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Vol.18, No.

9 September 1996

Continuing Education Article

Canine Behavior
★ A program of behavior
modification requires from the
Behavior Modification,
owner a considerable investment
of motivation, time, and
Obedience, and Agility
KEY FACTS Training*
■ Behavior modification can involve
avoidance and changing the
animal’s response to stimuli. Angell Memorial Animal Hospital Pet Behaviour Innovations
Boston, Massachusetts Toronto, Ontario
■ Acquisition of new behaviors Amy Marder, VMD Pamela J. Reid, PhD
is facilitated by a continuous
reinforcement schedule.

treatment program to correct canine behavior problems may include
■ Obedience classes teach components derived from three main areas: environmental manipula-
commands via a combination of tion, physiologic intervention, and behavior modification.1 In general,
positive reinforcement, negative environmental manipulation is easily accomplished, even by inexperienced
reinforcement, and punishment owners. Physiologic intervention, by means of surgical procedures (e.g., castra-
techniques. tion) or drug therapy, also is easy to implement. Environmental manipulation
and physiologic intervention do not require much time, motivation, or under-
■ Agility training teaches owners standing from the owner. In many cases, however, behavior modification is
how to apply learning principles necessary to realize long-term change in a dog’s behavior. Unlike environmen-
effectively by training dogs to tal manipulation and physiologic intervention, a behavior modification pro-
navigate obstacles. gram does require considerable time, motivation, and understanding on the
part of the owner.

Behavior modification involves the implementation of learning principles to
change a behavior. Most behavior modification programs rely heavily on posi-
tive reinforcement and on techniques that involve operant and classical condi-
tioning. Avoidance and actually changing the animal’s response to stimuli may
be involved. In treating a dominant-aggressive dog, for example, an owner
might be advised to first avoid provoking aggressive behavior. Avoidance pre-
vents the owner from being injured and averts aggressive encounters that might
*This article originally appeared in Voith VL, Borchelt PL: Readings in Companion Ani-
mal Behavior. Trenton, NJ, Veterinary Learning Systems, 1996, pp 56–61.
Small Animal The Compendium September 1996

by Amy Marder, VMD
This program is designed to teach dogs to sit and reward should not be given when the dog is re-
stay and to make learning easy for owners and pets. leased, as doing so trains the pet to stand up.
No punishment is used at the beginning—only Daily practice is important. It is best if every per-
verbal praise and food. son in the household practices with the dog. Each
First, a few basics are necessary. The best way to session need only last 10 minutes.
teach a new behavior is by continuous reinforce- You should teach the sit–stay command first in
ment. Every repetition should initially be rein- the house and then outside, in a fenced yard. If the
forced with food. Because you cannot always have yard is not fenced, the dog can be tied to a long
food available, the food is paired with verbal lead for outside practice.
praise. This pairing of food with your voice makes When rewarding the dog, offer only verbal praise
the latter a more powerful reinforcer. Eventually, and food. It may be hard for you to resist petting
intermittent reinforcement is introduced and the the animal, but petting can be very distracting and
food treat is not offered every time. This ap- should be avoided at first.
proach makes the sit–stay behavior more perma- Teaching the “sit” command involves prompting
nent. and fading techniques and positive primary and
You should select a food treat that your dog loves, secondary reinforcement. Place the food in one
preferably something that is low in calories and can closed fist and pass your hand over the end of the
be broken into little pieces. Beef jerky treats, boned dog’s nose, over its head, and toward its rear as
chicken, and cheese are reasonable choices. Some you say the word “sit.” Usually, when the dog’s
dogs work for rice cakes. head goes up, the rear end goes down. When the
The reward must be given immediately. Timing dog’s rear hits the ground, praise the dog
is crucial. You should reinforce only desired behav- immediately and give the food reward. Repeat this
ior. If reinforcement is delayed, the dog may bark; exercise 20 times, and then omit passing your
at this point, the food rewards the bark rather than hand over the dog’s head. Instead, now use the
the stay. “sit” hand signal (an open hand held horizontally
You must proceed in the exact order of the pro- and raised). Repeat this exercise 20 times, giving a
gram. The steps are designed to make learning very food reward each time. After your dog
easy. Dogs learn by being successful. If you proceed understands the “sit” command, you can start
too rapidly, your dog will make mistakes and both teaching the pet to stay.
of you will become frustrated. If the dog makes a Teaching the “sit–stay” command involves
mistake (e.g., breaks the stay), you should sternly prompting. Begin with your dog in the sit position.
say “no” or “uh-uh,” should not give the food re- Hide a handful of food tidbits in one hand (do
ward, and should reposition the pet in the sit mode not dangle the food in front of the dog; keep it
and repeat the task. hidden). With your other hand, give the stay signal
Sometimes your dog may become bored or refuse (an open hand with the palm toward the dog)
to work regardless of what you do. On such days, while saying “stay.” Praise the dog as soon as it
do not push yourself or your pet. Instead, end the completes the task successfully (e.g., after count
training session on a positive note with a few easy, one or after taking one step); you can say “good
short stays (e.g., count 5) and try again tomorrow. dog,” “good boy,” “good girl,” or whatever words
You should end each session by giving your dog of praise you prefer. Then, with the hand you used
a release word. Most people just say “okay,” but for signaling, offer the pet a food reward. Keep
each owner can coin his or her own phrase. A food your dog in the sitting position.

