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Behavior Modification in Dogs

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, University of Pennsylvania

The techniques used most commonly to modify dog behavior include habituation, extinction, desensitization, counterconditioning, and shaping. A behavior modification technique called flooding, described below, is not used very often because it is more likely to make animals worse. While it is claimed that punishment is frequently used with varying degrees of success, few people use punishment correctly. For punishment (such as screaming at the dog) to be successful, it must occur at the beginning of the behavior, be consistently delivered, and be strong enough to stop the unwanted behavior. Most punishments are not given at the right time or are not the appropriate type for the situation.

Behavior Modification Techniques

Most of the techniques involved in behavior modification are not hard to learn and can be successfully used as preventive techniques. They do require a regular investment of time and effort, however. The following is a short review of the basic principles involved in these techniques.

Habituation is a simple form of learning that involves no rewards. It is merely the ending of or decrease in a response to a stimulus that results from repeated or prolonged exposure to that stimulus. For example, horses placed in a pasture bordering a road may at first run away when traffic passes, but eventually learn to ignore it. A dog that habituates to one type of sound does not, as a consequence of this habituation, automatically become habituated to other sounds. Habituation is not the same as failing to respond to stimulation as a result of fatigue, sensory adaptation, or injury. The effects of habituation are generally long lasting. However, if an animal is repeatedly exposed to a potentially harmful stimulus (such as a predator) without being harmed, habituation does not generally occur. Because of this, scientists believe that responses to dangerous stimuli may have an inherited resistance to habituation.

Spontaneous recovery is associated with habituation. If there is a long period of time between when a dog has experienced an event to which it had habituated and re-exposure to the same event, the dog may again react. For example, a puppy barks to get a reaction. The more the owner attempts to quiet it, the more the puppy barks. It will continue this pattern because it is getting the attention it wanted. Even if the attention is “negative,” some puppies will find it rewarding. The best method to discourage the behavior is to ignore it. Eventually the puppy stops barking if the owner consistently ignores it. However, the bad behavior comes back every now and then. This is called spontaneous recovery.

Giving a small food treat is a good way to reward your dog for obeying a command.

Conditioning refers to associations between stimuli and behavior. For example, a hungry dog drools (the behavior) when it sees food (the stimulus). After this, every time that the hungry dog sees the food a bell is rung (a second stimulus). Once the food and bell have been paired several times, the dog will drool even if it just hears the bell. This is called conditioning. The bell generates the same response as the sight of food. After several times, the dog has learned to associate the bell with the food.

Reinforcement is any event that increases the chances that a certain behavior will be repeated. Reinforcements can be positive or negative. When positive reinforcement (a reward) is used in training, there is a positive relationship between the behavior and its consequences. The more the pet does a behavior, the more it gets positive reinforcement. This makes that behavior increase. A negative reinforcement (which is mistakenly thought of as punishment by many people) is something unpleasant that increases a behavior when it is removed. For example, being held tightly may be unpleasant to a squirming puppy. But the hold is released only when the puppy calms down. After several times, the release from restraint will increase the chance that the puppy will relax faster.

Second-order reinforcers are signals that can be used at a distance to let the dog know that a reward is coming. Commonly used second-order reinforcers are words, such as “good girl,” hand signals, and whistles. By carefully pairing these with a primary reward (such as food or petting), second-order reinforcers can elicit the same response that the reward would. For example, a clicker can be associated with patting on the head as a reward for sitting and staying. By associating the clicker with a reward, you can train the dog to sit and stay from farther away and still reward the behavior by using the clicker. Positive training and “clicker” training have become very popular. However, it is possible to do an excellent job at positive training without using any second-order reinforcers. Clicker training requires frequent practice and excellent timing. In some situations involving problem behaviors, the incorrect use of a clicker may hinder, rather than help, a behavior modification program.

Extinction is a response that stops when a reward is removed. A classic example of extinction involves a dog that jumps up on people for attention. If people pet the dog, the behavior continues. If they stop petting the dog, the dog will eventually stop jumping up because the reward is no longer there. However, even occasional petting of the dog in response to its jumping will reinforce the pattern. The more valuable the original reward, the longer it has been present, and the more uncertainty there is about whether the reward has been truly removed, the greater the resistance to extinction. Resistance to extinction can also occur even without reinforcement if the reward was good enough and was tightly linked to the behavior.

Because there is often an association between getting the reward and the intensity of the behavior, the intensity or frequency of the behavior you are trying to eliminate usually increases at the beginning of extinction. In other words, a behavior you are trying to extinguish may get worse before it gets better. It is critical that you do not give in. Giving in will only make extinction more difficult. The dog will learn that, although your threshold has increased, the dog can override it by working harder.

Overlearning is the repeated performance of an already learned behavior. It is frequently used in training for specific events, and may also be useful for preventing fearful responses in dogs. Overlearning accomplishes 3 things: it delays forgetting, it increases the resistance to extinction, and it increases the chance that the behavior will become an automatic or “knee-jerk” response in similar situations. This aspect can be extremely useful in teaching a dog to overcome a fear or anxiety.

Shaping is a learning technique that works well for dogs that do not know what response is desired by the trainer. Shaping works through gradual approximations and allows the dog to be rewarded initially for any behavior that resembles the desired behavior. For example, when teaching a puppy to sit, giving the puppy a food treat for squatting will increase the chance that squatting will be repeated. This squatting behavior is then rewarded only when it becomes more exaggerated, and finally, when it becomes a true sit.

