Methods of Training and Behavior Modification

A dog is jumping on their owner and they would like it to stop. An antecedent strategy may be to have the owner bend down to meet the dog at their level (making jumping unnecessary). A consequence intervention may include only providing attention and pets when the dog has four paws on the ground (positive reinforcement), or to lift your knee into the dogs chest when they jump on you (positive punishment). Each of these interventions will alter behavior, but as trained professionals, it is important to consider which is the most appropriate to implement and when.

There are always multiple ways to change behavior, but understanding the effects and potential outcomes of using various methods is necessary in order to make an informed decision.

Punishment will decrease problem behavior, but it is not without adverse side effects. First, punishment does not teach the animal what to do. That is, it is only communicating that the given response will be punished. This means that the animal cannot engage with the problem behavior without receiving punishment, and is not taught an acceptable alternative behavior to obtain the previous reinforcer (previously maintaining this behavior). Without teaching an alternative behavior, the trainer may have to increase the aversive stimulation over time to maintain low levels of the problem behavior. The animal is given very little choice or control.

Antecedent manipulations will also alter behavior. In this scenario, you may still see problem behavior in an environment where the antecedent changes are not present. Of course, the conditions for the desired behavior could be changed over time to make the initial environment changes unnecessary, but this may take time and planning.

Positive reinforcement will increase a behavior (good or bad). Reinforcing the behavior that is desired will increase its frequency, and it teaches the organism what to do. If the organism is able to obtain reinforcers engaging in this desirable behavior, other, less desirable behavior will decrease. The organism is given choice and control.

Providing choice and control is often discussed in terms of intrusiveness, welfare, and aversiveness. Choosing the least intrusive and minimally aversive (LIMA) method requires a practitioner to be educated on not only behavior modification techniques, but also their subject(s), and the history of the behavior of interest. This stance requires practitioners to use positive reinforcement approaches effectively prior to considering aversive methods (i.e. extinction, punishment). Aversive techniques should be considered only when all other approaches have been attempted competently, have failed to decrease the problem behavior, and the problem behavior is severe enough to warrant the use of an aversive procedure.

Without considering these elements, modification techniques may be chosen based on the practitioner’s areas of competence or preference, speed and/or ease. Our goal should be to put the subject’s needs first, and be sure that as professionals we are knowledgeable of not only behavior modification methods, but the ethics of choosing among these methods.