Using Applied Behavior Analysis to Change Pet Behavior

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

Applied Behavioral Analysis is a topic that arose multiple times during my course, and was the focus of two modules. PP Karlson covered it in detail in week two as did Susan Freidman in week seven. It was also the basis for our major assignment, a Functional Assessment Intervention Design.

Founded on learning principles such as operant and classical conditioning, Applied Behavioral Analysis helps animal behavior consultants understand how animal behavior works, how it’s affected by the environment, and how animals learn. Furthermore, Applied Behavioral Analysis provides behavior consultants with a systematic approach for applying their learning about animals to real life situations.

Karlson described Applied Behavior Analysis (hereafter referred to as ABA) as a natural science that helps us break down a behavior and use logic to change it. Without ABA, she said, we’re just making guesses. Freidman concurred, saying that any other method of influencing behavior is like throwing spaghetti on the wall. If we rely on trial-and-error to influence behavior we’re going to see slow results, punish rather than reinforce efforts, and react based on emotions not facts.

The primary goal of a behavior consultant is to change behavior. By using ABA, all consultants follow a systematic approach to behavior modification. They break down the problem behavior by analyzing the antecedents, the behavior itself, and the consequences. They then predict what interventions to use to make problem behaviors irrelevant, inefficient, and ineffective. As part of their interventions, they introduce new behaviors called replacement behaviors.

I’ll now look more closely at these three terms. In behavior consulting, an antecedent refers to the stimulus that occurs (or what was happening or what/who was present) directly before a behavior and serves as the trigger. Behavior is the way an animal acts especially towards others, and is defined in operational terms (by describing how the behavior is observed). Consequences are the what happens as a result of the behavior (or the purpose the behavior served for the animal). For example, when I open a can of cat food and my cat Rainy jumps on the counter, the antecedent is my opening a can of food, the behavior is Rainy jumping on the counter, and the consequence is that she finds food.

On the surface, these terms are pretty simple, but from this course I’ve learned that they’re complex. For example, when determining antecedents, behavior consultants need to know:

  • distant antecedents
  • the setting events
  • the motivating operation (what changes the value of the reinforcer)
  • discriminative stimuli (what cues different behavior)

To continue with my example of Rainy jumping on the counter, distant antecedents could include her medical or physical conditions, diet and eating routines, typical activity and rest schedule, and her enclosure or living area. The setting event is meal preparation, while the motivating operation seems to be that she hasn’t eaten in a few hours. The discriminative stimuli are numerous:

  • The fridge is opened and dishes or food are placed on the counter
  • A kitchen cupboard is opened and dishes or food are placed on the counter
  • Food is cooked on the stove
  • People are eating a meal
  • Food was recently prepared
  • Dishes were recently washed

When describing behavior, behavior consultants need to use operational terms. For example, I had to list three things about Rainy that I liked in a behavior plan, and it wasn’t enough to say that she’s affectionate, doting, and friendly. Those terms are subjective and could be viewed differently by others. Instead, I had to describe her in objective terms that anyone could observe, such as:

  • Rainy curls up beside me on the couch and in the bed
  • Rainy follows my directions to do tricks for treats
  • Rainy visits seniors with me, curls up in their laps, and purrs when they pet her

When determining consequences, consultants must realize that the term doesn’t refer to rewards, manipulations, or anything else used to change behavior. Instead, consequences refer to what the animal gets from performing the behavior. In other words, the consequence for Rainy isn’t that we remove her from the counter (because that doesn’t stop her behavior) but that she finds food.

The BCOTB website says, “To understand and modify behavior, it’s important to analyze the antecedents and consequences. When we understand the antecedents of a behavior we have information on the circumstances in which the behavior was reinforced. Since behaviors tend to occur more in situations in which it has been reinforced, having this valuable information helps us to predict the situations and environments the behavior will be more likely to occur.” To continue with my Rainy scenario, if I know that she’s seeking food when she jumps on the counter, then I have a couple of options. One is that I can minimize the chance that she’ll find food by putting away dishes. The other is that I can provide her with an alternative, such as a snuffle mat, that will prove of higher value than any morsels of food she might find on the counter.

Karlsson points out that ABA and LIMA are interconnected. Behavior consultants need to know the behavior if they’re going to be least intrusive, and they need to know the motivator if they’re going to have a minimally aversive approach. Karlsson gives the example of a dog that is afraid of dark but whose owner works at night. A behavior consultant would need to find a middle ground that worked for both the owner and the dog, based on the Hierarchy of Behavior Changes:

  • Wellness, Nutritional, Physical
  • Antecedent Rearrangement
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Differential Reinforcement
  • Extinction
  • Positive Punishment

Behavior consultants put their knowledge of ABA and LIMA into practice by developing behavior plans for clients. A behavior plan summarizes information gathered from a client’s intake form and the consultant’s visit to the client’s home. A behavior plan also proposes interventions for the client to try and ways to measure success.

I’ll now look more closely at these components. The intake form is filled out by the client and covers information about the species, age, history, environment, motivators, behavior, and interventions and ways to measure results. During the home visit, the behavior consultant observes the environment, the client’s relationship with the animal, and of course the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of the animal in question. A behavior plan will include a summary of the above and propose several possible interventions that, according to Freidman, will make an animal’s problem behavior:

  • Irrelevant: other behaviors can produce the same outcome
  • Inefficient: reinforcer for the behavior is no longer available
  • Ineffective: wrong behavior is harder than the easier behavior

In cooperation with the client, consultants will then collect data for three to five days on the problem behavior. Freidman said data can be used to determine patterns such as:

  • What problem behaviors happen together?
  • When, where, and with whom are problem behaviors most likely?
  • What consequences appear to maintain the problem behavior?

Friedman also stressed that plans should:

  • Fit the natural routines of the client
  • Be consistent with the values of the client
  • Be efficient in terms of time, money, and resources
  • Provide more than one way to solve a behavior
  • Teach client how to obtain simple behaviors and build up to complex long-term behavior changes

Finally, Freidman said that behavior consultants offer an intervention package. She stressed that consultants aren’t scientists. Our number one goal isn’t a science demonstration where only one variable is changed at a time. While we can and should collect data, we live in a real world where clients and animals need our immediate help. As such, consultants assess and analyze to determine the best interventions.

Next week, I’ll share parts of my Functional Assessment Intervention Design, based on what I’ve learned from Karlsson, Freidman, and others about animal behavior and how to change it.

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