Avoidance of a problem behavior is essential until you can seek qualified help, particularly in a case of aggression. With treatment it may be possible to reduce the aggressive behavior, but avoidance is the key in minimizing danger. Avoidance does not mean that the pet has control, or that you are giving in to the dog. Instead, it may help extinguish the aggressive behavior. Every time a dog becomes aggressive, it learns that aggression may help it cope with the situation, thus reinforcing the problem.

Desensitization is a way to gradually teach a dog to tolerate a situation by carefully exposing it to that situation in small steps. If a puppy gets overexcited at the sound of the doorbell, a tape recording of the doorbell could help stop the undesirable behavior. If the tape is played very softly at first and then only gradually increased in volume as long as the puppy remains calm, then the puppy may stop reacting to the doorbell.

Counterconditioning is a method for reducing unwanted behavior by teaching the dog to replace it with another more favorable behavior. In the doorbell example above, the puppy will learn faster if it is first taught to sit, stay, and then relax in exchange for a treat. The puppy must be absolutely quiet and calm, and convey by its eyes, body posture, and facial expressions that it would do anything for its owner. Once this behavior is learned, the desensitization is added by playing the tape recording at a gradually increasing volume. If at any time the puppy starts to get too excited, the tape recording should be lowered in volume until the puppy relaxes. Relaxing is the key and is the first step to changing the behavior. Counterconditioning and desensitization can take a lot of time and effort. The exercises must be frequently repeated so that the unwanted behavior decreases until it is no longer a problem.

Flooding is prolonged exposure to a stimulus until the dog eventually stops reacting. This is the opposite of the approach taken in desensitization. It is far more stressful than any of the other treatment strategies and if not used correctly will make things worse. The most common problem is increased fear. This technique should be used only by a professional and only as a last resort.

Punishment is also known as aversive conditioning. It is any unpleasant event that lowers the chance that a behavior will be repeated. Punishment is not the same as negative reinforcement (see see Behavior Modification Techniques). To be most successful, punishment must occur as early as possible (within a few seconds of the start of the behavior), and it must be consistent and appropriate. Critical factors in punishment include timing, consistency, appropriate intensity, and the presence of a reward after the undesirable behavior ends. This is the most frequently ignored part of treatment for people whose pets have behavior problems. Owners often resort to physical punishment as the first choice, but punishment does not need to be physical. Furthermore, punishment is just as hard to use correctly as counterconditioning and desensitization. Punishment is never an “easy out” and has a high chance of failure. It can also lead to other negative consequences, such as increasing the chance of fear or aggression.

Use of Medication to Treat Behavior Problems

Your veterinarian may, in some cases, prescribe medication to help treat a behavior problem of your pet. Drug treatment for almost any behavior change is most useful when combined with behavior modification.

In recent years there has been an increase in the use of medication to treat a variety of behavior problems in pets (see Table: Drugs Used to Treat Behavior Problems in Dogs). There are a number of potential disadvantages to the use of medication for treating these problems, however, and you should know that there is no “magic bullet” that will easily and quickly solve the problem. The limitations of medication use include the potential for adverse effects, cost, the need to treat for a considerable length of time before the medication takes effect, limited information on what medication is most effective, and the potential that the problem will reappear once the medication is withdrawn.

Drugs Used to Treat Behavior Problems in Dogs




Tricyclic antidepressants


Anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders

Cheaper than many other drugs, but may be more likely to cause adverse effects


Anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders

FDA approved for use in separation anxiety in dogs

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors


Anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders

May take 3 to 4 weeks before affecting behavior; also FDA approved for treating separation anxiety in dogs


Anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders


Anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders






Thunderstorm phobia, anxiety

Longer acting than other drugs of this class


Anxiety, noise phobia

May cause physical dependence

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors


FDA approved for use in cognitive dysfunction in dogs

Must not be combined with serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclic drugs due to adverse drug interactions


Megestrol acetate

Aggression, urine marking, roaming

Rarely used due to high risk of adverse effects

Medroxyprogesterone acetate

Aggression, urine marking, roaming

Injectable; rarely used due to high risk of adverse effects

All medications have the potential to cause adverse effects. Fortunately, most of the modern antianxiety and antidepressant medications used in pets are well tolerated. Gastrointestinal upsets (leading to reduced appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea) are the most common adverse effects seen. In some pets, decreased activity or lethargy may occur in the first week or so of treatment as the animal adjusts to the medication. (This reaction typically disappears on its own.) More serious adverse effects, including potentially fatal inflammation of the liver, seizures, or other signs of toxicity have been reported in rare cases. Most of the medications used for behavior problems in pets were designed for use in people. Few have been directly approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in animals, although such use is not prohibited. This means that there may be limited information available on safety, toxicity, and effectiveness in a particular animal species.

Because this is a relatively new area of veterinary medicine, demonstration of effectiveness through research has not been done in many cases. Veterinarians often must rely on case reports, their own clinical experience, and presentations at meetings to learn which medications and what dosage to recommend. Individual pets vary in their response to medication, just as people do. As a result, there will always be some element of trial and error in determining whether a particular medication will help solve a behavior problem.

If medication is used without behavior modification or environmental changes (and even when it is used with these techniques in some cases), the unwanted behavior may return once the medication is discontinued. Some problems may require treatment for a year or longer. In most cases medication is used for a period of several months.

Despite these limitations, medication has the potential to be very helpful in a wide range of pet behavior problems, including fear-related problems like separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobias, compulsive behaviors like lick granulomas, and some types of aggression. Your veterinarian can discuss whether medication might be appropriate for your dog.

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