The Sit–Stay Exercise

Owner Task Dog Completed Number of Times Performed

Count 1 ___________ ___________

Count 2 ___________ ___________
Count 3 ___________ ___________
Count 5 ___________ ___________
Count 7 ___________ ___________
The Compendium September 1996 Small Animal


Owner Task Dog Completed Number of Times Performed
Count 10 ___________ ___________
Count 15 ___________ ___________
Count 20 ___________ ___________

Now you are ready to do some dancing!

One step left and return ___________ ___________
One step right and return ___________ ___________
One step back and return ___________ ___________
Two steps left and return ___________ ___________
Two steps right and return ___________ ___________
Two steps back and return ___________ ___________
Three steps left and return ___________ ___________
Three steps right and return ___________ ___________
Three steps back and return ___________ ___________
Count 10 ___________ ___________
Two steps right, count 10 ___________ ___________
Two steps left, count 10 ___________ ___________
Two steps back, count 10 ___________ ___________
Five steps right and return ___________ ___________
Five steps left and return ___________ ___________
Five steps back and return ___________ ___________
One step back, about-face, return ___________ ___________
Two steps back, about-face, return ___________ ___________
Three steps back, about-face, return ___________ ___________
Count 20 ___________ ___________
Ten steps right and return ___________ ___________
Ten steps left and return ___________ ___________
Ten steps back and return ___________ ___________
Count 10 ___________ ___________

Modified version of Do-It-Yourself Sit–Stay Program, developed by Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD. Copyright ©
1977 by Victoria Voith.

cause the dog to assert a dominant position over the conditioning). A soft brush might be used initially; af-
owner.2 Physical punishment is usually avoided in these ter the dog tolerates being groomed with this brush,
cases because it might cause a dog to become more ag- firmer brushes can be introduced. The dog should re-
gressive and potentially dangerous. ceive a treat during each stroke of grooming and as a
The behavior modification program for a dominant- reward after the stroke.
aggressive dog also might include conditioning it to as- Although behavior modification may be the most
sume positive reactions and nonaggressive behavior in important part of a treatment program, it is often the
specific situations that could otherwise elicit aggressive most difficult for owners to implement. Most programs
responses. If the dog displays aggressive behavior dur- are time-consuming and require an owner to under-
ing grooming, for example, the owner can first teach stand some simple learning principles. Many owners
the dog to sit or stand and stay for food treats. Groom- abandon the behavior modification program early; oth-
ing implements then can be introduced gradually (de- ers fail to initiate a program. Wanting a quick fix, own-
sensitization). The dog receives treats for tolerating first ers may change the environment, give a drug, or avoid
the sight and then the use of the implements (counter- confronting problem behaviors but actually do little to


