Behaviour Has A Function

All behaviour in every animal (humans included!) serves a function. When we’re trying to change behaviour, it’s important to acknowledge the function of the original behaviour and try to replicate it as much as possible. For example, if your dog jumps up on people when they come to visit, it’s likely that the function of the behaviour is to gain attention from the visitors. By acknowledging this, modification attempts can incorporate this function. For example, asking your dog to move away from the visitors is going to be a much harder ask than asking the dogs to gain attention from the visitors in a more appropriate manner from the human perspective such as a sit. If you want attention from someone, walking away and waiting for that person to offer the attention is much harder to do than if you can gain that attention in an alternative manner. 

In the scientific study of evolution, there’s a word called parsimony which is used to explain the simplest route from A to B. Evolutionary theory aims to accept the least complicated answer to questions that are difficult to gain answers to. I think the theory of parsimony needs to be a bigger factor in the selection of training plans than it currently is. There are a million ways to teach behaviours, all of them perfectly valid. However, if a method of replacing an undesirable behaviour requires 62 people to control various aspects of the environment and will take 3 years to produce results then it’s an extremely unparsimonious method. It will work and it will get you from A to B in the same way as any other method but it’s complicated, messy to implement and takes too long.

Selecting the most parsimonious method of replacing undesirable behaviours with desirable behaviours will happen much more effectively if the function of the undesirable behaviour is correctly identified and replicated as much as possible. Next time you notice an undesirable behaviour in your dog, ask yourself ‘WTF?’ (What’s The Function?) Once you identify the function you can create a list of behaviours that provide that meet the same function and pick the behaviour to teach which is most parsimonious for you (or your client) to implement. 

Are there any behaviours you can’t identify the function of? Let’s discuss them in the comments! 

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