BUILDING BEHAVIORS: Step-by-step instructions
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D., Copyright 2001

This handout is a general guide for building new behaviors. The steps listed may need to be revised/modified for specific situations, but tend to serve as a good overall model.

1. GET THE BEHAVIOR. There are a number of ways to get any particular behavior, or part of a behavior, to occur. The best way to get a behavior depends on the individual dog, the situation, and the desired behavior. Shaping, luring, and/or targeting are good ways to build behaviors. In general, it is best to avoid using physical manipulation and modeling if possible.

2. REINFORCE THE BEHAVIOR. As the behavior occurs, it must be reinforced so it will be repeated. Using a clicker is the best way to mark the desired behavior. The click can be followed by a treat, toy, or play, depending on the particular dog. Continue at this step until the dog is regularly repeating the desired behavior when given the opportunity.

3. FADE THE LURE/TARGET. If luring or targeting was used to initially cause the behavior, the lure or target must be faded out. Fading should be gradual and systematic over a number of trials.

4. CRITERIA SHIFTS. The three possible criteria for any behavior are duration, distance, and distraction. Typically, the criteria are added in that order. Each criteria must be raised separately from the others, then combined as the dog becomes confident in performing the desired behavior.

5. ADD A VERBAL CUE. Once the dog is performing the desired behavior regularly, with the required criteria, a verbal cue should be added just before the behavior occurs.

6. VARIABLE REINFORCEMENT. Increase the requirements for reinforcement. For discrete behaviors (ratio/number), move to 2fers and 3fers, then to more random reinforcement schedules. For continuous behaviors (interval/time), increase the amount of time for which the behavior must be performed before reinforcement.

7. GENERALIZATION. Practice the behavior (or an easier form of the behavior) in a number of different settings. A truly generalized behavior will be performed, on cue, in any setting. This requires repeated practice in many different settings.

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