I RECENTLY started teaching a 12-week online mentorship for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). The program, called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practices, is a comprehensive overview of animal behavior consulting for all species. The course mentors are certified behavior consultants in their field of interest. For example, I am a certified dog behavior consultant, while other mentors are certified for parrots, horses and cats, to mention a few species.
The students are aspiring and experienced behavior consultants working with a wide variety of species as well — cats, horses, parrots, exotic species, and of course, dogs. This is the third time I’ve mentored students in this course, and it is a wonderful experience. I’ve had students from as far away as Australia, Taiwan and the Czech Republic as well as Canada and the U.S. Many of the students work in pet-related fields, including veterinarians, vet techs, shelter workers, groomers and trainers.
I mention this course because it triggered this week’s column topic. The introductory reading for the students includes several articles on the difference between “training” and “behavior consulting.” The lines between the two can be blurred as behavior consultants generally use basic, sound training to address behavior problems, and trainers frequently help owners resolve problem behaviors as well.
While several factors separate the two professions, one difference is that trainers’ main focus is on teaching useful behaviors that enable a dog to be a well-mannered member of the family. Trainers teach behaviors such as sit, come, walk politely on leash, greet guests without jumping up and the like. While a good trainer will help eliminate many undesirable behaviors, behavior consultants generally focus on problem behaviors that negatively affect the dog-owner relationship or that might be unsafe. To tackle these behaviors, consultants gather background about the family dynamics, the home environment, the dog’s history and other factors that influence a dog’s undesirable behavior.
Finding solutions to eliminate undesirable behavior often starts with figuring out what the dog gets from performing this behavior. What’s in it for the dog to do this? In behavioral terms, it’s reinforcement.
When I talk with clients about eliminating reinforcement for a behavior, most people say, “But I don’t reinforce it! I don’t give him any treats.”
Reinforcement isn’t only about treats, nor does it need to come from the owner. The list of things that reinforce behavior is almost endless, but falls into four basic categories:
• Sensory: The top of this list is olfaction, the dog’s sense of smell. Consider when you walk your dog and he pulls on leash to sniff a tree. Sniffing reinforced pulling.
• Escape: This category focuses on getting away from something. For example, a timid dog barks at a stranger, and the stranger moves away. Barking was reinforced by escape from the fear-producing person.
• Attention: Dogs are social animals, so this category includes play, praise and any other way that the dog receives attention for his behavior.
• Tangible: Tangible reinforcers are things such as toys, treats and petting.
These categories aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, a training session will likely include tangible (food treats and petting), attention and sensory (touch, sight, sound and taste).
If your dog does something you don’t like, ask yourself what’s the function. Knowing what your dog gets out of a behavior is often the first step in addressing it.