Glossary of Terms

Glossary of Behavior Modification Training Terms & Techniques

The Behavior Modification and Training Terms below are a compiled list of Words and Terms that we regularly encounter in our practice.  We’ve included their corresponding definitions which have been gleaned from other websites including Veterinarians, Behaviorists, other Trainers, Pharmaceutical companies, Universities, etc.

The content below was not originally written or created by Canine Behavioral Services Inc. 

Habituation is a simple form of learning that involves no rewards. It is merely the ending of or decrease in a response to a situation that results from repeated or prolonged exposure to that situation. For example, horses placed in a pasture bordering a road may at first run away when traffic passes, but eventually learn to ignore it. A dog that habituates to one type of sound does not, as a consequence of this habituation, automatically become habituated to other sounds. Habituation is not the same as failing to respond to stimulation as a result of fatigue, sensory adaptation, or injury. The effects of habituation are generally long lasting. However, if an animal is repeatedly exposed to a potentially harmful stimulus (such as a predator) without being harmed, habituation does not generally occur. Because of this, scientists believe that responses to dangerous stimuli may have an inherited resistance to habituation. If the fearful response is too intense, the dog may become more fearful instead of adjusting to the stimulus.

Spontaneous recovery is associated with habituation. If there is a long period of time between when a dog has experienced an event to which it had habituated and re-exposure to the same event, the dog may again react. For example, a puppy barks to get a reaction. The more the owner attempts to quiet it, the more the puppy barks. It will continue this pattern because it is getting the attention it wanted. Even if the attention is “negative,” some puppies will find it rewarding. The best method to discourage the behavior is to ignore it. Eventually the puppy stops barking if the owner consistently ignores it. However, the bad behavior comes back every now and then. This is called spontaneous recovery.

Conditioning refers to associations between stimuli and behavior. For example, a hungry dog drools (the behavior) when it sees food (the stimulus). After this, every time that the hungry dog sees the food a bell is rung (a second stimulus). Once the food and bell have been paired several times, the dog will drool even if it just hears the bell. This is called Conditioning. The bell generates the same response as the sight of food. After several times, the dog has learned to associate the bell with the food. Conditioning can be positive or negative. For example, the sound of a doorbell can cause fear or excitement in a dog, depending on whether the dog likes or dislikes visitors.

Reinforcement is any event that increases the chances that a certain behavior will be repeated. Reinforcements can be positive or negative. When positive reinforcement (a reward) is used in training, there is a positive relationship between the behavior and its consequences. The more the pet does a behavior, the more it gets positive reinforcement. This makes that behavior increase. A negative reinforcement (which is mistakenly thought of as punishment by many people) is something unpleasant that increases a behavior when it is removed. For example, being held tightly may be unpleasant to a squirming puppy. But the hold is released only when the puppy calms down. After several times, the release from restraint will increase the chance that the puppy will relax faster.

Secondary Reinforcers are signals that can be used at a distance to let the dog know that a reward is coming. Commonly used Secondary Reinforcers are words, such as “good girl,” hand signals, and clickers. By carefully pairing these with a Primary Reinforcer (such as food or petting), Secondary Reinforcers can elicit the same response that the Primary reward would. For example, a clicker can be associated with patting on the head as a reward for sitting and staying. By associating the clicker with a reward, you can train the dog to sit and stay from farther away and still reward the behavior by using the clicker. Positive training and clicker training have become very popular. However, it is possible to do an excellent job at positive training without using any Secondary Reinforcers. Clicker training requires frequent practice and excellent timing. In some situations involving problem behaviors, the incorrect use of a clicker may hinder, rather than help, a behavior modification program.


