Behavior Modification for Dog Obedience

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Dog training and behavior modification are closely related, yet focus on different things. Training involves teaching an individual to respond to cues -- such as to sit on command. Behavior involves the way an individual reacts to a specific stimulus -- such as trembling during thunderstorms. Behavior modification is the systematic approach to changing behaviors. A good relationship with your dog requires understanding how a dog's instincts, urges and previous experiences affect behavior.

Behavior and Training

Dogs of all sizes need training and socialization.

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If you want to train your dog to sit, lie down or come, you must first be certain that the dog is ready to learn. A dog that cannot focus because of underlying anxieties has difficulty learning. The dog who is aggressive with the other canine members of a training class will not benefit from the class. Before you can train the dog, address the behavior issues. On the other hand, training the dog to sit or lie down on command can be a useful tool to use while working to fix behavior problems.

Principles of Modification

A small food reward reinforces desirable behaviors.

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Behavior modification is defined by the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders as "A treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that replaces undesirable behaviors with more desirable ones through positive or negative reinforcement." The principles of behavior modification apply to all living beings that can be provided rewards and punishments, including dogs, dolphins, horses, rodents and people. You can apply this science to help your dog with serious issues, such as fear, aggression and anxiety.

Behavior Basics

Your veterinarian is your partner in solving behavioral problems.

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Most dog owners need the help of a qualified animal behaviorist to address problem behaviors in their dogs. The ASPCA warns on its website, "Aggression is the most common and most serious behavior problem in dogs. It’s also the No. 1 reason why pet parents seek professional help from behaviorists, trainers and veterinarians." Understanding the when and why a dog reacts to situations, objects, people or other dogs is the first step to changing those behaviors. Having rewards and punishments available, and a plan for using them, prepares you to take action to correct behaviors. Your first meeting with a behaviorist should be a meeting to discuss your situation, and develop a plan of action.

Treating Anxiety

Separation anxiety can involve the destruction of property when your dog is let alone.

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Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety can harm themselves and their environment during an anxiety attack. Incidents occur when the dog is left alone, such as when owners are at work. The dogs can suffer in various degrees, exhibiting signs of stress, including panting, pacing and excessive licking. The condition can escalate to furniture destruction and aggressive measures to escape the home. Dog owners should be aware of early signs of separation anxiety, and begin behavior modification techniques immediately. Eric Barchas, D.V.M. states on his website, "The key components of behavior modification for separation anxiety include ensuring adequate exercise and enrichment, employing tactics to make separation from the owner more pleasant for the dog, and reducing the excitement surrounding the owner's comings and goings." Consult with a professional to develop a plan for your specific situation.


Aggression can begin as threatening barking and escalate to biting.

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Aggression in dogs can exhibit as threatening barking and growling, and it can escalate to biting and attacking. Treating aggression must involve professionals, who will identify the type of aggression a particular dog displays. The Toledo Area Humane Society website provides an overview of the various types of aggression seen in dogs, including fear aggression, territorial aggression, pain-caused aggression and others. The website cautions, "Working with aggressive dogs potentially can be dangerous, and should be done only by, or under the guidance of, an experienced animal behavior professional who understands animal learning theory and behavior."


A veterinarian can prescribe medication to help your dog with fears and anxieties.

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Therapy for behavior problems in dogs and humans can include short-term or long-term medication for relief of some symptoms. Your veterinarian can prescribe these drugs, working with the animal behaviorist. In some areas, you can locate a veterinary specialist who can both treat with behavior modification and medication. However, with many problem behaviors related to fear, medication is necessary to reduce the dog’s fear to a level that allows treatment to begin. With today's advancements in behavior study, dog owners can identify and treat problems that arise. Of course the best treatment is prevention, so consider early training, such as puppy classes that address both training and behavior, so you can enjoy many years with your cherished pet.