Part 3-a: Principles of Behavior Modification Techniques

Frequently Used Behavior Modification Techniques

Good training is the foundation of behavior modification. The dog must get on a consistent training program because this gives him confidence and good communication with his humans.

Good Dog! ONE-der Class® methods

OK, maybe I’m biased, listing this one first, but I truly believe in the ONE-der Class techniques because they have always worked when properly applied.

Owners and their dogs must be able to communicate with consistency, so behavior specialists should know all the techniques of the Good Dog! techniques and be able to comfortably introduce them to clients. Reread the section in the book about the command “on your rug, down–stay” and the technique until you know it by heart. This gives a dog a “den” outside his crate, which is calming for him. It also gives the owner control.

Also essential to behavior modification is voice-clicker training, which I have found greatly enhances dog–owner confidence, and the “leave it” command (see Good Dog!).

Ignoring the dog and withholding rewards

Behaviors that have been conditioned with negative reinforcement can be eliminated by withholding reward and ignoring the dog.

Ignoring a dog is a powerful technique when addressing behaviors such as hyperexcitability, jumping on humans (whether they are visitors or the dog’s family), begging, and just wanting attention. Ignoring and withholding rewards eliminates inconsistent owner– dog interaction and decreases over-attachment between the dog and the owner. Coupled with other behavior modification techniques, these methods are also useful when treating dogs with separation anxiety, sibling rivalry, and bullying behaviors.

I often advise new owners of adolescent puppies or adult dogs to ignore the dog for the first 30 days of training. This gets the dog very tuned-in with the training as he learns good behavior is the only way to get his owner’s attention.

Operant training

Operant training is frequently used in human psychology, and with dogs it is much like the ignoring technique. The principle is to simply ignore undesirable behaviors while teaching desirable ones.

Say your dog does something you do not want him to do (e.g., barking, whining, pacing), teach/command him to do the behavior you want. For example, if he barks at the door when the door bell rings, tell him, “Go to your bed, down–stay.” In time, the dog will think, “I can’t bark anymore because I have to go to my bed and lie down and stay.” The reward may be whatever you choose to reinforce the good behavior. There is no reward for the undesired behavior.

Clicker training with and without a clicker

(See the chapter beginning on page 27 of this manual, “Marking Canine Behaviors with Tool and Voice Clickers.”)

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral therapy used to reduce or eliminate phobias that arise from non-rewarding and non-harmful stimuli such as thunderstorms and strangers. Through the phenomenon of habituation, an animal stops negatively responding to a stimulus after being exposed repeatedly.

To effectively employ this technique, you must identify the fear-evoking stimulus, to not have that stimulus occur during the training period, and to be able to reproduce the stimulus with controlled intensity.

Train the dog to quiescence or to go into a “down–stay,” then introduce the stimulus (such as a recording of thunder or a stranger with or without another dog) at a low intensity from a distance. Then reward the animal (food and verbal) for quiet behavior. If the dog does not take the food reward then you know that you must lower the intensity of the stimulus (the sound or the distance from a stranger).

Once you find the comfort zone where the dog will take the treat you can gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus while offering the rewards. Remember that dogs do not take food rewards when stressed, so if you get to a level where the dog does not take the treat you will have to back up until you find the comfort zone again before working forward.

Often, systematic desensitization and drug therapy are used simultaneously.

Drug therapy

The popularity of drug therapy is growing in the dog behavior modification world. Behavior modification alone should be tried first for a while, but if that fails, a veterinarian should consider drug therapy as an accompaniment. My 10-plus years’ experience has shown that if a dog does not calm and find a comfort zone within a couple of weeks, no amount of behavior modification is going to work. When my clients come with a dog suffering from one or more problems — separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, phobias, aggression, sibling rivalry, defecating and urinating indoors even after being house trained, and destructiveness — they are on their last nerve about keeping the dog. My job first and foremost is to keep the dog in its home! If that does not happen, no one benefits.

