Applied animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists typically are called in by pet owners to address a variety of behavior problems and training deficits exhibited by their companion animals. Our job is to assess the situation, provide a functional characterization of the problem behavior, and offer interventions that can help pet owners reach a satisfactory solution. In ways that parallel applied behavior analysis services provided to human populations, our job is that of a behavioral consultant, while the pet owner’s role is that of the consultee and the pet is the client. Here I will discuss some important tasks set for each member of this consultative triad.
The job of the pet typically is to learn new appropriate responses while ceasing to engage in inappropriate or undesirable behaviors. We often target the pet as the one whose behavior must be changed, and indeed it often must. Yet in almost every situation, of course, the pet owner is directly responsible for achieving that goal under the guidance and coaching of the behavioral consultant. The pet owner plays a deeply important if not essential role in changing the pet’s behavior, and our goal as behavioral consultants is to teach and reinforce appropriate pet owner behavior as well.
Pet owners are responsible first for specifying, describing, and ranking the importance of the challenges they are experiencing. Often, the behavioral consultant may have a different interpretation of the situation presented. For example, a pet owner might complain that her dog is chewing toys and shredding the contents. The pet owner characterizes this as a problem because she must vacuum lots of stuffing from the floor. Yet the behaviorist is likely to characterize this toy destruction (as long as there is no ingestion of inedible contents) as an appropriate, desirable response by a dog. After all, chewing and shredding are normal canine behaviors, and chewing a dog toy to bits is just the right alternative to chewing the sofa. Or, a pet owner may contact a behaviorist for assistance with jumping on visitors, yet upon meeting the client we encounter serious aggression that is, in our view, of much greater significance and must be addressed. Nonetheless, pet owners first come to us with a description and categorization of their concerns and, without achieving owner compliance or satisfaction with our outcomes, we are not likely helping the pet’s state of affairs either. So in terms of the social validity of our interventions and the reputation of our clinical services, meeting the client’s described challenges is essential.
Once brought in to a behavior case, our job as behavioral consultants is to guide and coach the pet owner through the process of behavior change from beginning to end. First we help the owner define the challenging behavior in specific, operational terms. This means that we must come to a common understanding of what the behavior actually looks like. For example, an owner may call me in to treat her cat’s “depression”. The term depression can mean many different things to different people and the label of “depression” must be described much more specifically if we are to develop behavioral interventions designed to address it. Upon further interview, I might discover that the cat, for example, is often hiding under furniture, meowing at the door more than usual, and not interested in playing with toys she once enjoyed. These are all essential behavioral descriptions (and ones, by the way, that would suggest the need for a complete physical examination by a veterinarian before any behavioral intervention is applied.)
Once specific, objective, observable descriptions of the target behaviors have been identified, the behavioral consultant’s role is to provide the pet owner with a functional assessment or characterization of the behaviors to be changed. It is important that we provide owners with an understanding of the “why” of behavior whenever possible. We humans look for causality in all of our interactions with the world, and as pet owners we want to know why these beloved companions of ours act the way they do. To the extent that a complete history is available, behavioral consultants can talk to owners about possible genetic contributors to behavioral tendencies, early (lack of) socialization or early traumatic experiences, the laws of learning that shape the behavior of animals, and the current antecedents (triggers) and consequences that often are maintaining problem behavior (or failing to maintain desired behavior). By incorporating what we know of the phylogeny (evolutionary history) and ontogeny (learning history) of these animals, we can provide explanations for many behavior problems. Often these explanations are far from those the pet owner might naturally assume them to be. This is where our scientific training is essential – we can bring empirical concepts and data-based findings to the table to help the pet owner understand the causes of their problems.
Our most important task as pet behavioral consultants is to provide pet owners with a behavior plan – a set of instructions for reducing undesirable behavior and increasing desirable behavior in its place while ensuring the pet’s physical, behavioral and social needs are being met. Our specific training enables us to develop each piece of this plan, and its particular ingredients vary based on the problem at hand. What all good behavior plans share, however, is that they are designed in a way that enables pet owners to follow them to a successful resolution. This process involves more variables, and deserves more discussion, than can fit within the scope of this post. In a wildly oversimplistic description for now, this entails careful delineation of steps that meet the task-following abilities of that particular pet owner, programmatic inclusion of situations that allow for generalization of new skills taught, characterization of the role that all relevant family members play in the pet’s behavior change, and possible side effects or common derailing scenarios for various behavior change protocols.