Small Animal The Compendium September 1996

change the pet’s responses to sponse is rewarded. Acquisi-

stimuli that elicit the prob- tion is promoted when the
lem. Owners thus fail to un- interval between the re-
derstand the cause of the be- sponse and the reward is
havior problem and why the short (approximately 0.5
problem is continuing or be- seconds for most behaviors).
coming worse. By contrast, maintaining a
A dog that exhibits terri- behavior is best achieved via
torial aggression when hu- an intermittent reinforce-
mans enter the house can ment schedule; the response
be handled by avoiding the is reinforced irregularly. In-
problem or modifying the termittent reinforcement
behavior. An owner may schedules can involve inter-
avoid the problem by con- vals or ratios. In a ratio
fining the dog to the back- Figure 1—A dog practicing the sit–stay command. schedule, reinforcement fol-
yard every time a person vis- lows a certain number of
its. This method does not responses. In an interval
change the dog’s response at schedule, reinforcement fol-
the door; if the dog is subse- lows the first response that
quently allowed in the house occurs after a specific inter-
when humans enter, the ag- val has elapsed since the an-
gressive behavior is likely to imal was reinforced.
recur. It may even be more Schedules can be fixed
severe because territorial or variable. A fixed-ratio
aggression often becomes (FR) schedule provides rein-
worse with time. Long-term forcement after a specified
change will only result from number of responses has oc-
a program that modifies the curred (e.g., an FR 5 sched-
dog’s behavior toward hu- ule means reinforcement
mans who enter the house. occurs after every fifth re-
sponse). A fixed-interval
LEARNING PRINCIPLES Figure 2—Teaching a dog to go over a seesaw during agility (FI) schedule provides rein-
Professionals and owners training. forcement for the first re-
must understand some ele- sponse after a specified in-
mentary learning principles terval (in an FI 5 schedule,
to design or implement an effective behavior modifi- reinforcement occurs after a 5-second interval has
cation program. The following is a brief introduction elapsed since the previous reinforcement).
to frequently used behavior modification techniques. A variable-ratio (VR) schedule provides reinforce-
More detailed information and definitions of terms as- ment after a variable number of responses (in a VR 5
sociated with behavior modification are available in the schedule, on average, every fifth response is reinforced;
literature on learning theory.3,4 the actual number of responses before reinforcement
Positive reinforcement refers to application of a stimu- may vary). A variable-interval (VI) schedule provides
lus or event (a positive reinforcer) that follows an ani- reinforcement for the first response after a variable in-
mal’s response and increases the probability that the terval (in a VI 5 schedule, reinforcement occurs after
response will recur. Negative reinforcement refers to re- the first response following a variable interval; on aver-
moval of an unpleasant stimulus (a negative reinforcer) age, the interval is 5 seconds).
after an animal’s response; such reinforcement also in- All types of intermittent reinforcement schedules
creases the likelihood that the response will recur. Rein- produce stronger responses than do continuous rein-
forcers can be used to modify behaviors that already ex- forcement schedules. Likewise, variable schedules (VR
ist in an animal’s repertoire or to establish new and VI) produce higher rates of response than do fixed
behaviors. schedules (FR and FI). Behavioral histories usually
Acquisition of a new behavior is facilitated by a con- demonstrate that dogs with problem behaviors are on
tinuous reinforcement schedule in which every re- intermittent reinforcement schedules. For example, a


Small Animal The Compendium September 1996

dog that barks to be fed at begins to decrease in fre-

the table is probably operat- quency and eventually dis-
ing on a mixed variable- appears. After a behavior
interval and variable-ratio has been eliminated via ex-
schedule. The dog barks a tinction, it may reappear if
variable number of times the pet is not periodically
and for variable periods be- exposed to the stimulus.
fore the owner periodically This reappearance is re-
gives in and feeds it. ferred to as spontaneous
Intermittent reinforce- recovery.
ment schedules can be ef- Shaping is a procedure
fectively incorporated into that is commonly used to
behavior modification pro- establish new behaviors by
grams to change problem reinforcing successively
behaviors. Using food re- Figure 3—A border collie descending an A-frame. closer approximations to
wards, a continuous rein- the desired response. With
forcement schedule can be each successful increment,
implemented to teach a dog previous levels of the behav-
new, appropriate behavior ior are no longer reinforced.
(e.g., sitting when humans Prompting and fading
enter the home). Once the techniques also are useful
behavior has been estab- for teaching new behaviors.
lished, the dog can be A prompt is a stimulus that
switched to an intermittent manipulates the animal to
reinforcement schedule of perform the desired re-
rewards that maintain the sponse so that it can be re-
good behavior. inforced. The strength of
Extinction occurs when the prompt is gradually re-
reinforcement for behavior duced in intensity (faded)
is withdrawn and, as a con- until the animal performs
sequence, the animal stops Figure 4—A border collie weaving through poles. the behavior without being
the behavior. Many owners prompted. For example, a
are quick to use punishment dog can be taught not to
to eliminate undesirable take objects by using the
behavior; however, serious prompt of a sudden move-
drawbacks may be associated ment toward the dog’s face
with punishment. Extinc- with the hand that holds
tion can be used as an alter- the object. The command
native. “leave it” is given simultane-
Although extinction has ously. The dog is rewarded
some inherent problems, the with a treat when it moves
technique is generally well away from the training ob-
accepted if the owner is ject. The threatening move-
warned of what to expect. ment to the face is faded
Typically, when reinforce- over time, and the dog is
ment for a behavior is with- taught to stay away from
drawn, the frequency of the Figure 5—Teaching a dog to down–stay on a table during the training object (or
behavior increases dramati- agility training. “leave it”) and subsequent-
cally (an extinction burst). ly to stay away from other
The burst may be accompa- objects.
nied by the temporary appearance of displacement ac- Secondary reinforcers (second-order or conditioned
tivities and other behaviors. If the reinforcement con- reinforcers) are stimuli that have been associated with
tinues to be withheld, however, the unwanted behavior primary, or biologic, reinforcers and have assumed rein-


