The Process of Conducting a Functional Assessment in Pet Dog Training

Written by Niki Tudge, Copyright 2012

 The purpose of conducting a Functional Assessment is to determine

What are the distant and direct antecedents? What is the SD, the setting events and the motivating operations? Is there a CER and if so what is the Conditioned Stimulus (CS)

  1. What is the actual observable, measurable, problematic behavior? What are the problematic dimensions of the behavior, intensity, frequency, duration or latency
  2. How is the behavior being reinforced +R or –R.

When planning for your behavior change program be prepared to ask yourself:

  1. What is the behavior change goal? Is it realistic and does the client agree with the goal?
  2. What primary and secondary reinforcers will you use?
  3. What behavior change protocol will be most suitable to reach the agreed goal?
  4. How and what will you measure during the behavior change program so you are sure that your intervention is actually having the desired effect on the problematic behavior?


Components of The Functional Assessment

Behavior Consultation Form

Client intake forms are an important part of the informant interview.

There are several components to a functional assessment starting with the informant interview. During this interview anecdotal information about the problem behavior is obtained. For many of us this information is learned during our first consultation with the client and from your client intake form.

The next component of the functional assessment is the direct observation phase. This is where the dog’s behavior is observed and the relationship between the variables is measured and correlated. The final part of the functional assessment is the functional analysis. The intended final product of the functional assessment is a contingency statement that the dog trainer has confidence in. The contingency statement details in simple terms the antecedents, behaviors and consequences in measurable terms. This contingency statement clearly defines the problem behavior, how it is evoked and how it is maintained. The contingency statement identifies the stimuli, SD, that reliably evoke the behavior and the more distant antecedent that motivate operations and set the context for the behavior. The postcedents are also identified and those that are functionally related to the behavior are labeled as consequences.

Let us look in more detail at each stage of the functional assessment.

The Informant Interview

Lady DogNostics Student

Interviewing clients is a skillful process to ensure you obtain all the correct and relevant information.

The informant interview is the interview process between the pet dog consultant and the animals’ guardians. The goal is to collect information from the animals’ guardians to assist in developing a contingency statement. During the interview the consultant has to take the answers provided by the animal’s guardian that are often interpretations of behavior, and convert their answers through additional questioning into “clear descriptions of the actual observable and quantifiable behavior involved” (O’Heare 2007 p 190).

During the informant interview there are several components of information that should be established. The consultant must develop a clear concise, measurable description of the problem behavior or behaviors. It is also important to understand the setting events – the context that makes the problem behavior more likely. It is necessary to understand the motivating operations that influence the value of the consequences such as satiation, deprivation and any conditioned emotional responses such as fear or aggression. Discriminative stimuli should be identified alongside the consequences that follow the behavior. We need to be able to answer the question, what does the animal get out of this situation?

The consultant should rate the efficiency of the problematic behavior particularly if there are several problematic behaviors at play. The history of the behavior should be sought and the results, if any, from previous behavioral change programs. During the interview it is also advisable to ask the animals’ guardians what alternative behaviors they would feel are more appropriate and acceptable.

When the informant interview is complete the consultant can develop a preliminary contingency statement that will help with developing further questions.


  • The Direct Observation Stage

The goal of direct observation is to pinpoint the source of the problem by factually understanding the functional relationships between the antecedents, behavior and consequence. The measurement process provides quantitative data which cannot infer causal relationships but it can identify correlations between the different variables.

When collecting baseline data it is important to have a data collection plan. The plan includes a data collection form that identifies the stratification areas of data to be mined and operational definitions that accurately define what the behavior is “and what constitutes a recordable event” (O’Heare 2007 p 196). The data collection plan clarifies which dimensions of the behavior will be measured; frequency, duration or intensity. It is not always necessary to measure all the dimensions and consideration should be placed on the dimension that is most useful given the behavior and its setting events.

Direct observation does not mean we deliberately provoke the behavior!

Direct observation does not mean we deliberately provoke the behavior!

Data is best obtained from as few trials as possible without limiting the quality and accuracy of the data. Measurement should continue until trends emerge. It is, by the same token, as important to decide who will be responsible for the data collection. The data collector will need to be trained on the data collection process and the necessity to remain non intrusive during the collection process so the data is stable, precise and unbiased.   If the problem behavior is dangerous or poses a safety risk then the consultant must use their best professional judgment as to whether direct observation should even be carried out.

When the data has been collected it will be essential to revise the contingency statement developed during and after the informant interview. The data collection process may, and often does, reveal new evidence and information about the functional relationship between the variables.

The Functional Analysis

The functional analysis stage is a single subject experiment that tests the consultant’s   hypothesis – the contingency statement. The two most common single subject experiments that are used to analyze behavior are the reversal design and the alternating treatment design. The suitability of each experiment is determined by the hypothesis being tested.

The functional analysis is designed to test the relationship between the hypothesized controlling antecedents and the behavior and/or the hypothesized maintaining relationship between the behavior and its consequence. The functional analysis sets up different independent variables and confirms or refutes their effect on the dependent variable, the actual behavior.   The goal is to analyze what is and what is not evoking and/or maintaining the behavior so an effective behavior change program can be designed. The experiment should only cover areas of the contingency statement that are unclear and not everything. The consultant must also take into consideration, during the experiment, that setting events and motivating operations should not be overlooked as they can “contribute indirectly to the contingencies” (O’Heare 2007 p 212).

The functional analysis should only be carried out if the initial interview and direct observation does not reveal trends in the problem behavior and/or components of the contingency statement are still unclear. When embarking on a functional analysis the benefit and precision of the analysis must be weighed against the effort, time, skill required and potential fallout of behavior rehearsing (O’Heare 2007). A functional analysis should only be performed by a trained professional with a minimally invasive approach, a clearly defined plan to test only what is necessary, a tangible goal and with careful consideration to the safety and security of all involved. The analysis should only be carried out if the important variables can be controlled throughout the experiment or the experiment will be flawed and there must be consent gained from the animal’s guardian.

The functional analysis experiment should only test areas of the contingency statement that are unclear and not everything. If the consultant is unsure about the relationship between the antecedents and the behavior then the consultant would test the antecedent package until the evoking, discriminative stimuli were identified. Likewise if the lack of clarity in the contingency statement came from understanding which consequences were maintaining the behavior then these would be tested.

See my post on The LAB Humane Hierarchy. This explains the process for implementing a management plan or behavior change program.

O’Heare, J (2007) Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, DogPsych Publishing, Ottawa Canada.


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  1. Pingback: The LAB System – A Suitable Humane Hierachy for Force-Free Pet Trainers | DogNostics Career College

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