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The Process of Conducting a Functional Assessment in Pet Dog Training

24 Nov 2017 1:22 PM | Joanne Tudge (Administrator)

There are fundamental differences between the behavior analytic approach to assessing problem behaviors in our pet dogs and the medical model approach. 

  • The medical model approach to problem behaviors diagnoses and treats the behavior problem like an illness or disease. Within the medical model approach problem behaviors are categorized and then set protocols are prescribed based on the category the problem falls into. The medical model approach does not address the cause of the behavior or look at the specifics of the individual animal displaying the behavior. The medical model addresses the problem behavior through surgery, pharmacology intervention or anecdotal explanations based on how the behavior looks or the animal’s believed mental condition. Much of the prescribed treatment used to address problems using the medical model is based on intuition and passed down medical protocols.
  • Unlike the medical model the behavior analytical approach to assessing problem behaviors recognizes that behavior is a product of the environment and the individual animal’s conditioning history. The behavior analytical approach recognizes that in order to change the behavior the causes need to be identified. The behavior analytical approach focuses on the details of the specific behavior.

The behavioral approach to problem behavior is far more effective and efficient than the medical model because it is based on the science of learning theory and follows scientific processes to identify the antecedents and consequences of the behavior. The behavior analytical approach does not rely on guess work, trial and error tactics or anecdotal recommendations but systematically identifies the functional relationship the behavior has with the environment. When these relationships have been identified then efficient and effective solutions can be developed. The behavior analytical approach is called a functional assessment and this is an objective and systematic way to  explain, describe and control (modify) behavior. Please note that a Veterinary Behaviorist will use both models!

The Functional Assessment
There are several components to a functional assessment starting with the informant interview. During this interview anecdotal information about the problem behavior is obtained. For many of us this information is learned during our first consultation with the client. The next component of the functional assessment is the direct observation phase. This is where the dog’s behavior is observed and the relationship between the variables is measured and correlated. The final part of the functional assessment is the functional analysis. The intended final product of the functional assessment is a contingency statement that the dog trainer has confidence in. The contingency statement details in simple terms the antecedents, behaviors and consequences in measurable terms. This contingency statement clearly defines the problem behavior, how it is evoked and how it is maintained. The contingency statement identifies the stimuli, SD, that reliably evoke the behavior and the more distant antecedent that motivate operations and set the context for the behavior. The postcedents are also identified and those that are functionally related to the behavior are labeled as consequences.

Let us look in more detail at each stage of the functional assessment.

• The Informant Interview

The informant interview is the interview process between the pet dog consultant and the animals’ guardians. The goal is to collect information from the animals’ guardians to assist in developing a contingency statement. During the interview the consultant has to take the answers provided by the animal’s guardian that are often interpretations of behavior, and convert their answers through additional questioning into clear descriptions of the actual observable and quantifiable behavior involved. This means no labels are attached. The behavior is described in an operational way.

During the informant interview there are several components of information that should be established. The consultant must develop a clear concise, measurable description of the problem behavior or behaviors. It is also important to understand the setting events – the context that makes the problem behavior more likely. It is necessary to understand the motivating operations that influence the value of the consequences such as satiation, deprivation and any conditioned emotional responses such as fear or aggression. Discriminative stimuli should be identified alongside the consequences that follow the behavior. We need to be able to answer the question, what does the animal get out of this situation?

The consultant should rate the efficiency of the problematic behavior particularly if there are several problematic behaviors at play. The history of the behavior should be sought and the results, if any, from previous behavioral change programs. During the interview it is also advisable to ask the animals’ guardians what alternative behaviors they would feel are more appropriate and acceptable.


Examples of groupings of questions.

  1. History, training, background, source, etc.
  2. Health – vaccinations, ongoing issues, etc.
  3. Exercise- daily, type, play, etc.
  4. Living conditions, home size, crating, family members, siblings, etc.
  5. Training history, a detailed history of when, what type, how effective etc.
  6. Management history, any management activities in place now based on the behavioral issue.
  7. Behavioral history, when it started, what it is in measurable terms, setting events, motivating operations, antecedents, consequences.
  8. Client goal, what the client hopes to achieve from the behavior consultation

When the informant interview is complete the consultant can develop a preliminary contingency statement that will help with developing further questions (Tudge, 2016).

