Behavior Fundamentals

Debra F. Horwitz DVM, Diplomate ACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations
St. Louis, Missouri


Taking a behavioral history is the most important component in dealing with behavioral problems. The behavioral history should be comprehensive yet this task need not be overwhelming.

A printed form is very helpful when you start to take the behavioral history. This allows the clinician to use a consistent pattern of questions and hopefully elicit all the information that is needed to make a diagnosis, a prognosis and set up a treatment plan. When taking behavior histories, it is important to listen in a non-judgmental manner so as not to stop the flow of information that is needed to understand the problem.

Usually it is helpful to start the history by asking about the 24-hour day. Important information includes the household routine and pet-owner interactions. Where does the pet sleep? If is aggression and the pet sleeps on the bed, does aggression occur there. When does the pet get up, and when does it go outside. Does the dog roam free or is it confined in a yard? Where does the pet stay during the day if it is alone? What does the pet do during family meals? Ask also who feeds the pet and what the pet is fed. How long is the pet alone on any given day. Is there a specific amount of time spent daily on play or training? Is this programmed time random, pet initiated or owner initiated?

How does the pet behave with family members; this is commonly called an aggression screening. Can they take food from the pet? Does the dog steal things and then they are unable to get them back. Can they groom the pet or wipe its feet when it comes in from outside. How does the dog walk on a leash, will it heel or does it forge ahead. Remember that some family members may have problems with these things and others may not.

In addition ask about the early history of the pet and where it was obtained and how old was the pet when they got it. Certain problems may have been there before this owner obtained the pet especially if the pet was a stray or surrendered for adoption to a shelter. Alternately, they may have obtained the puppy from a source that does not provide good early puppy care or socialization. The training history is important so, ask if they have ever taken this dog to obedience class and who took the dog. Did the dog do well in class? Do they still do training with the dog? What will the pet will do for them on command? A description of the pet's personality is often illuminating, it gives some idea how the owner perceives the pet.

Next the consultation can focus on the problem behavior. First, ask what is the problem they came to see you about and how long has it been present. Next, a description of the problem behavior is helpful. Start with the most recent occurrence of the behavior since this is always uppermost in their minds. Ask them to describe it like they are drawing a picture. You want to know where they were, who was there, where the animal was and what happened. You also want to know what the animal did. What were its facial expressions? If it was an aggressive encounter, was the pet growling, snarling, tail up or down, ears up or down. If a bite occurred what kind of bite was it, a puncture wound or a tear. Was there more than one bite? Finally was there any punishment, who intervened to end the encounter if it was aggression and how did the pet respond to the intervention. Sometimes the description is very vague so walk them through the same episode again trying to get the owners to be more specific in their descriptions. Then ask them to go backwards in time to the next most recent occurrence of the behavior and continuing in this manner as far back as they can go. Often a pattern to the behavior will emerge. This could be a pattern of places, events or people that seem to elicit the behavior. Often not only will the pattern become clear to you, but it will also become clear to the owner.

Next find out what have the owners done in the past to correct any behavioral problems, either the one we are discussing or any others. Also ask about any medications used to treat the behavior either in the past or if the pet is currently on any medications.

Also ask what other behaviors does the pet engage in that are objectionable to them. Often there are other problem areas in addition to the one they have targeted in the appointment. Information on how they have tried to correct or deal with these additional problems is helpful.

The final part of taking a history is not as cut and dried as the earlier information. You need to listen to each case as if you have never heard this problem before, because in essence you have not. There can be circumstances and attitudes that are present in this case that are not in the next even though they both may end up with the same diagnosis.

Always end by asking if there is anything else that they want to add which you did not ask them about. They often make revealing statements about the pet and it's personality. Common statements like "He is okay as long as he gets his way" or "He runs the household" will often be heard in cases of dominance aggression. Be sure to also listen to statements where the owners blame themselves for the problem behavior. You must make the owner understand that while they contributed to the problem, most owners are unwilling accomplices, no-one wants a problem pet. They were merely doing their best, but what they did got unexpected results from their pet. It is also important to point out to people that all pets have different personalities and therefore respond differently to owner's actions. That can often explain why an owner who had several pets in the past with no problems, now has one who really has created a problem in their home.

The behavioral history will be the cornerstone to treatment of behavior problems. Be certain to set aside enough time to get the information needed for diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. Do not feel that you need to finalize the diagnosis and treatment at the moment. Just like complicated medical cases, you can gather the information, ask the owner to return at a later time while you evaluate the information, categorize the problem(s) and formulate a treatment plan. With adequate consultation time and good history taking many behavior problems can be treated and improved.

When it comes to training dogs or cats, or modifying behavior, a good understanding of reinforcers and punishers is necessary.

