Monday, January 6, 2014

Changing Behavior Long Term

I have been wanting to write this blog post for a while, but have been struggling with how to put into words what I feel needs to be shared.  Sometimes when working with an animal with behavior issues, I find that the actual problem behaviors that are happening are simply a symptom of another issue altogether.  Sometimes the real problem or a part of the problem has a lot to do with the "background" or other things that are going on, or not going on, in an animals life. There are many times when a huge part of the behavior modification plan is not about what the animal is doing RIGHT NOW, but other things in his or her life that are contributing to these behavior issues.

When an animal is exhibiting some behavior problem, the owner wants to stop the behavior. I understand this, they are viewing the behavior has the problem and they want it to stop, but what if stopping the behavior in that moment does not change or modify the future of the behavior? Just stopping or suppressing behavior is not enough. It may be enough in some instances, but not all.  Let's look at that.

If your dog is going to pick up and presumably eat a rotten piece of chicken bone on the street than suppressing that behavior in the moment is necessary. Because you need to protect the dog, you must stop him from doing that behavior. Likewise, if my parrot Nemo finds his way to my other parrot Iris' cage, a fight will ensue. I will need to remove him from the cage to stop or suppress a bird fight from happening, but this is not likely to change his behavior the next time. I have not "taught" them not to fight, I have simply intervened and stopped the behavior in that moment.  This is not a problem as long as I understand that this behavior will not change just because I intervene.

Many behavior problems have several variables that are contributing to the issue. Many times things like lack of exercise, lack of mental stimulation, lack of enrichment, lack of out of cage time (for birds), lack of training, lack of sleep (for birds), constant or frequent stress or anxiety and many other things can help to fuel a behavior issue in an animal. I will frequently go to a clients house for a specific issue when there are so many other things that are contributing to the problem that it isn't possible to just "stop" the problem without changing many other things in the animal's life.

When looking at a behavior problem I generally do what is called a "functional behavior analysis", this means I identify the problem behavior, then I look at what happens just before the behavior which is called the antecedent and what happens just after the behavior which is called the consequence.  These two things the antecedent and consequence fuel the behavior, however, there are likely other things in the environment, background things that may be in play.

For instance, I may to go a clients home to help them with their young, adolescent dog who is "hyper" meaning that he jumps all over the family and guests, runs wildly around the house and furniture and counter surfs. The owners want to know why he does that and how to "make him stop". When I interview the client I learn that the dog gets almost no exercise (just having a yard is not adequate exercise), little or no training, gets no mental stimulation and his family is gone for a better part of the day. When I start to explain that those things, lack of exercise, lack of training, lack of mental stimulation are part of the problem, people frequently fail to see how the two could possibly be connected and they persist in wanting to know how they can just "make him stop" doing all of the things that are actually just symptoms of the real problem which is all the things the dog needs and is lacking.

Here is another example. A parrot is screaming and the owners can't figure out how to get the bird to stop. It may be as simple as looking at what is happening before and after the behavior to figure out what is supporting the screaming. But, many times I find that the bird is not getting nearly enough uninterrupted sleep, doesn't have enough enrichment or mental stimulation or he hasn't been trained to entertain himself.

Sometimes it is truly difficult for people to see how different variables can impact their animal's behavior, even if indirectly.  Many times it is very necessary to make changes in the animal's day to day life and management in order to see changes in their behavior because as I mentioned, many times just stopping the behavior in the moment will not get you the long term changes in behavior that you are hoping to see and accomplish.

We can't change behavior in an animal without making sure that their needs are met. If their needs are not met that animal is not in a position to learn or be able to change their behavior. What is hard for people to process and accept is that if we want to change an animal's behavior we must first change our own. If there is no change in what we do, how we set up the environment and how we manage things there is not likely going to be any change in the animal's behavior. If it were going to change on it's own, it already would have.