 The Direct Observation Stage

The goal of direct observation is to pinpoint the source of the problem by factually understanding the functional relationships between the antecedents, behavior and consequence. The measurement process provides quantitative data which cannot infer causal relationships but it can identify correlations between the different variables.

When collecting baseline data it is important to have a data collection plan. The plan includes a data collection form that identifies the stratification areas of data to be mined and operational definitions that accurately define what the behavior is and what is a problematic behavior, so what do we need to record on our data collection plan.  The data collection plan clarifies which dimensions of the behavior will be measured; frequency, duration or intensity. As it is not always necessary to measure all the dimensions the behavior consultant should consider which is the most important and which dimension will give us the most salient information.


Barking. Barking could be measured as a duration behavior, an intensity factor  or the frequency. We could also measure the latency, when does the barking occur in relationship to the trigger. It would be a waste of resources to measure each of these separately. It would be more effective to determine which dimension is significant in terms of the clients goal. so if a client said ” i don’t mind how often my dog barks (frequency) i just have a problem with the duration (how long the barking lasts) that would help you determine what to measure (Tudge, 2016).

Data is best obtained from as few trials as possible without limiting the quality and accuracy of the data. Measurement should continue until trends emerge. It is, by the same token, as important to decide who will be responsible for the data collection. The data collector will need to be trained on the data collection process and the necessity to remain non-intrusive during the collection process so the data is stable, precise and unbiased. If the problem behavior is dangerous or poses a safety risk then the consultant must use their best professional judgment as to whether direct observation should even be carried out. In many cases you may be able to document this information from the clients every interactions with their pet.

When the data has been collected it will be essential to revise the contingency statement developed during and after the informant interview. The data collection process may, and often does, reveal new evidence and information about the functional relationship between the variables.

 The Functional Analysis

The functional analysis stage is a single subject experiment that tests the consultant’s hypothesis – the contingency statement. The two most common single subject experiments that are used to analyze behavior are the reversal design and the alternating treatment design. The suitability of each experiment is determined by the hypothesis being tested.
The functional analysis is designed to test the relationship between the hypothesized controlling antecedents and the behavior and/or the hypothesized maintaining relationship between the behavior and its consequence. The functional analysis sets up different independent variables and confirms or refutes their effect on the dependent variable, the actual behavior. The goal is to analyze what is and what is not evoking and/or maintaining the behavior so an effective behavior change program can be designed. The experiment should only cover areas of the contingency statement that are unclear and not everything. The consultant must also take into consideration, during the experiment, that setting events and motivating operations should not be overlooked as they can “contribute indirectly to the contingencies” (O’Heare 2007 p 212).

The functional analysis should only be carried out if the initial interview and direct observation does not reveal trends in the problem behavior and/or components of the contingency statement are still unclear. When embarking on a functional analysis the benefit and precision of the analysis must be weighed against the effort, time, skill required and potential fallout of behavior rehearsing (O’Heare 2007). A functional analysis should only be performed by a trained professional with a minimally invasive approach, a clearly defined plan to test only what is necessary, a tangible goal and with careful consideration to the safety and security of all involved. The analysis should only be carried out if the important variables can be controlled throughout the experiment or the experiment will be flawed and there must be consent gained from the animal’s guardian.

The functional analysis experiment should only test areas of the contingency statement that are unclear and not everything. If the consultant is unsure about the relationship between the antecedents and the behavior then the consultant would test the antecedent package until the evoking, discriminative stimuli were identified. Likewise if the lack of clarity in the contingency statement came from understanding which consequences were maintaining the behavior then these would be tested (Tudge 2016).

At the end of the functional assessment you should know:

1. What are the distant and direct antecedents? What is the SD, the setting events and the motivating operations?
2. What is the actual observable, measurable, problematic behavior? What are the problematic dimensions of the behavior, intensity, frequency or duration.
3. How is the behavior being reinforced +R or –R.

When planning for your behavior change program be prepared to ask yourself:
4. What is the behavior change goal? Is it realistic and does the client agree with the goal?
5. What primary and secondary reinforcers will you use?
6. What behavior change protocol will be most suitable to reach the agreed goal?
7. How and what will you measure during the behavior change program so you are sure that your intervention is actually having the desired effect on the problematic behavior?

O’Heare, J (2007) Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, DogPsych Publishing, Ottawa Canada.

Tudge, N.J (2016) Get Coaching Now. Published Ingram Sparks, USA. 


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