Behavior is the result of behavior-consequence relationships. Generally speaking there are four types of behavior-consequence relations. First, behavior can result in positive consequences. This is positive reinforcement and will produce an increase in the behavior that resulted in the positive event. Second, behavior can result in negative consequences. This is punishment, and should result in a decrease in the behavior that caused it. Third, the behavior can result in the removal of something unpleasant. This is negative reinforcement or escape and will increase the likelihood that the preceding behavior will occur again. Lastly, there are behaviors that result in the elimination of something pleasant, and this is called omission. 1 Learning occurs best when there is a clear relationship between the timing of the two events and the predictiveness of the consequences.

There is an additional learning scenario that can be very important in companion animals. This is often referred to as one trial learning. There can be situations when the consequences of the action are so intense that learning occurs the very first time that the two events occur together. The most common phenomenon is taste aversion learning. In this situation, an animal eats a food, and subsequently becomes ill. The animal will then associate the taste of that food with illness and avoid that food in the future. Almost all species will respond to this learning paradigm, even people and usually in only one trial. How does this apply to the pet owning public? Dogs can learn many things in just one trial especially when the consequences are aversive. This learning can occur at all ages and may even be intensified in young, naive animals. Examples include harsh punishment after the fact resulting in fear of the owner, or grabbing for the collar. Painful injections at puppy visits resulting in fear of the veterinary office. Harsh handling at puppy exams resulting in fear of the exam room, veterinarian or exam tables. Remember that many behaviors are the result of learning.

Reinforcement And Punishment

The previous discussion showed that behavior is controlled by its consequences-either pleasant ones or unpleasant ones.

Reinforcement is a positive relationship between behavior and outcome. The more you do, the more you get, and what you get is good. In other words, behavior will be repeated. There can be positive reinforcement, often called a reward. Positive reinforcement and rewards are often used synonymously, but that is not always true. It is easy to see a food treat or a pat on the head as a reward for the dog. However, it is often more difficult to determine why some behaviors still exist because the reward is not clear. For example, what it the reward for a dog when it barks at the mailperson? The reinforcement comes from the mailperson leaving, and therefore the dog will continue to bark. The dog has erroneously assumed that the barking behavior made the person leave, and therefore will engage in the behavior again.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something unpleasant that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. In this situation there is a negative relationship between behavior and outcome. One way to look at this relationship is to realize the more an animal engages in the behavior, the less negative outcome is obtained. The easiest example of negative reinforcement to understand is escape behavior. If an animal is anticipating an aversive outcome, perhaps a reprimand from the owner, if the animal can escape, or not be caught, then the aversive outcome will not occur.

Punishment is a situation where there is a positive relationship between behavior and outcome, but the outcome is negative. In other words, the more of a behavior an animal does, the more of a negative outcome is obtained. This is a situation that should make behavior decrease. This is an extremely important component of punishment. When punishment is used to change behavior, there should be a decrease in the target behavior in very few applications of the aversive event. If not, then either the punishment is not being appropriately applied, or applied to the incorrect behavior. Punishment also has the possibility of causing anxiety, fear and aggression and is not the recommended means of changing behavior.

The way the both reinforcement and punishment are used can greatly influence their effectiveness. This is often termed the "schedule of reinforcement". How behaviors are rewarded can be powerful determinants of future behavior. Schedules of reinforcement can be based either on time (intervals) or amount of work, or number of responses (ratio). Schedules can be fixed, meaning that after so much time or a set number of responses reinforcement is given. Alternatively, behavior can be reinforced on a variable schedule, meaning that a period of time or a number of responses must take place, but that period varies from reinforcer to reinforcer, with an average time or number of responses. Reinforcement given on a variable schedule results in strong acquisition of the response. This means that the rewards are given intermittently, and the animal is not exactly sure when the reinforcement will occur.

Extinction is the procedure used to end a behavior. Extinction occurs when behavior is no longer reinforced. When this occurs, eventually the behavior will stop. However, it is very common, especially if the behavior has been maintained on a variable ratio of reinforcement, for the behavior to temporarily increase and this is called an extinction burst. When trying to get a behavior to extinguish it is extremely important to identify ALL reinforcers and eliminate them.

Habituation is a process by which a stimulus no longer evokes a response. Usually this occurs with repeated presentation of a stimulus and the animal learning that it does not signal anything important.

Counterconditioning is teaching a behavior that is incompatible with the previous response. An example is to teach a dog to sit and stay instead of lunging.

Systematic Desensitization is gradually exposing an animal to stimuli at a low level so as not to evoke an undesirable response and conditioning relaxation responses instead. Paired with counterconditioning, this allows animals to learn to behavior properly to stimuli that caused fear, aggression or other problem behaviors.

Flooding is used to treat fears of harmless stimuli by forcing the animal to stay in the presence of the stimuli until the fear is extinguished.