Layers of behavior change

yellow lab and a black and white spaniel lie on the floor

When we want to change a behavior, it can be helpful to think of an integrated layer approach.

Layer 1: Management & Environmental Modification

Changing the environment (and often our human behavior) to limit the times the dog does the behavior we want to change.

The more the dog does the old behavior (the one we want to change) the more well practiced it becomes and the less likely the dog is to actually change their behavior. So first, we use the environment to our advantage.

This might mean changing the times we walk the dog, or blocking off certain areas of the home. It might mean changing how or what we communicate to others so that our dog is given the space they need. It might mean keeping counters clear, or putting shoes in the closet, or changing how/where/when we supervise the dog. It might mean adjusting the order of when we do things to better set the dog and our behavior change goals up for success. Meeting our dog’s enrichment needs (mental and physical) also falls into this area, as does ensuring that our dog’s physical health and medical needs are met.

scruffy brown and white terrier sits facing the camera

Layer 2: Safety Plan

A safety plan is there for when management fails.

We’re all human here and our world is also unpredictable. Despite our best efforts, there are times when our management plans will not be enough. That’s when the safety plan steps in. The job of the safety plan is to help reduce risk of the behavior escalating in severity when management fails and to help keep people and the dog safe in those situations.

Safety plans can look like many things, the key to them all is they reduce risks of harm (for both dog and people). Safety plans can involve leashes, muzzles, treats, conditioned cues, emergency protocols, etc.

Layer 3: Behavior Modification and Training

This is the part of behavior change that most folks think of. The part where you’re working on specific skills, tasks or exercises to teach the dog what you want them to do, the new behavior, the new coping skills, the improved tolerance, the new response. This practice teaches our dogs how to fill the void. What to do instead. How to survive and thrive as dogs within the bounds of our human social constructs, cultural norms and society.

This layer involves structured exercises and intentional directed practice.

Layer 4: Maintenance

The last step to our behavior change process is maintenance. Remember, your dog was doing the original behavior because it made sense to him/her, it met some need for your dog. Might have met that need rather maladaptively, or perhaps was annoying for you, but it was probably all your dog could think of or come up with that seemed to work (or in some cases, was a behavior your dog thought was really fun to do!). If the new behavior stops meeting their need, they’ll likely revert back to the old behavior. Maintenance keeps a pulse on the behavior change goals, your dog’s needs, and the integrated layers of your behavior change process. In many cases, the maintenance layer involves holistic ongoing management, environmental modification, and safety planning to support long term behavior change.

black standard poodle with a short haircut sits in a cluttered office

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