Friday, September 11, 2015

What is acceptable behavioural modification?

This little fella is a resource guarder. Its a helpful behaviour in some contexts, but can be a real problem in others.

We often talk about behavioural modification, but what does that look like in real life? There seem to be a gazillion TV programs, books and courses about managing animal behaviour, but their methods vary hugely. Some are well informed, many are not. And those that are not are potentially harmful. For example, one dog owner I spoke to watched a video which suggested dogs that are not compliant should be pinned down and growled at. The person did this and the dog became increasingly terrified and more likely to bite this woman. It can be hard to re-establish trust after this. 

Behaviour advice is like medical advice – it should be sought from a reliable source, well-informed, evidence based and applied carefully. There is some good stuff in books and on television, but its worth getting a second opinion about whether it is likely to apply to your animal in your context, and what are the potential negative effects.

So what works and what is acceptable? The American Animal Hospital Association has released Canine and Feline Behaviour Management Guidelines which outline commonly accepted principles of behaviour treatment and modification.

They’re refreshingly straightforward.
  • Behaviours that are rewarded are repeated and increase in frequency à we need to reward positive behaviour.
  • New behaviour is best learned if rewarded each time that behaviour is demonstrated à we need to reward animals consistently
  • Behaviours are best maintained, once they’ve been established, by rewarding them intermittently à we need to reward animals often enough to maintain desirable behaviours
  • Dogs AND cats are open to learning desirable behaviour if it is rewarded

The term reinforcement refers to a consequence that increases the likelihood of a behaviour in the future. So positive reinforcement is usually a reward given to an animal after it performs a desirable behaviour. Negative reinforcement may refer to withdrawal of something the animal desires, such as your attention. We want to negatively reinforce undesirable behaviours, and positively reinforce desirable behaviours.

Unfortunately, much behaviour modification is performed by unregulated trainers or laypeople and can be harmful. According to AAHA, aversive techniques (those designed to punish or deter animals from performing a particular behaviour) are problematic. They can induce problem behaviour in otherwise normal animals, and exacerbate problem behaviour in animals with existing behaviour problems. Fearful and aggressive animals may simply respond by suppressing signs of impending aggression, making them more and not less dangerous.

Examples of aversive techniques include alpha rolling, prong or choke collars, cattle prods, electric shocks, whips, starving, withholding food or beating. It’s shocking that people would even use these methods, but we know that some trainers continue to recommend these despite evidence that they cause far more harm than good.

I thoroughly recommend reading the guidelines in full.


Hammerle M et al (2015) 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behaviour Management Guidelines. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 51:205-221 DOI 10.5326/JAAHA-MS-6527