Understanding Behavioral Modification Techniques as a Therapeutic Tool
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Moisés Heiblum Frid
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Hospital de pequeñas especies UNAM, Práctica privada etología clínica


It's defined as a lasting change in the behavior, which is the result of experience and environment events, happens in all animals but is particularly important in dogs.


Is referred to the impulse or desire to do a behavior, the motivation level is the key to try to reduce the behavior through behavior modification techniques. (DS-CC).

Family education

The success of the treatment is a behavior problem that is relation directly with the understanding and complicity of the owner, understanding the specific behaviors of the specie as the individual necessities, social organization and communication.

Environment modification

Is referred to the modification of several environment aspects to diminish the development or intensity of a behavior.

 For example for the urine marking: (reduce the number of cats in the household or avoid the exposure with external cats)

 Reduce the opportunity to make mistakes to avoid the destruction (provide a secure area of confinement)

 Change the behavior conduct of an area to avoid the inappropriate elimination (place food or bed in the inappropriate elimination site)

Behavior modification through surgery

 Neuter (diminishes the sexual behavior, aggressiveness, marking and prevents reproduction)

 Olfactory tractotomy (for complicated cases of urine spray in cats)

 Declaw and canine tooth removal (to diminish the physical damage potential)

 Devocalization (to reduce the excessive vocalizations)

 With exception of the neuter, the other ones are last resource procedures

Other ways of behavior modification

 Psychotropic drugs

 Synthetic or natural pheromones





Behavior modification is the central part of the behavior problem treatment in dogs and cats, mainly through learning principles.

Classical conditioning

 An unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces a reflex behavior called unconditioned response (UCR)

 A neutral stimulus (NS) does not have influence over the reflex behavior is presented repeatedly just before the (UCS) until it becomes in a conditioned stimulus (CS) capable of producing the response by itself.

Clinical examples

 An animal that presents a fear reaction when he goes to the veterinary clinic

 UCS = painful or intimidatory stimuli

 CS = clinic and medical staff

 R = fear

Tying a positive stimulus with a NE converts the NE in CE for a more desirable response (Clicker training is secondary reinforcement).

Tying an aversive stimulus with a NE converts the NE in CE for fear or anxiety (a dog that doesn't response to the calling because when he arrives is locked out).

Operative conditioning or instrumental conditioning

It happens when the result of the conduct (consequences) influences the probability of which the conduct repeats itself (awards or punishments), it is possible to happen independently of the interactions with the owner (a dog that, on having recharged his weight on the handle of the door, it manages to enter), (A dog that urinates in an undesirable place in absence of the owner), they increase the probability of repeating themselves since they obtain a reward in the moment of the action (a dog that, after having eliminated in an undesirable place, is severely punished diminishes the probability of which it eliminates again opposite to the owner without caring the place of elimination).

Positive reinforcement

The probability that a conduct repeats, increases as a consequence of a specific stimulus that happens immediately after to the behavior. (If you do X and something good happens, you will continue doing X)


The probability that a behavior repeats, diminish as a consequence of a specific stimulus that happens immediately after the behavior. (If you do X and something bad happens, you will stop doing X)

Negative reinforcement

The probability that a behavior repeats, increases as a consequence of a control stimulus which is absent or is removed if the behavior happens. (If you do X and something bad stop happening, you continue doing X)

Paradigms and common mistakes

 Reinforcement: The probability that the behavior repeats increases

 Punishment: The probability that the behavior repeats diminishes

 Positive: the control stimulus is present or happens as a consequence of the behavior

 Negative: the control stimulus is absent or is removed as a consequence of the behavior

 Punishment and negative reinforcement is not the same

 Confusion with the term negative with aversive.


Process in which the animals learn to adapt to stimuli or new experiences, any time negative consequences do not exist during the exhibition, to learn to respond before a stimulus that is repeated without consequences and that tends to lose meaning in the life of the animal.

 Traveling in car

 Confinement area

 Use of control accessories

 Exposure to people during the early socializing stage


The suspension of reinforcements bears to the extinction of a conduct, a certain conduct can get lost if we eliminate all the stimuli that reinforce this conduct (A dog that asks for meal of the table and it stops giving it to him, ends to stop asking). The extinction cannot be sufficient by itself alone to correct any problems of conduct, conducts that have been reinforced intermittently are more resistant to the extinction.

Once extinct they can re-arise with minimal provocation, for what the use of a differential reinforcement must be used for replace the extinct response for other one that is desirable. (substitute response)

Differential reinforcement

To reinforce a competitive alternate conduct (differential reinforcement of a new conduct) while it is ignored (it is not reinforced) the undesirable conduct.

The desirable conduct must be associated with the most valuable reinforcement possible, it is of equal importance that the undesirable conduct does not continue being reinforced, the most practical thing is to re-direct the conduct to a suitable target (To give toys to a pup and to reward it when it uses them and to ignore it completely if it tries to bite the hands of the owner).

Systematic desensibilization

The systematic desensibilization (SD) consists in the sudden exposure of the animal to a stimulus capable of producing fear, anxiety or aggression, in low intensities for not generating a response.

