually, the task will be easier and the problem resolved more quickly.

Sample problem: When Jane and Rover are at the park and Jane calls Rover, Rover runs away; when Jane finally catches up with Rover, he squirms and wiggles to the point that it takes five minutes to attach the leash. Additionally, Rover tries to back out of his collar and if successful, he runs off again

The problem is that Jane isn’t able to leave the park when it’s time to go. However, there are several behaviors causing this problem.

Problem #1: Rover doesn’t come when called
Antecedent – Jane calls Rover
Behavior – Rover runs away from Jane when called
Consequence – Rover doesn’t have to leave the park
Problem #2: Rover tries to escape
Antecedent – Jane holds Rover’s collar
Behavior – Rover tries to back out of his collar
Consequence – Rover doesn’t have to leave the park
Problem #3: Rover won’t sit quietly while Jane puts the leash on
Antecedent – Jane tries to attach the leash to Rover’s collar
Behavior – Rover squirms and wiggles
Consequence – Rover doesn’t have to leave the park

Notice that each of Rover’s behaviors has the same consequence. However, they all have different antecedents. For the most efficient and satisfactory result, each of these behaviors should be addressed separately, as the solution for each problem will vary, depending on the situation.

Consequences are those stimuli, events or conditions that occur immediately after the behavior, which function as feedback about how to behave again in the future. (Friedman, 2007.)

The first important researcher into animal learning was Edward Lee Thorndike. Thorndike was studying intelligence in animals and through his research observed what we now call the law of effect. The law of effect states that “the strength of a behavior depends on the consequences the behavior has had in the past.” Or, more simply stated, behavior is a function of its consequences. (Chance, Learning & Behavior, 5th ed., pg 137.) Considering this law with every behavior consult will improve your performance immensely.

Sample Problem: Rover only jumps on Jane when she comes home from work. When Jane comes home from work and opens the door to the house, Rover jumps on her in excitement. Jane pushes Rover off and tells him to get down.

The behavior is Rover jumping on Jane
The antecedent is Jane walking through the door
The consequence is attention from Jane

In this situation, the obvious thing to address is the consequence. Jane decides to have treats at the ready when she opens the door, and cue Rover to sit as she walks in. If Rover sits, he gets a treat and Jane will squat down and pet him at his level; if Rover jumps, Jane will walk back out the door, wait 30 seconds, then try again.

The Functional Assessment

We can also make use of distant antecedents or background information to help us ferret out the immediate antecedent. When looking for an antecedent, we must identify the event that is most closely related to the behavior. However, there are often other events that predict the behavior, as well, such as medical, nutritional or species specific variables. When we do our functional assessment, we’ll want to take note of this background information as it does play a part in the behavior and may need to be addressed within the program.

Take the example of Rover jumping on Jane – Rover only jumps on Jane when she comes home from work. It’s likely some other events occur that we may identify to better predict the behavior. We can make some educated guesses as to what these events may be; the time of day, the length of time Jane has been gone, perhaps the morning routine or the way she enters the door. Through systematic assessment and analysis, we can include or eliminate our guesses. Understanding the background may or may not affect your decision on how to address the problem; regardless, it should be considered.

The final step in a functional assessment is to determine whether or not the antecedent and consequence you have pinpointed is functionally related to the behavior. I.e., would the behavior happen if the antecedent were not present? Would the consequence happen if the behavior were not present? Remember – behavior has function! We behave for a reason. If the antecedent or consequence is not functionally related to the behavior, then you have not pinpointed the correct antecedent or consequence.

We can’t be sure that the events we’ve identified explain the behavior without testing them. The intervention step is where we test our hypothesis. It’s often quite obvious what the function of a behavior is. In the example of Rover and the park, it’s fairly obvious that Rover doesn’t want to leave. However, in the jumping up scenario, it’s a little hazier – we assume that Rover wants attention, but then why doesn’t he jump on Jane at any other time? It’s highly unlikely that Rover never wants social attention except when Jane comes home from work. Delving a little deeper into the antecedents and consequences of Rover’s jumping may reveal something totally unexpected. For example, Jane may feed Rover shortly after arriving home.

By using functional assessment, we can resolve quite complex and difficult behavior problems in a systematic and efficient manner. As Bob Bailey says, “Think, plan, do!” The doing is the least of it – the thinking and the planning is where the real work comes in. As dog trainers, we want to get right in there and start training the dog, but we might be better served to take the time to think and plan before we start doing.

Involving the Client

A consultant is someone who is paid for their services, has a specific area of knowledge, tries to improve a situation, and does not have control over the implementation of the plan. (Block, Flawless Consulting, pg. xxi.)

We should involve our clients in the thinking and planning. We traditionally use the client only for the information gathering and doing. If we guide the client so they come up with the antecedents and consequences, they will be more invested and more likely to implement the plan. They will have a clearer understanding of what the problems are and how to resolve them and will learn that solutions are found by changing the environment they often control.

We tend to think that as consultants, it is our job to come up with the answers.  We can’t forget that the client is the one with the information and the end-goal vision – we simply have the know-how. Let’s not forget that the client is the life-long teacher of the dog, and the mark of a good consultant is leaving the client with more skills than they started with. It should be our job to guide our clients through the process instead of simply telling them what to do.

What if, instead of having our client fill out an intake form, we have them fill out a functional assessment form, and we guide them through that process until they pinpoint the real problems?[ii] What if, instead of us telling them what to do, we give them background information in the areas of behavior and learning, and guide them through the process of figuring out what needs to change? My guess is that we will have more committed clients!


[i] Dr. Susan Friedman’s LLA-Tele is an 8-week telecourse which concentrates on learning how to do a functional assessment and analysis. For more information on this telecourse go to www.lla-tele.com. The next LLA-Tele begins September 4, 2008.

[ii] Dr. Susan Friedman has developed a functional assessment form which she will make available to readers of the APDT Chronicle of the Dog in conjunction with an article on how to use the form.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.