This is where taking a discerning history is so very, very important. If you are a veterinarian technician or assistant, positive-reinforcement canine trainer, or work for a shelter/rescue program, you will need to work very closely with the dog’s veterinarian. Never cross the lines of veterinary medicine; even if you know the answer to the dog’s problem you must refer the client to the veterinarian. That said, you still can address such issues as whether the dog needs medical attention, the drug therapy is not working, and if the dosage is incorrect. (Many veterinarians start drug therapy at the lowest possible dose and work up to a therapeutic level.)

Depending upon the severity, drug therapy is used for treating a variety of problems such as those listed above. Anti-anxiety drugs are administered to an animal at high- enough levels to eliminate undesirable reactions to fear-inducing stimuli. The stimuli may remain the same but over time, with the combination of drug therapy and behavior modification, the dog becomes desensitized to the stimuli and new, desirable behaviors become habitual. As the dog improves, it is then weaned off the drug.

Young dogs usually are on drug therapy for less than a year, as long as it has enough time for new behaviors to become habitual. A good behavior modification specialist works closely with the veterinarian, updating them on the dog’s progress so the veterinarian can determine time frame for the drug therapy. Adult/senior dogs often remain on drug therapy for the rest of their lives. Again, it is up to the veterinarian to make that decision.


Flooding is a technique that continuously exposes a dog to a fear-inducing stimulus that the dog cannot escape. It must be used with great caution by someone well- experienced with it or not at all because flooding can put the dog at risk of physical and/ or psychological damage.

I have seen flooding work with dogs that display inter-dog aggression and that do not respond to behavior modification and drug therapy. Every case must be evaluated by the veterinarian and the behavior modification specialist to weigh the risk versus value, and determine that the owner is no longer getting pleasure out of the dog. Always keep in mind the human–animal bond is fragile and is difficult to mend once broken. I have recommended flooding with inter-dog aggression (with the veterinarian’s consent) and after the dog has been on drug and behavior modification therapy for 6 weeks with little or no success.

I use a kennel in my area that has a set-up where all the dogs can see one another. The “patient” (still on drug and desensitizing behavior modification therapy) is taken there one day only, and is kenneled and totally ignored by the staff. The dog usually relaxes and begins to ignore the other dogs. He is taken again the next week and once he relaxes the staff walks other dogs up and down the aisle in front of him; this procedure is repeated the following week. The fourth week the dog is walked by an experienced handler around outside the doggy day care play arena on a long lead, but not in the arena itself. If the dog does well, the handler will take the dog inside the arena to greet a knowingly non- aggressive similar size dog. Quite often I have seen dogs become cured of their inter-dog aggressions.

I stress once more that this must be done with caution only by experienced handlers and with veterinary approval.


Counter-conditioning involves treating the response to a fearful stimuli with a something emotionally pleasant, such as a food reward. It is especially effective for combating fears of “monsters” like vacuum cleaners and cars.

Example: If a dog is fearful of and attacks the vacuum cleaner, place the vacuum cleaner in the center of the room with the cord wound and put a delectable treat on it. When the dog takes the treat, verbally reward him; repeat this step several times. Next, plug in the vacuum cleaner but do not turn it on, and again place a treat there. Verbally reward the dog when he takes the treat and repeat several times. Now, turn on the vacuum cleaner but do not move it; place a treat on the vacuum cleaner, reward the dog, and repeat. Finally, turn the vacuum cleaner on, place a treat on it, then move it slowly. The dog takes the treat, is rewarded, and life goes on with you able to use the vacuum cleaner without the dog being fearful or aggressive.

For car phobias, get into the car with the dog; don’t turn the ignition on and offer yummy food rewards. When the dog eventually calms down and takes the reward, stop. Repeat the process later that day and for a few days after. Once this becomes old hat to the dog, turn the car on but do not go anywhere. When the dog finally takes the rewards you can then take a drive — still offering rewards. Usually, in a short time the dog begins to associate getting in the car with something pleasant and wonderful.

Response substitution

Response substitution is replacing an undesirable behavior with a desirable one in a given situation. It is frequently used in conjunction with systematic desensitization.

Example: If your dog paces and barks at the front window when kids are getting off the school bus, give the command “leave it and come,” then kennel him for about 20 minutes. If you do this every day the dog will realize “when I see the kids I go to my kennel” and that his good behavior is incompatible with the undesirable behavior.