Presenting a verbal or written description of the behavior plan falls quite short of what might be expected to change owner behavior. Our next clear goal is to model the intervention for the owner. From teaching appropriate leash walking to using a time-out from attention to arranging a cat tower appropriately, our job as behavioral consultant almost always entails direct demonstrations that serve as opportunities for the pet owner to observe us interacting with the pet in the ways we are recommending in our behavior plans. Humans and other primates rely on imitation for much of their learning, and our job as behavioral consultants, wherever possible, is to serve as that imitative model.
After modeling behavior for our consultees to observe, we must have them practice our interventions while remaining available to reinforce or correct their behavior as necessary. Whether we are utilizing classical or operant conditioning in any given behavior plan for the pet, for example, so much of our intervention relies on appropriate timing and decisions by the owner about when or how to proceed that are based on fine-tuned observations of the pet’s behavior. This nuanced skill set may not be available at first to most owners and the responsibility is on us to teach, train and reinforce this aspect of the pet owner’s behavior. Good dog trainers and behaviorists who teach group classes or work extensively with individual owners in a coaching role are only too familiar with this need to mark and reinforce correct moments of responding by the owner and to point out, gently and with grace, those moments when owners missed out on golden opportunities to reinforce desired behavior.
One important goal of applied animal behaviorists or veterinary behaviorists is to ensure that data collection remains an important part of our behavior plan development and modification over time. Whether we are collecting ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) data to determine patterns of behavior and possible contingencies maintaining behavior, or frequency data to get an objective measure of behavior change over time, data collection can serve as a behavioral consultant’s best friend. There are many cases where a pet owner’s ABC data collection can illuminate a problem whose function was theretofore a mystery. I remember, for example, a Bichon Frise whose owners called me in to address what they called sporadic panic attacks in their little fluffy friend. Cotton would become fearful at what seemed to be unpredictable or “random” times of the day, suddenly panting, pacing, and seeking out her owners’ laps or hiding in her crate. The owners knew that she was startled by gunshots and fireworks, but they could never hear these events at the moments Cotton became frightened. Cotton was in good health and outside of these events, was a calm and happy young dog. I had the owners begin a systematic ABC data collection system and two weeks later they called to say they were shocked to have discovered the trigger for her anxious behavior. As it turned out, the motor of the refrigerator, which kicked on at variable times throughout the day, was a fear-provoking stimulus for Cotton and was triggering every one of her anxious episodes. Only by having owners systematically stop what they were doing to record the circumstances of each instance of our target behavior were we able to bring to light this trigger that was an esoteric and, from the humans’ perspective, quite subtle trigger.
Next, behavioral consultants must be available and open to modifying the behavior plan as needed. This requires ongoing supervision of the plan, to provide opportunities for owners to report back on the pet’s progress and to gather objective measures of behavior change (either through data collection, through video observation, or in direct observation in the pet’s home by the behavioral consultant). There are myriad reasons why a prescribed behavior plan may not be yielding results and each of these must be systematically examined and modified as necessary so that owners can be kept on the right track toward success. As one can imagine, a one-time prescription of a behavior plan handed out to a client without follow-up is likely to be less effective than one that includes ongoing support for the pet owner.
Finally, our role as successful behavioral consultants entails some level of independence training for the pet owner. In other words, we should leave the pet owner with skills not just for continuing to implement the behavior plan as prescribed but also for building on the pet’s desirable responses, teaching the pet to respond appropriately in all relevant contexts and with all relevant family members, and being able to address functionally similar issues that might arise in the future. In other words, we must teach pet owners how to generalize their behavior to other, similar contexts down the road. There is a substantial body of research that has shown that generalization will not occur on its own but instead must be programmed into our instructions. We hope for any given behavior case that we can teach the owner what he or she must do to achieve and maintain the behavioral goals we have set.