Extinction is a response that stops when Reinforcement is removed. A classic example of extinction involves a dog that jumps up on people for attention. If people pet the dog, the behavior continues. If they stop petting the dog, the dog will eventually stop jumping up because the Reinforcement is no longer there. However, even occasional petting of the dog in response to its jumping will Reinforce the pattern. The more valuable the original reward, the longer it has been present, and the more uncertainty there is about whether the reward has been truly removed, the greater the resistance to extinction. Resistance to extinction can also occur even without reinforcement if the reward was good enough and was tightly linked to the behavior.


With Extinction Bursting there is an association between getting the reward and the intensity of the behavior, the intensity or frequency of the behavior you are trying to eliminate usually increases at the beginning of Extinction. In other words, a behavior you are trying to extinguish may get worse before it gets better. It is critical that you do not give in. Giving in will only make Extinction more difficult. The dog will learn that, although your threshold has increased, the dog can override it by working harder.

Overlearning is the repeated performance of an already learned behavior. It is frequently used in training for specific events, and may also be useful for preventing fearful responses in dogs. Overlearning accomplishes 3 things: it delays forgetting, it increases the resistance to extinction, and it increases the chance that the behavior will become an automatic or “knee-jerk” response in similar situations. This aspect can be extremely useful in teaching a dog to overcome a fear or anxiety.

Shaping is a learning technique that works well for dogs that do not know what response is desired by the trainer. Shaping works through gradual approximations and allows the dog to be rewarded initially for any behavior that resembles the desired behavior. For example, when teaching a puppy to sit, giving the puppy a food treat for squatting will increase the chance that squatting will be repeated. This squatting behavior is then rewarded only when it becomes more exaggerated, and finally, when it becomes a true sit.

Desensitization is a way to gradually teach a dog to tolerate a situation by carefully exposing it to that situation in small steps. If a puppy gets overexcited at the sound of the doorbell, a tape recording of the doorbell could help stop the undesirable behavior. If the tape is played very softly at first and then only gradually increased in volume as long as the puppy remains calm, then the puppy may stop reacting to the doorbell.

Counterconditioning is a method for reducing unwanted behavior by teaching the dog to replace it with another more favorable behavior. In the doorbell example above, the puppy will learn faster if it is first taught to sit, stay, and then relax in exchange for a treat. The puppy must be absolutely quiet and calm, and convey by its eyes, body posture, and facial expressions that it would do anything for its owner. Once this behavior is learned, the desensitization is added by playing the tape recording at a gradually increasing volume. If at any time the puppy starts to get too excited, the tape recording should be lowered in volume until the puppy relaxes. Relaxing is the key and is the first step to changing the behavior. Counterconditioning and desensitization can take a lot of time and effort. The exercises must be frequently repeated so that the unwanted behavior decreases until it is no longer a problem.

Flooding is prolonged exposure to a stimulus until the dog eventually stops reacting. This is the opposite of the approach taken in desensitization. It is far more stressful than any of the other treatment strategies and if not used correctly will make things worse. The most common problem is increased fear. This technique should be used only by a professional and only as a last resort.

Punishment is also known as Aversive Conditioning. It is any unpleasant event that lowers the chance that a behavior will be repeated. Punishment can be Positive or Negative. Positive Punishment refers to applying something unpleasant to decrease a behavior, whereas Negative Punishment refers to removing something Positive to decrease a behavior. Punishment is not the same as Negative Reinforcement. To be most successful, Punishment must occur as early as possible (within a few seconds of the start of the behavior), and it must be consistent and appropriate. Critical factors in Punishment include Timing, Consistency, appropriate Intensity, and the presence of a reward (Reinforcement) after the undesirable behavior ends. This is the most frequently ignored part of treatment for people whose pets have behavior problems. Owners often resort to physical Punishment as the first choice, but Punishment does not need to be physical. Furthermore, Punishment is just as hard to use correctly as Counterconditioning and Desensitization. Punishment is never an “easy out” and has a high chance of failure. It can also lead to other negative consequences, such as increasing the chance of fear or aggression.

