Turning Your Pet Into a Well-Behaved Companion Animal

Whether you are bringing home your first kitten or your first puppy, attempting to re-home a rescue animal, or trying to correct new, emerging bad behaviors in your pet(s), behavioral modification can seem like an uphill battle at best.

However, once you acquaint yourself with the basics of animal behavioral modification techniques, you may find that getting your dog or cat to act the way you’d like is easier than it seemed.

There are some subtle differences between the techniques employed to affect behavioral change in dogs, and those used to train cats. But ultimately, success in either case depends upon understanding your pet’s behavior, consistently employing the correct techniques to modify that behavior, and remaining patient as you wait for results.

Behavioral Modification Techniques for Petsbehavioral modification in pets separation anxiety and inter pet agression

There are many successful techniques that you can employ to correct or modify your dog’s behavior. These include shaping, counter-conditioning, desensitization, extinction, and habituation. These techniques are not, however, inter-changeable.

Part of correcting your animal’s behavior comes in understanding why they are behaving as they are, and consistently employing the correct technique for both your pet and the situation.

Habituation, Spontaneous Recovery, and Desensitization

Habituation is a simple form of behavioral modification that results from a pet’s consistent exposure to a certain stimulus. With most stimuli that an animal is consistently exposed to, the pet will become accustomed to it over time.

This is why socializing your pet to other animals and a wide range of people is a good idea, and will generally keep them from reacting poorly to new people or animals. However, many animals will never habituate to potentially dangerous situations, and spontaneous recovery (reemergence) of the behavior is possible if the animal experiences long periods without the stimulus in question.

Habituation is an example of conditioning. Most behavioral modification relies on conditioning of one form or another, whether by pairing a desired result with a reward, or by discouraging an unwanted behavior by removing a reward (typically attention of one form or another).

Reinforcement of conditioning is accomplished through consistent reaction to behavior, either rewarding or discouraging behaviors that are desirable or undesirable. Desensitization takes this technique to its extreme by flooding the animal with the stimulus in increasing stages until it stops reacting.


Extinction is a behavioral modification technique that employs the removal of a reward when undesirable behavior occurs. It involves the removal of attention that the animal may be seeking through the undesirable behavior.

This technique is especially effective in dealing with dogs that jump up on people to gain attention. Ignoring the behavior and only rewarding the dog with attention when it is not jumping up are the keys to conditioning the animal away from the behavior.

Shaping and Counter-Conditioning

Shaping works through rewarding any behavior similar to what is desired when a command is given. Over time, the animal’s behavior is shaped by restricting rewards to behaviors that more closely approximate the desired result.

Counter-conditioning works through a combination of shaping and desensitization. The animal is taught a desirable behavior through shaping, and is then trained to substitute that behavior for an undesirable one when a specific stimulus is encountered.

Specific Techniques for Cats

Though the techniques described above can be employed to correct challenging behavior in both cats and dogs, cats can present specific challenges that need specific solutions.

Cats are territorial and can exhibit difficult behaviors when they are brought into contact with new animals or people. The key to correcting undesirable behavior in cats lies in understanding their behavior, finding the source of the issue, and using common sense strategies and training techniques to deal with the problem.

Successful behavioral modification for cats requires you to either address the source(s) of the problem, or to remove the cat from the problem for a brief timeout. Twenty minutes in a kennel or in a room without other pets or humans present removes the desired reward from the equation, whether that reward is attention from you, or a good fight with a new cat in the house.


Author: Giano Panzarella