Small Animal The Compendium September 1996

forcing properties as a result of this association. The ing the dog) are gradually introduced. In each case, the
most common secondary reinforcer is verbal praise dog continues to sit or down–stay and receives food
(“good dog!”) because it is often paired with food treats treats (Figure 1). While the dog is in a nonaggressive
and petting. If it is impossible to deliver a primary rein- mood, it is exposed to stimuli that previously elicited an
forcer immediately after the pet’s response, a secondary aggressive response. The same program can be adapted
reinforcer can be used to reinforce the correct response using stimuli that evoke fear or anxiety. A continuous
and signal the forthcoming delivery of a primary rein- reinforcement schedule is applied first, followed by in-
forcer. Periodic pairing of secondary and primary rein- termittent reinforcement to maintain behavior.
forcers is necessary to maintain the reinforcement prop-
erties of the secondary reinforcer. OBEDIENCE CLASSES
Chaining is a procedure that relies on conditioned re- Before clinical animal behavior became a recognized
inforcers to maintain a series of responses. Backward specialty, obedience classes were routinely recommend-
chaining involves conditioning the final response in a ed for dogs with behavior problems. Obedience classes,
series first, conditioning the response that immediately especially puppy classes, probably help to prevent the
precedes it next, and so on. This process is continued development of some behavior problems and help own-
for the entire response series. The final response is al- ers to gain some control. Once a serious problem has
ways reinforced with a highly motivating primary rein- developed, however, routine obedience classes may do
forcer. Backward chaining can be used to teach a dog to little to change the behavior.5 Most classes use combi-
sit and stay when humans enter the house. First, the nations of positive reinforcement, negative reinforce-
dog is rewarded for sitting while being greeted by a visi- ment, and punishment techniques to teach commands.
tor; then the approach of the person is introduced, fol- Many instructors continue to rely extensively on pun-
lowed by the person walking through the door. At each ishment and have minimal knowledge of the proper ap-
stage, only the final response of sitting while being pet- plication of positive reinforcement or learning princi-
ted is reinforced with a powerful primary reinforcer. ples. Classes thus may become unenjoyable for owners
Forward chaining involves working in the reverse or- and pets.6
der: the first response is initially established, then the The most common commands taught in obedience
second response, and so on. The last response in the classes are sit, down, stay, heel, and come. These com-
chain is reinforced with the primary reinforcer. mands are rarely applied, however, in situations in
A behavior modification program will be easier, more which behavior problems occur. For example, com-
enjoyable, and more likely to be implemented if the manding a dog to down–stay for a long period may pre-
owner understands learning principles and if the pro- vent a dog from being destructive when an owner is
gram design allows frequent rewards with small success- present but does not stop destruction when the owner
es. The owner is also likely to view the dog more favor- is absent (separation anxiety).
ably after working with it in pleasurable ways and Similarly, obedience training is often recommended
seeing frequent (even though small), positive changes. (to prevent dogs from engaging in behaviors) without
The owner thus may be less likely to abandon the pro- addressing the underlying motivation for the behaviors.
gram and the pet. For example, teaching a dog to stay might prevent a
Dr. Victoria Voith has developed a do-it-yourself fearful dog from biting visitors as they enter the house
sit–stay program (Figure 1) (see the box for a shortened (just as a gate would) but does nothing to reduce the
version). This autotutorial teaches an owner how to use dog’s fear. By contrast, a good behavior modification
positive reinforcement and shaping techniques. The program teaches an owner how to control a dog via
program is easy and fosters immediate success for the commands and uses counterconditioning to change the
owner and the dog. After completing each step, the dog dog’s response to specific stimuli related to the prob-
is rewarded with a tidbit of food to maintain interest lem.
and motivation. The program is repetitious to enable
the owner and dog to proceed with few or no mistakes. AGILITY TRAINING
As owners progress through the program, they feel Agility training is a sport in which dogs are taught by
immediately successful and are usually eager to go fur- their owners to navigate obstacles. It teaches an owner
ther. After they have finished the program, owners may how to apply learning principles effectively and may
incorporate desensitization and counterconditioning maintain an owner’s interest in the behavior modifica-
procedures. The stimuli that provoke problem behav- tion program. Typically, positive reinforcement, in the
iors (e.g., the doorbell ringing, the door being opened, form of food and play, is used in the training process.
a person entering the house, and the person approach- Because dogs must be taught to negotiate the obstacles


