Positive Reinforcement Dog Training: Functional Assessment

A functional assessment is a positive reinforcement dog training method for systematically assessing behavior when trying to determine what is setting up the environment to make it easy for the behavior to happen and what is maintaining the behavior. Once we have those two pieces of the puzzle, it makes our job much easier.

It’s important to always remember that behavior has function. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what that function is, but it’s there and we need to suss it out. There are functional relationships between an antecedent and a behavior, and between a behavior and its consequence. Bringing it down to its simplest form, a functional assessment is designed to determine those functional relationships and get to the heart of positive reinforcement dog training.

Too often we assume we know what’s going on – and probably the majority of the time, we’re right. When a client calls me and says his seven-month-old Belgian Malinois is out of control and never settles down, I have pretty good idea of what’s going on. Lack of training, lack of parameters, lack of consistency.

When someone calls and tells me their eight-month-old English Springer Spaniel is eliminating in the house when the owners are not home, my first assumption will be that the dog is not properly house trained, yet. And this is a reasonable assumption because of the age of the dog. But, what if it’s actually separation anxiety? That’s also very possible.

Let’s go back just a bit and talk about the principle of parsimony. In psychology, the principle of parsimony states that when there are two or more possible explanations using and accounting for the same set of facts, we should first test the simplest, briefest explanation before moving on to a more complex explanation. (You may have heard of this concept under the name Occam’s Razor.)

In addition to the principle of parsimony, those of us belonging to a professional organization will usually have some kind of guide for behavioral intervention and dog training techniques. For the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDTO, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), we have the LIMA principle – “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” At the very top of this hierarchy of interventions is physical and mental well-being.

So, utilizing the LIMA hierarchy and the principle of parsimony, the proper path of intervention would be:

  1. Veterinary check to see if there is a urinary tract infection, bladder infection, etc. In my mind, the fact that the dog is only eliminating in the house when the owners are not home makes this an unlikely explanation. However, if it is the explanation, all the training in the world is not going to solve the problem and the dog will be in distress as long as the problem remains, so we need to rule it out.
  2. Go back to basics on house training.
  3. Check for indications of separation anxiety.

Now, basic house training and separation anxiety checks can be done at the same time. There’s no logical reason to go through an extended period of time working on house training if, in fact, the problem is separation anxiety. However, we should never jump straight to separation anxiety without first or coincidentally working on the housetraining issues.

Back to the functional assessment. Again, most of us are doing a mini-FA in our heads as the client is explaining the problem. And, it’s absolutely true that once you’ve been in the business for a while, you’ll have seen the same problems over and over. And that’s fine – we just don’t want to become so sure our hypothesis is correct, that we overlook important information.

When applying positive reinforcement dog training techniques, if the owner is compliant and works on the problem as agreed, execution is good (meaning they understand how to do the training), and the hypothesis is correct, you should see behavioral change in a fairly short period of time – three-to-five days in most situations. This does not mean the problem is resolved, but that you are seeing progress. House training may take a little longer, but if the criteria is raised systematically and everything is in place, that should also happen pretty quickly.

If you are not seeing progress and you are comfortable that the client is doing their tasks properly, then it might be time to do a functional assessment. It’s possible something is going on that you are unaware – and the owner may be unaware of. Here are two examples of situations where something happened to the dog that the owners were not aware that had a great influence on the dog’s behavior.

Example 1 – A dog that had previously had no issues at all suddenly refused to go out into the yard. To the owner’s knowledge, nothing had changed. A trainer was called in and a program of systematic desensitization was implemented. It worked, and everything was fine. Weeks later, the owner found out from a neighbor that the dog had been harassed with a BB gun.

Example 2 – Again, a dog that had no previous problems began having severe panic attacks. All of a sudden he would jump into the owners lap (and this was a big dog!) and begin shivering so hard his teeth rattled. A trainer was called in and the first thought was that perhaps the dog was having seizures. He was about six-to-eight months old and this was a typical age for the onset of some types of seizures. It’s difficult to rule out seizures, because there are so many different things that could be happening. However, the owner was able to get the dog into the vet’s office within an hour of the onset of the attack and the vet was able to do a blood draw and rule out certain things.
Since no one knew what was causing the panic attacks, it was difficult to implement a systematic desensitization program, because they didn’t know what to desensitize the dog to. The only thing that had changed was they had very recently moved into a new house (within weeks of the onset of the attacks). Of course, this was a huge red flag, but it was still difficult to pinpoint exactly what the antecedent was for the attacks.

Eventually, the owners remembered that they had left the dog alone one day while they ran errands. They had just have Venetian blinds installed, had left the windows open, and it was a windy day. The dog had never been around Venetian blinds before and here he is in a brand new environment, alone, and the wind starts rattling the blinds. Taking that information, the owners started paying more attention, and sure enough, it was the wind. The dog was fine outdoors, but in the house, if the wind was blowing he was a nervous wreck. With that information, They were able to institute a systematic desensitization program.

So, these examples show that sometimes it’s very difficult to know what do address. In example #1, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know about the BB gun – they were able to systematically desensitize the dog to the yard without that knowledge. But in example #2, it was more difficult because they didn’t know what the problem was. They could have done straight counter-conditioning, but that’s a much tougher prospect.

In both of these cases, it was a more in-depth analysis of the events surrounding the behavior that led to the solution. And that in-depth analysis is a functional assessment of the effectiveness of any positive reinforcement dog training technique.

For more information on this course, go to A Simple Functional Assessment. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Leave a Reply