How to change your dog’s behaviour in three (not easy) steps

My day job includes human behaviour change and it occurred to me today when I was thinking about recall that actually… without realising, I analyse my dogs’ behaviour with the same tools that I use with humans. So, without further ado, I decided to give it a go! This is just the first draft, so I’d welcome feedback and thoughts – I’d rather post this and iterate than spend ages thinking about it first.

Let’s get stuck in – start by thinking about some behaviour that your dog does that you’re not entirely happy with.

Step 1. Create a behavioural statement

The first step is to decide where you want to go by creating a behavioural statement and a target behaviour. Start by writing the behavioural outcome you’d like to see: for example, I’d like my dog to be calm when visitors arrive. Then, once you have written the behavioural outcome statement, you need to work out what behaviour(s) are needed or need to change for you to reach that goal.

Canvas for defining a preferred target behaviour

Ask questions like:

  • What are they currently doing that you don’t want them to do?
  • What do they need to do differently to achieve the desired change?
  • When and where do they need to do it?
  • How often do they need to do it?

Fill in the canvas above with as much detail as possible!

Step 2. Conduct a behavioural diagnosis with the COM-B model

The COM-B model

In order to diagnose the barriers and drivers for specific target behaviours, we can borrow a framework from human psychology with some adaptations.

The COM-B model was developed by the University College London Behaviour Change Unit in 2011 by evaluating 19 behaviour change frameworks with the goal of developing a robust method of characterizing behaviour change interventions and linking them to target behaviours. Since it’s launch, the COM-B has been extensively validated and used in hundreds of academic studies and public health interventions. It’s simple yet comprehensive, and flexible enough to be used in a wide range of contexts to characterize behaviours and factors that influence them.

The core idea of the model is that for a behaviour to occur, a person (or dog) needs to have the capability and opportunity, and they must be more motivated to do that behaviour than anything else. Achieving behaviour change can be thought of as like opening a COMBination lock: all relevant enablers need to be in place for the behaviour to happen!

The three dimensions are characterised as follows:

  • Capability: Physical and psychological abilities; their physique, knowledge, intellectual capacity, skills etc.
  • Opportunity: The environment with which we interact, whether it be the physical environment of objects and events, or the social environment of culture and norms.
  • Motivation: The intentions, desires, evaluations, habits and instincts that energise and direct behaviour.

In the human world, these three dimensions are also further divided into two (and more, but that’s too much for our needs here!):

COM-B model subdimensions with initial suggestions for dog adaptations

The components interact – for example:

  • If you have a piano at home, you’ll practice more
    • Physical Opportunity leads to increased Psychological Capability
  • The more you practice, the better you get – the improvement inspires you to play more
    • Physical Capability leads to increased Motivation
  • On the other hand, playing the piano is seen as uncool
    • Social Opportunity decreases Motivation
So, how can we use this with dogs?

You can use the following as a checklist to think about any behavioural issues with your dog.