The stimuli are gradually intensified to sufficiently low increases not to provoke that the response appears, the stimuli are repeated often without effect until they become inconsistent and a habituation is achieved.

The SD is frequently used as a whole with counterconditioning. For example: a dog that is afraid to the thunders but not to a recording of thunders on low volume. The dog is exposed to this stimulation and if it does not show signs of anxiety one gives him a valuable reward (tasty food). With the time, gradually the volume is increased and the dog can be desesensibilizied to the stimulus that provokes fear and counterconditioned to support a positive attitude (before a reward) when he listens again the sound of thunders.

Controlled Exposure

The controlled exposure consists in reducing the intensity of the stimulus in order that the response of fear is minimized to a point in which the animal could be controlled in a secure and effective form. As soon as the stimulus habituation happens, the animal can be exposed progressively to more intense stimulation during the following meetings of therapy.

The controlled exposure differs from the DS in that the animal is exposed at levels low or controlled of the provocative stimulus instead of levels of stimulation that necessarily are kept below the threshold that produces fear or anxiety. In case of the controlled exposure the animal can even experience a state of moderate anxiety.


Counterconditioning is a skill that consists in condition an animal to modify his emotional response towards a certain stimulus (independent response from voluntary control) by means of the achievement of a new conduct which achievement is physiological or emotively incompatible with the conduct that is desire to be eliminated. The goal is to synchronize the stimulus or event that produces fear with a strong emotional opposite response (highly positive).


It consists on the continue exposure of the animal to a stimulus that has an intensity capable of producing fear or anxiety until the response yields.

The animal must be exposed continuously to the stimulus until the fear yields and the stimulus is not associated again with the fear. If the animal cannot escape of the stimulus and the stimulus stops being menacing, the response of fear becomes extinct. If the stimulus is removed before the signs of fear yield or if the owner provides affection or attention to try to "calm" the animal, the conduct of fear is reinforced instead of yielding. If the animal steps back or escapes before the fear has yielded, the threat has been removed by the conduct of leakage and the fear reinforces (negative reinforcement).

Successive approximation or molding

It refers to the process by which the animal can be trained to do more complex tasks through the construction of a more difficult level in the knowledge already existent. Gradually eliminating the rewards for the general conducts and progressively just rewarding for those that get closer to the desire final conduct. For example: Obedience orders (lay down, near).

Teach the dog to bark when somebody is at the door (first reward him for barking, then only when the barking occurs near the door and finally only when someone is at the door).

Practical implementation of behavioral modification

The behavior modification consists of the process of altering the conduct of an animal. Is a dynamic process where, in an active or passive way, exists a continual learning and in everything that we do.

Unconsciously, many times the owners use learning or behavior modification principles that in occasions it reinforces the behaviors that result annoying (to notice a excited dog).

The owner must understand that the learning process happens all the time and through a conscious effort it can mold the direction, rhythm and complexity of the process, to obtain the adequate outcomes.

Potential problems

The inertia may be a very powerful force (unconsciously the owner reinforce undesirable conducts), hard to change the lifestyle of the owner to be able to modify conducts, understanding exactly what is pretended to obtain with a behavior modification technique. Once understood that it has been applied in the correct way (time, intensity and adequate communication).

Application of behavioral modification techniques

The owner must suspend every conduct that promotes the undesirable behaviors, establishing a clear and consistent communication in the interaction with their animals (to sit or lay down are signs of "stop", besides, in the dog is a sign of difference that allows the owner to take the role of leader)

To teach a conduct, it must be rewarded every time that the desirable conduct presents, to keep a already learnt conduct, the rewards must be intermittent (intermittent is not synonymous of sporadic)

Avoiding punishments, yelling o threats out of time and proportion, because the only thing that they cause is lack of confidence and fear. The objective of the correction is to interrupt and redirect (not to revenge, no matter how good the owner feels about it).

Some points that could be misunderstood by the owners and doctors

1.  The behavioral modification is not obedience (to sit or lay down have the goal to promote a relaxation state, which promotes more receptivity to modify the conduct).

2.  Is important for the owner to understand the difference (stressed or anxious dogs are not able of learning a more appropriate conduct and definitely they can not associate to sit or lay down with the possibility of something good if they are not relaxed).

3.  Teaching the owner that the behavioral modification tries to change the dog perception in his interactions, through rewarding somatic signs associated with sub laying physiological states.

4.  The obedience training differs from this premise with the behavioral modification because the dog doesn't have to be relaxed.

Final considerations

 It takes a lot of time and effort, is not magic and the doctor must help in the process with control sessions.

 The doctor must work with the dog and the owner to teach appropriate conducts and demonstrate the owner the action mechanism.

 Teach to the owner the behavioral modification technique and letting him doing under supervision.

 If there exists risk of dangerous conducts, is important that the owner does not has to discover it when he is alone or without help.

 If the owner can't or won't like to work with the dog or his afraid of him to try it, the situation has no remedy.

 The cats can also learn through behavioral modification techniques.


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