The Compendium September 1996 Small Animal

gradually, owners can implement and then understand havior modification program. During agility training,
the learning principles involved in most behavior modi- dogs receive reinforcement only for following owner di-
fication programs. rections on the course; paying attention thus becomes
Shaping, chaining, prompting, and fading are com- easier.
monly used in agility training. For example, teaching
the seesaw (one of the most difficult obstacles) requires CONCLUSION
the implementation of several principles. Because most Several owner–clients have attended obedience class-
dogs are afraid to walk on narrow, unsteady surfaces, es, implemented a behavior modification program, and
this behavior must be shaped gradually. The dog is first enrolled in agility training. In one case, the owner of a
taught to walk on a narrow plank via positive reinforce- dominant-aggressive wire-haired fox terrier (which had
ment. Next, the dog is introduced to a narrow inclined bitten its owner twice, was aggressive toward dogs, and
plank, again with positive reinforcement. After it suc- was afraid of humans) implemented all three. The own-
cessfully walks the inclined plank, the dog is taught to er reported that the obedience classes and behavior
walk up the plank until it tips and then to tip the plank modification program helped resolve the dominance
unassisted. Finally, by means of the forward chaining aggression and that the agility training ameliorated the
technique, the dog is rewarded for walking up the see- aggression toward other dogs and the fear aggression
saw, tipping it, and walking off the seesaw after it toward humans. The owner believed that the agility
touches the ground (Figure 2). tasks changed his relationship with his dog. Although
Agility training also involves teaching a dog to run the pet continued to growl at the owner occasionally,
through a tunnel, burrow through a fabric tunnel, walk the owner no longer viewed the pet as a major behavior
on a narrow elevated plank, climb and descend a 6- problem but instead as a companion to enjoy.
foot-high A-frame (Figure 3), jump over and through
various obstacles, weave through poles in slalom fash-
ion (Figure 4), and down–stay briefly on a table (Figure About the Authors
5). After the dog learns to maneuver each obstacle, Dr. Marder is affiliated with Angell Memorial Animal Hos-
owner and dog walk or run through a course that com- pital in Boston, Massachusetts, and Dr. Reid is with Pet
prises numerous obstacles. At this point, backward Behaviour Innovations in Toronto, Ontario.
chaining can be used. The dog is first rewarded for
completing one obstacle, then for completing two ob-
stacles, then for completing a series of three, and so on
until the dog can successfully complete approximately 1. Voith VL: Clinical animal behavior. California Vet 33(3):
20 obstacles between reinforcements. Most dogs and 21–25, 1979.
owners enjoy running the course. The dog receives de- 2. Voith VL: Aggressive behavior and dominance. Canine Pract
liberate positive reinforcement from the owner as well 4:8–15, 1977.
as self-reinforcement. 3. Domjan M: The Principles of Learning and Behavior, ed 3.
Pacific Grove, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing Co, 1993.
Agility training is a useful method of countercondi- 4. Schwartz B, Robbins SJ: The Psychology of Learning and Be-
tioning various problems. The method can be helpful havior, ed 4. New York, WW Norton & Co, 1995.
in dogs that are aggressive toward other dogs, dogs that 5. Voith VL, Wright JC, Danneman PJ: Is there a relationship
are afraid of humans, and dominant-aggressive dogs between canine behavior problems and spoiling activities, an-
that resist being handled and manipulated. Agility thropomorphism, and obedience training? Appl Anim Behav
Sci 34:263–272, 1992.
training also teaches dogs to pay attention to their own- 6. Myles S: Trainers and chokers: How dog trainers affect be-
ers. Many owners cannot make their dogs pay attention havior problems in dogs. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim
during obedience classes or when implementing a be- Pract 21:239–246, 1991.