Separation-related problem behaviors, such as excessive vocalization, defecation/urination, and destruction are a common problem in owned dogs and is a common cause of relinquishment of dogs (Bailey, 1991). Traditional techniques use a counter conditioning and desensitization treatment. We hypothesized that owner return is a reinforcer that can be used to shape behavior, including potentially separation-related problem behavior. If correct, it could also be used to shape and maintain appropriate behavior. Thus, we assessed a treatment using an operant approach to separation-related behavior problems by making owner return contingent on desirable behavior. We compared this to using food as a reinforcer to shape and maintain desirable behavior during owner absence. We first video recorded each dog’s behavior in a baseline session. Next, dogs were placed randomly into either the Owner Return or Food group. For Owner Return dogs, the owner entered the room contingent on the dog’s calm response, monitored via webcam, that was incompatible with behaviors observed in baseline. Across successful trials, we increased the criterion for owner return. We decreased the criterion after unsuccessful trials. For Food dogs, the experimenter triggered a remote dispenser to deliver food contingent on calm behavior. We recorded all sessions and used the dog’s behavior as a direct measure of treatment efficacy. Owner Return dogs showed greater improvement than Food dogs. All Owner Return dogs showed an increase in the time alone without problem behavior. The food treatment was largely unsuccessful: all dogs initially consumed the food but stopped eating shortly into the session.
PhD, BCBA, CPDT-KA,
Assistant Professor of Anthrozoology,
Carroll College, Helena, MT.
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