The ABC behaviour change – how, where and when to change behaviour

It is not possible to change behaviour directly.  But by knowing the ABC behaviour change we can change behaviour by changing the environment, triggers or events that precede a behaviour and/or the consequences that result from the dog performing that behaviour.

The behaviour chain of any behaviour is:

A Antecedents

B Behaviour

C Consequences

Susan Friedman has written instructional guides and articles on Functional Behaviour Analysis, including step by step guides to addressing behaviour chains through functional analysis.

When a dog is showing problematic or dangerous behaviour, its difficult to distance ourselves from the relationship we have with our dog to look at that behaviour chain through functional analysis, rather than see it as a trait of that individual.

But the way that we, and any other animal, behaves at at one time is a function not only of our personality, but also of prior learning and experience, the environment, and our mood and emotional state at that moment in time (themselves influenced by the previous factors).

Functional assessment involves understanding what the environmental factors are that contribute to a dog showing a particular behaviour and how the consequences of the behaviour may increase or decrease the probability of the dog performing it under the same environmental factors in future.

Behaviours are generally performed to fulfil a function.  Sometimes its appropriate to change the underlying emotions that cause the dog to want that outcome (e.g. snapping at someone to get them to move away), and sometimes we need to recognise that the desire of the dog e.g. for attention, space, affection or stimulation is a normal, healthy need that they need our help in fulfilling in which case we need to make sure we fulfil those needs and give them more appropriate ways of expressing their desires.

This is one of the principles behind teaching dogs to sit to greet people.  Instead of jumping up (a normal, natural doggy greeting behaviour) we teach them a replacement behaviour that we prefer and will get the same outcome (to be greeted) for the dog.

Key points that Susan makes:

Focus on what you would like the dog to DO, not what they shouldn’t be doing

Make the problem behaviour irrelevant, inefficient and ineffective, while the alternative behaviour is made easy by the preceding antecedents and rewarding by its consequences.

Follow the Humane Hierarchy in any behaviour-change procedure

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Safety around Dogs

Keeping children (and adults) safe around dogs – and of course dogs safe around people – is a topic that occupies many dog behaviourists.  The 2015 APBC symposium was devoted to this subject and we are fortunate in the UK to have many dog welfare and behaviour organisations that provide information and advice on how to live with dogs safely. In Cambridgeshire, Wood Green Animal Charity, known for rehoming of companion and field animals, also have an education department which holds talks and events for schools and the community.

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Three steps to a better dog

Following these three simple rules will improve your dog’s behaviour, make your dog happier and strengthen the relationship you have with your dog.

When your dog’s reaction to something or someone is causing you, your dog or others a problem:

1. Don’t put your dog in situations where you know he or she will react.

The first step in any behaviour modification is to prevent the behaviour occurring.  Your dog will otherwise just be practicing ‘bad habits’.   They will also be practicing unwanted emotional responses and triggering unwanted emotional responses (annoyance, anger, frustration etc) in you!  So give your dog a break from those situations while you sort out how to help him or her.

2. Don’t correct or punish your dog if they do react.

Punishing your dog when he or she is over-excited, fearful or angry is unlikely to teach your dog what you intend it to and there is a possibility you will make things worse.

3. Reward your dog when he or she is spontaneously ‘good’.

Know what your dog finds rewarding and when (can be different according to the situation they are in). Then make sure your dog gets these rewards whenever he or she is behaving in the way you would like them to.

The steps are simple – but it can be hard to know how to implement them for your particular situation and your particular dog – contact us if you would like to ask about one to one or class training or behavioural help.

(with thanks to Karen Overall and Kendal Shepherd for being able to boil it down ‘in a nutshell’ so eloquently).

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What is Behaviour Modification?

True behaviour modification involves shaping (encouraging) certain behaviours in a safe, non-threatening context, using desensitisation and counter conditioning and replacing the rules that encourage the dog to react with new rules that allow the dog to relax and take cues from the environment (paraphrased from Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavior). “For this to happen there must be clear signalling and learned trust from both parties and reliability from the humans” (Overall, p 66).

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Trust me….


In Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg’s new book on oxytocin, she talks about the role of the hormone within human and human-animal relationships and its importance for bonding, health and in therapeutic treatments.

“For a relationship to occur, you need in some way to get closer to the other individual and to do this you need to not be afraid of that person.

“During closeness in various kinds of relationships, the body’s reward system is activated and stress and tension are decreased.  After some time, these reactions are automatically linked together with the other person and that makes it sufficient for their mere presence  to trigger positive reactions.”

( Uvnas-Moberg: The Hormone of closeness: The role of oxytocin in relationships [2013] – paraphrased slightly for ease of reading, emphasis mine)

This applies not just to human relationships but also to our relationships with dogs and cats.  When you understand this, the futility of using training or behaviour modification techniques based on fear or pain are obvious.  You cannot build a relationship with a dog if there is fear or mistrust (on either side).

What does this have to do with behaviour modification?

“Behaviour modification involves encouraging certain behaviours in a safe, non-threatening context, using desensitisation and counter conditioning and replacing the rules that encourage the dog to react with new rules that allow the dog to relax and take cues from the environment”

“For this to happen there must be clear signalling and learned trust from both parties and reliability from the humans

(paraphrased from Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavior, p 66).

When you use fear or pain to train, you may get an animal to perform a behaviour, but can you build or sustain a relationship with that animal?

When you can get both through kind, reward-based training, then why do anything else?


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Science to practice: what research tells us

Braem, M. D., & Mills, D. S. (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study. Applied animal behaviour science, 125(1), 47-55.

“Two factors were associated with a
significant decrease in obedience: the dog’s attention to its handler and the handler giving
additional verbal information preceding the actual verbal command”

In practice: 1. Make sure you have your dog’s attention before asking them to do something 2. Try to just give the verbal command without any additional chat!

This might mean that you need to call your dog’s name to get their attention first, but once you have your dog’s attention, don’t use their name just say the command!

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Nose work day at Daisy dogs

A successful and enjoyable first workshop for Level 1 nose work at Daisy Dogs near Saffron Walden. Handlers learnt how to engage their dog in using their noses, sniff out a target (non-food) scent and indicate their find. A variety of breeds took part and Barney the cockerpoo demonstrated his skills including his domino trick! The next Level 1 workshop is to be held on 1 March and there is a Level 2 workshop for those who have reached the necessary skills at Level 1.


Dogs waiting their turn at the search bays

For details on the workshops contact or see the events page of the Cambridge Dogs website:

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