  • Physical Capability:
    • Can my dog do this? A dog might not be interested in a Kong if their tongue doesn’t fit through the hole or they might not have the physical strength/stamina to do something.
    • Does their physical structure easily allow performing the behaviour? The sit pretty trick is difficult for many breeds because of their physique
    • Could they be in pain or discomfort? A dog refusing to sit or jump might be in pain and an irritable, snappy dog might be experiencing discomfort.
    • Is this an activity my dog’s breed type is suitable for? E.g. mastiffs and guard dog types tend to have a very mellow disposition and low energy needs – not necessarily suitable for high energy activities as they’re originally designed to chill most of the day and only spring to action when needed. Conversely, the springiness and fidgetiness of some working spaniels is not well suited to high level obedience.
  • Psychological Capability:
    • Does my dog know what to do? If you haven’t trained the behaviour or you’re communicating in a confusing, inconsistent way, they might not.
    • Do they have the cognitive skills to do the behaviour? There could be many things at play here but e.g. a young puppy doesn’t have the same abilities as an adult, and a teenager may lack the biological maturity in the brain to be able to focus for a long period of time.
    • Do they have the capacity to pay attention? In many cases this is linked to the environment and their instincts which are covered below.
  • Physical Opportunity:
    • What’s the environment like where the behaviour occurs? E.g. is it busy and full of unfamiliar noises (perhaps more difficult for herding dogs)?
    • Is the environment familiar to the dog?
    • What’s the weather like?
    • What time of the day is it? Dogs are crepuscular animals – they’re more active at dawn and dusk.
    • Is it highly stimulating? E.g. like a forest would be for a hunting dog.
    • Is it easy to do the behaviour? For example, if you’ve left roast chicken on the edge of a counter, it’s much easier for the dog to steal it! Alternatively, when there was lots of snow, you could be fairly sure your dog won’t run off the paths because running in the snow is physically difficult.
      • N.B. In the original COM-B resources like time and money are also in this category – for a dog that might mean energy levels or trigger stacking but for simplicity I’d include that in their physical capability. You could also perhaps put being in possession or proximity to highly valuable items in this category!
  • Social Opportunity:
    • Are there a lot of other dogs around? Some dogs might find them distracting or triggering.
    • Are there a lot of people around? Other dogs might find the presence of humans distracting or triggering.
      • N.B. In the original COM-B this category includes social norms and culture – not sure yet what that could be for dogs but perhaps it could be presence of familiar dogs like housemates or a larger social group of dogs?
    • Is your dog old or young? Younger dogs might have a different status among other dogs.
  • Reflective Motivation:
    •  In the human world this includes attitudes, evaluations, goals and beliefs about own capabilities as well as consequences of behaviour
    • What is your dog’s general learning history? For example, adopted former street dogs might have an ambivalent attitude towards humans – handy to hang around but that’s about it. A dog could also have an “attitude” based on early learning experiences that humans are awesome (if a breeder does a good job at socialisation) or that they tolerate other animals (e.g. cats are friends).
    • How confident and optimistic is your dog? Do they generally approach new situations expecting good things to happen? Do they enthusiastically try new things?
    • What is your dog’s learning history with you? If you consistently reward them for good behaviour, for example, they should have a positive attitude (general disposition) to working with you.
    • What beliefs might your dog have about the consequences of his behaviour? Do certain behaviours get rewarded or punished? Do they think it’s worth trying out new things? (Freeshaping or nosework are meant to address these)
  • Automatic Motivation:
    • What traits are common for your dog’s breed type? E.g. herding dog breeds a tendency for heightened vigilance/alertness which can more easily turn into anxiety; spaniels have a tendency for oral fixation and also resource guarding as a behavioural spillover.
    • What instinctive behaviours are hardwired into your dog’s breed type? Which parts of the predatory sequence are emphasized for your dog’s breed type?
    • What’s your dog’s emotional “personality”? E.g. the speed with with they go into high arousal mode.
    • What emotional states are they experiencing that might be related to the behaviour? E.g. fear, frustration, excitability

To put this into practice, think of one behaviour you currently find problematic, write it down and come up with suggestions for each of the six dimensions of what might be influencing that specific behaviour.

Fill in the details for your dog!

Step 3. Choose your techniques for changing behaviour

The Behaviour Change Wheel

The original COM-B model is the core part of a larger entity – the Behaviour Change Wheel which was developed from 19 frameworks of behaviour change

The hub identifies the sources of the behaviour that could be targets for intervention: COM-B (‘capability’, ‘opportunity’, ‘motivation’ and ‘behaviour’) model

Surrounding the hub is a layer of nine intervention functions to choose from based on the particular COM-B analysis one has undertaken. The outer layer, the rim of the wheel, identifies seven policy categories that can support the delivery of these intervention functions – this last layer isn’t relevant for dogs, but the intervention functions can be used to think about potential approaches to change canine behaviour.

Stay tuned for the next post!

Read more about the predatory sequence:

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