Behavior Intervention Guidelines (B.I.G.)


Prepared by:

Barbara Heidenreich
         Animal Training Fundamentals
Parvene Farhoody, PhD
         Behavior Matters®, Inc.
Suzanne Hetts, PhD, Emeritus CAAB
         Behavior Education Network
Sharon Madere, CBHC
Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB
         Behavior Education Network
Annette Pederesen
         Animal Training Coordinator at the Copenhagen Zoo
Erica Feuerbacher PhD, BCBA-D, CAAB, CPDT-KA
         Professor of Applied Animal Behavior & Welfare
Eduardo J. Fernandez, PhD
         Professor of Applied Animal Behaviour & Welfare

Recommended Citation: Heidenreich, B., Farhoody, P., Hetts, S., Madere, S., Estep, D., Pedersen, A., Feuerbacher, E., Fernandez, E. (2021). Behaviour Intervention Guidelines www.BigForAnimals.com

Whenever it is determined that a change of behavior is essential, animals deserve the most effective, efficient, and optimal interventions and behavior change plans.

"B.I.G. for Animals" Supports Individualized & Function Based Plans

Developing a responsible behavior intervention plan that maximizes animal welfare, minimizes risks, and considers the needs of all stakeholders requires trainers to consider the combination of effectiveness, efficiency, and use of optimal procedures. Each factor must play a role in determining the overall course of action.

Creating and implementing a behavior intervention plan is a complex and nuanced decision-making process. It demands we demonstrate competency in both our theoretical knowledge as well as our “real-life/hands-on” expertise of applying scientific principles. Simplistic rules, formulaic recipes, and absolute sequential checklists prevent us from best responding to the needs of the individual animal and stakeholders. The complexities of proper treatment exceed the capabilities of hierarchical approaches (To learn more watch the video.)

B.I.G. for Animals was created upon the foundation of 1) do no harm and 2) maximize possible benefits inspired by the Right to Effective Behavioral Treatment (Van Houten et al.,1988) and the Principle of Least Restrictiveness (Fernandez, 2020; Johnston & Sherman, 1993; Vollmer et al., 2011). B.I.G. for Animals, when correctly applied, includes an individualized approach based upon functional behavior assessment (see process below). These are critical components towards maximizing benefits and minimizing harms.

Additionally, B.I.G. for Animals recognizes that competence both in theoretical knowledge as well as hands on skills are paramount towards achieving this objective.  Animal behavior professionals should:

  • Possess an in-depth understanding of how learning principles influence behavior.
  • Be skilled in the selection and implementation of behavior modification procedures that are congruent with a robust understanding of learning principles.
  • Be able to recognize typical, normal behaviors for the species served, and distinguish these from behaviors abnormal to the species and context.
  • Be able to perform a functional behavior assessment (i.e., develop hypotheses regarding the function for the behavior in question and under what conditions).
  • Understand that labeling any learning process (also referred to as operant conditioning quadrants) as inherently coercive, abusive, inhumane, bad or wrong reflects a misunderstanding of learning principles and is at odds with an evidence-based, objective approach.

The "B.I.G. for Animals" Process Begins with these Steps

The first step to behavior intervention is to determine if a change is needed and justified.  This must take into consideration the welfare of the animal, as well as the implications for humans and other animals who are directly or indirectly impacted if the behavior changes or does not change. This can require trainers to:

  • Identify all relevant stakeholders – the focal animal, other animals, and people.
  • Understand how the existing behavior affects the welfare, safety, and behavior of these stakeholders, and how the success or failure of the intervention will impact them.
  • Understand the availability or limitations of resources (time, money, space, etc.).

This is best accomplished by conducting a thorough Risk/Benefit Analysis. Risk/Benefit analysis gives us a way to quantify our decision-making process not only for ourselves but for stakeholders. It allows us to measure the probability and magnitude of risks and benefits anticipated from implementing (or not implementing) the intervention or training the identified behavior.

If you are implementing BIG for Animals to address a behavior problem, additional preparations should include:

  • Obtaining a detailed behavioral history.
  • Confirming veterinary assessment and treatment of any medical conditions that may be a contributing factor.

The Process of Creating an Individualized Behavior Change Plan

It may be useful to think of a desired “final behavior” or as a “final destination” on a trip. However, there are many steps or desired behavior along the way toward the final destination. Each step is equally important as you move toward the final destination. Your “starting point” can be thought of as the current behavior, but that current behavior continues to change with each step toward the final destination.

The journey is the training process that brings you to your destination and every trainer involved in this process is a “driver.” Every driver will influence whether or not you arrive at your destination safely, effectively and efficiently. There are many ways to get from one place to another. Stakeholders will need to work together as a team and agree on what will work best for this particular journey at each step along the way. Note: For undesired behavior, this analysis will need to be applied to multiple contingencies contributing to the overall problem. Learn more about linear versus non linear contingency analysis in this podcast. (Click the mouse on each step to reveal more information.)

1. What behavior does the animal exhibit right now (current behavior) ? Describe this behavior in as much detail as possible.

The description of the current behavior must be objective, concrete, observable, and measurable. If possible, obtain or create a video of the current behavior for your records (this will give you a reference point for tracking progress.) 


2. What is your destination (final behavior), and what will it look like?  Describe the desired behavior in as much detail as possible.  

Description of the desired behavior must be objective, concrete, observable and measurable. Also to be included are the environments and contexts in which the current behavior occurs and in which the desired behavior will occur in the future (these may or may not differ).


3.  If the current behavior is undesired, how do you think the behavior came to be established? If it is a new desired behavior, what reinforcers do you hypothesize will maintain the new desired behavior?

If you have access to any previous history, what events may have impacted the current behavior or the final behavior?  What were the contexts? Include a detailed history of any previous attempts to modify the current behavior.

