Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies™

Live It! Four-Legged Family Members

By Chelsea Wilhite, University of Nevada, Reno. This article originally published in the Behavior Analyst Digest International (BADI).

In the first of this series, I tackled the difficulties many Americans face with maintaining health and fitness.  With this second piece, I look at a far less aversive (to many) topic: our furry family members.  Given the magnitude of problems in the world today, training your family pet can be pretty far down on the priority list, but let’s face it, if you are a behavior analyst who is also an animal-lover, spending time training your pet not only has health benefits for both of you, but it can revitalize your love for the science of behavior!

Most people who have a family dog teach it to obey simple commands and perform amusing tricks.  My dogs, for example, can seek out specific toys by name and clean up their play things on command better than my husband does.  But as family pets age, they often develop health problems that need special attention.  These are the cases in which the behavior analyst can apply work-related skills outside of the work place in a way that benefits his or her own family.

I recently spoke with Hayley Heitzig, a BCBA and autism clinical coordinator in California’s Central Valley.  Heitzig is well-known among her colleagues for applying behavior analytic techniques in all aspects of her work and personal life.  But a recent diagnosis of blindness in her nine-year-old chocolate lab, Hunter, had her refocusing her skills at home.

“We started noticing when he couldn’t fetch toys,” Heitzig recalled, when asked how she and her husband began to suspect a problem.  Heitzig, like many pet owners, had first taught Hunter and the other family dog, Daisy, to follow basic verbal commands, “Then we transferred stimulus control to gestures only.”  During that initial training as a puppy, Hunter was exposed to at least one hour of training per day for five days a week over the course of six weeks.  Following initial training, Heitzig and her husband continued to teach both Hunter and Daisy new tricks.  When the veterinarian reported Hunter’s fading vision was a genetic condition for which there was no cure, Heitzig launched new rounds of both discrete and incidental training opportunities.

With Hunter’s degenerative condition, the family not only had to switch back to verbal discriminative stimuli (Sds) but teach an entirely new set of commands to address the inability to see.  Heitzig explained the more commonly used commands such as “sit” and “stay” were relatively easy to re-train as verbal Sds, especially because those were vocal commands used during Hunter’s initial training as a puppy.  Two primary concerns for Hunter’s daily functioning were navigating through doors and getting up and down curbs.

Hunter’s daily routine allowed for a total of eight incidental passages through doorways.  In addition to that, Heitzig scheduled ten- to 15-minute training session three days per week.  The Sds involved in helping Hunter through doorways included a combination of one new with one already-trained command.  “When the door is open, we say, ‘Open,’” Heitzig explained.  “If he hesitates, we say, ‘Okay.’”

For Hunter, the “Open” command was an entirely new Sd, but “Okay” was the Sd Heitzig had always used to release the dog from a “Stay” or “Sit” command.  Successful passage through an open door was met with social praise (vocal and tactile) during the incidental trials and social praise plus edibles (doggie treats) during the training session trials.  Heitzig says Hunter did run into closed doors or door frames during some of the incidental trials but not during the training sessions.  It took only two weeks before Hunter responded appropriately to the “Open” Sd on a regular basis.

Training Hunter to safely get up and down curbs involved a combination of physical prompting with new vocal Sds.  When on a walk and confronted with having to step down off a curb, Heitzig would present the verbal Sd “Down” and tug downward on Hunter’s leash.  Likewise, when they need to step up, Heitzig would say “Up” and tug upward on Hunter’s leash.  Successful trials were met with an edible; unsuccessful trials were met with vocal social punishment (“Ut-uh”).  Heitzig faded out both the physical prompts and the edibles until Hunter responded only to the verbal Sd and his only consequence was the natural one of either stumbling or successfully ascending or descending the curb.

After training, Hunter now successfully goes through doorways and on walks without any resulting physical damage, meaning that part of his life, at least, is much the same as it was before his vision loss.  The techniques Heitzig used to train Hunter’s new life-skills are many of the same ones any behavior analyst would use while serving a client or individual: 1) incidental and training session trials, 2) pairing two Sds to transfer stimulus control, 3) social praise and edibles, and 4) natural consequences.  The family’s next projects for Hunter include teaching him left from right and training him to navigate the new home they will be moving to later this year.  For Heitzig and her husband, applying behavior analytic techniques at home means knowing Hunter can still be a full member of their family.

Live It! is a four part series exploring the application of behavior analytic principles and techniques in non-academic and non-research settings. If you know of someone using behavioral technologies to better their or others’ lives, contact Chelsea and let her know (