The Premack Principle states that more likely behaviors will reinforce less likely behaviors. When misbehaving increases the likelihood that a dog achieves a goal, the more likely the dog is to misbehave. To prevent the misbehavior, the owner can teach the dog an alternative, positive behavior; for example, teaching a dog to sit and stay before allowing it outside may deter bolting.


Response substitution involves the replacement of an undesirable response with a desired one. An example is teaching a dog to lay down instead of jumping up. Owners should begin in a calm environment where success is likely, then progress to places with more distractions as the behavior is learned. Dogs may first need to be desensitized to the stimuli for response substitution to be successful.

Aggression in animals is everything related to a threat or attack. There are various kinds of aggressive behavior in animals, such as territorial defense, predatory aggression, and inter-male aggression.

Examples of aggressive acts include biting, growling, and scratching.

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased movement, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

Compulsive or Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors are abnormal and repetitive behaviors typically done in an attempt to achieve a goal. These intense behaviors may be difficult to interrupt or be uncontrollable. They can start from normal behaviors (such as grooming or eating) and normal situations (frustration or conflict) but then progress to inappropriate situations and intensities. Some compulsive behaviors appear to be genetic, such as tail chasing in German Shepherds or flank skin sucking in Doberman Pinschers.

A dog in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one type of activity at once. For example, a dog may want to approach a person to get a treat, but may also be afraid of the person and unwilling to come too close. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is very hard to identify in animals. Conflict might result in Aggression or Displacement Behaviors.

Accordion Content

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated activity. Because the animal is physically or behaviorally unable to act appropriately, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Examples of these irrelevant activities are grooming, feeding, scratching, and sleeping. It is less specific than redirected behavior, which is directed toward another target.

Dominance refers to competition over a limited resource (for example, a treat, a favorite toy, or a comfortable resting place). A higher-ranking animal can displace a lower-ranking one from the resource. Rank or hierarchy is usually defined by an ability to control the resource. A dominant animal is not the one engaged in the most fighting. Most high-ranking animals can be identified by the submissive behavior exhibited toward them by others in their group. Dominance terminology applies to communication between members of a single species (dog-to-dog) but does not apply to communication between species (human-to-dog).

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being burned by it is normal. However, if the house were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity increases as the real or imagined nearness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a dog is unable to complete a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. When pets are frustrated, they can respond with redirected behavior, a displacement activity, or anxiety. For example, a dog that is frustrated by being unable to get to a cat on the other side of a fence can respond by attacking another household pet. This term, like dominance, is overused and usually undefined, which means it often is not very helpful when diagnosing a behavior problem.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, though, are profound, fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias may develop quickly or over time, but once established they are characterized by immediate and intense anxiety. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, such as the use of a shock collar on a dog, phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress. There also appears to be a genetic or hereditary basis for these responses in some canine breeds.


Redirected Behavior is directed away from the inciting target and toward another, less appropriate target.

Fear aggression occurs in situations that make a dog afraid. Fear causes most types of aggression. Fearful dogs may try to avoid the triggering threat but can become aggressive when they cannot escape (for example, when they are leashed, cornered, or being held), when they are motivated to stay (for example, proximity to a family member, property, or food), or learn that acting aggressively can remove the threat. Animals that learn that aggression “works” to eliminate threats may act aggressively even when they are not threatened. Poor socialization, temperament (inherited from parents), previous punishment, and learning can also lead to fear aggression.

Food-Related Aggression (Resource Guarding) is shown around pet food, bones, rawhides, biscuits, human food or anything the dog finds desirable. This occurs in dogs that are not starved or abused.

Idiopathic aggression has no known cause. It is unpredictable and unprovoked. This type of aggression is extremely rare.

Conspecific Aggression or Inter-dog Aggression is aggression that is directed at other dogs. The target can be another dog in the household or dogs that are encountered away from the home.

Possessive Aggression another form of Resource Guarding is constantly directed toward another individual that approaches or attempts to obtain a nonfood object or toy that the dog possesses.