4.  What function do you hypothesize the undesired behavior first served and/or continues to serve the animal?

Identify the events that occur before the current behavior (Antecedents) and the events that occur after that behavior (Consequences). This is what will lead you to the “why” of the behavior. The importance of this step cannot be overstated because it will provide direction for development of your behavior intervention plan. In addition, it will be helpful to identify any possible Motivating Operations: conditions that can lead to the Consequences having more or less value in that context. (For example: The value of food increases as the time without food increases.)

Some possible consequences of behavior are:
●    Escape/avoidance
●    Tangible items (food, enrichment, etc)
●    Attention/social affiliations
●    Sensory or automatically reinforcing experiences (such as self-stimulatory behaviors)
●    Preferred Activities

Are you having trouble identifying possible consequences? Here are some examples of consequences seen frequently in the animal community: food, scent, interaction with conspecifics, enrichment, shelter, escape from conspecifics, preferred activities, escape from public, access to breeding/nest sites, access to mates, access to territories, escape from confinement. Identifying the functional reinforcer is important! Ideally this is the consequence you want to provide if possible for the desired response. Sometimes this is not possible, and you may need to use a contrived reinforcer. However functional reinforcers are often preferable as then we are given the animal exactly the outcome it seeks.

Motivating operations do not refer to an inner “motivational” state but are a description of the interaction between environment and behavior. You can think of motivation operations as antecedent conditions that can be altered so that a consequence is more or less reinforcing. For example, establishing operations increases the probability that a behavior will occur, and abolishing operations decrease the probability that a behavior will occur.

Learn more about functional behavior assessment from Dr Tim Lewis. Just click the graphic above and the video will pop up. This video is about an hour long. So give yourself some time, but it is well worth it!. You can also watch it here

5.  Based on your answers to Questions  #1-4. you can now fill in the blanks to either change an undesired behavior or build a new desired behavior.

I hypothesize that the animal does (will do) this current behavior (X), when under these conditions (Y), which results in (or will result in) a particular outcome (Z).

Does the new desired behavior you’ve identified serve the same function as the behavior you are trying to decrease/eliminate or does it serve a different function? Have you arranged the environment so that there is no longer a reinforcement contingency between the undesired behavior and the environment (extinction)? How will the new desired behavior be reinforced?

With this information you can now work on developing a behavior intervention plan. The next steps will help you identify elements you need to include in your plan.

6.   How can you change the environment to make it more likely that the animal will exhibit the desired behavior and less likely to exhibit undesired behavior?

This can include any antecedent event in the environment that can be removed or added to make an undesired response less likely to occur and/or a desired response more likely to occur.

Antecedents cover everything that has occurred prior to your interaction with the animal: These can be distal antecedents (hours, days, months or even years prior) and immediate antecedents (minutes or seconds). Consider for example, past history in that particular context, time since the last meal, amount of sleep, reproductive states, medications, temperature, present odors. All of these are relevant. Some of these are in our control and some are not. But they set the occasion for responses/behavior.

7.   How do you control the environment so that you can continue to reinforce correct behavior and avoid any undesired behavior? During the training process undesired behavior may still occur, therefore you and your team must know what you will do when undesired behavior occurs.

An undesired behavior has a reinforcement history. Therefore, during the behavioral intervention there is a high probability that the undesired behavior will be exhibited again, especially in the early stages of an intervention. The team will need to decide how the undesired behavior will be addressed. There are different reduction strategies (e.g., extinction, response blocking, punishment).  What will your team agree to use?

An animal is likely to exhibit many different behaviors during the entire behavioral intervention. You must have a clear plan before you interact with the animal: What behaviors WILL be reinforced and what behaviors WILL NOT be reinforced? Everything cannot be known ahead of time but planning and rehearsal without the animal are essential elements before actual training begins.

8.  Are you prepared? What will you do if there is a crisis?

While it is understood there will be a plan in place and everyone will be doing their best to stay the course, it is good to be prepared in advance for a crisis. If the animal presents undesired behavior and is not responding to the intervention strategies already utilized, the team must have additional strategies in place. For example, in the case of self-injurious behavior, are medications and/or response blocking with a collar acceptable options? These discussions must take place before training begins.


9.   How will you document the training intervention? (How will you make sure this information is collected and shared with the entire team?)

You will want to implement a system to collect data to evaluate the impact of the behavior intervention plan. You will want to identify who will collect, what will be collected, how it will be recorded and when data will be reviewed.

Data must be collected before, during, and after an intervention. You need to identify criteria to measure for each behavior as you make progress towards your final behavior. This provides the only objective way to determine if your intervention was effective, efficient, optimally designed, and correctly implemented. This is how to objectively determine if and when the behavioral  intervention was successful.

Your team must plan to meet regularly to review data. Changes can then be made as needed to ensure continued progress.


10.     Who will be implementing your behavior intervention plan?

You will want to identify competent team members who will be implementing your behavior intervention plan. How will you determine competency? Will they need to supervise and/or train additional team members? Will you need to include consultants or outside sources to help you with this or other parts of the journey?

Common Mistakes when Implementing "B.I.G. for Animals"

The behavior plan is not individualized!  Make sure your plan is specific to the animal, behavior problem and context being addressed.

Not correctly identifying the function of undesired behavior.

Attempting to create a plan without completing Steps 1 - 5.

Not informing staff members of the intervention plan or revisions to the plan. Communication is essential.

Staff members are unprepared to train the new desired behavior or not informed on how to respond when the undesired problem behavior occurs.

No time built in to systematically train the new behavior.

Data is not kept and reviewed regularly. The behavior intervention does not objectively measure behavior to assess progress.

Objective data is not collected and reviewed by the team and used to make all training decisions.

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